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Chapter 11 – Autumn/Winter 1847-8

A Purgatory of Misery by Frank Parker and Pat Lillis – stave #12

Chapter 11 – Autumn/Winter 1847-8

In late summer of 1847 it might have seemed to some, as it had one year previously, that the crisis was, if not over, certainly coming to an end. How else is it possible to explain the lack of attention paid to the famine during the election that August? Certainly the potato crop appeared to be healthy. What does not seem to have been appreciated until much too late is that the quantity of potatoes planted the previous spring was significantly smaller than in previous years, far too little to meet the needs of a hungry population, even one depleted by disease and immigration.

Whilst the candidates standing for election in Ireland had little to say about the most visible problem faced by their constituents, the authorities in London certainly took precautions designed to limit the effect of any possible hostility the candidates might encounter. To help understand this it is worth digressing briefly to explain the practice of law enforcement that had developed over preceding decades both in Ireland and in mainland Britain. We have already seen that Robert Peel was the British Prime Minister at the time of the outbreak of famine in Ireland. He is best remembered in England for the creation of the Metropolitan Police whilst he was Home Secretary 15 years before. His name is immortalised in the nicknames given to the force – Peelers and, later, Bobbies.

Law enforcement had previously been in the hands of local constables appointed by magistrates and supported, when deemed necessary, by military force. A similar situation pertained in Ireland, with a force known as Watchmen covering Dublin, and Baronial Constabulary operating in each county. Under an agreement between Peel and Henry Goulborn, the Irish Secretary, a new Irish Constabulary was established in 1822.

The army, however, continued to play an important role in law enforcement in Ireland. Landlords were happy to sell land to the Government for the establishment of barracks and welcomed the extra security that the presence of soldiers provided. There were a total of 15,000 soldiers stationed in Ireland in 1843. That figure almost doubled to 29,500 by 1849, around 82% of all troops stationed in the British Isles at the time. A significant part of that increase was introduced in the summer of 1847 to provide security for the election candidates.

More generally they assisted landlords in enforcing the payment of rents, the protection of convoys of grain being transported to the ports, and the eviction of tenants. No town of any significance was without its military barracks.

The new arrangements, consisting of the closure of soup kitchens to be replaced by direct provision of cash hand-outs to the most destitute, enabling them to purchase food, were incapable of coping with the extent of the demands placed upon them. Late in 1847 The Poor Law Commission declared 20 PLUs to be “distressed” in recognition that the resources available to them were inadequate to meet the demand expected to be encountered. Poor Law Inspectors were appointed. These individuals were required to work with the Boards of Guardians to ensure that the rates – the levy imposed on land holders to fund the work of the PLUs – were collected. They also, like the Public Works Inspectors before them, were charged with ensuring that assistance was provided only to those who qualified under the new, more stringent, conditions and that there was no favouritism. Often this brought them into direct conflict with the Guardians.

The PLU administered from Kilrush in County Clare was one of those Unions designated as distressed. The man appointed as inspector was a former army captain, who had already seen service in the army in Ireland in the run up to the election. The fourth son of a protestant land owner from Cultra on the shores of Belfast Lough, Arthur Kennedy would have had much in common with Crofton Vandeleur the proprietor of Kilrush and chairman of the Board of Guardians. Nevertheless, the relationship between the two men quickly became soured and in March the Board was disbanded with the Inspector taking charge.

It was now, as winter approached, that serious unrest began to break out. One morning in December a crowd of up to 1000 turned up outside the gates to the Kilrush workhouse. Many had marched from the outlying villages to demand that the distribution of assistance commence. The new regime for the first time authorised the distribution of relief to able-bodied individuals without the requirement they be admitted to the workhouse, although they had to come to the workhouse to receive it. At Kilrush this had not yet begun, the Guardians insisting that people be admitted to the workhouse in order to receive relief, a policy with which Captain Kennedy concurred, there not being sufficient money available because all of the rates due had yet to be collected. The army was called and successfully dispersed most of the throng.

On the last day of December a crudely written note was posted on the gate to Vandeleur’s residence threatening the lives of both men. These events, and others like them elsewhere, were attributed to a group called “Young Irelanders”. This organisation was an offshoot of O’Connell’s Repeal Association whose formal name was The Irish Confederation. Consisting of both Catholic and Protestant intellectuals and politicians, it advocated for greater Catholic emancipation and a widening of the franchise.

1848 was a year of turmoil across Europe, with revolutions taking place in France, Germany, Austria, Denmark and the Netherlands. In February the last vestige of the French Royal family fled France never to return. Inspired by this, the leaders of the Irish Confederation went in April to Paris to meet with representatives of the new French Republic. Whilst there they were given a flag modeled on the French Tricoleur on which the three colours that were represented were green, the colour of Catholic nationalism, orange, the colour of Protestant unionism, separated by white to signify the desire for peace between the two traditions. Since 1922 this has been the national flag of the Irish Republic.

For leaders of the Confederation, the fact that the 1848 French revolution had been relatively bloodless was an inspiration and they hoped to be able to mobilise people from all strata of Irish society in a bid to return government of the Irish to Ireland. One of the ways they set out to achieve this was via a newspaper called The Nation. However, the authorities quickly took action to nip the Confederation’s activities in the bud. We shall return to this subject later, since it was in the summer of 1848 that things came to a head and this chapter is meant to be dealing only with the preceding winter.

As the winter progressed more and more people faced destitution. This was the third winter of fatally depleted resources. People who had struggled through more than two years of unbelievable hardship, selling every possession in order to provide the barest necessities of life, had nothing left. From labouring on the work schemes of 1846/7, from standing in line to receive often watery soup; after pawning their winter clothing, selling, or eating, their last pig or skeletal cow; they now faced another winter of grubbing in the mud for turnips or begging for the few coins dispensed by a near bankrupt Union. In order to qualify it was necessary for them to give up their last vestige of dignity – the family home. Often as not the choice was forced upon them, for landlords like Vandeleur now began evicting tenants, and not only those who were in arrears of rent.

In the spring of 1848, the Quakers, who had distributed 35,196 lbs of seeds in May of 1847, now distributed close to 130,000 lbs in over 143,000 individual grants across twenty-four counties. The only requirement was that the recipient had land ready. They even rented 572 acres of land in County Mayo for diverse food crops and flax to establish the linen industry in the west.

In government, determination to blame land owners and to insist that they should meet the costs of alleviating the suffering of their fellow countrymen was once again asserted. The Secretary to the Treasury, Charles Trevelyan, suggested that landlords should improve their estates under the Land Improvement Act and at the same time pay the increasing burden of rates, “or dispose of their estates to those who can perform this in­dispensable duty”¹


  1. Trcvelyan to Twistelton, December 14, 1847, PLB. Vol. XVIII, as quoted in C. Woodham-Smith, The Great Hunger and cited by Lane, Padraig G, The Encumbered Estates Court, Ireland, 1848-1849, op.cit.

Continue to Chapter 12

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