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Chapter 12 – Summer 1848 and after

A Purgatory of Misery by Frank Parker and Pat Lillis – Stave #13

Chapter 12 – Summer 1848 and after

One of Daniel O’Connell’s proteges, Cork land-owner and lawyer Feargus O’Connor, was elected MP for Cork in 1832. Shortly afterwards he fell out with O’Connell and in 1835 lost his seat in Parliament. He then embarked on a campaign for political reform in England. Founding a newspaper, The Northern Star, he was joined by William Lovett and others. Their People’s Charter was published – in May 1838 – as a draft parliamentary bill. It contained six points: manhood suffrage; the ballot; abolition of property qualifications for MPs; payment of MPs; equal electoral districts; and annual elections. Thousands of working people had rallied together on the basis of this charter, and hundreds of them had gone to prison for their beliefs.

In the 1847 general election O’Connor was elected MP for Nottingham. By the spring of 1848, inspired by events elsewhere in Europe, the movement was ready to make it’s mark. A petition had been raised, signed, it was claimed, by over 5 million people. A meeting was arranged for April 10th on Kennington Common just across the Thames from Parliament.

The government were well prepared with 170,000 citizens signed up as special constabulary and army units stationed at the entrance to each of the bridges and protecting ministries and ministers’ homes. Despite an expected turn-out of 200,000, a mere 20,000 congregated. When it began to rain heavily, most quickly disbursed. O’Connor and his henchmen crossed Westminster Bridge in horse drawn carriages and presented his petition which was found to contain only 2 million names, many of them forged, invented and duplicated. The name of no less a figure than the Duke of Wellington appeared 17 times.

This attempted English revolution descended into farce, but the authorities were alerted to the possibility of something similar occurring in Ireland. Three of the leaders of the Irish Confederation were arrested and charged with treason. In May, having been found guilty, they were sentenced to 14 years transportation. Before this punishment could be put into effect, its imposition provided the impetus for a recruitment campaign leading to a potential rebellion.

On 29th July O’Brien led the siege of a cottage in Ballingarry, County Tipperary, in which some members of the constabulary had taken refuge. One of his men was killed by a random shot fired from within the cottage and O’Brien led his men away. He was arrested shortly afterwards at Thurles railway station.

One of the men who had accompanied O’Brien to Paris in April, Richard O’Gorman, was organiser for the rebellion in Limerick. A few days after the Ballngarry incident, a group of about 200 men, supposedly acting on behalf of O’Gorman, held up the Limerick-Tralee mail coach at Abbeyfeale. They confiscated the arms and official dispatches it contained but returned private mail to the postmaster. They considered mounting a siege of the town but, when they heard the news from Tipperary decided to call a halt.

O’Gorman disappeared. Two different speculative accounts of his escape from arrest, include the possibility that he traveled via Kilrush. Indeed, two men were arrested and accused of transporting him aboard a steamer bound for the town. A less likely tale has him aboard another Kilrush bound steamer disguised as a woman.

Whatever the fate of O’Gorman and the other conspirators, there can be no doubt that the rebellion, if not quite as farcical as that in England, nevertheless fizzled out for lack of support. It did nothing to help relieve the suffering of those who had neither food nor the means to acquire it except by sacrificing what few possessions they had. On the contrary, it served to harden public opinion in England where the Irish were already being viewed as ungrateful.

That country was already experiencing an economic crisis caused by a variety of factors other than the Irish famine. A bubble in railway construction share prices had burst. Late in 1847, in an attempt to increase the availability of credit, the Bank of England had suspended rules that meant loans could not be provided unless backed by gold. Shortages of raw cotton from the southern states of the USA, combined with a lack of credit, caused several textile mills to close with a consequent increase in unemployment. Irish migrants arriving in industrial centres thus afflicted were not welcome.

Pressure to introduce an Encumbered Estates measure now increased. Having been introduced in the spring of 1847 and withdrawn under pressure from insurance companies and other mortgagors it was reintroduced in February 1848, the Lord Chancellor stating his belief that “it was impossible for a landlord, whose income arising from his landed estate was intercepted by mortgages and other charges, to perform those duties which a landlord should perform”¹. The bill was intended to remove, or at the very least reduce the extent of the holdings of, the existing proprietors of Irish land, replacing them with people willing to invest in the improvement of the land. Such improvement, of course, would necessitate the removal of the many occupiers of small holdings, and cottiers.

Further amendments to the Poor Law Extension Act were enacted. These included authorising PLUs to provide grants to the destitute to enable them emigrate, a measure under which solvent PLUs were expected to bail out insolvent ones, and the construction of 33 more workhouses.

Assisted emigration had long been a practice of many landlords, especially in relation to colonisation of the antipodes. The particular scheme under which Pat Lillis’s ancestor, Mary Marrinan, left for Australia was instituted by Earl Grey in 1848. At the time he was Secretary of State for the Colonies, in which role he would have been well aware of the imbalance between the sexes in Australia. Between October 1848 and August 1850, more than 4,000 Irish girls, aged mainly between fourteen and nineteen years, sailed on eleven Australia-bound ships². The girls, all supposedly orphans, were workhouse inmates.

On the voyages they were under the supervision of a surgeon superintendent. Each was fitted out with a ‘uniform’ consisting of two gowns, six shifts, six pairs of stockings, two pairs of shoes and various other items. One can only assume that the majority of these clothes were stored on the voyage for, although conditions on board were certainly much more salubrious than those endured by most migrants, it seems improbable that the wearing of gowns would have been appropriate at any time during 122 days at sea in all weathers.

Many of these girls became the wives of farmers to whom they bore large numbers of children. One is an ancestor of the former Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd. Mary Marrinan, however, returned to Ireland some six years after her arrival there.

The blight returned in the autumn of 1848, once again destroying most of the crop. An epidemic of cholera caused many deaths right across the United Kingdom in the winter of 1848/9. In Ireland, people, weakened by lack of food and exposure to the elements following eviction, readily succumbed to such diseases, including dysentery. The prevalence of an assortment of diseases in many workhouses made people reluctant to enter them. Even so, overcrowding within them continued.

Blight struck yet again in 1849, though not with the same intensity. Distress and destitution continued, along with evictions and migration, for a number of years. In 1851, whilst part of the United Kingdom was being ravaged by hunger and disease, the government mounted a showcase of its achievements. The Great Exhibition was staged in a gigantic glass house, dubbed The Crystal Palace, and attracted tens of thousands of visitors from across the Empire.

It would be possible to pepper this book with scores of accounts featuring terrible human tragedies. They can be found in countless contemporaneous documents, from that of Asenath Nicholson, already referred to, to many reports from visiting journalists in such organs as The Illustrated London News, and to numerous reports submitted to the Poor Law Commissioners by inspectors like Arthur Kennedy, and the reports of several Parliamentary inquiries that took place. The problem is that there are so many that choosing to highlight a few would be to imply that others, some perhaps yet untold, were less tragic.

That a million people died, out of a population of between 8 and 9 million in a period of just 5 years, in addition to the underlying ‘normal’ death rate; that they often died in terrible conditions; that at the height of the famine in 1847 and ’48 many were buried in multi-occupancy graves with the minimum of ceremony; that many more survived, having experienced intense hunger and disease under the jurisdiction of a nation justifiably proud of its achievements, at the apex of its success, should be a source of shame to every citizen of that nation. Those who, 170 years on, proclaim their pride in those achievements need to be reminded that, at a time when it was leading the campaign against slavery in the USA, Britain’s government oversaw a tragedy of historic proportions on soil it claimed as its own.


  1. Lord Clarendon’s speech introducing the Encumbered Estates Bill, 1848, to parliament, quoted in Lane, Padraig G, The Encumbered Estates Court, Ireland, 1848-1849, op.cit.
  2. Keneally, Thomas, The Great Famine and Australia in Atlas Of The Great Irish Famine, Cork University Press, 2012

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