A Purgatory of Misery by Frank Parker and at Lillis – Stave #10
Chapter 9 – Autumn-Winter 1845/6
The most remarkable characteristics of potato blight are the speed with which it spreads – via spores borne on the wind – and the equal rapidity with which affected plants are consumed by the pathogen once established. A crop which one day appears perfectly healthy will, within twenty four hours, be blackened and putrid. The progression of this destruction from field to field and from county to county is accomplished in a matter of days.
Because the blight arrived on the East coast of Ireland and progressed Westwards, some of the crop in the far West was harvested before the blight reached it. Nevertheless, there was a significant shortage, exacerbated because, before the first appearance of the blight in Ireland, Irish potatoes were exported to Holland and mainland Britain where the blight had struck first. It’s also worth recalling that its arrival was preceded by the usual period of inadequate diet that followed the exhaustion of the previous season’s crop. A people that were expecting relief from near starvation were, instead, confronted by the prospect of continuing famine.
Those who had pawned their winter clothes to enable them to buy seed and meal now lacked the means to redeem them. They faced a winter not merely of starvation but of bitter cold with inadequate clothing.
The authorities in Ireland and in London responded as politicians always do: by blaming aspects of government policy which they opposed and asserting that alternative policies they were already advocating would, if in place, have averted the crisis. This centred on the prevailing debate at the time between advocates of free trade on the one hand and protectionism, in the shape of the corn laws, on the other.
In practical terms, two specific remedial measures were introduced. Robert Peel’s government authorised the purchase of £100,000 of maize on the New York market which was imported into Ireland to be distributed via depots managed by the Coast Guard. The purpose was not so much to feed the people directly as to interfere in the market, reducing the price of locally produced grain. A consequence that was bitterly resented by the merchants.
The second measure was the institution of a programme of public works, consisting of road building and drain construction. Both of these measures were accompanied by the repeal of the Corn Laws. Neither took effect until the spring of 1846 by which time the distress of the population had begun to manifest itself in food and labour riots.
Proposals, by Daniel O’Connell and others, to introduce a temporary ban on whiskey production and on the export of grain from Ireland were rejected as being unwarranted interference in the market.
Maize proved to be an unpopular food. Despite the distribution of government leaflets instructing recipients on how to make use of it, it became known derogatorily as ‘Peel’s brimstone’, perhaps because the illiteracy of the worst affected individuals meant they were unable to read or comprehend written instructions – and failure to follow instructions for the proper preparation of maize can make it difficult to digest. It was not distributed free of charge. Those unable to pay had either to enroll on a public works scheme or enter the workhouse which necessitated the surrender of whatever meagre possessions they had, including their clothes which were replaced by a rough uniform.
The public works funding was at times misused by landlords, both to undertake work on their own estates and to employ family members and assist their tenants rather than the most needy. When the English press began to pick up on such corruption Peel’s government came under attack for being too generous. At the same time, treasury officials, under the leadership of Charles Trevelyan, argued that the land owners should take on a larger burden of responsibility.
In May of 1846 the American teacher, writer and Congregationalist, Asenath Nicholson made her second visit to Ireland where she was to remain for almost 3 years. She traveled extensively and recorded what she witnessed in a book entitled Lights and Shade of Ireland. Observing the stark differences between the land owning aristocracy and the poor who laboured for them, she likened the condition of the Irish poor to that of slaves in her native land. They were, she contended, enslaved in their situation, enslaved to their employers, enslaved to the system and, worst of all, enslaved to the potato. If there was idleness – and she was philosophically opposed to idleness – it was to be found in all classes: “the rich are idle from a silly pride and long habits of indulgence; and the poor because no man hires them”’
She stressed the fact that the economy of rural Ireland was very different to that of England, the implication being that the approach to the problem of rural poverty embraced by the government in London was inappropriate.
As for that government, by June of 1846 opposition from all sides led to its dissolution. It was replaced by a minority Whig administration under Lord John Russel who was less supportive of Peel’s measures. The Relief Commission Peel had created was stood down, the new government responded positively to lobbying by grain merchants by agreeing not to interfere in the market by importing further quantities of maize at government expense. In place of the Commission, the relief effort was entirely in the hands of the Treasury with its determination to make the land owners carry the burden of relief.
Of course, by this time potato plots across Ireland were flourishing and, with the new season’s crop in prospect, there was reason for some degree of optimism. Alternative foods would still be needed for some time, alongside the continuing public works programme to provide people with the means to purchase them. However, the public works programme was revamped, with a determination to make the landlords pay and to exclude works of benefit only to landlords. The principle was that employment on such schemes was to be regarded as an absolute last resort. A system of ‘payment by measure’ was introduced. But malnourished people have a limited capacity for physical labour so that many were unable to earn enough to feed themselves and their families adequately.
Meanwhile the government in London had been grappling for a number of years with the problem of ‘encumbered estates’. This was the result of the common practice among Irish land owners of raising mortgages and other charges on their estates in order to indulge a life style that the income from their estates was incapable of sustaining. As Sir James Graham commented in a letter to Peel in September, 1843, “The real secret of the evils of Ireland is the bankrupt condition of the landlords”². Lord Stanley had underlined Graham’s point in June, 1845, when he stated that the under-capitalised state of Irish agriculture was the root of Irish discontent. With so much debt it was impossible for estate owners to raise the capital necessary for improvement of their land in order to make it more productive. Part of Peels’ rationale for the repeal of the Corn Laws was his belief that it would release capital enabling such improvements. With greater productivity from the land, tenants would be able to pay higher rents increasing the land owners’ incomes.
Towards the end of 1845 Lord Devon, who had been commissioned to investigate the problem and recommend solutions, produced his report. It’s principle recommendation was that the law should be changed to permit the sale of such estates, the aim being to allow wealthy merchants to invest in them. The first draft of such a bill was introduced into parliament early in 1846 but lapsed with Peel’s resignation in July.
Irish grain merchants imported maize in the summer of 1846 for sale at market prices. But, as fields of bright green studded with star shaped white flowers flourished across the island, thoughts of the autumn’s potato harvest must have brought hope to many, both in Ireland and in the British Treasury where there may well have been sighs of relief at the prospect of a crisis averted or, at least, avoided.
- Nicholson, Asenath: Lights and Shade of Ireland, (London, 1850)
- Graham to Peel, September 6, 1843, in C. S.Parker, Sir Robert Peel from his Private Papers, iii, p.63. Quoted in Lane, Padraig G, The Encumbered Estates Court, Ireland, 1848-1849, Paper published at tcd.ie, being derived from Lane’s MA thesis of 1969.
Continue to chapter 10