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Chapter 10 – Autumn-Winter 1846/7

A Purgatory of Misery by Frank Parker and Pat Lillis – Stave #11

Chapter 10 – Autumn-Winter 1846/7

If the idea that the crisis had been averted was indeed harboured in the minds of the people, their landlords, or the officials and politicians charged with the responsibility of handling the crisis, it was to be cruelly destroyed by the reappearance of the blight as July of 1846 came to an end.

The new government, led by Lord John Russell, had Peel’s support and that of the less protectionist of his supporters. It consisted of a coalition of interrelated aristocratic families who supported free trade, and radical thinkers, such as middle class manufacturers John Bright and Richard Cobden, alongside utilitarian followers of Bentham, the keenest proponents of limiting and rationalising the state. It also had the support of Irish MPs, including Daniel O’Connell and his followers.

The Benthamites held that it was the relationship of landlord and tenant that lay at the root of Irish economic backwardness. They looked positively on the alternative model of peasant proprietorship existing in other European countries. Once predatory landlordism had been restrained and peasants secured in their holdings, they believed the ‘magic of property’ would create the necessary motivation for investment and exertion from below. Russell made clear his belief that the cost of relieving the poverty of Irish paupers was to be met by the owners of Irish land. This, despite his being well aware that many lacked the means to do so.

The public works programme was now expanded. Former army officers were recruited alongside engineers to supervise the various programmes. Local relief committees drew up lists of people eligible for employment on the schemes. These lists were vetted by inspectors, supposedly to remove any who might have been placed on the list as a favour to a friend or relative of one or more board members. In practice, such pruning of the lists was entirely arbitrary, some inspectors exercising their powers with the zeal of the worst kind of modern day “jobs worth”.

Meanwhile, the conditions under which the works were performed were akin to those of forced labour camps. When one unpopular supervisor in County Clare was shot at and wounded all work on that site was suspended until the perpetrator was apprehended. This left 900 families without the means to purchase fuel or food in what was turning out to be one of the coldest Decembers on record¹.

Such suspensions were in accordance with Board of Works policy. A fortnight after this particular example, the inspector who imposed the suspension reported having witnessed, “crowds of [women and little children] scattered over the turnip fields, like a flock of famished crows, devouring the raw turnips … shivering in the snow and sleet, [the women] uttering exclamations of despair whilst their children were screaming with hunger”². Nevertheless, a further two weeks passed before the works were reopened. Similar closures occurred throughout the winter in the harshest weather in living memory.

Despite constant culling of names from the work lists, the number of people employed on them grew rapidly, from 100,000 to 700,000 between November 1846 and March 1847. That figure, of 700,000, represents almost one tenth of the total population of the island. Moreover, each was responsible for up to four other family members. As such, it provides a vivid illustration of the extent of the suffering of the people. And it was not uniformly spread across the country. The West fared much worse than elsewhere.

Seamen delivering cargoes of food to ports on the West coast noted the suffering of the people. Their descriptions were published in newspapers and journals in Ireland and in England. One such description talks of famine scenes that are “all alike, getting worse as you go south, and at Schull (in County Cork) and its neighbourhood the very climax of misery finds its resting place.”³ Another, speaking of Ballydehob, a few miles from Schull, reports that “deaths here average 40 or 50 daily … children of 10 and 9 years old I have mistaken for decrepit old women, their faces wrinkled, their bodies bent and distorted with pain.”4

These observations were made in February as supplies of food for distribution were delivered to the ports of the West on behalf of the Quakers and in anticipation of the implementation of the Soup Kitchens Act. Meanwhile, demand for work was such that there were labour riots in some places. Men arrived at selection points in their hundreds, sometimes bringing their own spades, hoping to be enlisted on to construction projects.

One can only marvel at the level of bureaucracy required to support such a vast undertaking as the public works scheme employing so many. An army of Engineers, supervisors and inspectors poring over schemes and the work lists, whilst local committees of “the great and the good”, landlords, merchants, Catholic priests and Church of Ireland rectors, battled to get those most in need accepted onto the schemes.

Country dwellers were the most affected by the crisis. The relief effort was administered from towns and cities so the destitute countryfolk made their way to them. At first they were helped by citizens but as time went on, and people began to succumb to diseases like cholera and dysentery, the new arrivals were shunned. Families who previously had taken in desperate strangers now threw them out. In Cork, Father Matthew observed that: “The citizens are determined to get rid of them. They take up stray beggars and vagrants and confine them at night in the market place, and the next morning send them out in a cart five miles from the town and there they are left and a great part of them perish for they have no home to go to.5

Meanwhile charitable organisations and individuals did what they could. First hand accounts of the situation began to appear in newspapers and journals on the mainland, especially The Illustrated London News. Assorted philanthropists established a British Association for Relief which raised money from Church door collections and organised a “National Day of Fast and Humiliation” on 24th March. The initial response was generous, raising upwards of £435,000 for distribution.

In addition, The Society of Friends raised money in America and Britain and set up the first soup kitchens: places where hot food was prepared and distributed to the destitute. The Society provided practical support as well. They redeemed fishing nets and other essential equipment pawned by desperate fishermen. The coastal waters around Ireland, especially in the West, are not an abundant source of fish, the rocky bottom is not a good feeding ground for fish. Coastal dwellers relied on molluscs and seaweed as sources of food and income. The Quakers funded the purchase of vessels and nets suitable for deep sea fishing and provided training for potential crews.They also played a leading role in the expansion and modernisation of a linen industry.

But it was the government work programme that formed the backbone of relief for the majority of those that qualified. By the spring the Board of Works had expended £5 million. In theory this was supposed to be recovered from Irish land owners through the levying of a rate. Although a proportion of the works undertaken were useful, much was not, just work for work’s sake, building roads that led nowhere. What proportion of the £5 million actually ended up in the hands of the hungry and how much went in salaries to the administrators or as payment for tools is hard to uncover.

In March the government in London finally conceded that the policy was failing. Over the succeeding months the works were wound down and a network of soup kitchens established based on the Poor Law Unions. There was, however, a hiatus with many work schemes closing before the alternative food distribution centres were up and running. Nevertheless, around 3 million people received food daily from these public kitchens during the summer of 1847. For the first time imports of grain into Ireland substantially exceeded exports. Grain prices halved between February and August.

Meanwhile the workhouses were filling up, with many building extensions and acquiring buildings for conversion. Fever hospitals, too, were filling up and the numbers of deaths occurring increased steadily through the spring although they fell as more hot food became available via the kitchens. Now, it was not only the destitute who were dying: those tending the sick were contracting diseases and dying also.

In December and January those being culled from the lists of potential work scheme clients were told they should be tilling their land, a ridiculous suggestion in the depth of winter. By March, when the number of people engaged on the schemes had reached over 700,000, there was a shortage of labour available for tilling which meant that few potatoes were sown in the spring of 1847. Some landlords encouraged their tenants to sow alternative crops like carrots and turnips. Seed was supplied at cost (meaning the landlord did not profit from the sale of such seed, but the tenant still had to find whatever amount the merchant charged). It was accompanied by advice on the best way to prepare the soil and husband the crop. Some landlords even waived the rent payable by farmers who were prepared to allocate sufficient of their land to the cultivation of such crops and their proper husbandry. This was another area in which the Quakers provided a lead, offering seed and training to farmers willing to convert to alternative crops.

Nevertheless, the potatoes that were grown were healthy and by the time of the general election in August 1847 there was a feeling in many quarters that the crisis was over. The famine did not feature heavily in the campaign in Ireland, even in the most affected districts. The debate between those in favour of the Union and those advocating repeal exercised the minds of the candidates to a far greater extent than the dire conditions of their least well off constituents, few of whom were entitled to vote.

In September the soup kitchens were closed and relief confined to distribution of cash hand-outs via the PLUs. The full implications of this new system of relief were yet to reveal themselves. Whilst the new arrangements permitted the delivery of assistance to destitute individuals without insisting they become inmates of the workhouses, although they had to attend there in order to be assessed and to receive relief, a new definition of destitution included the requirement that the applicant yield all but a quarter acre of his land holding. Many landlords took advantage of this clause in the Act to embark on a series of mass evictions.

A the same time, the burden of paying for relief fell upon the same landlords who now had no income from rents with which to meet their obligations. A clear conflict of interest for those landlords who formed the bulk of the relief committee membership.

As has already been stated, people were dying in increasing numbers, from hunger, from disease and from physical decline caused by the combination of hard labour and inadequate nourishment. Even greater numbers were leaving the island in search of better conditions. Most headed either for Liverpool or Glasgow. Both cities already had significant populations of Irish who provided cheap labour for the ports and other industries associated with them. Liverpool, in particular, was a staging post en-route to North America. Around two thirds of the 250,000 who arrived in Liverpool in 1847 re-embarked for New York, Boston and New Brunswick. Some were given free passages for the ‘privilege’ of providing ballast on otherwise empty vessels that had brought Canadian timber to Liverpool.

Those who remained in both ports often became a burden on the parishes, the workhouses and the fever hospitals. Some were sent back to Ireland, though many of these made their way back to Liverpool some while later. The existing communities of Irish migrants were already living in squalid conditions, overcrowded, some in cellars subjected to frequent flooding. There were frequent occurrences of Typhus and Cholera and the blame for these inevitably fell upon the Irish migrants. In 1847, there were 30,000 deaths from typhus across England and Wales and a further 13,000 from influenza. Dysentery was also widespread.

In Liverpool three large sheds were rented to accommodate fever patients and four vessels were requisitioned as floating hospitals to receive typhus victims of which there were around 60,000 in the city in 1847.

The English poor law, like that operating in Ireland, depended on locally raised taxes. An influx of destitute Irish placed a heavy strain on a system already struggling with high levels of poverty among the indigenous population. Inevitably sympathy for the Irish quickly waned to be replaced by resentment.

The fate of the majority of people arriving in Liverpool, those who boarded vessels bound for North America, was hardly any better. To begin with, conditions on the boats plying between English and Irish ports and North America were appalling, characterised by over-crowded and insanitary accommodation, ideal for the transmission and nurturing of all manner of infectious diseases. Around 53,000 arrived in New York in 1847 and approximately 90,000 in the St Lawrence estuary.

The authorities in New York established a quarantine station on Staten Island where people were examined. Those showing obvious signs of ill health were hospitalised. Once released they gravitated towards already established Irish communities close to the dock area. Here again the conditions in which they lived, at least to begin with, were not unlike those already described for Liverpool.

The St. Lawrence river estuary is iced up throughout the winter months. Boats heading from the British Isles to Canada therefore plied only between April and October, the first sailings taking place early in April to arrive in May. These boats would be loaded with timber for the return leg, the purpose for which they were originally intended. The adaptations made to enable the accommodation of a human cargo were minimal. Inevitably, those who survived the 4-8 week journey across the Atlantic – and a significant proportion died whilst en-route – were in a poor condition. By the end of the sailing season in 1847, nearly one fifth of those who set sail from the British Isles for North America died, either en-route, or shortly after arrival.

The Canadian quarantine station was based on an island about 40 kilometres down stream from Quebec city called Grosse Isle. The authorities there expected a significant increase in the number of boats arriving in 1847 over the number they had dealt with the previous summer and made preparations accordingly. Their estimates were woefully inadequate however.

As in New York, people who presented with obvious signs of sickness were hospitalised. And, as in New York and Liverpool, additional accommodation, usually consisting of commandeered warehouses or hastily erected sheds, was acquired for the purpose. Typhus, cholera and dysentery were the most common conditions that were endemic on the boats. Such sicknesses can have a long incubation period – up to ten days in the case of typhus for example – during which the carrier is able to pass on his or her infection. So individuals cleared by the medical authorities as healthy could still pass infection on as they continued their journey to their final destination.

From Quebec City, immigrants traveled first to Montreal where, once again, the sick were accommodated in temporary hospitals. The comparatively healthy then traveled onwards, south into the USA or further north or west. The journey west took them first to Kingston, where Lake Ontario discharges into the St Lawrence, and thence to Toronto from where they would continue their journey over land.

At the time, a settlement of barely 20,000 souls, Toronto found itself having to cope with an influx of 38,500 immigrants, three quarters of whom were Irish, during the summer of 1847. The journey time, along the length of Lake Ontario, lasted several days by barge. At some point the authorities commandeered faster vessels that reduced the journey time to around 5 days.

In the United States and Canada, it fell to the local communities to raise the necessary funding in order to cope with the growing crisis. In Canada this certainly led to some degree of resentment, less so in New York and Boston where there were already significant numbers of Irish immigrants with both the will and the means to assist their fellow countrymen. Indeed, many were already collecting subscriptions which they remitted to Ireland to assist with the relief effort there.


  1. See O’Murchada, Ciaran: Figures in a Famine Landscape, Bloomsbury Academic, 2016, chapter 2
  2. ibid
  3. Captain Coffin of H.M.S Scourge in a letter to Charles Trevelyan in February 1847, quoted in Atlas Of The Great Irish Famine, Cork University Press, 2012
  4. Unnamed sailor from H.M.S Tartarus, ibid
  5. Quoted by Wesley Johnston in The Ireland Story at

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