The Illustrated London News (Jan. 30, 1847)


Endered forbearing by the presence of difficulties, the Legislature has given an almost unanimous approval to Lord John Russell’s measures. The Irish policy of the Government has been submitted to Parliamentary and public opinion, and has borne the test of both far better than Whig measures in general, and Whig Irish measures in particular were accustomed to do in years not long passed by. In the palmy days of the Grey and Melbourne Ministries, when the party was strong in numbers and influence, a cry of spoliation and revolution would have burst forth from one end of the kingdom to the other, on the announcement of such a scheme as the Premier laid before the Legislature on Monday. Now that a Whig Ministry, by a curious combination of circumstances, holds office, while actually in a minority, they deal with hostile interests, and depart from old principles, not only without being denounced, they do it with general assent, and something very like general applause. How is this? Why has opposition ceased? Why are those once so “willing to wound,” now “afraid to strike?” Because a common calamity hangs over all, and differences must be sunk in the great emergency. So Protectionists give their aid in abolishing the last relic of Protection; and political economists acknowledge there are exceptional circumstances in which rigid principles cannot be applied ; and Conservatives alter and destroy, unscared by that word of fear, “innovation,” and all men and all parties are seen doing the things most opposite to those which, from their avowed opinions, might be expected of them; we are, politically, gathering grapes from thorns and figs from thistles.

The fact is, the consciences of our statesmen of both parties are somewhat weighed down and oppressed by the memory of former errors and short-comings towards Ireland. None have so fully discharged their duty, as to have acquired the right to accuse another. As Lord John Russell said on Monday last, “there have been errors, there have been defects,” and they must be shared, not in exactly equal proportions, perhaps, but still shared, between the two great English parties who have by turns governed for the last century. Sins, both of omission and commission, lie at the door of both. The two sides became champions of political or religious questions, which aroused fierce hatreds and passions, which continued to be fought almost through generations, and by the noise of the conflict drew attention from the awful abyss of social misery that existed dark and silent beneath the feet of the combatants. If they, in the intervals of the struggle, legislated at all for the social condition of Ireland, it was by passing laws that increased the power of property, placed the Executive above the Constitution, filled the statute book with Arms Acts, Insurrection Acts, Ejectment Acts, and swelled the records of the country with tithe massacres, proclamations of martial law, and suspensions of the Habeas Corpus. In the midst of all these things came periods of famine—precursors of the heavier visitation that has now befallen us; but they were met by temporary expedients : England sent money and food, and, with more or less of suffering, the crisis passed away. But why all these things occurred—why Ireland was an exception to all Europe besides—no party, no statesman enquired; a fear of touching such a mass of evils seemed to outweigh the acknowledged necessity of “doing something :” the something was never done. So all parties now find themselves placed face to face with the most terrible of national calamities—Famine : with every difficulty aggravated tenfold, they must go to work at once; and England learns with dismay, that millions of men are dependent for life on its Treasury—that its Exchequer must freight ships with food must frame a machinery of relief and distribution-must, for a long time to come, send out grants, loans, advances—must pay the wages of half a nation for this year—must even provide the seed for the harvest of the next. To all the objections made on principle, to all allegations of difficulty in practice, there is but one answer—it must be done ! It is the general conviction of this necessity that silences opposition to the Government and its plan.

The details of that scheme do not challenge much criticism: it is rather a modification and extension of former expedients than anything wholly novel. Grants for Public Works, Loans, and all this class of measures, are familiar features of Irish policy. The only difference is, that the Exchequer is compelled to open the whole hand, where it formerly only unbent a finger. Half of what has been lent to the landed proprietors is made a free gift, provided they will pay the other half: further aid is promised them on better terms. Some abuses in the system of employment will be corrected; the proposition to reclaim waste lands is good in itself, but the Government has its hands too full to undertake it at present ; what is done for Emigration will not amount to any practical change in the present system ; and, of all the alterations, that which extends the operation of the Irish Poor-law is the most important, and shows that the Government is on the right road, but advances as yet timidly. The absurdity of Boards of Guardians not having the power, under the law, to give relief, even in food, out of the workhouse, though it might be crowded to excess, was too glaring, and the Irish law is now assimilated more to the English system, which, Heaven knows, is harsh and restrictive enough. We alluded to this subject last week, and need only remark here, that Lord John Russell might have gone farther in this direction with more effect. The appointment of Local Committees, who are to have some mixed and not very clearly-defined functions, in conjunction with the Boards of Guardians, but, as it seems, independent of them, will, we fear, prove a failure. Public rates, private subscriptions, and Government advances, cannot well be mixed up together, we think we see the elements of endless confusion in these committees, but are willing to hope the best from them. In principle, they acknowledge the necessity of an extension of the relief of the poor by rate on property; to this the land of Ireland must come at last ; everything tends to hasten the period; and we will give our reasons for thinking so.

In the first place, public opinion in England is awakening to the subject. Ireland is beginning to create a formidable balance against us in the national account; neglect, carelessness, and laissez faire, do not make a cheap system of Government but a very costly one. Absorbed in business as we are, and rather indifferent to abstract rights, Ireland might have been governed as a Colony till the end of time, if it could have been done without establishing a drain on the Imperial Exchequer, to which John Bull, by the Income Tax and otherwise, is so large a contributor. Former famines only roused an uneasy suspicion that all was not quite sound; but, with the disappearance of the evil, he relapsed into carelessness— forgot Ireland altogether, and sunk as many millions in Mexican Mines as would have turned Tipperary into a market garden; for John, though immensely enterprising, is not perfectly wise in all his speculations. But this last call is too much for him. one book in which Englishmen devoutly believe, and that is the Ledger; its teaching may often be sordid enough, but it is useful— in some cases, indispensable : it is not safe to scorn even the Evangel of Mammon. By that light, such as it is, England is now reading what she has lost by her positive enmity or careless neglect of Ireland : we are paying dearly for the errors of our fathers, which meet us on many a page of the journals of our Legislature. When Ireland had trade and industry, the merchants and manufacturers of England petitioned William the Third to “discourage” them; and the Dutchman did it. With the consent and applause of Parliament, the rising manufactures of Ireland were destroyed; it was made felony to weave and spin, and enterprise was punished as a crime. So capital went elsewhere ; Ireland sunk; no middle class grew up; and slowly, but surely, the bulk of the nation was flung upon the Land alone, millions depending for existence on the lowest vegetable produce, while they exported cattle and provisions of all kinds to England, whose Parliament once voted even that importation “a nuisance.” No poor-rate attached a portion of the rents of the soil, and appropriated it to the poor; the Landlord swept all, according to law, returning what he chose—according to conscience. Next to crushing the manufacturing industry of Ireland, our greatest error was allowing the land to go untaxed, for the support of the destitute. Both mistakes combined have obliged us to deal, for the last century, with a state of discontent, poverty, rebellion, anarchy, and crime, that has cost us—we return again to the money argument—millions upon millions. Grants, loans, subscriptions, have followed each other in rapid succession, and these have been but a slight outlay, compared to the continual expense of keeping up there a greater military force than in all the rest of the Kingdom besides. And past expense, again, will sink into a trifle in comparison with that of the future, if half the nation is to come to the Government pay-table. All this is beginning to alarm the tax-payers of England; and it is through the ledger—through the columns of profit and loss—that we shall be taught the wiser policy of encouraging industry, instead of blighting it, by “Act of Parliament.” In the early part of the last century, it was the leading idea of the statesmen of England, that commerce and manufactures, in all the dependencies of the Empire, ought to be discouraged, and, on principle, crushed and destroyed. In this respect, Ireland and the Colonies of America were treated exactly alike. The laws against the industry of the “plantations,” as they were called, are almost beyond the belief of the present age; yet, there they are, on the Statute Book—laws forbidding manufactures of all kinds, down to hats and nails, lest those of England should be injured; laws petitioned for by the people, deliberately passed by the Legislature, and supported by the public opinion of the time. This was the narrow policy of the age; it lost us America, but there its effects have long since disappeared; not so in Ireland, where the consequences of those errors still remain, and where we but reap the bitter fruits of the follies and crimes of our fathers. We can no more escape those consequences than we can repudiate the debts they handed down to us as a legacy of embarrassment. We must deal with the difficulties as we best can; any effort must be made for the present, and as soon as a better state of things is brought about, we must provide for the future. In doing that, we must depart as widely as possible from the precedents of the last century. Lord J. Russell quotes the descriptions of England and Scotland as they once were, to show that we should never despair of improvement. It is sad to think that if we progress no faster, a century hence is the earliest period at which a satisfactory state of things can be looked for in Ireland; but if a beginning is not made, the better time will never come at all.

Funeral at Skibbereen, From a sketch from MRr. H. Smith, Cork

The “Keen”* comes wailing on the wind,
That sweeps o’er Erin’s mountains blue;
It chills the heart of Earl and hind–
It lends the land a ghastly hue!
The song of death by Death is chanted!
The dying bear the shroudless dead;
Th’ uncoffin’d clay a grave is granted–
The very worm averts his head.

Darkly proceed the famish’d cotters;
To-morrow may behold their grave:
The young man towards the churchyard totters–
The bravest heart no more is brave.
Those gray hairs may have known the wave
Where Nelson’s SIGNAL boldly flew;
Perchance they dared the Gallic glaive,
And bear the scars of Waterloo.

Slowly the gaunt procession wends–
The blessed voice of Hope is faint;
Her spotless stole Religion rends
In misery o’er the dying plaint;
While Pestilence, on sable wings,
Aids vulture Famine in the feast,
Which vies well with the offerings
Paid to the Plague– Scourge of the East.

And yet– oh! paradox– oh! shame!–
Oh! blind improvidence! The land
Is of the best that ever came
Forth from its mighty Maker’s hand.
Fertile and fair, it should have been
The glory of the British crown;
And now, behold the shudd’ring scene!–
The seedless fields– the spectral town.

But Nature vindicates her God;
Teaches a lesson from the soil:
A voice springs from the blighted sod
In mercy for the sons of toil.
Fair Nature’s energies expire
When rack’d for one poor porcal root;
And Labour merits better hire
Than the sad fare of Raleigh’s fruit.

The “Keen” comes wailing on the blast,
The voice of Winter joins the dirge;
The shadows of Despair are cast
Around the new grave’s narrow verge.
Oh! let us hope that day will rise
To dissipate this fearful gloom;
And bring the blessings of the skies
To raise a nation from her tomb.– L.

* The Irish Lament for the Dead.

The former accounts of the ravages of disease at Skibbereen continue to be but too sadly confirmed. From a drawing made on the spot, we give a sketch of a scene of no unusual occurrence, as appears from the following extract of a letter, received by Mr. Blake, of Cork, from Dr. Crowley, of Skibbereen, dated Jan. 22:

“Deaths here are daily increasing. Dr. Donovan and I are just this moment after returning from the village of South Reen, where we had to bury a body ourselves that was eleven days dead; and where do you think? In a kitchen garden. We had to dig the ground, or rather the hole, ourselves; no one would come near us, the smell was so intolerable. We are half dead from the work lately imposed on us.”


The Cork Examiner gives a lamentable account of the state of Bantry. On the 18th instant, Coroner’s inquests were held on the bodies of ten persons—six men and four women—all of whose deaths were, according to the verdicts, from starvation; in some cases accelerated by disease or cold. That paper adds:“Famine and pestilence are sweeping away hundreds, but they have now no terrors for the poor people. lieved from their suffering and misery by some process more speedy and less painful. Since the inquests were held, there have been not less than twenty-four deaths from starvation; and, if we can judge from appearances, before the termination of another week, the number will be incredible. As to holding any more inquests, it is mere nonsense. The number of deaths is beyond counting: nineteen out of every twenty deaths that have occurred in this parish for the last two months were caused by starvation.”

The letters received in Dublin on Tuesday by the Central Relief Committee, exceeded in number and in frightful details the arrivals of any day since this body was formed. Food, food, food, is the cry from every county in Ireland, with few exceptions. From Antrim, Derry, Donegal, Monaghan, Armagh, Tyrone, and even Down, the accounts are nearly as gloomy as from the poorest of the Munster and Connaught counties.

Source: Google Books

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