The State of Famine and Disease in Ireland.

Boston Pilot (1838-1857), Volume 9, Number 14, 4 April 1846 .

British Parliament.

Mr. O’Connell, on Tuesday, rose, and said—I rise, Sir to give notice, that on Monday, the 28d of February, I shall move for a committee of the whole House to consider the state of Ireland with a view to devise means to relieve the distress of the Irish people. That is the motion which I have to submit to the House, and I respectfully demand the acquiescence of the House in that motion. I certainly do not introduce this subject from any party motives, or for any party objects (Hear,hear). I would not give utterance to one partisan feeling or expression, nor do I expect any party opposition. I am thoroughly convinced that many gentlemen present who differ from me on political subjects in reference to Ireland, are as sincerely anxious as I am to relieve the distress of that-country; so that this House will come fairly to the consideration of this subject, free from any of those feelings which are calculated to diminish or disfigure its advocacy. That there is the prospect of a calamitous season before Ireland is a fact which is altogether indisputable. The extent of that calamity has been disputed. For a time it was supposed that there was a prospect of our avoiding the misery, we were threatened with, but I believe that all hope has now vanished; and before I sit down I shall be able to show the House that the calamity is more imminent and pressing ami likely to be more awful than the House is aware. In order, however, to understand the fearful extent of the threatened calamity, it is right that the House should be reminded of the situation of Ireland previous to this visitation. The calamity with which Ireland is now threatened is not owing to any default of the people, it is not owing to any sterility of the soil, it is not even owing to any want of the abundance of the harvest. It is owing to a dispensation of Providence, which man cannot control. Our duty is to submit to the will of an All-disposing Power, and to perform the part of charitable Christians by endeavoring to mitigate the evils as they arise. But in order to appreciate the extent of the distress, and enable us to devise means for its relief, it is, as I have said, obviously necessary that the House should distinctly understand the previous state of Ireland. I am sorry, in the performance of my duty, to be obliged to state as a fact that the population of Ireland, instead of augmenting, as some have supposed, has actually been falling and wasting away—that the people have been suffering misery and distress unequaled by any other people in Europe—that the rural population, and especially the agricultural laborers are, as has been stated in a report to this House, almost always on the verge of famine. I propose, not to call upon the House to give credit to any assertions of mine which are not corroborated by indisputable documents—I mean to show, from documents of the most unquestionable character the truth of the facts which I have stated respecting the increasing misery of Irish people. The first document to which I shall refer is the abstract of the population returns of 1821, 1831, and 1841, the accuracy of the facts of which are beyond doubt. From these returns it appears that the population of Ireland between 1821 and 1831 increased about a million, whereas between 1831 and 1841 they increased only about half a million. It has been attempted to account for this by emigration; but this is most satisfactory, for those who attempt to account for the decrease in that way give us no account of the emigration between 1821 and 1831, but confine themselves to statements of the emigration between 1831 and 1841, thus leaving out an essential ingredient in the calculation, for there is no reason to suppose that there was less emigration between 1821 and 1831 than between 1831 mid 1841. With this fact staring you in the face then, that in the course of ten years the population of Ireland has gone back half a million, it will not be disputed that there is something wrong in the condition of that country. I remember that the late Sir Fowell Buxton used to make a great impression on the House by showing how the black population diminished during slavery. This is not exactly the case here, but the facts which I have mentioned certainly come within the same principle (hear, hear). I consider that nothing but distress can account for the falling off in the population to which I have referred. The next public document to which I shall refer is the report of the Poor Law Commission in 1835. That commission was named by this House to inquire into the destitute state of Ireland, preliminary to the introduction of a poor law, and they reported that there were 2,300,000 of the agricultural population who were constantly in a state approaching to destitution, and that for several weeks in the year they were entirely compelled to live on the charity of their neighbors. The last population returns furnish some with another argument. These returns show that forty-six per cent, of the rural population live in habitations of a single room, and that there are frequently several entire families living in the same room. They also show that thirty-six per cent. of the civic population live in single rooms, and that frequently two or three families reside in the same room. Does this not present a fearful picture of destitution (hear, hear). But the most important of all the reports to which I have to refer is the report of Lord Devon’s Commission. This commission consisted of Lord Devon and four other persons of rank and fortune, and perhaps a better commission was never formed by any Government. It is impossible to imagine that they could be deceived, and I believe they performed their task most laboriously. They state that from the evidence they collected on oath, and from their own observations, they found that the agricultural population of Ireland suffered great privations and hardships; that they were badly housed, badly clothed, and badly paid for their labour; that in many districts the only food of the people was potatoes, and their only drink water; that their cabins scarcely protected them against the weather; that a blanket was a rare luxury to them; that their manure constituted their only property; and that altogether they endured more suffering than the people of any other country in Europe. This is the report of Lord Devon’s Commission. This is not the assertion of any agitator demagogue, but the distinct and emphatic assertion of men who were beyond the possibility of being deceived. The agricultural population of Ireland is calculated at 7,000,000, and 5,000,000 of these at least are labourers, in the situation described by Lord Devon’s Commission. Now I beg the House to observe that here is a report made forty-five years after the union with England—this is a description of the agricultural population of Ireland by the persons to whom I have refered; I appeal to gentlemen who are listening to me, whether it is not a most frightful picture—I do not say which is in consequence of, but coming after, the union with England? Remember, that we did not govern ourselves; that we had no Irish Parliament to legislate for us; remember that you have had the government of Ireland for forty-five years in your own hands. If you cannot govern us, abdicate; but if you will govern us try and extricate the population from their abject misery. The report to which I have just referred was made in 1844-45. It was made at a period when our harvest was abundant, when there was as little distress as was ever known in Ireland—when there was no public complaint—when the people were suffering in silence—when they were,in fact, in a state of comparative comfort and freedom from calamity, and yet such is the report which they gave respecting the state of the rural population of Ireland. That commission also reported two things, to which I wish to call the attention of the House. The first is their report upon the conduct of the unhappy people themselves:—“We repeat, that the patient endurance which the labourers exhibit entitle them to the best attention of Government and of Parliament.” The commissioners, it will be observed, do not blame the people for their misery; but they commend them for their patient endurance, and they call on Government and Parliament to give them their best attention. I have some confidence that call will be responded to (hear, hear.) The commissioners make another statement, to the effect that any improvement which had taken place in the condition of the people was attributable to the habits of temperance, and not to any increased demand for their labour. It is also singular enough, as I have said, that this calamity is not attributable to the faults of the people, to any refusal on their part to cultivate the soil, or any want of fertility in the soil itself (hear.) I have Parliamentary returns which show the amount of food exported from Ireland from 1842 to 1845. This first is—
An account of the Quantities of Wheat, Barley, Oats, Wheat-flour, and oatmeal imported into Great Britain from Ireland, in the years 1844, 1843, 1844, and 1843, distinguishing the quantities in each year:—

Yers. Wheat. Barley. Oats. Wheatmeal or flour. Oatm’l.
q’rters. q’rters. q’rters. cwts. cwts.
1842 112,195 50,287 1,274,326 314,311 1,551,172
1843 192,477 110,449 1,561,997 773,463 1,706,628
1844 200,276 90,656 1,509,870 839,567 1,150,976
1845 372,719 93,026 1,679,958 1,422,379 1,059,185

So that, during the very period in which the people of Ireland have been living in the manner I have described; they have produced for your consumption no less than 2.000,000 of quarters of bread stuffs and 2,000,000 cwt. of flour and different sorts of meal. The second document is “an account of all cattle, sheep, and swine imported into Great Britain from Ireland, from the 10th day of October, 1845, to the 5th day of January, 1846. Oxen, bulls, and cows, 32,883; calves 583; sheep and lambs, 32,576; swine 104,141.” Thus these returns establish that this dreadful anomaly exists in Ireland that, while she produces in abundance, her people are starving; that country so blessed by Providence is thus cursed by man. Let others account for it us they can. We have now to face the evil of coming famine. Remember, when you come to face that evil, that what may be called the substratum of the population in Ireland is in such a condition that their best state is little better than what would he called famine in other countries. And, Sir, having shown what this condition of the Irish people is at even the best of times, I now come to that in which they are now placed, and also to the frightful evidence which has poured in on us from all sides of the dreadful nature of the threatened calamity. The documents I shall use are chiefly those which have come out of the hands of the Government, with some of them many honorable gentlemen will already be familiar, and my reading them will therefore be doubly tedious. But it is my duty to lay the case of Ireland in the fullest manner before the House, and therefore I trust I shall be excused if I am more prolix than I would wish to be. This passage is contained in the report of Messrs. Lindley and Playfair, dated November 15, 1845:—“During our stay in Ireland we carefully examined such official papers as were transmitted to us from the Castle; we consulted persons acquainted with the facts of the disease, we visited the district lying between Dublin and Drogheda, and inspected various potato fields and stores in the counties of Dublin, Louth, Meath, Westmeath, and part of Kildare. Judging from the evidence thus collected, and from what we have seen of the progress of the disease in England, we can come to no other conclusion than that one-half of the potato crop of Ireland is either destroyed or remains in a state unfit for the food of man. We, moreover, feel it our duty to apprise you that we fear this to he a low estimate.” The next extract is from the report of the commissions of inquiry at Dublin Castle, and the House will observe that it is a remarkable paragraph:—“It appears from undoubted authority that, of 32 counties in Ireland, not one has escaped failure in the potato crop; of 130 Poor Law Unions, not one is exempt; of 2,053 electoral divisions, above 1,400 are certainly reported in having suffered; and we have no certainty, until the receipt of the more minute returns now in progress of completion, that the remaining 600 have altogether escaped.” That commission had corresponded with nearly all the local authorities in Ireland, and the following was the conclusion at which it had arrived, after having written 362 letters to obtain correct information:—


9-10ths 4-5ths. 3-4ths. 2-3ds. halves 1-3ds. 1-4ths. 1-5ths. 1-7ths. 1-8ths. 1-10ths. total.
ulster 6 1 31 5 37 133 32 6 6 239
munster 9 13 88 16 4 1 1 133
leinster 4 1 28 41 97 9 2 1 1 199
connaught 1 8 12 49 6 4 1 81

The next evidence I shall quote is that of Sir L. O’Brien, a gentleman of large property in the county of Clare, whom it was some time difficult to persuade that there was anything wrong in the crops.—He, however, discovered his mistake, and waited on the Lord Lieutenant, stating the result of his observations. He had just returned from an examination of the state of his country, which he had been induced to visit on account of the discouraging accounts he had received. His statement was, that the disease was again progressing in many districts, that many families had lost their whole supply, and that whole districts had lost their crops. This gentleman concluded by strenuously recommending the interference of the Government.— Sir, there was a committee appointed at a public meeting at the Mansion-house in Dublin, and from that called the Mansion-house Committee. Their reports are in the highest degree persuasive, from the minuteness and care they have shown in taking their information. Between the 10th of December and the 26th of January, they issued 923 letters and had received 523 answers, viz., from Leinster, 141 letters; from Ulster, 163 letters; from Munster, 152 letters; from Connaught 67 letters; Of these there were—From ministers of the Established Church, 216 letters; from Roman Catholic clergy, 195 letters; from Presbyterian ministers, 40 letters; from lieutenants and deputy ditto, 47 letters; from Poor Law boards, 25 letters.—The following was the degree in which they represented the potato crop had suffered, and was unfit for human food:—Under one-third, 110; one-third, 111 ; one-half, 148; over half, 84. A report having been circulated that there was a mitigation in the progress of the disease, an opinion which arose from the people not having examined their potatoes in consequence of their having stored them, a second inquiry was made to ascertain whether or not there had been any such lull in the ravages of the disease. It is now certain that it is still making rapid progress. Thus the returns received by the Mansion-house committee and by the Government corroborated each other. Sir, I have now to trespass on the House with documents collected from different parts of Ireland, describing the progress of the disease in different localities. I should not, perhaps, have thought it necessary to trespass on your attention with these further statements were it not that two of the leading journals have stated the disease has ceased in Ireland, and that there is no reason to fear any want of provision for the winter. I do not accuse the writers of those statements with being actuated by party zeal or party motives, but I do accuse them of being too easily deluded and of too easily deluding others. It is however, on this account necessary to place beyond all shadow of doubt the fact of the continued existence of the disease, to show that the evil is not confined to particular localities, but has spread all over the land, and that the cry echoes through the country of coming famine and its attendant, disease. The hon. and learned gentleman then proceeded to read statements from different parts of the country, describing the condition of the potatoes, and the effects which the failure of the crop was producing in the increase of disease. A letter published by Lord Cloncurry (which the hon. and learned gentleman read) distinctly proves the fact that one-third of the potatoes which his lordship had planted under the most favourable circumstances were destroyed. The continued dullness of the statement I have had to make arises from the reading of so many documents; but, reluctant as I am to occupy the time of this House, I feel it my duty to give the fullest information in my power on the subject. I wish the House distinctly to understand that a scarcity has never been experienced in Ireland which has not been accompanied by typhus. It has not been found that fever is diffused by the atmosphere, for the disease has uniformly ceased when provisions became abundant. You have the cause,the effect, and the cure. The cause is scarcity; the effect, fever; the cure, a more plentiful supply of food. It is singular to observe how constantly this has occurred. I have several instances of great famine in Ireland showing how in variably scarcity has brought fever in its train, and that fever has disappeared when harvests became abundant.—In 1734 and ’35 there were wet summers, with bad harvests; fever appeared in the winter of 1734, and did not disappear till the autumn of 1736, which brought a most abundant harvest; between 1740 and 1743, 1798 and 1802, 1817 and the autumn of 1827, the same sequence of bad crops and disease, of good crops and the disappearance of disease was to be observed.—A most eminent physician in Dublin (Dr. Cowigan) traces a connection between those pestilential fevers and small pox. The hon. and learned gentleman having stated from documents a variety of details as to the seasons referred to, proceeded—I have now laid before the House the details which have come under my notice. With regard to the Irish agricultural laborer, the report of Lord Devon’s commission shows that there is no peasantry so badly off as the Irish peasantry. It is stated expressly that in no part of Europe is there so great misery as in Ireland, that there are masses of people always on the verge of starvation. From the reports of the Government Commissioners, from the reports of the Mansion-house Committee in Dublin, from the enormous mass of documents to which I have referred, documents obtained not from any one locality or vicinage, but indiscriminately throughout Ireland, it appears that the crop has totally failed, and that the country is on the verge of famine. If I am asked what I propose, I can only express my anxiety that the members of this House should join with me in the most energetic measures. You cannot be too speedy in the application of your remedy; you cannot make that application too extensive. It may be said, Will you ask money from Englishmen for the relief of Ireland? No such thing. I scorn the thought. Ireland has resources of her own. The Woods and Forests yield a revenue of 74,000l. a-year; take that and let it represent a capital of a million or a million and half. You may borrow money upon it to meet the exigency, and have a sinking fund for the extinction of the debt out of the revenues. If that plan should not be adopted, then I would say borrow the rents of the Irish landlords; charge absentee landlords 20 per cent. of a property-tax, and resident landlords 10 per cent. The object is to protect the laboring population from an impending calamity. They are even now surrounded by disease and death in their most horrid forms. And it is fitting that we should make the landlords contribute in such a way as shall be effectual. You may tell me of the Poor Laws. My opinion is that Poor Laws may mitigate distress in ordinary seasons, but will not meet a famine. The workhouses would make very good hospitals for the sick. That fever prevails in Cork, Tralee, and Killarney, I have proved to you; it has raged to a frightful extent in Limerick; the number of patients in the infirmaries has increased; the lanes in Dublin are full of fever. You are not to be guided in such a case as this by ordinary rules. It is a case beyond every rule. The people are not to blame. It has pleased Providence to inflict this calamity upon them; it is your business to mitigate that calamity as much as possible. There are the railroads, for example. Why do you not take strong measures with railroads? I should be happy to see the Government authorised to act in reference to these. I should wish to see this House and the other support the Government in that course. I would dispense with the rules and regulations that fence railway schemes brought before parliament. Famine is coming on,—fever is coming on,—this House ought to place in the Queen’s government, powers adequate to such an exigency, so that it may have the means of giving the most extensive employment. As to contending lines, I do not know but the Government would decide better; for I don’t know a worse tribunal than this House. I found myself yesterday voting on a railway question without exactly knowing what I was doing; I cannot, therefore, blame others. But wnerever 100,000l. has been subscribed for a railway, the Government ought to have power to give another 100,000l. by way of loan, so as to afford every facility for proceeding with the works, and to leave private individuals at liberty to apply the funds thus left for a time in their hands in such a manner as to give further employment. Lend the money to the railways at 1 per cent or 2 per cent. I know how many objections may be started to such a plan; but I speak of a case which is superior to every objection. Great evils require great remedies; the remedy ought to be commensurate with the evil, and I am speaking from the depth of my conviction when I declare in my conscience I believe the result of neglect on the part of this House in the present instance will be deaths to an enormous amount. On the grounds which I have stated, I request the appointment of a committee of the whole House, if with no other effect, at least for the purpose of convincing the Irish people that their calamities are not disregarded. I don’t blame the Government for what they have done and for what they purpose to do. They have had my humble support. I have not been peddling for objections to their measures. I am prepared to give an honest support to any plans which the Government may bring forward for the purpose of mitigating the effects of the scarcity. Yet those which have been propounded are miserable trifles; they would do for ordinary times and for an ordinary scarcity: but they will not answer when death is abroad. The details into which I felt it my duty to enter have made my statement necessarily a dry one; and for the extreme patience with which I have been heard, I beg to express to the House my own thanks and the thanks of the Irish people (cheers). The hon. and learned gentleman (who was but imperfectly heard throughout) concluded by giving notice that on Monday, the 23d of February, he should move for a committee of the whole House on the state of Ireland, with a view to devise means to relieve the miseries of the people.

The question having been put,

Sir J. Graham said—I am sure I express the general sense of the House when I declare that the hon. and learned gentleman, in bringing forward this subject, is entitled to the respectful attention of every member of it. The state of Ireland at the present moment deserves the serious attention of Parliament, and I admit to the hon. and learned gentleman that the importance of this subject can hardly be over-estimated. I also agree with the hon. and learned gentleman, that whatever differences of opinion may exist between various parties in this House, yet that the difficulty to which he has called our attention will receive from all sides a patient and anxious consideration. Sir, it is my painful duty to state, that having taken the utmost pains to inform myself accurately of the facts of the case, I cannot say that in any important particular the hon. and learned gentleman has exaggerated the difficulty of it (hear). The case was this. In ordinary years, with an average crop of potatoes, it is always the case that for a period of six weeks after the old crop is consumed, and before the new one comes into use, the population is compelled to subsist on a food of a higher and more expensive kind. Suppose the exaggeration of the present failure is one-half, assuming, for the sake of argument, that the failure is only one-fourth of an average crop, you then have this state of affairs,—in addition to the six weeks, during which in ordinary years this population, dependent on potatoes, is obliged to subsist on a dearer kind of food, there will be four months of the present year during which 4,000,000 of the population must be fed on food of a higher quality than in ordinary years. A more alarming case has hardly ever been submitted to the consideration of Parliament. The information we have received, with all its accuracy, does not extend to a later period than the end of January; but what we have received within the last fortnight is quite confirmatory of the statement of the hon. and learned gentleman—that the disease, so far from being arrested, has progressed; that the potatoes in the pits have not kept well, but have decayed, and that there is great danger of want, unless further precautions are used in time. If seed, too, is not preserved for the ensuing year, the difficulty, great as it is at the present moment, is but the commencement of a series of evils of such an extent that I hardly dare to contemplate them. I must also state that I entirely concur with the hon. and learned gentleman, that the conduct of the Irish peasantry generally in such alarming prospects, and in the midst of such great distress, has been most excellent. There have been no tumultuous meetings, no riots; all has been borne with the utmost patience. I have one account of one hundred and ninety laborers who came to meet the guardians of a union to state that food was failing them; that all they wanted was work; that none was offered them; that they had no labor within their reach. They did not tumultuously demand admission into the workhouse; all they asked for was work for wages. A more touching case than this cannot be conceived (hear, hear). He would now state what had been done to meet the threatened famine. The Commission will remain, but its functions will henceforth devolve on three officers—Mr. Twistleton, Professor Kane, and Mr Randolph Brown. Short as the present session of Parliament has been, considerable progress has been made in measures involving public grants and advances for public works, to aid in meeting the emergency of the case. This House has already given its consent to a Public Works Bill, by which an absolute grant of 50,000l. is made from the public funds; there is also a Ports and Harbours Bill contains clauses which provide for the improvement of the inland navigation of Ireland connected with draining of lands, comprehending four great works, for joining the northern loughs with the navigation of the Shannon and the waters of the west. The government has given a separate consideration to the estimates for these four great works, and it will be prepared to bring them under the notice of the House in a committee of supply. The estimate for these works is not less than 120,000l; altogether no less than 220,000l. in the shape of grants will be applied to the increase of public works in Ireland. With respect to advances of money as loans under the Drainage Bill, which now stands for the third reading, an advance of 50,000l. will be made for preliminary expenses; on the Ports and Harbours Bill 2,000l. will be advanced for the same purpose; on the County Works Bill there will be an advance of 100,009l. Altogether the advance in the shape of loans will be 228,000l, as grants 220,000l; thus, as loans and as grants, no less a sum than 448,000l. would be laid out in public works in Ireland. The hon. and learned gentleman has referred more particularly to the railroads now under the contemplation of Parliament. Allow me to call to the recollection of the House that, in the last session of Parliament, and the session preceding it, railroad acts passed by which it is generally assumed that an outlay of 9,000,000l. will be made in Ireland in the next three years. But, as this relief extends only a few miles on each side of the line, it will prove inadequate. I am pressed to give the details of the instructions the Government has issued with respect to these measures; but, as I consider any statement of them now would not be consistent with the public interest, I hope the House will not expect any such detail. It will be sufficient for me to say that in no one particular has the extreme difficulty of the case been overlooked. So much as to famine, as to its apprehended consequences, fever, the workhouses would not do much, but two provisions in the law would be available. The first gives the power of erecting temporary fever hospitals in the vicinity of each workhouse; out of one hundred and ten unions which have workhouses buit, forty-two have already temporary fever hospitals provided. Measures have been taken in the remaining unions for compelling this accommodation to be provided where it does not now exist, and a power is also given to the guardians to hire houses for that purpose. My humble opinion, an opinion sincerely and confidently entertained, is, that in the present circumstances, it is the first and primary duty of the Legislature to remove all restrictions on the free importation into this country of all articles of the first necessity constituting the food of the people (loud cheers).

After some remarks from John O’Connell, Lord John Russell, &c., the motion was withdrawn.

Source: Boston College Libraries