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The Famine 5: The Summer of Black '47
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At first, the government was reluctant to sell cooked food to the poor; they thought that this would make the poor too reliant. They wanted to give away ingredients and get the poor to cook their own food. But the Relief Commission pushed for it. In a report to the government, the leader, Sir Randolph Routh, said "The soup system promises to be a great resource and I am endeavouring to turn the views of the Committees to it. It will have a double effect of feeding the people at a lower price and economising our meal."

The government knew that once the 1847 harvest came in, their Relief Programme would be completed. So they devised a twofold plan. Firstly, they would pass a temporary act to establish soup kitchens. These would feed the people until the harvest that Autumn [Fall]. Originally, Peel had set up the Relief Commission as an organisation over and above the workhouses and Poor Law Unions. So the government's second plan, for later in the year, was to amalgamate the relief with the Poor Law system in a new commission.

Grain Imports [6kB] The first of these policies was passed into law in March 1847 in the Destitute Poor (Ireland) Act. Within a few months, the Public Works schemes were disbanded. Soup kitchens were set up in all but three of Ireland's 130 Poor Law Unions and the rations were being given to 780,000 people by May. By the start of June, this number had increased to 2,700,000. At their peak, in mid August, over three million people were being fed daily by the scheme. Much of this food was imported to Ireland by the government. Food exports from Ireland reached their lowest level in 1847, and net grain imports reached three-quarters of a million tons in the same year. The graph on the left shows wheat imports. Large quantities of American maize were also imported.

The food was not of particularly good nurtitional quality; and there was not much of it. A recommended adult ration was a pound of meal, with half that for a child. But the decisions on exact numbers of rations and quantity of food were delegated to the local committees. In some areas, people were turned away simply because they "looked" healthy, and some did not even get their full ration. Cruelly, some people ended up in court to fight for the right to rations. In other areas, the committees and/or local landlords increased the ration size. Some committee members even gave two ration cards to the most needy. It is reported that in some areas, the number of rations given out exceeded the total population [2].

It does seem clear that, despite the imports, the government did not spend nearly enough money on the soup kitchens. One distributor of relief at Belmullet, county Mayo, said in May 1847: "Between today and yesterday, I saw the corpses of a girl, a man and an old woman who died of hunger. This day I saw a woman sinking into a faint, while I was giving out relief at Pullathomas to some peculiarly wretched families." But he insisted that they were doing everything they could with very limited resources: "Placed in the midst of a starving and mendicant population, whom... they [the Relief workers] are unable to supply with enough even to support nature, they are liable to continual charges of unfairness, partiality, indifference or want of judgement. It should be remembered that those who thus labour for the poor do so at a great sacrifice of time and trouble, and are in continual danger of being attacked by the pestilence which rages around them." [2 p243].

As this writer has observed, disease was an increasing problem. In the summer of 1847, the number of deaths from starvation decreased, but the number of deaths from disease increased. It was common for doctors and the relief workers themselves to die from disease. This disease was to spread and, in the end, disease killed far more people during the Famine than direct starvation did. As was stated previously, a quarter of a million people emigrated from Ireland in 1840. However, they brought their diseases with them and, on average, 40% of people who boarded the 'coffin ships' would die either en-route or immediately after arrival .

The map below shows the distribution of people who were taking up rations in Ireland in 1847.

Severity of the Famine [13kB]

> Next > The Famine 6: The Famine After 1847 >


[1] Ó Gráda, Cormac; "The Great Irish Famine", Cambridge University Press, 1989.
[2] Dudley-Edwards, R; Williams, TD; "The Great Famine, Studies in Irish History 1845-52", Lilliput Press, 1956, (Reprinted 1997)

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