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The Famine 4: The Winter of 1846 to 1847
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In the Spring of 1846, the people had planted even more potatoes than ever before to ensure that there was no repeat of the 1845 failure. However, in July the Relief Commission sent a report to England stating "I am sorry to state that... the prospect of the potato crop this year is even more distressing than last year- that the disease has appeared earlier and its ravages are more extensive" [2]. As it was to turn out, the crop of Autumn [Fall] 1846 had failed completely across the island.

As stated previously, the Whigs who gained power in July 1846 believed that government should interfere as little as possible in matters of trade. This laissez-faire policy stated that capitalism would take care of any shortcomings. Lord John Russell, the new Prime Minister, had previously accused Peel of an over-reaction when few had died after dire predictions of widespread death in Ireland. Russell thought that enough of the crop must have been unaffected that any shortcoming would not be evident until late in the year. So he simply instructed his Commission to monitor the situation and to review the relief efforts of 1845 with a mind to implementing a new scheme later in the year.

In mid August, Russell put forward his plan to Parliament of what relief measures should be put in place. The Whigs believed that the import of food could be left up to local merchants ("the supply of the home market may safely be left to the foresight of private merchants" [2 p223]), while government would be responsible for providing employment to give people the money to buy this food. This was at least in part due to threats from merchants who objected to the 1845 food imports. The Chancellor of the Exchequer said "It was not the intention at all to import food for the use of the people of Ireland. In fact many merchants had declared that they would not import food at all if it were the intention of the government to do so, and unless the government would give such an assurance" [2 p223]. Only in west Cork, Kerry and Donegal, where merchants were few, did the government relent and agree to allow the Relief Commisioners to give out food; again imported maize.

But the government's efforts were concentrated primarily into creating employment. They continued Peel's work schemes (the Board of Works) although with the restriction that the cost had to be entirely met through local rates. The pay was low: 8 to 10 pence per day, which was not nearly enough to support a family, and the payment was often delayed. Despite these failings, three quarters of a million people had signed up to the work schemes by March of 1847. The workhouses, set up in the previous decade for those who could no longer afford to live, were strongly disliked by the people. Nevertheless, many had no other option and by the end of 1846 they had been filled to their design capacity of 100,000 people, and numbers continued to rise. Conditions worsened and 'famine fever' began to take lives.

Famine Victims [8kB]Meanwhile, the government's confidence that merchants would provide food was not borne out. By December 1846, lack of food and money meant that people were starving to death in the rural potato-growing areas of Ireland. A harrowing report from Cork at this time said: "The famine grew more horrible towards the end of 1846, many were buried with neither inquest nor coffin. An inquest was held by Dr Sweetman on three bodies. The first was that of two very young children whose mother had already died of starvation. His death became known only when the two children toddled into the village of Schull. They were crying of hunger and complaining that their father would not speak to them for four days; they told how he was 'as cold as a flag'. The other bodies on which an inquest was held were those of a mother and child who had both died of starvation. The remains had been knawed by rats." Despite this, the government refused to allow the Relief Commissioners to extend the food scheme out of western Munster and Donegal, insisting that their policy would work in time. The picture on the left is from the Illustrated London News in 1847. This newspaper, which sent illustrators to Ireland and began publishing pictures of famine victims in 1847, was largely responsible for raising awareness of the unfolding catastrophe in Britain.

Many people travelled to the towns in the hope of getting help [3]. At first the townsfolk were generous, but then the famine-fever began to strike and the hospitality gave way to fear. Father Matthew of Cork observed: "These poor creatures, the country poor, are now homeless and without lodgings; no one will take them in; they sleep out at night. The citizens are determined to get rid of them. They take up stray beggars and vagrants and confine them at night in the market place, and the next morning send them out in a cart five miles from the town and there they are left and a great part of them perish for they have no home to go to." Others attacked places where food was stored, such was their desperation. The levels of property crime doubled between 1846 and 1847.

Captain Kennedy distributing clothes [12kB]Private charity was responsible for keeping hundreds of thousands of people alive in the winter of 1846 to 1847. Catholic Priests organised food for local people. The Society of Friends raised money in America and Britain, and gave it to local areas to allow them to buy food boilers. In London, a group of businessmen collected money (including £2,000 from Queen Victoria) and bought and shipped maize to western Ireland. They also supplied clothes: many of the local people had pawned their winter clothes to buy food. This left them dangerously exposed in the winter months. One observer wrote "Among the thousands I meet, I have seen no one who had clothing corresponding to the bitter cold which is experienced; on the contrary what is beheld is emaciated, pale, shivering, worn-out farming people, wrapt in the most wretched rags, standing or crawling in the snow, bare-footed" [3]. Landlords were split into varying extremes. Some refused to help, taking the opportunity to evict small cottiers from their estates. Some did not even live in Ireland. Others landlords bankrupted themselves trying to help their tenants. The picture shows Captain Kennedy, a Poor Law Inspector, and his daughter giving clothes to famine victims in Kilrush, county Clare. He said "I was so maddened by the sights of hunger and misery... that I [wanted] to take the gun from behind my door and shoot the first landlord I met". In the end, as we shall see, the famine was the catalyst that destroyed landlordism in Ireland [5].

Over the winter of 1846 to 1847, many tens of thousands of people died. There is an endless list of contemporary reports of people starving or dying of disease. By the spring of 1847, the government finally accepted that its policy had failed disastrously. In a report to the government, it was stated "The tide of distress has for some time past been steadily rising and appears now to have completely overflowed the barriers we endeavoured to oppose it... The question I have to ask you therefore is whether the time has not arrived for having recourse in a direct and effectual manner to what we have been aiming to arrive at by indirect means, namely, the outdoor relief of every distitute person" [2 p235].

For many people, it was all too much. On average, 50,000 people emigrated per year before the famine. In 1845, this was unchanged; the crop failure did not strike until the Autumn [Fall]. However, in 1846, 100,000 people emigrated to America alone. 250,000 people were to leave during the year 1847: by far the largest exodus. Unlike the pre-famine exodus, which was mainly the better-off peasants, these were mostly the poorer people in Ireland. Only about 3% or 4% had their passages paid by the government or by their landlord, although charities paid for more passages.

Distressed Poor Law Unions 1847-48 [2kB]So many people had been employed by the Board of Works that no seed potatoes were being sowed for the next year's harvest. The work projects concentrated more on employement than doing any co-ordinated work, so most of the work undertaken made little sense [1], for example building roads that led nowhere. (Although not all were pointless; the length of railways increased tenfold during the decade.) By Spring 1847, the Board of Works had spent £5,000,000 on relief measures, with little hope that the local taxpayers would ever be able to repay it. The map on the left [4] shows the Poor Law Unions (subdivisions for the relief of poverty that predate the famine) that were in such a level of distress that they got special treatment in 1847-48. The scheme which had employed three-quarters of a million people over the winter was finally scrapped in March 1847 to be replaced by a version of Peel's original scheme of food distribution.

> Next > The Famine 5: The Summer of Black '47 >


[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)
[3] Collins, ME; "Ireland Three" The Educational Company, 1972.
[4] Kinealy, C; "This great calamity: The Irish Famine 1845-52", Dublin, 1994.
[5] Hodge, AM; Rees, R; "Union to Partition: Ireland 1800-1921", Colourpoint Books (www.colourpoint.co.uk), 1995.

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