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Fully 18 months ago I gave an update on my famine project, which consists of two slim volumes. The first was A Purgatory of Misery and the second The Poor Law Inspector. In that post I indicated that the initial draft of the first, an entirely non-fictional account of the events in British and Irish history that led up to the famine, was complete and that I was then embarking on the second, a fictionalised account of the work of Captain Arthur Kennedy in West Clare between late 1847 and mid 1850.
A Purgatory of Misery was published at the end of 2017 but work on The Poor Law Inspector stuttered on and off throughout last year. I finally reached the end last month and passed it to a first reader. At only 50,000 words it is a novella, rather than the full length novel I had hoped to create. That it is so short after such a long time is down to several factors, the main one being the difficulty of presenting the real horror of conditions in that place and time in a way that is not too depressing to read.
The opening chapters were posted to Chapter Buzz at the end of 2017. The book now has a new title, Called to Account, which relates to the fact that Kennedy and the man who came to be his arch rival were involved, in 1851, in a court case as a consequence of an insult delivered in public by Kennedy to the other, who then sued him for libel. I have now structured the book around the court case and Kennedy’s recollections of significant events in his life up to that point.
Once again, it is being posted on Chapter Buzz whilst I work on revisions, including those suggested by my first reader. Follow this link to find it. Your comments and suggestions are most welcome. You can post them there or here.
There is nothing new about refugee crises. As my followers will know, I have, over the last 2-3 years, been exploring the appalling events that took place in Ireland between 1845 and the early 1850s. These events led to an exodus of people from Ireland to North America, and Australia.
Last week I was privileged to be a (minor) part of the 7th International Famine Conference which took place in Strokestown Park House, home of the Irish National Famine Museum. The event was truly international, with contributions from academics from the USA, Canada, Australia the United Kingdom and Germany.
My link will take you to a film by a Canadian documentary film maker, made as part of Canada’s 150th anniversary celebrations last year, it describes the way ordinary Canadians responded to the arrival on their shores of ships laden with refugees from Ireland’s disaster. The film received it’s Irish launch on the opening night of the conference.
There are, surely, important lessons to be learned by legislators in the USA and Europe as they grapple with the 21st century refugee crises – not least the reality that we are all descended from immigrants or invaders. We are, indeed, the world. Closing borders is not a moral option.
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A larger-than-life statue of three Irish figures sits on a round stone base, bordered by a walkway that incorporates the donor-bricks and flagstones. The walkway leads to a commemorative wall that narrates the history of the Great Hunger amid Irish immigration. The sidewalk beneath the wall incorporates an outline map depicting the coasts of America […]
I can’t believe it is 6 months since I first posted about this project of mine. If anyone is interested, here is an update on my progress since then.
First of all I need to explain that this is part of a long term project which includes a non-fiction book about the Great Irish Famine, as well as the historical novel based on the activities of Capt. Arthur Kennedy and Colonel Crofton Vandeleur in Kilrush between November 1847 and 1851.
I have been working hard on the non-fiction work over the summer and have what I consider to be a decent draft ready for sharing. I am looking for beta readers but, meanwhile, I intend to publish it here in installments over the coming days. It will appear as pages rather than posts and those pages will be collected under a new menu item ‘Purgatory’ – see it in the menu bar above. I will post about each new page as it is created. A few elements of it have already appeared here as posts.
Well, I have chosen the working title of ‘A Purgatory of Misery: How Victorian Liberalism Exacerbated a National Disaster’. The words come from the following quotation: “except through a purgatory of misery and starvation, I cannot see how Ireland is to emerge into anything approaching either quiet or prosperity.” said by Charles Wood, Chancellor of the Exchequer in Lord John Russell’s Whig government, approving the harsher measures contained in the Poor Law Extension Act of June 1847.
Today’s installment consists of the preface and introduction and you can read it here.
I have now recommenced work on The Poor Law Inspector and signed up to produce 10,000 words during October on Tim Pike’s ‘Chapter Buzz’ site. Why not follow my progress over there and join in by commenting?
Reading about the famine that afflicted Ireland in the years 1845-52 is to discover story after story of the horrors that ensued. The families found naked and dead huddled together in some filthy hovel; the evictions that left other families to seek shelter in ditches and under hedges.
It is also to enter the strange world of statistics. Did a million die, or more? Did a similar number emigrate? We have census figures for 1841 and 1851 which show a fall in population of around two million. Some have tried to interpolate what was the likely increase in population over the 5 years from 1841 to 1846 when starvation really began to bite. It is then that the possibility of up to 3 million reduction in population begins to look possible. And no-one can be certain of the accuracy of the census figures to begin with.
Without in any way wishing to belittle the significance of such a monstrous figure, I want to know more about the 6 million or so who survived. How many of them went through 7 years of suffering, losing parents, siblings, off-spring? How many were sufficiently well endowed with material goods to continue to thrive? How did they respond to the appalling conditions they must have witnessed?
One of the biggest contributors to the number of deaths was not starvation but disease. And infectious diseases like Cholera, Dysentery and Typhus did not confine themselves to the hungry. There is a considerable number recorded deaths among doctors, priests and others tending the sick.
I think it fair to suppose that, faced with such a tragedy today, most ordinary citizens would react in two ways. First they would launch a fund raising effort to help and, second, they would institute a political movement with the aim of forcing the government to take appropriate action. Where, I wonder, was the 19th Century equivalent of the Occupy movement?
There was one such organisation – the Young Ireland movement. And it did attempt to mount an armed rebellion. This was quickly quashed by the British government. Why did that not galvanise a much larger section of the population, in the way that the internment and execution of the 1916 rebel leaders did 70 years later?
There were, too, many donations of money from many different quarters, including Queen Victoria.
I have concluded that the story that I want to tell is that of those who lived through the horror and survived. One such individual is Captain Arthur Kennedy. You can read a lot about him here on the County Clare Library Service website. In brief, he was appointed as Poor Law Inspector, responsible for ensuring that the Poor Law Union that covered a vast area of County Clare from its base in the Kilrush workhouse, was operating properly.
He arrived there with a young family late in 1847 and remained for 2 1/2 years. His reports were published as a Parliamentary Blue Book, from which the Clare Library Service website has many quotations. He seems to have been at loggerheads with the Board of Guardians and its chairman, Colonel Crofton Vandeleur who owned most of the town.
What the published reports, and the material on the Library website, much of which is based on contemporary newspaper articles, does not say is anything about the family’s domestic situation. Where did they live? Assuming the children attended the local school, how did they relate to the other pupils, given their father’s job and the fact they were outsiders? Did the Kennedy’s socialise with Vandeleur and the other Guardians? What, in fact, was life really like for a middle class family thrust into the heart of an unfolding nightmare which they were duty bound to try to alleviate?
I have spent the past year gathering generalised background material to provide a context for what I believe could be an enlightening historical novel based on the life of The Poor Law Inspector. Now I need to start writing. I also need to visit Kilrush in order to glean what information I can about the lives of the 70% of those who resided there in 1845 and survived the next 7 years.
The third of my series of posts on poverty examines the transfer of poor laws from the British mainland to Ireland.
The Dublin House of Industry was established in 1772 to care for vagrants and beggars. In times of more general distress, the work of this and similar institutions in other cities was supplemented by ad hoc provision by the parishes raising funds by subscription. Reading accounts of the conditions that prevailed in the early 1780s, for example, it is clear that the response to widespread food and fuel shortages that occurred consisted of a combination of fire-fighting with limited financial resources and attempts by the government in Dublin to control markets and prices. Such attempts were actively opposed by merchants who often combined to frustrate philanthropic actions such as the donation of 2000 tons of free coal from the mine owner Sir James Lowther.
In addition to fund raising appeals by the parishes and government’s attempts to control markets and prices, some landlords offered alternative employment to workers displaced by such events as the failure of the flax crop in 1782 that had left weavers unable to ply their trade. In rural areas many communities took the law into their own hands, waylaying cartloads of grain destined for the cities.
According to James Kelly (Kelly, James. “Scarcity and Poor Relief in Eighteenth-Century Ireland: The Subsistence Crisis of 1782-4.” Irish Historical Studies, vol. 28, no. 109, 1992, pp. 38–62. www.jstor.org/stable/30008004.), “Acts of benevolence by landlords and clergy, and donations to institutions like the Houses of Industry, were vital for the control of distress in late eighteenth century Ireland. … In Dublin the House of Industry was the most important agent of relief, but it worked with local committees and was heavily reliant on donations…. while in the countryside landlords, wealthy farmers and clergy were indispensable.”
Note, however, that whereas there were numerous workhouses in England and Wales there were only a handful in Ireland, even though poverty and famines, or near famines, were much more common there. After the Act of Union at the commencement of the 19th century, the government in London considered various ways of tackling this problem which was beginning to effect social cohesion in England. A growing number of poor Irish families were migrating to England. Whilst they were not able to take advantage of the poor relief available there until they had established 5 years residence, their presence was perceived as a threat to both wages and social order.
(Astute readers will note a similarity between English attitudes to Irish immigrants 200 years ago and present day resentment towards migrants from Eastern Europe in England and from Mexico in the USA.)
Education was seen as one important way of ending poverty, by equipping individuals with the skills to enable them to obtain work. During the second half of the 18th century a number of Protestant organisations established schools in Ireland. Catholics had been banned from providing education as part of the policy of suppressing the old religion. Once the ban was lifted, Catholic schools also began to appear. Unlike the Protestant schools, however, these did not receive government support. By the 1830s, the government decided to establish a National school system which would be multi-denominational, run by committees containing both Catholic and Protestant members.
Although this put Ireland ahead of the mainland in terms of state funded education, Ireland was not progressing economically or socially. A number of government initiated surveys and reports were commissioned but their recommendations were generally deemed to be too costly to implement. One such commission, headed by the Protestant Arch Bishop of Dublin, recommended that the poor law, as established in England, would not work in Ireland because of the lack of available work. This was unacceptable to the authorities in London who sent George Nicholls, one of the commissioners responsible for administering the poor law in England, to look at the situation in Ireland.
In an earlier post I described how the English regarded themselves as superior to the native populations of the lands they conquered. However well justified this attitude might have seemed given the evident successes achieved by English Soldiers, Seamen and Scientists, it looks today like extreme arrogance. The modern liberal view is that a person’s ethnic origin has no bearing on his or her intelligence or ability to acquire useful skills. This was not so in the first half of the nineteenth century. The English establishment viewed the native Irish in exactly the same way as they viewed the natives of Africa.
The remarks of the poor law commissioner, George Nicholls, illustrate this perfectly. “They seem to feel no pride, no emulation; to be heedless of the present, and reckless of the future. They do not … strive to improve their appearance or add to their comforts. Their cabins still continue slovenly, smoky, filthy, almost without furniture or any article of convenience or decency … If you point out these circumstances to the peasantry themselves, and endeavour to reason with and show them how easily they might improve their condition and increase their comforts, you are invariably met by excuses as to their poverty …’Sure how can we help it, we are so poor’ … whilst at the same time (he) is smoking tobacco, and had probably not denied himself the enjoyment of whiskey.”
(I have offered a possible explanation for the apparent indolence of Irish paupers based on recent studies in Neuroscience.)
His conclusion was that a new poor law should be enacted for Ireland which should include the provision of a network of 130 workhouses and that these institutions would not be permitted to provide relief other than within their walls. It was felt that this would deter all but those deemed to be the most deserving people from claiming relief. Each workhouse would have space for 800 persons, would be administered by a Board of Guardians and financed by a local property tax.
This policy was quickly implemented. When the potato crop failed in the second half of the 1840s this network of workhouses became the bases from which relief would be administered. They would prove to be utterly inadequate to perform the task, although, in fairness to the Boards of Guardians, the majority did their best with the limited resources available to them.