THE GREAT FAMINE
- Then came the summer of 1845! -
Phytophtora infestans, the fungus that invades the potato and causes its quick decay was first recorded in the eastern United States in the summer of 1843. It was accidentally transported to Belgium in a cargo of potatoes and in the summer of 1845 quickly spread to Flanders, Normandy, Holland and the south of England. In Ireland the blight was discovered in the Botanical Gardens in Dublin in August of that same year. Half of the potatoes harvested in the west of Ireland in 1845 were destroyed or unfit for human consumption. The following year a heatwave followed by rain proved ideal conditions for a revival of the blight and, by October, 90 percent of the crop was destroyed.
In that first summer John and Mary had little warning of impending disaster, so it was only after the blight had struck that they worked frantically in their fields lifting the still healthy plants of their potato harvest early to try to avoid further devastation. Each tuber was inspected and late into the night they were cleaning and drying the potatoes, then storing them in their cabin for the winter ahead. In other years John had stored half the harvest in a pit near the cabin and the other half in the cabin itself. This first year of the blight he decided to take no chances and stored the entire harvest, because of its dramatically reduced size, inside the cabin to avoid the possibility that the disease might affect the ones in the pit. The potatoes had to be laid out on beds of straw to keep them dry and well ventilated. Then it was time to bury the seed potatoes for next year’s crop. These tiny tubers had to be kept in the earth because it was the only way to preserve them until it was time for planting; thus John had no choice but to put them in the pit.
At the beginning of that second summer a dense cloud passed over the whole of south-west Ireland. Underneath the cloud hung a strange white vapour that trailed earthwards. No-one had ever seen the likes of it before, and as the people watched, fascinated, this strange mist attached itself to skin and clothing, and nestled in their hair. It then settled on the ground covering it like a thin white ash. Then the truth slowly dawned; the white flowers of the new potato crop were fluttering in the gentle breeze, and as the people watched, powerless, spores in their millions descended down onto their fields. Down onto their crops.
For the second year running the blight had returned to smite the people. Overnight, fields which the previous day were full of hope and promise had withered and decayed. The white-flowered potato plants were now black. John and Mary laboured tirelessly clawing back the earth in a frenzied search for any lumpers that had escaped. Time after time, hope was dashed from their hands to be replaced by the stinking pulp which waited for them under the soil. “Any part that’s firm, save them”, John gasped in desperation. “We can cut out the bad parts later. At least, we will save something!”
Such was the effect of the blight that by the second year with only being able to salvage a little more than 10 percent of their crops, John, Mary, Catherine, and Martin were literally starving to death. Some weeks John would manage to get farm work from one of the “middlemen”. Here was the anomaly, and the injustice of it all; that the protestant landlords continued to make fortunes exporting foodstuffs such as grain, as well as wool and flax. All through the famine they were exporting food that could have kept people alive. As far as the landlords were concerned the right of the rich to sell to the highest bidder came before any humanitarian needs of the starving populace. And this policy of “laissez-faire” was rigidly adopted and wholeheartedly approved of by the British Government of the time.
The Corn Laws,, an exception to the doctrine of laissez-faire, laid down that large taxes had to be paid on any foreign crops brought into Britain. This kept grain prices high, and the British traders would lose profits if the laws were repealed. Since the Act of Union made Ireland legally a part of the United Kingdom, its corn crop could be moved to England without incurring the tax. However, corn crops brought into Ireland to relieve the famine could be taxed.
Prime Minister Peel pushed through a repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846. This split the Tory Party and Peel was forced to resign. In a powerful speech he berated Parliament, "Good God, are you to sit in cabinet and consider and calculate how much diarrhoea, and bloody flux, and dysentery a people can bear before it becomes necessary for you to provide them with food?"
Prime Minister, Lord John Russell, who came after Peel, was a rigid proponent of “laissez-faire” and emphasized employment rather than food for famine victims, in the belief that private enterprise, not government, should be responsible for food provision. He also stressed that the cost of Irish relief work should be paid for by Irishmen. Peel's Relief Commission was abolished and relief work was put in the hands of 12,000 civil servants in the Board of Works who only found work for 750,000 of the starving people. In return for hard (and often pointless) work, starving peasants were paid starvation wages.
Lord Russell set out his approach to the famine: "It must be thoroughly understood that we cannot feed the people. . . . .We can at best keep down prices where there is no regular market and prevent established dealers from raising prices much beyond the fair price with ordinary profits." Tens of thousands of people died during the winter of 1846, but Russell and his colleagues never conceived of interfering with the structure of the Irish economy in the ways that would have been necessary to prevent the worst effects of the famine.
The Irish today find it hard to explain, and harder to forget, that while people were dying in the fields, eating grass and boiled nettles, food was leaving the country under armed escort. According to John Mitchell, quoted by Woodham-Smith, "Ireland was actually producing sufficient food, wool and flax, to feed and clothe not nine but eighteen millions of people," yet a ship sailing into an Irish port during the famine years with a cargo of grain was "sure to meet six ships sailing out with a similar cargo."
One of the most remarkable facts about the famine period is that there was an average monthly export of food from Ireland worth 100,000 Pounds Sterling. Almost throughout the five-year famine, Ireland remained a net exporter of food. Almost 4,000 vessels carried food from Ireland to the ports of Bristol, Glasgow, Liverpool and London during 1847, when 400,000 Irish men, women and children died of starvation and related diseases. The food was shipped under guard from the most famine-stricken parts of Ireland: Ballina, Ballyshannon, Bantry, Dingle, Killala, Kilrush, Limerick, Sligo, Tralee and Westport. During the first nine months of "Black '47" the export of grain-derived alcohol from Ireland to England included the following: 874,170 gallons of porter, 278,658 gallons of Guinness, and 183,392 gallons of whiskey. The total amount of grain-derived alcohol exported from Ireland in just nine months of Black '47 was 1,336,220 gallons!
A wide variety of commodities left Ireland during 1847, including peas, beans, onions, rabbits, salmon, oysters, herring, lard, honey, tongues, animal skins, rags, shoes, soap, glue and seed.
The most shocking export figures concern butter. Butter was shipped in firkins, each one holding nine gallons. In the first nine months of 1847, 56,557 firkins were exported from Ireland to Bristol, and 34,852 firkins were shipped to Liverpool. That works out to be 822,681 gallons of butter exported to England from Ireland during nine months of the worst year of "famine". If the other three months of exports were at all comparable, then we can safely assume that a million gallons of butter left Ireland while 400,000 Irish people starved to death!
(The following paragraphs have been loosely paraphased from “letters from Ireland during the Famine of 1847”, written for the Manchester Examiner by Alexander Somerville, a British journalist of Scottish parentage.)
John managed to get a job on Relief Works near Carrick-on-Shannon. Ten miles a day to break stone for a ‘famine’ road that led nowhere. Then he walked the ten miles back. For this he was paid sixpence a day. Meanwhile the merchants of the West held onto their stores of potatoes, waiting till they made ‘a penny a piece’. Thus, John, with his labour of six pence a day could buy little more than one potato a day for each of them. The work and the walking were killing him, but he had to keep on going or starve.
On another occasion John was with a group of men preparing a field for oats. They were employed to break up clods, clear the furrows to allow water run-off, and generally complete the sowing of the crop. The six of them were so weak from hunger that they could scarcely do the work of one man and spent the day leaning on their hoes and staggering from clod to clod from sheer exhaustion. Around four in the afternoon the landlord’s agent appeared and verbally berated the men for the small amount of work done. When he threatened not to pay them until they finished John glared at him fearfully, his skeletal hands clutching the handle of his hoe, “Tis the hunger your honour. I have stayed here till I was ready to collapse, but I must go home now and lie down for a bit. There are two children, my wife and myself. We had nothing all day yesterday, and this morning only a handful of corn meal among us all, made into a stirabout, before I came out to work - nothing more and nothing since.”
At John’s home they were skeletons, all of them; with bare skin on their bones, and barely life within the skin. A mother skeleton, a thirteen year old girl skeleton, and an eight year old boy skeleton. John’s appearance and speech was of a feeble old man, yet he was not yet forty years of age, tall and sinewy and would have been a strong man if there had been any flesh on his body. Four weak and hungry souls. A father not able to get work to get food for them, and not able to get enough food when he was able to get work. A farm labourer’s wages was tenpence a day. This would be used to buy ‘yellow meal’ and fuel for cooking. The poor were not allowed to go to the bogs to cut peat for themselves, and the fuel required to keep a household fire merely burning, hardly sufficient to warm the persons around it, to say nothing of half-naked persons, would cost at least sixpence a day. Hence John’s family only used enough fuel to boil the stirabout. At the end of a week, John’s wages were about enough to buy half a pound of corn meal per person per day, but no amount of self-control could make them distribute such a starvation diet equally over seven days. The inevitable result was going totally without food for some days each week.
Frequently families scavenged to survive on seaweed, seagulls, boiled nettles and turf, soups of dog and fox meat, “boxty bread baked from rotting lumpers” (the watery spuds previously fed to the cattle), congealed blood covertly extracted from the landlord’s cows or pigs, and an occasional stolen sheep; being careful first to bury the skin in the bog to avoid transportation to Botany Bay as a convict.
In 1847, conditions had reached such a fearful stage with the uncoffined dead being buried in open trenches that the British Government advanced a loan of ten million Pounds - half to be spent on public works, and the other half on outdoor relief. This loan carried the helpful proviso that no destitute farmer could benefit from outdoor relief unless he had first given up all of his land except for a quarter acre! This was known as the "Gregory Clause", and was naturally extremely unpopular. It prohibited anyone who held at least a quarter of an acre from receiving relief. This in practice meant that if a farmer, having sold all his produce to pay rent, duties, rates and taxes, should be reduced, as many thousands of them were, to applying for public outdoor relief, he would not get it until he had first delivered up all his land to the landlord. Of this Law Mitchel was to write: "it is the able-bodied idler only who is to be fed � if he attempted to till but one rood of ground, he dies." This simple method of ejectment was called "passing paupers through the workhouse" � a man went in, a pauper came out. These factors combined to drive thousands of people off the land: 90,000 in 1849, and 104,000 in 1850.