The Great Irish Famine
Approved by the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education
on September 10th, 1996, for inclusion in the Holocaust and Genocide
Curriculum at the secondary level. Revision submitted 11/26/98.
DEDICATION AND ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
This curriculum is dedicated to the millions of Irish who suffered
and perished in the Great Starvation. It is also dedicated to those
who escaped by emigration, and to the great Irish Diaspora worldwide.
The Irish Famine Curriculum would not have been possible without
the work of New Jersey Senator James E. McGreevey, Rutgers
Economics Professor Jack Worrall, historian Dr. Christine Kinealy,
teacher Jim Masker, and author Liz Curtis.
We express our gratitude to Eoin McKiernan, Fr. Des Wilson, the
late Dennis Clark, and the late Michael J. Kane, who have shown
us their Faith by their Works.
"Truth flourishes where the student's lamp has shown, and
- W.B. Yeats, 1921
Between 1845 and 1850, more than a million Irish people starved
to death while massive quantities of food were being exported from
their country. A half million were evicted from their homes during
the potato blight, and a million and a half emigrated to America,
Britain and Australia, often on-board rotting, overcrowded "coffin
ships". This is the story of how that immense tragedy came
The necessary historical and political context for a study of the
Irish Famine is provided to you in the Teacher and Student Summary,
immediately following the Table of Contents.
It would be very difficult for the student to understand any of
the six study units that follow without first reading the Summary.
If time constraints only permit the study of one or two sections
of this curriculum, the Summary should be used first. Thank you
for all your efforts to make this history come alive.
Prepared by the Irish Famine Curriculum Committee, James Mullin,Chairman:
757 Paddock Path, Moorestown, NJ 08057 (609)727-4255, FAX: (609)866-9538,
ABOUT THE CONTENTS
These units follow the Teacher and Student Summary:
I. LAWS THAT ISOLATED AND IMPOVERISHED THE IRISH: This section
shows how the Penal Laws, and the Statutes of Kilkenny, reduced
the Irish to the status of disenfranchised non-persons in their
own country, and it examines how "laissez faire" and repression
of trade laws laid the groundwork for the Famine to take place.
II. RACISM: This section provides numerous examples and cartoon
illustrations showing how the Irish, as well as Africans and others,
were made into racist stereotypes.
III. MASS EVICTION DURING FAMINE: This sections shows the extent
to which eviction was employed during the Famine, the reasons why
it was employed, and its devastating consequences for the suffering
IV. MORTALITY RATES AND "THE HORROR": This sections shows
death rates in relation to Ireland's population at the time of the
Famine, and gives personal accounts of Famine scenes to help put
a human face on the tragedy.
V. EMIGRATION: DEPARTURE, CROSSING, AND ARRIVAL: This section describes
the conditions faced by the famine-stricken people at disembarkation
centers, on board "coffin ships" and at quarantine stations.
VI. GENOCIDE: This section gathers together several definitions
of genocide, as well as statements made by historical figures and
historians, and asks the students to relate facts, opinions and
VII. POETRY: This section features a selection of poetry inspired
by the mass starvation in Ireland.
The Great Irish Famine
Teacher and Student Summary
Bridget O'Donnell and her children
Human habitation in Ireland dates from the mesolithic (middle stone
age) period, approximately 7,000 years B.C. The people are assumed
to have been hunter-gatherers and fishermen. They showed great reverence
for the dead, and left behind stone tombs like Newgrange, outside
Dublin. About 3,500 years B.C., in the neolithic, or late stone
age, Irish farmers cleared land, used stone tools, planted crops
and kept sheep and cattle.(1.)
The Celts began arriving from Europe as early as the 6th century
B.C. They brought with them the iron-age culture. Celtic Ireland
was divided into 150 little kingdoms, and five provinces, four surviving
to today: Ulster, Munster, Leinster & Connacht. The extended
family was the social unit and there were no towns. The Irish Celts
spoke the Irish language, believed in druidism, and obeyed the laws
interpreted by early lawyers called brehons.(2.)
ST. PATRICK & CHRISTIANITY
In the 5th century A.D. Irish pirates raided Britain and captured
a 16 year-old Roman citizen named Patrick. He was kept as a slave
in Ireland, and worked as a shepherd. He eventually escaped and
returned home. When he was studying in Gaul (now France) he had
recurring dreams in which the children of Ireland appeared to him,
asking him to return. He came back to Ireland as a missionary, and
by the time he died in 465 all of Ireland was Christian.
St. Patrick is also credited with bringing the Latin alphabet to
Ireland, and founding a great many monasteries. By the 8th century
the Irish monks had made great technical advances in the craft of
making illuminated manuscripts. The best example is the Book of
Kells, an 8th century copy of the New Testament.
The monks also worked elaborate ornamentation in bronze, enamel
and gold.(3.) Rumors of these treasures brought on invasions by
fleets of long boats carrying Danish Vikings. They deployed fortified
settlements and built towns. In the year 841 they founded Dublin.
(Dubh Linn meaning Black Pool)
The first Normans from England and Wales landed in Wexford, Ireland
in 1169. They conquered the disunited Irish using armor, horses
and fortified castles. The Normans brought with them the tradition
of Common Law, based upon the personal ownership of property, in
contrast with life under Irish Brehon Law where ownership was vested
in the extended family or clan. However, the newcomers quickly adopted
the Irish language, married into Irish families, and "it was
said of them that they became more Irish than the Irish themselves."
STATUTES OF KILKENNY
The English crown wished to preserve the racial purity and cultural
separateness of the colonizers. They instituted the Statutes of
Kilkenny. These decreed that the two races, Norman and Gaelic (Irish)
should remain separate. Marriage between races was made a capital
offense. The statutes explained:
"Whereas at the conquest of the land of Ireland and for a
long time after, the English of the said land used the English language...Now
many English of the said land, forsaking the English language, fashion,
mode of riding, laws and usages, live and govern themselves according
to the manners, fashion and language of the Irish enemies..."
The government responsible for the statutes was in control only
in the area around Dublin, known as the English Pale. The effort
to prevent assimilation to Irish ways led to the expression, "Beyond
In the 1530s England's King Henry began the process of breaking
with the Catholic Church of Rome. This split led to the eventual
foundation of the Church of England. The Reformation divided the
Irish, who remained Catholic, from the English, who became Protestants.
In 1601, at the battle of Kinsale, the Irish armies and their Spanish
allies were defeated. For the first time all Ireland was governed
by a strong English central administration based in Dublin.
Another English policy to subdue Ireland was the colonization of
Ulster with new settlers, mostly Scottish Presbyterians and English
Protestants. This system of colonization was known as "a planting".
The native Irish were driven off almost 500,000 acres of the best
land in counties Tyrone, Donegal, Derry, Armagh and Cavan. The property
was then consolidated and colonizers were 'planted' on large estates.
In 1641 the Irish rebelled against the English and Scottish who
possessed their land, and were immediately caught up in the English
civil war between Parliament and king. In 1649 Oliver Cromwell landed
at Dublin with an army of 12,000 men. He was joined by the 8,000
strong parliamentary army. He successfully laid seige to the town
of Drogheda, and on his orders the 2,699 men of the royalist garrison
were put to death. Townspeople were also slaughtered. Cromwell reported
that "We put to the sword the whole number of inhabitants.
I do not think thirty of the whole number escaped with their lives."
Large-scale confiscation of land followed. The owners were driven
off eleven million acres of land and it was given to the Protestant
colonists. "Irish landowners found east of the river Shannon
after 1 May, 1654 faced the death penalty or slavery in the West
Indies and Barbados." (8.) The expression "To hell or
Connaught" originated at this time: "those who did not
leave their fertile fields and travel to the poor land west of the
Shannon would be put to the sword." (9.)
In the 1690s the Penal Laws, designed to repress the native Irish
were introduced. The first ordered that no Catholic could have a
gun, pistol, or sword. Over the next 30 years the other Penal laws
followed: Irish Catholics were forbidden to receive an education,
enter a profession, vote, hold public office, practice their religion,
attend Catholic worship, engage in trade or commerce, purchase land,
lease land, receive a gift of land or inherit land from a Protestant,
rent land worth more than thirty shillings a year, own a horse of
greater value than five pounds, be the guardian to a child, educate
their own children or send a child abroad to receive an education.
Edmund Burke, an Irish-born Protestant who became a British Member
of Parliament, (MP) described the Penal laws as "well fitted
for the oppression, impoverishment and degradation of a people,
and the debasement in them of human nature itself, as ever proceeded
from the perverted ingenuity of man." (11.) The Lord Chancellor
was able to say, "The law does not suppose any such person
to exist as an Irish Roman Catholic."
The eighteenth century in Ireland was a dismal time for the "untrustworthy
majority." The Penal Laws, directed at their education, religion,
and property rights, kept them poor and powerless. One who commented
on their plight was Jonathan Swift, the author of Gulliver's Travels,
and Dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin.
In "A Short View of the Present State of Ireland" he
singled out the practice of absentee landlordism, estimating that
half the net revenues of Ireland were taken out of the country and
spent in Britain. Ever increasing rent, the source of most revenue,
Swift declared, "is squeezed out of the very blood, and vitals,
and clothes, and dwellings of the tenants, who live worse than English
beggars. The families of farmers who pay great rents [are] living
in filth and nastiness upon buttermilk and potatoes, without a shoe
or a stocking to their feet, or a house so convenient as an English
hog sty to receive them. These may, indeed, be comfortable sights
to an English spectator who comes for a short time to learn the
language, and returns back to his own country, whither he finds
all our wealth transmitted." (12.)
BERKELEY THE PHILOSOPHER
A contemporary and friend of Swift's, philosopher George Berkeley,
wrote in a 1736 journal wondering "whether a foreigner could
imagine that half of the people were starving in a country which
sent out such plenty of provisions". Berkeley had been to Rhode
Island and seen Negro slavery on American plantations. Berkeley
wrote, "The Negroes have a saying, 'If Negro was not a Negro,
Irishman would be Negro."' Berkeley added that the American
Indians "are better clad and better lodged than the Irish cottagers."
The Act of Union, passed in 1800, abolished the independent Irish
Parliament in Dublin, and brought Irish Administration under the
British Parliament. Irish Protestants only were allowed to be British
MPs. In 1829, after a long struggle, Irish Catholics achieved emancipation,
and won the right to sit in British Parliament. However, "The
bulk of the population lived in conditions of poverty and insecurity."
At the top of the social pyramid was the Ascendancy class, the English
and Anglo-Irish families who owned most of the land, and had almost
limitless power over their tenants. Some of their estates were huge
- the Earl of Lucan, for example, owned over 60,000 acres. Many
of these landlords lived in England and were called "absentees".
They used agents called "middlemen" to administer their
property, and many of them had no interest in it except to spend
the money the rents brought in.
FARMERS AND COTTIERS
It was a very unbalanced social structure. The farmers rented the
land they worked, and those who could afford to rent large farms
would break up some of the land into smaller plots. These were leased
to "cottiers" or small farmers, under a system called
"conacre." Nobody had security or tenure and rents were
high. Very little cash was used in the economy. The cottier paid
his rent by working for his landlord, and he could rear a pig to
sell for the small amount of cash he might need to buy clothes or
other necessary goods.
There was also a large population of agricultural laborers who
traveled around looking for work. They were very badly off because
not many Irish farmers could afford to hire them. "In 1835,
an inquiry found that over two million people were without regular
employment of any kind." (15.) Under the Irish Poor Law of
1838, workhouses were built in all parts of the country and financed
by local taxpayers.
This rickety system held together only because the rural peasants
had a cheap and plentiful source of food. The potato, introduced
to Ireland about 1590, could grow in the poorest conditions, with
very little labor. This was important because laborers had to give
most of their time to the farmers they worked for, and had very
little time for their own crops.
"The actual cause of (potato crop) failure was phytophthora
infestans - potato blight. The spores of the blight were carried
by wind, rain and insects and came to Ireland from Britain and the
European continent. A fungus affected the potato plants, producing
black spots and a white mould on the leaves, soon rotting the potato
into a pulp." (16.)
By the summer of 1847, over three million people were being fed
by government soup kitchens and those organized by Quakers. "So
many people died in so short of time that mass graves were provided.
The dominant economic theory in mid-nineteenth century Britain was
laissez-faire (meaning: 'let be'), which held that it was not a
government's job to provide aid for its citizens, or to interfere
with the free market of goods or trade. (18.)
Despite laissez-faire, the initial response to the Famine under
British Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel, was "prompt, efficient
and interventionist." (19.) He sent over a Scientific Commission
to examine the facts. The commissioners reported that one-half of
the crop was now destroyed, or unfit for use, but they incorrectly
diagnosed the cause of the blight.
THE CORN LAWS
Food prices in Ireland were beginning to rise, and potato prices
had doubled by December, 1845. Meanwhile, the Irish grain crop was
being exported to Britain. (20.) Public meetings were held, and
prominent citizens called for the exports to be stopped and for
grain to be imported as well. However, this would have meant repealing
the Corn Laws, and there was great opposition in Britain to this.
"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" (22.) 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
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 to Parliament he said, "Good God, are you
to sit in cabinet and consider and calculate how much diarrhea,
and bloody flux, and dysentery a people can bear before it becomes
necessary for you to provide them with food?" (23.)
LORD JOHN RUSSELL
Peel was succeeded at Prime Minister by Lord John Russell, a rigid
exponent of laissez-faire. In October, 1846, as it became clear
that over ninety per cent of the potato crop of Ireland was blighted,
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." (24.)
Russell's policies 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.
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."
PRIVATE RELIEF EFFORTS
The Society of Friends, or Quakers, first became involved with the
Irish Famine in November, 1846, when some Dublin-based members formed
a Central Relief Committee. They intended that their assistance
supplement other relief. However, the relief provided by the Quakers
proved crucial in keeping people alive when other relief systems
failed. A number of Quakers were critical of government relief policies,
holding them to be inadequate and misjudged.
The Quakers donated food, mostly American flour, rice, biscuits,
and Indian meal along with clothes and bedding. They set up soup
kitchens, purchased seed, and provided funds for local employment.
During 1846-1847, the Quakers gave approximately 200,000 Pounds
for relief in Ireland. (26.)
The British Relief Association was founded in 1847, and raised
money in England, America and Australia. They benefited from a "Queen's
Letter" from Victoria appealing for money to relieve the distress
in Ireland. The total raised was 171,533 Pounds. A second "Queen's
Letter" in October of 1847, reflected a hardening in British
public opinion, as it raised hardly any additional funds. In total,
the British Relief Association raised approximately 470,000 Pounds.
In August, 1847, when the Association had a balance of 200,000
Pounds, their agent in Ireland, Polish Count Strzelecki, proposed
that the money be spent to help schoolchildren in the west of Ireland.
The British Treasury Secretary, Charles Edward Trevelyan, warned
against it, fearing "it might produce the impression that the
lavish charitable system of last season was intended to be renewed."
(27.) Strzelecki proved adamant and Treyelan conceded that a small
portion of the funds could be used for that purpose.
Donations for the Irish Famine came from distant and unexpected
sources. Calcutta, India sent 16,500 Pounds in 1847, Bombay another
3,000. Florence, Italy, Antigua, France, Jamaica, and Barbados sent
contributions. The Choctaw tribe in North America sent $710. Many
major cities in America set up Relief Committees for Ireland, and
Jewish synagogues in America and Britain contributed generously.
Ireland Before and After the Famine, author Cormac O’Grada documents
that in 1845, a famine year in Ireland, 3,251,907 quarters (8 bushels
= 1 quarter)) of corn were exported from Ireland to Britain. That
same year, 257,257 sheep were exported to Britain. In 1846, another
famine year, 480,827 swine, and 186,483 oxen were exported to Britain.
Cecil Woodham-Smith, considered the preeminent authority on the
Irish Famine, wrote in The Great Hunger; Ireland 1845-1849 that,
"...no issue has provoked so much anger or so embittered relations
between the two countries (England and Ireland) as the indisputable
fact that huge quantities of food were exported from Ireland to
England throughout the period when the people of Ireland were dying
of starvation." (29.)
"Although the potato crop failed, the country was still producing
and exporting more than enough grain crops to feed the population.
But that was a 'money crop' and not a 'food crop' and could not
be interfered with." (30.)
According to John Mitchel, 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
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
Pound Sterling. Almost throughout the five-year famine, Ireland
remained a net exporter of food. (31.)
Dr. Christine Kinealy, a fellow at the University of Liverpool
and the author of two scholarly texts on the Irish Famine: This
Great Calamity and A Death-Dealing Famine, says that 9,992 calves
were exported from Ireland to England during "Black'47",
an increase of thirty-three percent from the previous year. In the
twelve months following the second failure of the potato crop, 4,000
horses and ponies were exported. The export of livestock to Britain
(with the exception of pigs) increased during the "famine".
The export of bacon and ham increased. In total, over three million
live animals were exported from Ireland between 1846-50, more than
the number of people who emigrated during the famine years.
Dr. Kinealy's most recent work is documented in the spring, 1998
issue of "History Ireland". She states that 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 is 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!
Dr. Kinealy's research proves beyond a reasonable doubt that there
was sufficient food in Ireland to prevent mass starvation, and that
the food was brought through the worst famine-stricken areas on
its way to England. British regiments guarded the ports and warehouses
in Ireland to guarantee absentee landlords and commodity speculators
their "free market" profits.
When Ireland experienced an earlier famine in 1782-83, ports were
closed in order to keep home grown food for domestic consumption.
Food prices were immediately reduced within Ireland. The merchants
lobbied against such efforts, but their protests were over-ridden.
Everyone recognized that the interests of the merchants and the
distressed people were irreconcilable. In the Great Famine, that
recognition was disregarded.
During the worst months of the famine, in the winter of 1846-47,
tens of thousands of tenants fell in arrears of rent and were evicted
from their homes. "A nationwide system of ousting the peasantry
began to set in, with absentee landlords, and some resident landlords
as well, more determined than ever to rid Ireland of its 'surplus'
With potato cultivation over because of the blight, tenants could
pay no rents. Sheep and cattle could pay rent, so landlords decided
to give the land over to them. "In 1850, over 104,000 people
were evicted." (33.)
In 1841 the population of Ireland was given as 8,175,124. "It
is almost certain that, owing to geographical difficulties and the
unwillingness of the people to be registered, the census of 1841
gave a total smaller than the population in fact was. Officers engaged
in relief work put the population as much as 25 per cent higher;
land lords distributing relief were horrified when providing, as
they imagined, food for 60 persons, to find more than 400."
By 1851, after the famine, the population had dropped to 6,552,385.
"The census commissioners calculated that, at the normal rate
of increase, the total should have been 9,018,799 so the loss of
at least 2.5 million persons had taken place." (34.)
Charles Edward Trevelyan, the British Treasury Secretary in charge,
was the civil servant most involved in Irish famine relief (35.)
He firmly believed in the economic principles of laissez-faire,
or noninterference by the government. Trevelyan opposed expenditure
and raising taxes, advocating self-sufficiency. He was convinced
of Malthus' theory that any attempt to raise the standard of living
of the poorest section of the population above subsistence level
would only result in increased population which would make matters
In October, 1846, Trevelyan wrote that the overpopulation of Ireland
"being altogether beyond the power of man, the cure has been
applied by the direct stroke of an all-wise Providence in a manner
as unexpected and as unthought of as it is likely to be effectual."
Two years later after perhaps a million people had died, he wrote,
"The matter is awfully serious, but we are in the hands of
Providence, without a possibility of averting the catastrophe if
it is to happen. We can only wait the result." Later that year
Trevelyan declared: "The great evil with which we have to contend
is not the physical evil of the famine, but the moral evil of the
selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people." (36.)
In 1848 Trevelyan was knighted for his services in Ireland.
THE TIMES OF LONDON
The lead story in the August 30th, 1847 edition of the English newspaper,
the Times said, "In no other country have men talked treason
until they are hoarse, and then gone about begging for sympathy
from their oppressors. In no other country have the people been
so liberally and unthriftily helped by the nation they denounced
and defied." (37.)
In another edition: "They are going. They are going with a
vengeance. Soon a Celt will be as rare in Ireland as a Red Indian
on the streets of Manhattan...Law has ridden through, it has been
taught with bayonets, and interpreted with ruin. Townships levelled
to the ground, straggling columns of exiles, workhouses multiplied,
and still crowded, express the determination of the Legislature
to rescue Ireland from its slovenly old barbarism, and to plant
there the institutions of this more civilized land."
"WHAT WE REALLY WANT"
In 1848 Sir Charles Wood, the English Chancellor of the Exchequer,
wrote to an Irish landlord: "I am not at all appalled by your
tenantry going. That seems to be a necessary part of the process...We
must not complain of what we really want to obtain." (39.)
In 1849 Edward Twisleton, the Irish poor Law Commissioner, resigned
to protest lack of aid from Britain. The Earl of Clarendon, acting
as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, told British Prime Minister Lord
John Russel the same day, that "He (Twisleton) thinks that
the destitution here [in Ireland] is so horrible, and the indifference
of the House of Commons is so manifest, that he is an unfit agent
for a policy that must be one of extermination."
James Wilson, the Editor of the British publication, The Economist,
responded to Irish pleas for assistance during the famine by saying,
"It is no man's business to provide for another." He thought
it was wrong for officials to reallocate scarce resources, since
"If left to the natural law of distribution, those who deserve
more would obtain it."
Wilson's statements echo those of Thomas Malthus, a political economist
who died in 1834. In his most influential work, "Essay on the
Principle of Population", he wrote:
"If he cannot get sustenance from his parents, on whom he
has a just demand, and if society does not want his labor, he has
no claim of right to the smallest portion of food and, in fact,
has no business to be where he is."
In December, 1848, Cholera began to spread through many of the overcrowded
workhouses, pauper hospitals, and crammed jails in Ireland. On April
26th, 1849, Lord Clarendon wrote to Prime Minister Russell: "...it
is enough to drive one mad, day after day, to read the appeals that
are made and meet them all with a negative...At Westport, and other
places in Mayo, they have not a shilling to make preparations for
the cholera, but no assistance can be given, and there is no credit
for anything, as all our contractors are ruined. Surely this is
a state of things to justify you asking the House of Commons for
an advance, for I don't think there is another legislature in Europe
that would disregard such suffering as now exists in the west of
Ireland, or coldly persist in a policy of extermination." No
advance was granted. (40.)
Initially, the greatest relief to the starving came through the
Poor Law (1838), which aimed to provide accommodation for the absolutely
destitute in workhouses. There were 130 of them in Ireland in 1845.
"However, the conditions for entry were so strict that people
would only go to them as a last resort. Families were torn apart,
as women and men lived in different parts of the workhouse, and
children were kept separately from adults. Inmates were forbidden
to leave, and the food provided consisted of two meals a day, of
oatmeal, potatoes and buttermilk. There were strict rules against
bad language, alcohol, laziness, malingering and disobedience, and
meals had to be eaten in silence. Able-bodied adults had to work
at such jobs as knitting (for women) and breaking stones (for men).
Children were given industrial training of some sort." (41.)
Between 1845 and 1855, nearly two million people had emigrated from
Ireland to America and Australia, and another 750,000 to Britain.
The Poor Law Extension Act, which made landlords responsible for
the maintenance of their own poor, induced some to clear their estates
by paying for emigration of the poorer tenants. Although some landlords
did so out of humanitarian motives, there were undoubtedly benefits
to them, especially those who wanted to consolidate their land holdings
or change from the cultivation of land to beef and dairy farming.
Emigration soared from 75,000 in 1845 to 250,000 in 1851. "This
chaotic, panic-stricken and unregulated exodus was the largest single
population movement of the nineteenth century." (43.) Thousands
of emigrants died onboard 'coffin ships’ during the Atlantic crossing.
These were little more than rotting hulks, and their owners were
plying a speculative trade. There were 17,465 documented deaths
in 1847 alone. "Thousands more died at disembarkation centers."
On August 4th, 1847, The Toronto Globe reported on the arrival
of emigrant ships: "The Virginius from Liverpool, with 496
passengers, had lost 158 by death, nearly one third of the whole,
and she had 180 sick; above one half of the whole will never see
their home in the New World. A medical officer at the quarantine
station on Grosse Ile off Quebec reported that 'the few who were
able to come on deck were ghastly, yellow-looking spectres, unshaven
and hollow-cheeked... not more than six or eight were really healthy
and able to exert themselves.' The crew of the ship were all ill,
and seven had died. On the Erin's Queen 78 passengers had died and
104 were sick. On this ship the captain had to bribe the seamen
with a sovereign for each body brought out from the hold. The dead
sometimes had to be dragged out with boat hooks, since even their
own relatives refused to touch them." (45.)
Regulations at Quebec required all passenger ships coming up the
St. Lawrence to stop at quarantine station at Grosse Ile (Isle)
for medical inspection. On February 19th, 1847, Dr. Douglas, the
medical officer in charge, asked for 3,000 Pound Sterling to prepare
for the coming emigration. He was given just under 300 Pounds. The
St. Lawrence was covered with ice an inch thick well into May of
1847. The first ship to arrive was the Syria on May 17th.
The Syria had 84 cases of fever on board out of 241 Irish passengers
- nine having died in the voyage. The quarantine hospital was built
for 150 cases. Four days later, on May 21st, eight ships arrived
with a total of 430 fever cases. Three days later seventeen vessels
arrived, all with fever. There were now 695 persons in the hospital
and 164 on board ship waiting to be taken off. On May 26th, thirty
vessels with 10,000 emigrants were waiting at Grosse Isle. On May
31st forty vessels were waiting, extending in a line two miles down
the St. Lawrence. About 1,100 cases of fever were on Grosse Isle
in sheds, tents, and laid in rows in the little church. A further
45,000 emigrants were expected. (46.)
CENSUS COMMISSIONERS SEE IRELAND BETTER OFF AFTER FAMINE
After mass starvation, death, eviction, and large scale emigration,
the British Census Commisioners proclaimed in 1851 that Ireland
benefited from the Famine:
"In conclusion, we feel it will be gratifying to your Excellency
to find that although the population has been diminished in so remarkable
a manner by famine, disease and emigration between 1841 and 1851,
and has been since decreasing, the results of the Irish census of
1851 are, on the whole, satisfactory, demonstrating as they do the
general advancement of the country." (47.)
How were the Irish reduced to such poverty that millions were dependent
on potatoes for food?
What was the main purpose of the Statutes of Kilkenny?
What rights, if any, were left to the native Irish (Catholics) under
the Penal Laws?
Why was food exported during the famine?
Is laissez-faire still a popular form of free-market capitalism?
Does our government allow market forces to determine who gets aid
during an earthquake or other disaster?
1. Ranelagh, John O'Beirne, A Short History of Ireland. Cambridge
University Press, Cambridge, England, Second edition, 1994. First
printing, 1983. p.3
2. O hEithir, Breandan, A Pocket History of Ireland, The O'Brien
Press, Dublin, Ireland, 1989· p.13
3. Ibid., p.21
4. Ibid., p.25
5. Ranelagh, p.41
6. O hEithir, p.30
7. Ranelagh, p.63
8. Ibid., p.65
9. O hEithir, p. 30
10. Ranelagh, p.70
11. Ibid., p.70
12. Ibid., p.76
13. Ibid., p.77
14. Litton, Helen, The Irish Famine; An Illustrated History Wolfhound
Press Ltd., Dublin, Ireland, 1994. p.8
15. Ibid., p.10
16. Ranelagh, p.lll
18. Litton, p.22
19. Ranelagh, p.112
20. O Grada Cormac, Ireland before and After the Famine: explorations
in economic history 1800-1925, Manchester 1989, 2d edition. p.68
21. Litton, p.24
22. Ibid., p.25 Ranelagh, p.114
25. Ibid., 115 26. Kinealy, Christine, This Great Calamity; The
Irish Famine 1845-52, Roberts Rinehart, Boulder Colorado, 1995.
27. Ibid., p.162
28. O Grada, p.68
29. Woodham-Smith, Cecil, 7he Great Hunger; Ireland 1845-1849 Penguin
Books, London, England, 1991. First ed. 1962. p.75
30. O Grada, p.41
31. Ranelagh, p.l15 32. Gallagher, Michael ; Thomas, Paddy's Lament.
Harcourt Brace & Company, New York / London, 1982. p.44
33. Ranelagh, p.115
34. Woodham-Smith, p.411
35. Ranelagh, p.116
36. Ibid., p.117
37. Ibid., 117
38. Ibid., p.117
39. Woodham-Smith, p.380
40. Ibid., 381
41. Litton, p.23
42. Campbell, Stephen J., The Great Irish Famine. Famine Museum,
Strokestown Park, County Roscommon, Ireland p. 4O
43. Ibid., p.40
44. Ranelagh, p.112
45. Campbell, p.41
46. Woodham-Smith, p.220
47. Kinealy, p.296
Campbell, Stephen J., The Great Irish Famine. Famine Museum, Strokestown
Park, County Roscommon, Ireland
Clark, Dennis, The Irish in Philadelphia. Temple University Press,
Curtis, Liz, Nothing But the Same old Story; The Roots of Anti-Irish
Racism Information on Ireland, 6th Edition, 1991. First printing,
Gallagher, Michael & Thomas, Paddy'S Lament. Harcourt Brace
& Company, New York / London, 1982
Gray, Peter, The Irish Famine, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York,
Kinealy, Christine, This Great Calamity: The Irish Famine
1845-52, Roberts Rinehart Publishers, Boulder Colorado, 1995
Litton, Helen, u> Ireland Before and After the FamineWolfhound
Press Ltd., Dublin, Ireland, 1994
Mangan, James (Ed.), Robert Whyte's 1847 Famine Ship Diary Mercier
Press, Dublin Ireland, 1994.
O hEithir, Breandan, A Pocket History of Ireland, The O'Brien Press,
Dublin, Ireland, 1989
O Grada Cormac, Ireland before and After the Famine: explorations
in economic history 1800-1925, Manchester 1989, 2d edition
Poirteir, Cathal, Famine Echoes Gill and Macmillan Ltd., Dublin,
Ranelagh, John O'Beirne, A Short History of Ireland. Cambridge
University Press, Cambridge, England, Second edition, 1994. First
Scally, Robert James, The End of Hidden Ireland: Rebellion, Famine,
and Emigration, Oxford University Press, New York, 1995
When Ireland Starved (video) Celtic Video Inc., New York, NY Radharc
Woodham-Smith, Cecil, The Great Hunger: Ireland 1845-1849 Penguin
Books, London, England, 1991. First Printing: 1962.
Laws that Isolated and Impoverished the Irish
UNIT I: Laws that Isolated and Impoverished the Irish
1. The student will understand that the mass starvation in Ireland
resulted from historical and political forces as well as the potato
TEACHING/LEARNING STRATEGIES AND ACTIVITIES
A.Students will Examine the laws designed to separate, subjugate
and impoverish the native Irish.
Activity 1. Students will read excerpted material from A Pocket
History of Ireland The Great Hunger, (p.27-28) "Penal Laws"
from The Story of the Irish Race. Students will answer questions
following readings and discuss issues.
Activity 2. Students will read excerpted material from A Pocket
History of Ireland (p.40-41), the Encyclopedia Americana -International
Edition on the economic theory of Laissez Faire and the writings
of Thomas Robert Malthus. Students will answer questions following
readings and discuss issues.
Activity 3. Students will read "The Destruction of Irish Trade",
summarized and excerpted material from The Story of the Irish Race.
Students will answer questions following the reading and discuss
the issues raised.
MacManus, Seamus, The Story of the Irish Race, The Irish Publishing
Co., New York, 1922
O hEithir, Breandan, A Pocket History. of Ireland, The O'Brien Press,
Dublin, Ireland, 1989
Woodham-Smith, Cecil, The Great Hunger; Ireland 1845-1849 Penguin
Books, London, England, 1991.
Encyclopedia, Americana, Grolier Incorporated, 1992.
The Statutes of Kilkenny
"So successful was this cultural assimilation that two hundred
years after the first invaders arrived the English crown was forced
to take severe measures at a parliament which assembled in Kilkenny,
the heartland of Norman Ireland, in 1366. Its purpose was to preserve
the racial purity and cultural separateness of the colonizers, thereby
enabling the English crown to retain control over them.
It is a measure of the adaptability of both the Irish and the Normans
that the crown was faced with such a problem. Not only were the
Normans militarily superior, but their political, social and religious
systems were different from those practiced by the natives. They
favored central government, walled land cultivated intensively,
inheritance through the first-born male, and large abbeys rather
than small monastic settlements; and Norman French was their language.
They secured their land by building castles, which functioned first
as strong-points in the invasion and later as centers of control
and power. The native Irish seemed to accept the new way of life
as something they could, and had to, live with. Gradually, Gaelic
culture prevailed and although the Normans controlled about two-thirds
of the country in 1366, military might and political sophistication
had not been sufficiently powerful to obliterate the native way
The Duke of Clarence, son of Edward III, presided over the parliament
which passed the Statutes of Kilkenny. Their purpose was to prevent
further assimilation, by legal and religious penalties. The settlers
were forbidden to use the Irish language. They were also forbidden
to use Irish names, marry into Irish families, use the Irish mode
of dress, adopt any Irish laws and play the Irish game of hurling.
The measures were a failure. Gaelicisation had gone too far and
by now the native population, having failed to beat the invaders
on the field of battle, was in league militarily with the conquerors.
By the end of the fifteenth century the English crown ruled only
a small area around Dublin, known from its fortifications of earth
and wood as 'The Pale' (meaning a fence or boundary). The term has
lived on in contemporary politics to describe those who show little
understanding of the problems of rural Ireland and whose outlook
is conditioned by their metropolitan surroundings."
O hEithir, Breandan, A Pocket History of Ireland, The O'Brien Press,
Dublin, Ireland, 1989
Questions for discussion:
What was the purpose of the Statutes of Kilkenny?
What would be lost to the English rulers if the Irish and English
(Normans) continued to intermarry?
What do you think the term "Beyond the Pale" meant to
an Englishman living in 14th century Dublin?
The Penal Laws
"The Penal Laws, dating from 1695, and not repealed in their
entirety until Catholic emancipation in 1829, aimed at the destruction
of Catholicism in Ireland by a series of ferocious enactments, provoked
by Irish support of the Stuarts after the Protestant William of
Orange was invited to ascend the English throne in 1688, and England
faced the greatest Catholic power in Europe - France. At this critical
moment the Catholic Irish took up arms in support of the Stuarts.
James II's standard was raised in Ireland, and he, with an Irish
Catholic army, was defeated on Irish soil, at the battle of the
Boyne, near Drogheda, on July 1, 1690.
The threat to England had been alarming, and vengeance followed.
Irish intervention on behalf of the Stuarts was to be made impossible
forever by reducing the Catholic Irish to helpless impotence. They
were, in the words of a contemporary, to become 'insignificant slaves,
fit for nothing but to hew wood and draw water', and to achieve
this object the Penal Laws were devised.
In broad outline, they barred Catholics from the army and navy,
the law, commerce, and from every civic activity. No Catholic could
vote, hold any office under the Crown, or purchase land, and Catholic
estates were dismembered by an enactment directing that at the death
of a Catholic owner his land was to be divided among all his sons,
unless the eldest became a Protestant, when he would inherit the
whole. Education was made almost impossible, since Catholics might
not attend schools, nor keep schools, nor send their children to
be educated abroad. The practice of the Catholic faith was proscribed;
informing was encouraged as 'an honorable service' and priest-hunting
treated as a sport.
Such were the main provisions of the Penal Code, described by Edmund
Burke as 'a machine as well fitted for the oppression, impoverishment
and degradation of a people, and the debasement in them of human
nature itself, as ever proceeded from the perverted ingenuity of
The material damage suffered through the Penal Laws was great;
ruin was widespread, old families disappeared and old estates were
broken up; but the most disastrous effects were moral. The Penal
Laws brought lawlessness, dissimulation and revenge in their train,
and the Irish character, above all the character of the peasantry,
did become, in Burke's words, degraded and debased. The upper classes
were able to leave the country and many middle-class merchants contrived,
with guile, to survive, but the poor Catholic peasant bore the full
hardship. His religion, made him an outlaw; in the Irish House of
Commons he was described as 'the common enemy', and whatever was
inflicted on him he must bear, for where could he look for redress?
To his landlord, who was almost invariably an alien conqueror? To
the law? Not when every person connected with the law, from the
jailer to the judge, was a Protestant who regarded him as 'the common
In these conditions suspicion of the law, of the ministers of the
law and of all established authority worked into the very nerves
and blood of the Irish peasant, and, since the law did not give
him justice, he set up his own law. The secret societies, which
have been the curse of Ireland, became widespread during the Penal
period, and a succession of underground associations, Oak Boys,
White Boys and Ribbon Men, gathering in bogs and lonely glens, flouted
the law and dispensed a people's justice in the terrible form of
revenge. The informer, the supplanter of an evicted tenant, the
landlord's man, were punished with dreadful savagery, and since
animals were wealth, their unfortunate animals suffered, too. Cattle
were 'clifted', driven over the edge of a cliff, horses hamstrung,
dogs clubbed to death, stables fired and the animals within, burned
alive. Nor were lawlessness, cruelty and revenge the only consequences.
During the long Penal period, dissimulation became a moral necessity
and evasion of the law the duty of every god-fearing Catholic. To
worship according to his faith, the Catholic must attend illegal
meetings; to protect his priest, he must be secret, cunning, and
a concealer of the truth.
These were dangerous lessons for any government to compel its subjects
to learn, and a dangerous habit of mind for any nation to acquire."
Woodham-Smith, Cecil, The Great Hunqer; Ireland 1845-1849 p.27-28
Penguin Books, London, England, 1991. First printing: 1962.
"Professor Lecky, a Protestant of British blood and ardent
British sympathy, says in his History of Ireland in the 18th Century
that the object of the Penal Laws was threefold:
1. To deprive the Catholics of all civil life
2. To reduce them to a condition of most extreme and brutal ignorance
3. To dissociate them from the soil.
4. He might, with absolute justice, substituted Irish for Catholics-and
added, (4) to expirate (cause to expire) the Race.
The Irish Catholic was forbidden the exercise of his religion.
He was forbidden to receive education,
He was forbidden to enter a profession.
He was forbidden to hold public office.
He was forbidden to engage in trade or commerce.
He was forbidden to live in a corporate town or within five miles
He was forbidden to own a horse of greater value than five pounds.
He was forbidden to purchase land.
He was forbidden to lease land.
He was forbidden to accept a mortgage on land in security for a
He was forbidden to vote.
He was forbidden to keep any arms for his protection.
He was forbidden to hold a life annuity.
He was forbidden to buy land from a Protestant.
He was forbidden to receive a gift of land from a Protestant.
He was forbidden to inherit land from a Protestant.
He was forbidden to inherit anything from a Protestant.
He was forbidden to rent any land that was worth more than thirty
shillings a year.
He was forbidden to reap from his land any profit exceeding a third
of the rent.
He could not be guardian to a child.
He could not, when dying, leave his infant children under Catholic
He could not attend Catholic worship.
He was compelled by law to attend Protestant worship.
He could not himself educate his child.
He could not send his child to a Catholic teacher.
He could not employ a Catholic teacher to come to his child.
He could not send his child abroad to receive education.
MacManus, Seamus, Story of the Irish Race, Devin-Adair Co., Grenwich,
Connecticut, 1979 p.458-459
Questions for discussion:
What was the purpose of the Penal Laws?
How was religion used to divide the Irish from the English?
Why was the education of Catholics forbidden?
In what sense did an Irish Catholic exist under the Penal Laws?
"A terrible national calamity which decimated the population
and all but killed the Irish language (the everyday speech in areas
ravaged by famine) was now occupying everyone's attention. The great
potato famines of 1845-51 reduced the population from 8 million
to 6.6 million through starvation, disease and emigration to Britain
and America. The Napoleonic war in Europe led to the growth in tillage
farming to supply the armies. When it ended in 1815 it had a marked
effect on the Irish economy. The potato had become the staple food
for most of the rural population, but with the war's end came a
change from tillage to pasture. This caused much unemployment and
the unemployed depended entirely on small patches of sub-divided
land to grow enough potatoes to sustain them. The population had
increased to 8 million, two-thirds of them depending on agriculture,
much of which was at minimal level. When the potato crop was destroyed
by blight the result was devastating: the people's only source of
food was gone.
Although the government in London was aware of the threatening
problem, Ireland was not a major preoccupation and the famine had
assumed the proportion of a crisis before schemes were implemented
on a large scale. Even when they were it seemed that the crisis
was of secondary importance when it came to preserving the economic
policies of the day. These policies were based on the principle
of non-interference with market forces in economic matters. Although
the potato crop failed, the country was still producing and exporting
more than enough grain crops to feed the population. But that was
a 'money crop' and not a 'food crop' and could not be interfered
with. The relief schemes were frequently hastily thought up, and
parts of Ireland still contain roads that lead to nowhere in particular
- built during be famine. These are known as boithre na mine (meal
roads) in Irish because a day's work was paid for with imported
Indian meal. Other relief schemes were organized by proselytizing
Protestants who handed out food accompanied by religious tracts.
Some Catholics did convert to the Protestant faith and were promptly
christened 'soupers' (from the soup kitchen run by the proselytizers)
as a mark of contempt by their stauncher fellow Catholic neighbors.
This disaster, one of the greatest to happen in a European country
in peacetime, was a tragic condemnation of the Union. For the dilatory
manner in which the crisis was dealt with in London was a result
of sheer ignorance. The Times of London wrote the obituary of the
Irish nation by writing that soon an Irishman in his native land
would be as rare as an American Indian in his."
O hEithir, Breandan, A Pocket History of Ireland, The O'Brien Press,
Dublin, Ireland, 1989
"MALTHUS, mal'thes, Thomas Robert (1766-1834), British economist,
whose theories of population and food supply had a deep influence
on later economists, historians, and demographers. He was born near
Guilford Surrey, England, on Feb. 14, 1766, the son of a well-to-do
country gentleman. He entered Cambridge in 1784, where he became
interested in mathematics. In 1797 he took holy orders and briefly
occupied a country parish. After some travel, he was appointed (1805)
professor of history and political economy at Haileybury, the college
established by the East India Company for its cadets. There he remained
for the rest of his life. He died near Bath, England, on Dec. 29,
Malthus' father was of liberal views, a friend of Jean Jacques
Rousseau and an admirer of William Godwin and the marquis de Condorcet,
all of whom represented the high hopes for social progress associated
with the 18th century Enlightenment, the Age of Reason. But the
younger Malthus, partly because of his training and partly because
the intellectual climate in England had become ultraconservative
following the French Revolution, came to opposite and more pessimistic
conclusions about future of mankind. His argument rested on two
"postulata"-that food is necessary for existence, and
that "the passion between the sexes is necessary and will remain."
He asserted that "the human species would increase in the ratio
of 1, 2, 4, 8... and subsistence as 1, 2, 3, 4…. " Thus population
growth would be checked by inadequate food supplies, reducing the
majority to a bare subsistence.
These views, implying that Nature was destructive of any hope for
lessening poverty, and poor relief was self-defeating, were expressed
in a short pamphlet, Essay on the Principles of Population (1798),
which projected him into public attention with a vengeance. Very
few works of equal brevity have aroused so much wrath or have been
so influential. This attention was the more remarkable since Malthus'
ideas were not original (as he admitted) and were based on assertion,
not observation. Nevertheless, his argument helped shape public
policy for generations, and is even invoked today.
Malthusian population doctrine has generally been used to 'blame
the victim"-that is, to support the belief that the ultimate
source of poverty is the lack of foresight of the poor. In the first
edition of the Essay, where the argument was presented with simplistic
certainty, the only "checks" on overpopulation were said
to be vice and, especially, misery. In later editions he admitted
that late marriage would be another check to population. Still later,
in his Principles of Political Economy (1820), he altered the argument
further by relating population growth not directly to food supplies
but to increasing employment opportunities. Thus general economic
progress would "have a favorable effect upon the poor"
if they were industrious and frugal. But it was his first and harshest
statement that caught the public eye.
Malthus also popularized or contributed other principles to the
new science of political economy. In 1815 he developed a theory
of land-rent based on the principle of "diminishing returns."
This holds that successive units of productive inputs, such as labor
or capital, when applied to a given amount of land, would result
in progressively smaller units of output (food).
Diminishing returns reinforces the dismal prospects of his population
principle, since it means that as population grows, more and more
labor will be needed to produce each unit of food.
But the argument ignored the effect of scientific agriculture,
the opening of new, more fertile lands, and technological progress
generally. All of these have increased agricultural output per unit
of input and made possible a rising standard of living for a larger
population. Besides the "population principle" and "diminishing
returns," Malthus conceived the notion that accumulation of
capital, the foundation of industrial production, could go forward
too rapidly. In that case, he said, too much would be produced,
and the market would suffer from a "glut" of unsold goods.
Looking at this problem from a conservative view, as he generally
did, Malthus found the solution in the exaggerated consumption habits
and large numbers of servants employed by the well-to-do landowning
class. He asserted that "a body of unproductive consumers was
needed to preserve a "balance between produce and consumption."
But, as his great adversary (and friend) David Ricardo saw, England's
industrial prosperity in the 1820's required more productive capital-that
is, wage-goods as well as factories and machines-and not more unproductive
consumers. Ricardo's views, which reflected industrialists' and
workers' interests as opposed to landowners', carried the day-all
too well in fact, hardening into a dogma that survived for over
Then in 1936, during the Great Depression, Malthus' theory of overproduction
and "glut' was rescued from obscurity by John Maynard Keynes,
who praised him for having anticipated by over a century the source
of depressions. Keynes' theoretical model, like Malthus', was designed
to preserve the status quo. Thus, paradoxically, the ideas for which
Malthus was best known in his own time have been largely discarded
or disproven, while the doctrine least accepted in his day has been
raised from the dead, as it were, in modern Keynesianism."
H. John Thorkelson
University of Connecticut
Encyclopedia Americana, Grolier Incorporated, 1992. First printing:
"LAISSEZ FAIRE, le-sa-far', a phrase that epitomized l9th
century economic and political philosophy in the English-speaking
world. The term usually is translated to mean "leave it (the
economic system) alone." It calls for and supports a "hands-off"
policy on the part of government. The phrase itself is originally
French. The thought behind it, however, is English as well. In the
18th century, great emphasis was placed on natural law throughout
Western Europe. It was held that the natural order of things was
best designed to produce the most beneficent results for mankind,
if man would only leave it alone. This spurred investigations in
the natural sciences to discover the immutable laws of nature. Philosophically,
mankind was urged to accept and follow these laws. In political
and economic organization, laissez hire became the accepted policy.
The most vocal arguments in the 18th century came from France.
A group known today as the Physiocrats, who called themselves "les
economistes,' carried the philosophical arguments of natural law
into the social field. A French merchant named Legendre is credited
with saying in 1680 that if you want to advance commerce and industry
"leave them alone" (laissez faire). The injunction was
directed at the French government of that day, which was stifling
industry and trade with excessive regulation. The argument was carried
into the political field by the marquis d'Argueseau, who in 1753
declared that "to govern better, it is necessary to govern
less." This point of view found its way into American political
philosophy in the form of the Jeffersonian "The least governed
are the best governed."
It remained for Adam Smith, the father of modern economics, to
provide a definitive philosophical justification for a policy of
laissez faire in economic affairs. That was the doctrine of the
"invisible hand" propounded in his Wealth of Nations.
(1776) The argument ran that people, if left to their own devices
and unimpeded by governmental regulation, would conduct their economic
activities as if guided by an unseen, invisible hand so as to maximize
both their own and their society's economic well-being. This represented
an ultimate faith in natural law and in each individual's relation
to the natural order.
Practically, a policy of laissez hire meant extreme individualism
in economic and political affairs, and a "hands-off" attitude
on the part of government. "Free trade," "free enterprise,"
"rugged individualism," and "free competition",
are all phrases that represent laissez hire in action, particularly
in the English-speaking world of the 19th century. The freedom so
frequently referred to is freedom from all but the minimum amount
of governmental intervention.
Laissez faire and the philosophy of natural law from which it emanates
are no longer dominant economic forces. In the 20th century, greater
emphasis has been placed on mankind stability to master its fate
through collective action. Trade unions and manufacturers' associations
represent this trend. Governmental intervention or regulation "for
the good of all" has in many areas superseded free and untrammeled
individualism. Laissez faire - now often referred to as the market
economy - is now only one of many policies vying for preeminence
in the economic affairs of the Western World."
WILLIAM N. KINNARD, Jr.
University of Connecticut
Encyclopedia Americana, Grolier Incorporated, 1992.
Questions for discussion:
Should a laissez faire policy have been applied to Ireland during
a time when the main food crop of the poor was devastated? In other
words, should the market forces of supply and demand be altered
during a mass starvation?
Should the colonial power allow exports of food from a country because
greater profits are to be obtained elsewhere?
If British government officials believed Malthus' theory that population
growth is to be halted by inadequate food supplies, and that poor
relief was self-defeating, how should they respond to the Irish
What if the food supplies in Ireland were adequate, but the poor
could not afford them? What should be the policy then?
The Destruction of Irish Trade
The early Irish were famous for their excellence in arts and crafts,
especially for their wonderful work in metals, bronze, silver and
gold. By the beginning of the 14th century trading ships were constantly
sailing between Ireland and the leading ports of the Continent.
COMPETITION WITH ENGLAND
This commerce was a threat to English merchants who tried to discourage
such trade. They brought pressure on their government, which passed
a law in 1494 that prohibited the Irish from exporting any industrial
product, unless it was shipped through an English port, with an
English permit after paying English fees. However, England was not
able to enforce the law. By 1548 British merchants were using armed
vessels to attack and plunder trading ships travelling between Ireland
and the Continent. (unofficial piracy)
ENGLISH MEN, ENGLISH SHIPS, ENGLISH CREWS, ENGLISH PORTS AND IRISH
In 1571 Queen Elizabeth ordered that no cloth or stuff made in Ireland
could be exported, even to England, except by English men in Ireland.
The act was amended in 1663 to prohibit the use of all foreign-going
ships, except those that were built in England, mastered and three-fourths
manned by English, and cleared from English ports. The return cargoes
had to be unloaded in England. Ireland's shipbuilding industry was
thus destroyed and her trade with the Continent wiped out.
TRADE WITH THE COLONIES
Ireland then began a lucrative trade with the Colonies. That was
"cured" in 1670 by a new law which forbade Ireland to
export to the colonies "anything except horses, servants, and
victuals." England followed with a decree that no Colonial
products could be landed in Ireland until they had first landed
in England and paid all English rates and duties.
Ireland was forbidden to engage in trade with the colonies and
plantations of the New World if it involved sugar, tobacco, cotton,
wool, rice, and numerous other items. The only item left for Ireland
to import was rum. The English wanted to help English rum makers
in the West Indies at the expense of Irish farmers and distillers.
IRISH WOOL TRADE CURTAILED, THEN DESTROYED
When the Irish were forbidden to export their sheep, they began
a thriving trade in wool. In 1634 The Lord Lieutenant of Ireland,
Lord Stafford, wrote to King Charles I: "All wisdom advises
us to keep this (Irish) kingdom as much subordinate and dependent
on England as possible; and, holding them from manufacture of wool
(which unless otherwise directed, I shall by all means discourage),
and then enforcing them to fetch their cloth from England, how can
they depart from us without nakedness and beggary?"
In 1660 even the export of wool from Ireland to England was forbidden.
Other English laws prohibited all exports of Irish wool in any form.
In 1673, Sir William Temple advised that the Irish would act wisely
by giving up the manufacture of wool even for home use, because
"it tended to interfere prejudicially with the English woolen
George II sent three warships and eight other armed vessels to
cruise off the coast of Ireland to seize all vessels carrying woolens
from Ireland. "So ended the fairest promise that Ireland had
ever known of becoming a prosperous and a happy country."
LINEN TRADE REPRESSED
Irish linen manufacturing met with the same fate when the Irish
were forbidden to export their product to all other countries except
England. A thirty percent duty was levied in England, effectively
prohibiting the trade. English manufacturers, on the other hand,
were granted a bounty for all linen exports.
BEEF, PORK, BUTTER AND CHEESE
In 1665 Irish cattle were no longer welcome in England, so the Irish
began killing them and exporting the meat. King Charles II declared
that the importation of cattle, sheep, swine and beef from Ireland
was henceforth a common nuisance, and forbidden. Pork and bacon
were soon prohibited, followed by butter and cheese.
SILK AND TOBACCO
In the middle of the 18th century, Ireland began developing a silk
weaving industry. Britain imposed a heavy duty on Irish silk, but
British manufactured silk was admitted to Ireland duty-free. Ireland
attempted to develop her tobacco industry, but that too was prohibited.
In 1819 England withdrew the subsidy for Irish fisheries and increased
the subsidies to British fishermen - with the result that Ireland's
possession of one of the longest coastlines in Europe, still left
it with one of the most miserable fisheries.
Late in the 18th century the Irish became known for their manufacture
of glass. George II forbade the Irish to export glass to any country
whatsoever under penalty of forfeiting ship, cargo and ten shillings
per pound weight.
By 1839, a French visitor to Ireland, Gustave de Beaumont, was able
"In all countries, more or less, paupers may be discovered;
but an entire nation of paupers is what was never seen until it
was shown in Ireland. To explain the social condition of such a
country, it would be only necessary to recount its miseries and
its sufferings; the history of the poor is the history of Ireland."
From the 15th through the 19th centuries, successive English monarchies
and governments enacted laws designed to suppress and destroy Irish
manufacturing and trade. These repressive Acts, coupled with the
Penal Laws, reduced the Irish people to "nakedness and beggary"
in a very direct and purposeful way. The destitute Irish then stood
at the very brink of the bottomless pit. When the potato blight
struck in 1845, it was but time for the final push.
Summarized from pages 483-492 of:
MacManus, Seamus, The Story of the Irish Race, New York, The Irish
Publishing Company, 1922
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
Why did the English wish to have complete control over Irish trade
What do you think would be the long-term effects of halting every
attempt by a people to export their goods?
How does this story help us understand how the Irish became impoverished
enough to live off potatoes?
Is this kind of governmental interference in trade the opposite
of laissez faire?
UNIT II - Racism
ADDITIONAL UNIT GOALS:
1.The student will be able to define and give examples of anti-Irish
racism, and relate them to the Irish Famine experience.
TEACHING/LEARNING STRATEGIES AND ACTIVITIES
A.Students will learn that anti-Irish racism and anti-Catholic discrimination
have been an inherent part of British colonial rule in Ireland.
Students will also examine this racism in the context of racism
against other peoples.
Activity 1. Students will view anti-Irish cartoons, finding, listing
and discussing racist stereotypes.
Activity 2. Students will read "Out of Africa, Out of Ireland"
and "British Racism: Before, During and After the Famine".
They will then answer questions following the readings and discuss
the issues raised.
"Out of Africa, Out of Ireland" and "British Racism:
Before, During, and After the Famine". (see footnotes for sources)
"Bog Trotters" is a long-standing English term for Irish
people,especially Irish peasants. They are shown here as near imbeciles,frolicking
over the countryside.
"The Irish Ogre" about to devour the peasants is none
other than Daniel O’Connell, "the Liberator". He earned
that name by leading a peaceful struggle for Catholic emancipation.
Why he is depicted with copious bags of rent money is unclear.
"The workingman’s burden" shows a gleeful Irish peasant
carrying his Famine relief money while riding on the back of an
exhausted English laborer. The cartoon could just as easily have
depicted Irish peasants carrying absentee English landlords on their
"The Pig and the Peer". This cartoon shows a life-size
pig with an Irish accent pleading with the English Prime Minister.
During the Famine thousands of Irish peasants were evicted to make
way for animals that could "pay rent".
"Two Forces" shows "classical" Britain using
the sword of law to protect Ireland (Hibernia) from Irish "anarchists"
and their demand for land reform.
"The Irish Frankenstein" capitalized on Mary Shelley’s
popular novel to depict the Irish as savage, inhuman monsters.
This untitled cartoon shows the Irish as obese, wasteful, violent,
drug abusing monkeys. John Bull (Britain) shows Uncle Sam that he
will take care of the troublemaker.
"Equal Burdens". Here the stereotype of the belligerent
Irishman meets the stereotype of the happy slave. Irish were called
"Uncle Sam’s Lodging House" shows the Irish as the only
new emigrant raising hell and disrupting good order.
"American Gold" contrasts the industrious Irish in America
with the slothful Irish in Ireland. "No Irish Need Apply"
signs were common.
"The Day We Celebrate" by American cartoonist Thomas Nast
shows the Irish on St. Patrick’s Day as violent, drunken apes.
"Scientific Racism" from an American magazine, Harper’s
Weekly, shows that the Irish are similar to Negroes, and should
This British cartoon shows backward Chinese blocking "Progress"
only ten years after the "Opium War" when the British
government used troops and gunboats to force the Chinese to accept
illegal opium trafficking.
OUT OF AFRICA, OUT OF IRELAND
W.E.B. Du Bois, founder of the NAACP, and the preeminent historian
on slavery in the Americas, wrote: "Any attempt to consider
the attitude of the English colonies toward the African slave-trade
must be prefaced by a word as to the attitude of England herself
and the development of the trade in her hands."
Du Bois gives us a logical starting place for discussing racism
and the legacy of slavery in America: it begins with the "Mother
Country's" dominant role in the Atlantic slave trade. Before
all white Europeans are lumped together with the British as colonists
and slave keepers, let us consider Britain's treatment of the Irish
and the Africans, and the many parallels of subjugation and enslavement
to be drawn.
Britain first entered the slave trade with the capture of 300 Negroes
in 1562, and pursued it with religious zeal for three centuries.
She introduced the first African slaves to Virginia on board a Dutch
ship in 1619. In 1651 she fought two wars to wrest the slave trade
from the Dutch.
In her book, Black Chronology from 4,000 B.C. to Abolition of the
Slave Trade, Ellen Irene Diggs wrote: "The final terms of peace
surrendered New Netherlands (Delaware, New Jersey and New York)to
England and opened the way for England to become the world's greatest
In 1662 the "Company of Royal Adventurers" was chartered
by Charles II of England. The Royal Family, including the Queen
Dowager and the Duke of York, contracted to supply the West Indies
with 3,000 slaves annually. This company was later sold for 34,000
Pounds and replaced by the "Royal African Company" also
chartered by King Charles II.
Diggs says that in 1655, "Oliver Cromwell, in his zeal for
God and the slave trade", sent an expedition to seize Jamaica
from Spain. It soon became Britain's West Indian base for the slave
Six years earlier Oliver Cromwell and his 20,000 man army invaded
Ireland. They killed the entire garrison of Drogheda and slaughtered
all the townspeople. Afterwards, Cromwell said "I do not think
thirty of the whole number escaped with their lives. Those that
did are in safe custody for the Barbados."
Under Cromwell's policy known as "To Hell or Connaught"
Irish landowners were driven off millions of acres of fertile land.
Those found east of the river Shannon after May l,1654, faced the
death penalty or slavery in the West Indies. Cromwell rewarded his
soldiers and loyal Scottish Presbyterians by "planting"
them on large estates. The British set up similar "plantations"
in Barbados, St. Kitts and Trinidad. The demand for labor on these
distant plantations prompted mass kidnappings in Ireland. A pamphlet
published in 1660 accused the British of sending soldiers to grab
any Irish people they could in order to sell them to Barbados for
"It was the usual practice with Colonel Strubber, Governor
of Galway, and other commanders in the said country, to take people
out of their beds at night and sell them for slaves to the Indies,
and by computations sold out of the said country about a thousand
In Black Folk Then and Now, Du Bois concurs: "Even young Irish
peasants were hunted down as men hunt down game, and were forcibly
put aboard ship, and sold to plantations in Barbados".
According to Peter Berresford Ellis in To Hell or Connaught, soldiers
commanded by Henry Cromwell, Oliver's son, seized a thousand "Irish
wenches" to sell to Barbados. Henry justified the action by
saying, "Although we must use force in taking them up, it is
so much for their own good and likely to be of so great an advantage
to the public." He also suggested that 2,000 lrish boys of
12 to 14 years of age could be seized for the same purpose: "Who
knows but it might be a means to make them Englishmen."
In 1667 Parliament passed the "Act to regulate Negroes on
British Plantations." Punishments included a severe whipping
for striking a Christian. For the second offense: branding on the
face with a hot iron. There was no punishment for "inadvertently"
whipping a slave to death.
Between 1680 and 1688 the English African Company sent 249 ships
to Africa and shipped approximately 60,000 Black slaves. They "lost"
14,000 during the middle passage, and only delivered 46,000 to the
Diggs points out that "Planters sometimes married white women
servants to Blacks in order to transform these servants and their
children into slaves." This was the case with "Irish Nell",
a servant woman brought to Maryland and sold to a planter when her
former owner returned to England. Whether her children by a Black
slave husband were to be slave or free, occupied the courts of Maryland
for a number of years. Petition was finally granted, and the children
The "custom" of marrying white servants to Black slaves
in order to produce slave offspring was legislated against in 1681.
How many half Irish children became slaves through this custom?
How many Black Americans have Irish ancestors because of it? If
a servant is forced to mate with a slave in order to produce slave
children for her slave master, is she not a slave?
In 1698 British Parliament acted under pressure and allowed private
English merchants to participate in the slave trade. The statute
declared the slave trade "highly Beneficial and Advantageous
to this Kingdom, and to the Plantations and Colonies thereunto belonging,"
according to Du Bois.
English merchants immediately sought to exclude all other nations
by securing a monopoly on the lucrative Spanish colonial slave trade.
This was accomplished by the Assiento treaty of 1713. Spain granted
England a monopoly on the Spanish slave trade for thirty years.
England engaged to supply the Spanish colonies with "at least
144,000 slaves at the rate of 4,800 a year," and they greatly
exceeded their quota, according to Du Bois. The kings of Spain and
England were to receive one-fourth of the profits, and the Royal
African Company was authorized to import as many slaves as they
In Slavery: A World History, Milton Meltzer says, "Slave trading
was no vulgar or wicked occupation that shut a man out from offce
or honors. Engaged in the British slave trade were dukes, earls,
lords, countesses, knights - and kings. The slaves of the Royal
African Company were branded with initials D.Y. for the Duke of
The Church of England supported the slave trade as a means of converting
"heathens," and the Bishop of Exeter held 655 slaves until
he was compensated for them in 1833. Trader John Newton had prayers
said twice a day on board his slave ship, saying he never knew "sweeter
or more frequent hours of divine communion." Francis Drake's
slave ship was the "Grace of God."
In the late l8th century English historian Arthur Young travelled
widely in Ireland. He wrote, "A landlord in Ireland can scarcely
invent an order which a laborer, servant, or cottier dares to refuse.
He may punish with his cane or horsewhip with most perfect security.
A poor man would have his bones broken if he offered to lift a hand
in his own defense."
When the Irish rebelled in 1798, Britain shipped thousands of chained
"traitors" to her penal colonies in Australia. Many Irish
prisoners were convinced that the masters of these convict ships
were under orders to starve and murder them by neglect on the outward
voyage. In The Fatal Shore, Robert Hughes says, "They had reason
to think so," and points to the 1802 arrival of the Hercules,
with a 37 percent death rate among the political exiles. That same
year, the Atlas II sailed from Cork, with 65 out of 181 "convicts"
found dead on arrival. Irish sailors who mutinied to help their
countrymen were flogged unmercifully, and "ironed" together
with handcuffs, thumbscrews and slave leg bolts.
In Slavery and the Slave Trade, James Walvin writes: "In 1781
the British slave ship the Zong, unexpectedly delayed at sea and
in danger of running short of supplies, simply dumped 132 slaves
overboard in order to save the healthier slaves and on the understanding
that such an action would be covered by the ship's insurance (not
the case had the wretched slaves merely died)."
Africans who arrived in the West Indies were sometimes sold in
advance to plantation owners, or an agent could be paid 15-20 percent
for handling the sale. But most often the ship's captain was responsible
for selling the slaves, and his method was the "scramble."
According to Meltzer, the slaves were marched through the town
behind bagpipes and drawn up for inspection in the public square.
"By agreement with the buyers, a fixed price was set for the
four categories of slaves: man, woman, boy, girl. A day for the
sale was advertised. When the hour came, a gun was fired, the door
to the slave yard flung open, and a horde of purchasers rushed in,
with all the ferocity of brutes....each buyer, bent on getting his
pick of the pack, tried to encircle the largest number of slaves
by means of a rope. The slaves, helpless, bewildered, terrified,
were yanked about savagely, torn by one buyer from another."
Already branded once by the trader, the slaves were branded a second
time with their new owner's initials.
The last report of slave populations in the British West Indies
was in 1834. K.W. Stetson in his "Quantitative Approach to
Britain's American Slave Trade" documents them as follows:
Barbados: 82,000, Jamaica: 324,000, Grenada: 23,600, St. Vincent:
22,300, Dominica: 14,200, Trinidad: 20,700, Tobago: 11,600, St.
Lucia: 13,300, Virgin Islands: 5,100, Bahamas: 10,100, Bermuda:
4,000, British Honduras: 1,900.
One victim of the trade was a Ghana man, Ottobah Cugoano, who was
kidnapped at 13 and taken to the British West Indies as a slave.
Later he was brought to England and freed. He commented bitterly
on the British:
"Is it not strange to think that they who ought to be considered
as the most learned and civilized people in the world, that they
should carry on a traffic of the most barbarous cruelty and injustice,
and that many are become so dissolute as to think slavery, robbery
and murder no crime?"
Britain also colonized many African countries, including: Uganda,
Kenya, Nigeria, Gambia, Sierra Leone, Gold Coast, Cameroons, Egypt,
Zanzibar, N. Rhodesia, S. Rhodesia, Swaziland, Somalia, Tanganyika,
Basutoland, Seychelles, Mauritius, Togoland, and South Africa (Transvaal,
Orange River, Natal, Cape Colony).
There were slave uprisings in Jamaica in 1669, `72, `73, twice
in 1678, `82, `85, `90, 1733, `34,'62, `65, `66, 1807, 1815 and
1824. The last rebellion was led by Samuel Sharpe. The British executed
him along with all the other leaders of the revolt, but his action
did lead to Britain abolishing slavery. In the 1830's the British
government paid the West Indian slave owners 22 million Pounds as
compensation for the loss of their slave property. The slaves were
Walvin says, "The picture described here has been too charitable
toward the slavers and does not fully underline the inhumanities
endemic in the slave trade...the slave trade was an exercise in
cruelty and inhumanity to a degree scarcely imaginable to modern
In The African Slave Trade, Basil Davidson says, The value of British
income derived from the (slave) trade with the West lndies was said
to be four times greater than the value of British incomes derived
from trade with the rest of the world." Diggs says that the
great profits from the trade "helped make possible the British
Industrial Revolution". The tables from the Royal African Company
indicate that between l690 to 1807,they took 2,579,400 slaves out
In 1845-52 over a million Irish people died of starvation and related
diseases while enjoying the benefits of direct rule from London.
The mortality rate was increased by the forced eviction of 500,000
A million and a half more left Ireland, many suffering and dying
onboard "coffin ships".
There are many parallels between the treatment received by the
Irish and the Africans at the hands of the British, and undeniably,
racism played a major role in both tragedies.
BRITISH RACISM: BEFORE, DURING, AND AFTER THE FAMINE
Racism is an ancient scourge, and the two groups in conflict need
not be of different colors or religions.
When one powerful group begins to see another people as apes, pigs,
beasts, or as an inferior race of subhumans, a disaster is in the
making. Any study of racist stereotyping should consider what the
dominant group stands to gain. Racism usually begins with economics.
Massacres, the slave trade, and the theft of vast tracts of other
people's land, have all been justified by claims of religious, cultural
and racial superiority. Such myths often hide the harsh reality
of exploitation and colonization.
Anti-Irish prejudice is a very old theme in English culture. The
written record begins with Gerald of Wales, whose family was deeply
involved in the Norman invasion of Ireland.
In his 12th-century History and Topography of Ireland Gerald wrote
contemptuously of the people, portraying them as inferior to the
Normans in every respect:
"They live on beasts only, and live like beasts. They have
not progressed at all from the habits of pastoral living."
He condemned their customs, dress, and "flowing hair and beards"
as examples of their "barbarity". He also vilified the
religious practices and marriage customs of the people:
"This is a filthy people, wallowing in vice. Of all peoples
it is the least instructed in the rudiments of the faith. They do
not yet pay tithes or first fruits or contract marriages. They do
not avoid incest." (1.)
A SACRIFICE TO GOD"
Religion was often used to justify attacks on the Irish. In 1574,
a colonial expedition to Ulster led by the Earl of Essex slaughtered
the entire population of Rathlin Island, some 600 people. Edward
Barkley, a member of the expedition, gave a graphic description
of how Essex's men had driven the Irish from the plains into the
woods, where they would freeze or die of hunger at the onset of
winter. He concluded:
"How godly a deed it is to overthrow so wicked a race the
world may judge: for my part I think there cannot be a greater sacrifice
to God" (2.)
When the Irish resisted colonization, they were met with total
war on soldiers and noncombatants alike. Sir Humphrey Gilbert, the
military governor and half-brother of Sir Walter Raleigh, stated:
"I slew all those from time to time that did belong to, feed,
accompany or maintain any outlaws or traitors; and after my first
summoning of a castle or fort, if they would not presently yield
it, I would not take it afterwards of their gift, but won it perforce
- how many lives soever it cost; putting man, woman and child to
the sword." (3.)
Thomas Churchyard, a pamphleteer who accompanied Gilbert to Munster,
justified the killing of non-combatants on the grounds that they
provided food for the rebels: "so that killing of them by the
sword was the way to kill the men of war by famine." Churchyard
described Sir Gilbert's methods:
"That the heads of all those (of what sort soever they were)
which were killed in the day, should be cut off from their bodies
and brought to the place where he encamped at night, and should
there be laid on the ground by each side of the way leading into
his own tent so that none could come into his tent for any cause
but commonly must pass through a lane of heads which were used ad
terrorem, the dead feeling nothing the more pains thereby; and yet
did it bring great terror to the people when they saw the heads
of their dead fathers, brothers, children, kinsfolk and friends,
lie on the ground before their faces, as they came to speak with
the said colonel" (4.)
The various justifications for colonization were brought together
and elaborated by Edmund Spenser, the poet and author of The Faerie
Queene. In his book, A View of the State of Ireland,published in
1596, Spenser wrote:
"Marry those be the most barbaric and loathy conditions of
any people (I think) under heaven...They do use all the beastly
behaviour that may be, they oppress all men, they spoil as well
the subject, as the enemy; they steal, they are cruel and bloody,
full of revenge, and delighting in deadly execution, licentious,
swearers and blasphemers, common ravishers of women, and murderers
of children." (5.)
In 1610, A New Description of Ireland was published. Its author,
Barnaby Rich wrote:
"The time hath been, when they lived like Barbarians, in woods,
in bogs, and in desolate places, without politic law, or civil government,
neither embracing religion, law or mutual love. That which is hateful
to all the world besides is only beloved and embraced by the Irish,
I mean civil wars and domestic dissensions .... the Cannibals, devourers
of men's flesh, do learn to be fierce amongst themselves, but the
Irish, without all respect, are even more cruel to their neighbors."
"GLORY TO GOD ALONE"
On his arrival in Dublin in 1649, Cromwell said: "By God's
divine providence" he and his troops would "carry on the
great work against the barbarous and bloodthirsty Irish..."
After his army laid siege to the town of Drogheda, and killed the
entire garrison, he wrote:
"It hath pleased God to bless our endeavors in Drogheda...The
enemy were about 3,000 strong in the town...I do not think 30 of
the whole number escaped with their lives. Those that did are in
safe custody for the Barbados...I wish that all honest hearts may
give the glory of this to God alone, to whom indeed the praise of
this mercy belongs." Cromwell proceeded to Wexford where he
slaughtered 2,000 more. (7.)
The English poet John Milton wrote at this time: "God is decreeing
some new and great period. What does He then but reveal himself...as
his manner is, first to his Englishmen?" (8.)
NO PEOPLE MORE PREJUDICED
British contempt for the Irish was part of an increasing disdain
for foreigners in general. The Swiss traveller de Saussure observed
them in 1727:
"I do not think there is a people more prejudiced in its own
favor than the British people, and they allow this to appear in
their talk and manners. They look on foreigners in general with
contempt, and think nothing is as well done elsewhere as in their
own country." (9.)
A TRUE-BORN ENGLISHMAN
English writer Daniel Defoe, the author of Robinson Crusoe, lampooned
the notion of English superiority in a poem, "A True-born Englishman".
The preface began: "The intent of the satire is pointed at
the vanity of those who talk of their antiquity, and value themselves
upon their pedigree, their ancient families, and being True-Born;
whereas it is impossible we should be True-Born: and if we could,
should have lost in the bargain."
Defoe then listed the diverse peoples who had settled in England:
Romans, Gauls, Greeks, Lombards, Scots, Picts, Danes and "slaves
of every nation", and concluded: "From this amphibious
ill-born mob began that vain ill-natured thing, an Englishman."
RACISM AGAINST AFRICANS, INDIANS AND EGYPTIANS
The British denigrated the Africans in terms similar to those they
used about the Irish, but even more defamatory. While the Irish
were despised for their "inferior" brand of Christianity,
the Africans were dismissed for not even being Christians, but "heathens."
And African customs were represented as even more "barbaric"
than the Irish.
In India, British rule was justified because the Indians were "heathans"
and unfit to rule themselves. In 1813 Lord Hastings wrote: "The
Hindoo appears a being nearly limited to mere animal functions and
even in them indifferent. Their proficiency and skill in the several
lines of occupation to which they are restricted, are little more
than the dexterity which any animal with similar conformation but
with no higher intellect than a dog, an elephant or a monkey, might
be supposed to be capable of attaining." (11.)
Lord Cromer, the British Governor of Egypt, wrote that, "Free
institutions in the full sense of the term must for generations
to come be wholly unsuitable to countries such as India and Egypt...it
will probably never be possible to make a Western silk purse out
of an Eastern sow's ear." (12.)
The 18th century British philosopher David Hume, who wrote contemptuously
of the Irish, also maligned the Africans. In his essay, "Of
National Characters" he wrote: "I am apt to suspect that
Negroes, and in general all other species of men (for there are
four or five different kinds) to be naturally inferior to the whites.
There never was a civilized nation of any other complexion than
In the British view of the world, the Irish occupied a position
way below themselves, but just above the Africans. The two were
often compared, as in these verses from the British magazine Punch
"Six-foot Paddy, are you no bigger –
You whom cozening friars dish –
Mentally, than the poorest nigger
Grovelling before fetish?
You to Sambo I compare
Under superstition's rule
Prostrate like an abject fool." (14.)
In 1849, British historian Thomas Carlyle published "Occasional
Discourse on the Nigger Question." Mr. Eric Williams, former
Prime Minister of Trinidad, and a historian, called it "The
most offensive document in the entire world literature on slavery
and the West Indies." Carlyle argued that the recently emancipated
slaves should be forced to work for the whites: "Decidedly
you will have to be servants to those who are born wiser than you,
that are born lords of you; servants to the Whites, if they are
(as what mortal can doubt they are?) born wiser than you."
Carlyle visited Ireland soon after the famine and filled his journal
with tirades against what he called "this brawling unreasonable
people". Ireland, he wrote, was a "human swinery",
"an abomination of desolation" and "a black howling
Babel of superstitious savages". (16.)
In the 1860s, the debate among scientists about the relationship
of humans to animals prompted British racists to make frequent comparisons
between Irish people, Black people and apes. The Cambridge historian
Charles Kingsley wrote to his wife from Ireland in 1860: "I
am haunted by the human chimpanzees I saw along that hundred miles
of horrible country...to see white chimpanzees is dreadful; if they
were black one would not see it so much, but their skins, except
where tanned by exposure, are as white as ours." (17.)
"THE MISSING LINK"
In 1860 the first live adult gorilla arrived at the London Zoo just
after Charles Darwin's Origin of the Species had been published.
Victorians flocked to see it and debate the relationship of humans
to animals. In 1862 the British magazine Punch published "The
Missing Link" a satire attacking Irish immigrants: "A
gulf certainly, does appear to yawn between the Gorilla and the
Negro. The woods and wilds of Africa do not exhibit an example of
any intermediate animal. But in this, as in many other cases, philosophers
go vainly searching abroad for that which they could readily find
if they sought for it at home. A creature manifestly between the
Gorilla and the Negro is to be met with in some of the lowest districts
of London and Liverpool by adventurous explorers. It comes from
Ireland, whence it has contrived to migrate; it belongs in fact
to a tribe of Irish savages: the lowest species of Irish Yahoo.
When conversing with its kind it talks a sort of gibberish. It is,
moreover, a climbing animal, and may sometimes be seen ascending
a ladder ladden with a hod of bricks." (18.)
The British historian Edward Freeman visited the United States
in 1881. His obituary states that "he gloried in the Germanic
origin of the English nation." On his return from America,
he wrote: "This would be a grand land if only every Irishman
would kill a Negro, and be hanged for it. I find this sentiment
generally approved - sometimes with the qualification that they
want Irish and Negroes for servants, not being able to get any other."
Although their empire was acquired by military force and a divide
and conquer strategy, the British attributed their success to Anglo-Saxon
superiority. This old idea was brought up to date through pseudo-scientific
theories of race.
Nineteenth century theorists divided humanity into "races"
on the basis of external physical features. These "races"
were said to have inherited differences not only of physique, but
also of character. These "differnces" allowed the races
to be placed in a heirarchy. Needless to say, the Teutons, who included
the Anglo-Saxons, were placed at the top. Black people, especially
"Hottentots" were at the bottom, with Celts (Irish) and
Jews somewhere in between.
Anthropologists went around measuring people's skulls, and assigning
them to different "races" on the basis of such factors
as how far their jaws protruded. Celts and others were said to have
more "primitive" features than Anglo-Saxons.
The physician John Beddoe invented the "index of nigrescence"
a formula to identify the racial components of a given people. The
Anglo-Saxon's "refined" features also came with a "superior"
character. They were said to be industrious, thoughtful, clean,
law-abiding and emotionally restrained, while the characters of
the various colonized peoples were said to be the very opposite.
In 1850 the anatomist Robert Knox described the Celtic character
as "Furious fanaticism; a love of war and disorder; a hatred
for order and patient industry; no accumulative habits; restless;
treacherous and uncertain: look to Ireland..." He drew the
"As a Saxon, I abhor all dynasties, monarchies and bayonet
governments, but this latter seems to be the only one suitable for
the Celtic man." (20.)
SUBJECTION AS A CONDITION FOR ADVANCEMENT
In 1862, the British historian Lord Acton wrote:
"The Celts are not among the progressive, initiative races,
but among those which supply the materials rather than the impulse
of history...The Persians, the Greeks, the Romans and the Teutons
are the only makers of history, the only authors of advancement."
He concluded: "Subjection to a people of a higher capacity
for government is of itself no misfortune; and it is to most countries
the condition of their political advancement." (21.)
In 1886 Lord Salisbury opposed Home Rule for Ireland with these
words: "You would not confide free representative institutions
to the Hottentots, for instance." Self government was only
for people of the "Teutonic race." (22.)
"THE WILD IRISH"
Another proponent of the theory of Anglo-Saxon racial supremacy
was James Anthony Froude, a professor of history at Oxford. He described
the Irish country folk as "more like squalid apes than human
beings." He depicted the Irish as "unstable as water",
while the English stood for order and self-control. Only "efficient
military despotism" could succeed in Ireland, he wrote, because
the "wild Irish" understood only force.
"THOSE WHO ARE WISER"
Froude considered Negroes, like the Irish, to be an inferior race.
He wrote: "Nature has made us unequal, and Acts of Parliament
cannot make us equal. Some must lead and some must follow, and the
question is only of degree and kind...Slavery is gone...but it will
be an ill day for mankind if no one is compelled any more to obey
those who are wiser than himself..." (23.)
Toward the end of her 1984 book, Nothing But the Same Old Story':
The Roots of Anti-Irish Racism, Liz Curtis wrote:
"A gigantic exercise in self-delusion has helped to preserve
English pride and self-regard down the centuries. Actions taken
for reasons of political and economic expediency have been presented
as if altruism were the sole motive. Atrocities of all kinds - from
Cromwell's massacre at Drogheda, to the slave trade, to the appropriation
of vast tracts of other people's countries - have been justified
by claims of religious, cultural and racial superiority. These myths
have served the British ruling class well over the centuries, clouding
the harsh reality of exploitation and colonization."
That reality is best described by Jonathan Swift in Gulliver's
"A crew of pirates are driven by a storm they know not whither,
at length a boy discovers land from the topmast, they go on shore
to rob and plunder; they see an harmless people, are entertained
with kindness, they give the country a new name, they take formal
possession of it for the King, they set up a rotten plank or a stone
for a memorial, they murder two or three dozen of the natives, bring
away a couple of more by force for a sample, return home and get
their pardon. Here commences a new dominion acquired with a title
by divine right. Ships are sent with the first opportunity, the
natives driven out or destroyed, their princes tortured to discover
their gold; a free license given to all acts of inhumanity and lust,
the earth reeking with the blood of its inhabitants: and this execrable
crew of butchers employed in so pious an expedition, is a modern
colony sent to convert and civilize an idolatrous and barbarous
How were racism and religion used by the British to justify the
economic exploitation of Ireland?
Why is it necessary to examine racism against the Irish in the context
of British racism against a variety of peoples?
Given that radio and television did not exist during the Irish Famine,
a few British Ministers and powerful newspapers could have used
racism, religion and propaganda to control British public opinion
about Ireland. How could such a tragedy happen today, in the age
of mass communication?
How is Britain's role in the slave trade relevant to a study of
1. Gerald of Wales, The History and Topography of Ireland, Penguin
2. Canny, Nicholas P., "The ideology of English colonisation
from Ireland to America", William and Mary Quarterly, vol.
30, 1973, p.581.
3. Ranelagh, John, Ireland, London: Collins 1981, p.86
4. Canny, op.cit., p.582.
5. Lebow, Ned, "British Historians and Irish history",
Eire-Ireland, vol.VIII, no.4, Winter 1973, p.12
6. Lebow, op.cit., p. 15
7. Downing, Taylor, The Troubles, London: Thames/MacDonald Futura
8. Hill, Christopher, God's Englishmen: 0liver Cromwell and the
English Revolution London: Weidenfield and Nicholson 1970, p.l18
9. Plumb, J.H., England in the Eighteenth Century, Penguin, 1950,
10. Defoe, Daniel, "A True-Born Englishman", in Selected
Writings of Daniel Defoe, Cambridge University Press, 1975.
11. Plumb, op.cit., p. 178
12. Curtis, op.cit., p.58
13. Fryer, Peter, Staying Power: The History of Black People in
Britain, London: Pluto Press, 1984, p.152
14. Lebow, op.cit., p.ll. 15. Williams, Eric, British Historians
and the West Indies, London: Andre, 1966, p. 81.
16. Campbell, Flan, The Oranqe Card: Racism, Religion and Politics
in Northern Ireland, London: Connolly Publications, 1979, p.12
17. Curtis, L.P. Jr., Anglo-Saxons and Celts: A study of anti-Irish
prejudice in Victorian England, University of Bridgeport, Connecticut,
1968, p. p.84
18. Curtis, Lewis P., Apes and Angels: The Irishman in Victorian
Caricature, Newton Abbot: David and Charles, 1971, p.100.
19. Curtis, Anglo Saxons..., op.cit., p.81
20. Ibid., p.93
21. Williams, op.cit., p.53-4
22. Curtis, Anglo-Saxons op.cit., p.102-3
23. Williams, op.cit., p.177
Mass Eviction During Famine
Unit III - Mass Eviction During Famine
ADDITIONAL, UNIT GOALS
1. The student will determine what role mass eviction played in
exacerbating the condition of the poor during the Great Famine.
TEACHING/LEARNING STRATEGIES AND ACTIVITIES
A. Students will learn the extent of the mass evictions, their causes
and detrimental effects.
Activity 1. Students will read "Mass Eviction During Famine",
a compilation of excerpts from Famine histories, and a Document
from The Irish Famine by Peter Gray. Students will answer questions
following the readings and discuss issues raised.
Gray, Peter, The Irish Famine, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York,
1995. "Mass Evictions During Famine" (see footnotes for
MASS EVICTIONS DURING FAMINE
Mass evictions or "clearances" will forever be associated
with the Irish Famine. "It has been estimated that, excluding
peaceable surrenders, over a quarter of a million people were evicted
between 1849 and 1854. The total number of people who had to leave
their holdings in the period is likely to be around half a million
and 200,000 small holdings were obliterated" (1)
Under a law imposed in 1847, called the "Gregory Clause",
no tenant holding more than a quarter acre of land was eligible
for public assistance. To become eligible, the tenant had to surrender
his holding to his landlord. Some tenants sent their children to
the workhouse as orphans so they could keep their land and still
have their children fed.
Other tenants surrendered their land, but tried to remain living
in the house; however, landlords would not tolerate it. "In
many thousands of cases estate-clearing landlords and agents used
physical force or heavy-handed pressure to bring about the destruction
of cabins which they sought." (2)
Many others who sought entrance to the workhouses were required
to return to their homes and uproot or level them. Others had their
houses burned while they were away in the workhouse.
"When tenants were formally evicted, it was usually the practice
of the landlord's bailiffs - his specially hired 'crowbar brigade'
- to level or burn the affected dwellings there and then, as soon
as the tenants effects had been removed, in the presence of a large
party of soldiers or police who were likely to quell any thought
of serious resistance." (3)
"These helpless creatures are not only unhoused, but often
driven off the land, no one remaining on the lands being allowed
to lodge or harbor them. Or they, perhaps, linger about the spot,
and frame some temporary shelter out of materials of their old homes
against a broken wall, or behind a ditch or fence, or in a bog-hole,
places unfit for human habitations .... disease, together with the
privations of other kinds which they endure, before long carry them
As soon as one horde of houseless and all but naked paupers are
dead, or provided for in the workhouse, another wholesale eviction
doubles the number, who in their turn pass through the same ordeal
of wandering from house to house, or burrowing in bogs or behind
ditches, till broken down by privation and exposure to the elements,
they seek the workhouse, or die by the roadside." (4)
"There were hoards of poor on the roads every day. The Catholics
who could gave some little they had to these, a saucer of oatmeal,
a handful of potatoes, a drink of milk or a little bottle of sweet-milk
to carry away with them. It was not unusual to see a woman with
two, three or four children half-naked, come in begging for alms,
and often several of these groups in one day, men too. If the men
got work they worked for little or nothing and when they were no
longer needed they took to the road again. These wandering groups
had no homes and no shelter for the night. They slept in the barns
of those that had barns on an armful of straw with a sack or sack
or some such thing to cover them." (5)
BRITISH GOVERNMENT & EVICTIONS
When there was widespread criticism in the newspaper over the evictions,
Lord Broughman made a speech on March 23rd, 1846 in the House of
Lords. He said:
"Undoubtedly it is the landlord's right to do as he pleases,
and if he abstained he conferred a favor and was doing an act of
kindness. If, on the other hand, he choose to stand on his right,
the tenants must be taught by the strong arm of the law that they
had no power to oppose or resist...property would be valueless and
capital would no longer be invested in cultivation of the land if
it were not acknowledged that it was the landlord's undoubted and
most sacred right to deal with his property as he wished."
Even when tenants were evicted in the dead of winter and died of
exposure, the British Home Secretary, Sir George Grey, "rejected
the notion that house-destroying landlords were open to any criminal
proceedings on the part of the government." (7)
British Parliament passed a law reducing the notice given to people
before they were evicted to 48 hours. The law also made it a misdemeanor
to demolish a dwelling while the tenants were inside. As a grand
gesture of goodwill, the law prohibited evictions on Christmas day
and Good Friday.
Irish Poor Law made landlords responsible for relief of the poor
on the smallest properties - those valued at 4 Pounds or less. This
gave landlords a strong incentive to rid themselves of tenants who
were in that category and unable to pay rent. They did this by evicting
the tenants or by paying for the tenants to emigrate on the "coffin
On January 23rd, 1846, Mr. Todhunter, a member of the Central Relief
Committee of the Society of Friends wrote: "It is evident that
some landlords, forgetful of the claims of humanity and regardless
of the Public Welfare, are availing themselves of the present calamity
to effect a wholesale clearance of their estates." (8)
One landlord, the Earl of Lucan, evicted 187 families (913 people)
in 18 months. A follow-up report by a Galway newspaper found that
of the 913 evicted, 478 were receiving public relief, 170 had emigrated,
and 265 were dead or left to shift from place to place. It is not
known how many of the 170 who emigrated died at disembarcation centers
or aboard "coffin ships".
The Limerick and Clare Examiner protested that even "the good
landlords are going to the bad, and the bad are going to the worst
extremities of cruelty and tyranny, while both are suffered by a
truckling (submissive) and heartless government to make a wilderness
of the country and a waste of human life." (9)
"I must say the landlords were not all alike. My grandfather,
God rest his soul, went to pay part of his rent to his landlord,
a Bantry man. 'Feed your family first, then give me what you can
afford when times get better,' he told him." (10)
"The fact that our people escaped so well was owed to the
landlord of the time, Mr. Cronin Coltsman. He earned the everlasting
gratitude of the people. When he saw the awful plight of his tenants,
he caused a mill to be built half a mile below our village ....
When the mill was ready the landlord bought Indian meal in Cork
City and got his tenants to go with their horses and bring the meal
free of charge to the mill where, when it was ground, everyone who
needed it got a measure or scoop of meal for each one of their family.
"The landlords were not always to be blamed when evictions
took place. Middle-men and well-to-do farmers were very often responsible.
'Grabbing' was quite common in the district. Farmers who had more
money to spare were only too ready to approach the landlord or his
agent and offer to pay back rent on a neighboring farm on the condition
that they would be given possession. Sometimes landlords were asked
to dispossess tenants from holdings, the rents of which were fully
paid up." (12)
"A MODEST PROPOSAL"
In 1729, Jonathan Swift, the Dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral in
Dublin, wrote a macabre satire, "A Modest Proposal" in
which he tried to draw attention to the horrific conditions of the
Irish poor. The pamphlet put forward a scheme for solving Ireland's
economic problems by fattening up the children of the poor and selling
them as meat:
"A young healthy child, well nursed, is at a year old, a most
delicious, nourishing and wholesome food; whether stewed, roasted,
baked or boiled; and I make no doubt, that it will equally serve
in fricassee or ragout... I grant that this food will be somewhat
dear, and therefore very proper for landlords; who, as they have
already devoured most of the parents, seem to have best title to
University of Wisconsin History Professor James S. Donnelly, the
author of Landlord and Tenant in 19th-Century Ireland, wrote: "I
would draw the following broad conclusion: at a fairly early stage
of the Great Famine the government's abject failure to stop or even
slow down the clearances (evictions) contributed in a major way
to enshrining the idea of English state-sponsored genocide in Irish
Or perhaps one should say in the Irish mind, for this was a notion
that appealed to many educated and discriminating men and women,
and not only to the revolutionary minority..." (13)
Dennis Clark, author of Erin's Heirs and The Irish in Philadelphia,
wrote that the British government's insistence on "the absolute
rights of landlords" to evict farmers and their families so
they could raise cattle and sheep, was "a process as close
to 'ethnic cleansing' as any Balkan war ever enacted." (14)
1. Poirteir, Cathal, Famine Echoes, Gill and MacMillan Ltd., Dublin,
Ireland. 1995 p.229
2. Donnelly, James S., Jr., "Mass Eviction and the Irish Famine:
The Clearnaces Revisited", from The Great Irish Famine, edited
by Cathal Poirteir. Mercier Press, Dublin, Ireland. 1995. p. 162
4. Litton, Helen, The Irish Famine; An Illustrated History Wolfhound
Press Ltd., Dublin, Ireland, 1994. p.98
5. Poirteir, p. 235
6. Campbell, Patrick, Death in Templecrone, P.H. Campbell, Jersey
City, NJ, 1995. Princeton Academic Press. p.55
7. Donnelly, p.162
8. Woodham-Smith, Cecil, The Great Hunger; Ireland 1845-1849 Penguin
Books, London, England, 1991. First printing: 1962. p. 183
9. Donnelly, p.165
10. Poirteir, p. 207
12. Ibid, p.219
13. Donnelly, p. 170-71
14. Clark, Dennis, "The Great Irish Famine: Worse than Genocide?"
published by the Irish Edition (Philadelphia) July, August and September,
Document from The Irish Famine by Peter Gray DOCUMENTS 141
James Hack Tuke, a Quaker from York, condemned the mass evictions
"The landlords of Mayo, as well as of many other portions
of Connaught, as a class, (there are many noble exceptions who feel
and see the impolicy and evil of such proceedings,) are pursuing
a course which cannot fail to add to the universal wretchedness
and poverty which exist.
The corn crops, bountiful as they may be, are not sufficient to
meet the landlords' claim for rent and arrears contracted during
the last two years of famine, and it is at least not unnatural for
the tenant to be unwilling to give up that, without which he must
certainly perish. In every direction, the agents of the landlords,
armed with the full powers of the law, are at work everywhere. One
sees the driver or bailiff "canting" the small patches
of oats or potatoes or keepers, whose extortionate charges must
be paid by the unfortunate tenant, placed over the crop. Even the
produce of seed, distributed through the agency of benevolent associations,
has been totally swept away.
To add to the universal distress caused by this system of seizure,
eviction is in many cases practiced, and not a few of the roofless
dwellings which meet the eye, have been destroyed at the instance
of the landlords, after turning adrift the miserable inmates; and
this even at a time like the present, when the charity of the whole
world has been turned towards the relief of this starving peasantry.
Whilst upon the island of Achill, I saw a memorable instance of
this mode of proceeding, at the wretched fishing village of Kiel.
Here, a few days previous to my visit, a driver of Sir R. O'Donnells,
whose property it is, had ejected some twenty families, making,
as I was informed, with a previous recent eviction, about forty.
A crowd of these miserable ejected creatures collected around us,
bewailing, with bitter lamentations, their hard fate.
One old grey-headed man came tottering up to us, bearing in his
arms his bedridden wife, and putting her down at our feet, pointed,
in silent agony to her, and then to his roofless dwelling, the charred
timbers of which were scattered in all directions around. This man
said he owed little more than one year's rent, and had lived in
the village, which had been the home of his forefathers, all his
Another man, with five motherless children, had been expelled,
and their "boiling-pot" sold for 3shilling. Another family,
consisting of a widow and four young children, had their only earthly
possession "a little sheep," seized, and sold for 5 shillings!
But it is needless to multiply cases; instances sufficient have
been given to show the hardships and misery inflicted. From this
village alone, at least one hundred and fifty persons had been evicted,
owing from half a year's to a year and a half's rent. The whole
of their effects, even the miserable furniture of these wretched
cabins seized and sold to satisfy the claims of the nominal owner
of Achill (Island).
What prospects are there for these miserable outcasts? Death indeed
must be the portion of some, for their neighbors, hardly richer
than themselves, were principally subsisting upon turnip tops; whilst
the poorhouse of the union of Westport is nearly forty miles distant.
Turnips taken, can we say stolen, from the fields, as they wearily
walked thither, would be their only chance of support."
How did the estimated half a million evictions contribute to the
death rate during the Great Famine?
What were the living conditions like for those evicted?
Were there any tenant rights under British law?
In what way did the Poor Law contribute to the death rate among
Mortality Rates and
UNIT IV - Mortality Rates and "The Horror"
ADDITIONAL UNIT GOALS:
1.The student will examine the levels of mortality experienced
in Ireland during the Great Famine, and humanize numbers and statistics.
TEACHING/LEARNING STRATEGIES AND ACTIVITIES
A.Students will learn that the range of mortality estimates is from
500,000 to 1,500,000 or more, with a consensus mortality estimate
of 1,000,000 deaths.
Activity 1. Students will read excerpts from This Great Calamity
(p. 167-169), and The Great Hunger (p. 411-412), answer questions
following the readings and discuss the issues raised.
Activity 2. Have students go to the library and use the Statistical
Abstract of the United States to determine the population of the
United States, and the number of deaths per year from automobile
What percentage of the population are killed in such accidents
How does that percentage compare with the percent killed in Ireland
during the Great Famine?
Activity 3. Students will read the personal accounts contained in
"Famine Scenes (The Horror)" and compare their reactions
to ones they experienced reading the statistical accounts in Activity
1. Students will answer questions following the reading.
Kinnealy, Christine, This Great Calamity; The Irish Famine 1845-52,
Roberts Rinehart Publishers, Boulder Colorado, 1995
Woodham-Smith, Cecil, The Great Hunger; Ireland 1845-1849 Penguin
Books, London, England, 1991. First printing: 1962.
This Great Calamity
THE IRISH FAMINE
By Christine Kinealy
"The exact number of people who died during the Famine years
(1845-51) is not known. In the first year of distress, no one was
believed to have died from want; however, by the end of 1846, this
had changed dramatically. In April 1847, an editorial in an Irish
`What has become of all the vast quantity of food which has been
thrown into lreland? Where are the effects which it might have been
expected to produce? How are the millions of pounds of money voted
and subscribed been used that the march of famine, instead of being
saved, has apparently been quickened.’
By this stage, it was obvious that the various relief measures
employed since the appearance of the second blight had failed. The
most telling manifestation was the great increase in mortality in
the winter of 1846-7.
In 1851, the Census Commissioners attempted to produce a table
of mortality for each year since 1841, the date of the previous
census. Their calculations were based on a combination of deaths
recorded in institutions and recollections of individuals (civil
registration of deaths was not introduced into Ireland until 1864).
The statistics provided were flawed and probably under-estimated
the level of mortality, particularly for the earlier years of the
Famine: personal recollections are notoriously unreliable and such
methods did not take into account whole families who disappeared
either as a consequence of emigration or death. In the most distressed
areas, therefore, the data is the most incomplete and the information
was sometimes based on indirect evidence.
The table below, which was compiled by the Census Commissioners,
does offer some insights into the fluctuations in mortality in these
years. Because the rates of mortality were computed at the county
level, with the exception of the larger towns, the disparities within
each county cannot be measured and thus it is difficult to identify
pockets of particularly severe distress. Local reports and increased
numbers of local studies revealed a complex picture of local diversity,
exposing pools of distress and excess mortality in parts of the
midlands, whereas areas in the west of Ireland were little affected.
Furthermore, excess mortality was evident even in some of the wealthiest
parts of the country.
Table 14: Irish Mortality, 1842-50 139
% of the Total Number of Deaths
Occurring in Each Year
The number of deaths during the Famine has variously been calculated
as lying between half a million and one and a half million fatalities.
The correct number probably lies in between. It is more generally
accepted that in the region of one million people died during these
years. Excess mortality as a result of the Famine, however, did
not end in 1851. In addition to deaths, the Famine also contributed
to a decrease in the birthrate, by contributing to a decline in
the rate of marriage and in the level of fertility and fecundity.
The number of deaths in Ireland in 1847 was double the number in
the previous year. This increase in mortality affected all parts
of Ireland. The high rates of mortality were not prolonged and some
areas in Ulster and the east coast showed signs of recovery in 1848,
which was maintained despite the reappearance of blight in the same
year. By this time, the local economies were recovering from tile
temporary industrial dislocation apparent in 1847. In parts of the
west, however, mortality remained high and reached a second peak
in 1849, a cholera epidemic providing the final, Fatal blow to an
already vulnerable people.
Mortality was particularly severe in the first three months of
1847, peaking in March and then starting a slow decline after April.
This peak coincided with public works being used as the main vehicle
for relief and is a clear testament to the Failure of this system.
The continuing high mortality of April and May 1847 coincides with
the period during which public works were being wound down, even
though their replacement was not always available. After May, the
level of mortality began to decrease significantly, although it
remained higher than its pre-Famine levels. This reduction is generally
associated with the opening of soup kitchens in the summer of 1847
and the relatively generous provision of relief. The impact of mortality
was most severe among the lowest economic and social groups within
Ireland-those who, lacking their own capital resources, depended
on external assistance for relief. The most vulnerable individuals
within this group were children under five, old people and pregnant
and lactating women. Overall, however, women tended to he more resilient
than men to the effects of the Famine.
At the end of March 1847, Lord George Bentinck, leader of the Troy
opposition, questioned the government regarding the number of deaths
in Ireland and accused the Whigs of attempting to conceal the truth.
No official figures had been released to parliament, although he
suspected that there were:
`... tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands of deaths - they
could not learn from the government how many, for there was one
point about which the government were totally ignorant or which
they concealed, which was the mortality which had occurred during
their administration of Irish affairs.’
Bentinck continued by attacking an underlying economic philosophy
of the government:
`They know the people have been dying by their thousands and I
dare them to inquire what has been the number of those who have
died through their mismanagement, by their principles of free trade.
Yes, free trade in the lives of the Irish people.’"
THE GREAT HUNGER
How many people died in the famine will never precisely be known.
It is almost certain that, owing to geographical difficulties and
the unwillingness of the people to be registered, the census of
1841 gave a total smaller than the population in fact was. Officers
engaged in relief work put the population as much as 25 per cent.
higher; landlords distributing relief were horrified when providing,
as they imagined, for 60 persons, to find more than 400 ‘start from
In 184I the population of Ireland was given as 8,175,124; in 1851,
after the famine, it had dropped to 6,552,385, and the Census Commissioners
calculated that, at the normal rate of increase, the total should
have been 9,018,799, so that a loss of at least 2.5 million persons
had taken place. The figures available, however, must be regarded
as giving only a rough indication; vital statistics are unobtainable,
no record was kept of deaths, and very many persons must have died
and been buried unknown, as the fever victims died and were buried
in west Cork, as bodies, found lying dead on the road, were buried
in ditches, and as the timid people of Erris perished unrecorded.
In the four provinces of Ireland the smallest loss of population
was in Leinster, 15.5 per cent, then Ulster, 16 per cent, Connaught's
loss was greatest, 28.6 per cent, and Munster lost 23.5 per cent.
In some respect, death and clearance improved Ireland; between 1841
and 1851, nearly 360,000 mud huts disappeared, the greatest decrease
being 81 per cent in Ulster, which then included the distressed
county of Donegal, followed by Connaught, with a decrease of 74
per cent, Munster 69 per cent, and Leinster 62 per cent. Small holdings
under five acres were nearly halved, and holdings over fifteen acres
No advantage, however, was taken of the reduction of small tenants,
agriculture was not improved, and in 1866 Isaac Butt wrote, 'Ireland
has retrograded . . .' Between 1848 and 1864, however, thirteen
million pounds was sent home by emigrants in America to bring relatives
out, and it is part of the famine tragedy that, because no adequate
measures of reconstruction were undertaken, a steady drain of the
best and most enterprising left Ireland, to enrich other countries.
The famine left hatred behind. Between Ireland and England the
memory of what was done and endured has lain like a sword. Other
famines followed, as other famines had gone before, but it is the
terrible years of the Great Hunger which are remembered, and only
just beginning to be forgiven.
Time brought retribution. By the outbreak of the second world war,
Ireland was independent, and she would not fight on England's side.
Liberty and England did not appear to the Irish to be synonymous,
and Eire remained neutral. Many thousands of Irishmen from Eire
volunteered, but the famous regiments of southern Ireland had ceased
to exist, and the 'inexhaustible nursery of the finest soldiers'
was no longer at England's service.
There was also a more direct payment. Along the west coast of Ireland,
in Mayo especially, on remote Clare Island, and in the dunes above
the Six Mile Strand are a number of graves of petty officers and
able seamen of the British Navy and Merchant Service, representatives
of many hundreds who were drowned off the coast of Ireland, because
the Irish harbours were not open to British ships. From these innocents,
in all probability ignorant of the past, who had never heard of
failures of the potato, evictions, fever and starvation, was exacted
part of the price for the famine.
Out of a pre-famine population of just over 8 million people, how
many Irish died?
Given a normal rate of increase, what would have been the total
population in Ireland in 1851?
Which groups were the most vulnerable to starvation? Why?
What is the "retribution" or "direct payment"
for the Famine mentioned by Woodham-Smith?
Does she make the case that Ireland's neutrality in World War II
was designed to punish England for the Great Famine?
FAMINE SCENES (THE HORROR)
"A cabin was seen closed one day a little out of town, when
a man had the curiosity to open it, and in a dark corner he found
a family of the father, mother, and two children, lying in close
compact. The father was considerably decomposed; the mother, it
appeared, had died last, and probably fastened the door, which was
always the custom when all hope was extinguished, to get into the
darkest corner and die, where passers-by could not see them. Such
family scenes were quite common, and the cabin was generally pulled
down upon them for a grave." (1.)
"Six men, beside Mr. Griffith, crossed with me in an open
boat, and we landed, not buoyantly, upon a once pretty island. The
first that called my attention was the death-like stillness - nothing
of life was seen or heard, except occasionally a dog. These looked
so unlike all others I had seen among the poor - I unwittingly said,
"How can the dogs look so fat and shining here, where there
is no food for the people?" The pilot turned to Mr. Griffith,
not supposing that I heard him, and said, "Shall I tell her?"
That was enough: if anything were wanting to make the horrors of
the famine complete, this supplied the deficiency." (2.)
"Going out one cold day in a bleak waste on the coast, I met
a pitiful old man in hunger and tatters, with a child on his back,
almost entirely naked, and to appearance in the last stages of starvation;
whether his naked legs had been scratched, or whether the cold had
affected them I knew not, but the blood was in small streams in
different places, and the sight was a horrid one. The old man said
he lived seven miles off, and was afraid the child would die in
the cabin, with the two little children he had left starving, and
he had come to get the bit of meal, as it was the day he heard food
relief was being given out. The officer told him he had not time
to enter his name in the book, and he was sent away in that condition.
A penny or two was given him, for which he expressed the greatest
The next Saturday we saw the old man creeping slowly in a bending
posture upon the road. The old man looked up and recognized me.
On inquiring where the child was, he said the three were left in
the cabin, and had not taken a 'sup or a bit' since yesterday morning,
and he was afraid some of them would be dead upon the hearth when
he returned. He was so weak that he could not carry the child and
had crept seven miles to get the meal. He was sent away again with
a promise to wait till next Tuesday, and come and have his name
on the books. This poor man had not a penny nor a mouthful of food,
and he said tremulously, 'I must go home and die on the hearth with
the hungry ones."' (3.)
"The deaths in my native place were many and horrible. The
poor famine-stricken people were found by the wayside, emaciated
corpses, partly green from eating docks (weeds) and nettles and
partly blue from the cholera and dysentery." (4.)
"There was a girl who had her hands worn from scraping the
stones of the strand for food, such as shaddy and all sorts of shellfish,
and when she had the strand bare she was found lying dead."
"The children's appearance, though common to thousands of
the same age in this region of the shadow of death, was indescribable.
Their paleness was not that of common sickness...They did not look
as if newly raised from the grave and to life before the blood had
begun to fill their veins anew; but as if they had been thawed out
of the ice, in which they had been imbedded until their blood had
turned to water." (6.)
"We met flocks of wretched children going to school for the
'bit of bread', some crying with hunger, and some begging to get
in without the penny which was required for their tuition. The poor
emaciated creatures went weeping away, one said he had been looking
for a penny all day yesterday, and could not get it." (7.)
DEATH FROM EATING FOOD
"So many had been starving for so long that when they were
given food...the danger of death actually increased. The body could
neither absorb nor assimilate so sudden an intake of nutrients it
had been craving for so long...The heart especially could not withstand
the added workload of a sudden increase in the body's metabolic
rate." 'Carthy swallowed a little warm milk and died' was the
simple statement of one man's death from starvation in Skibbereen.
One man connected with the Quaker Society of Friends said, "If
they get a full meal it kills them immediately." (8.)
"When the Indian meal came out, some of them were so desperate
from starvation that they didn't wait for it to be cooked properly,
they ate it almost raw and that brought on intestinal troubles that
killed a lot of them that otherwise might have survived." (9.)
"The house was near the road and a pot of stirabout was kept
for any starving person who passed the way. My mother Mary was a
young girl at the time and alone in the house one day when a big
giant of a fellow staggered in. He wolfed his share of stirabout
and made for the door, but there was a tub of chopped raw cabbage
and porridge for the pigs. He fell on his knees by the tub and devoured
the stuff till she was in a fright, then he reeled out to the road
and was found dead there a short time after." (10.)
"I heard my grandmother say that she knew fine people to be
seen lying dead along the roads and in the fields. It seems they
fell dead out of their standing and the dogs eating at them. They
mustered up, she said, in bunches like, them that felt getting weak,
and then went away to some place away out, and one done what they
could for the other till they died." (11.)
There were so many deaths that they opened big trenches through
the graveyards and when they were full of dead they filled them
in. Most of those who died were children or old people. "It
is estimated that three out of every five who died were under 10
years of age or over 60." (12.)
DEALING WITH THE DEAD
The problem of finding materials for coffins or transporting the
corpses and digging graves for over a million dead, was made worse
by the dire poverty and physical exhaustion caused by hunger and
"A woman from the Teelin district of County Donegal, on the
death of her little son, not having the wherewithal to get a coffin,
put the child in the cradle, strapped the cradle on her back and
carried it five miles to the nearest graveyard and buried it."
"The people had neither the material nor the strength to make
coffins nor dig graves. When a person died they got a plank and
tied the feet of the corpse to one end of it and the head to the
other end, and the hands together, then two men took hold of it
at each end and carried it to a bog nearby where the water was deep
and threw it in." (14.)
"My father told me that he saw a man carrying his brother's
corpse in a coffin on his back to Moybologue graveyard. He had no
one to help him and he had to dig the grave and bury the corpse
himself. He died in the hospital and people didn't like to attend
the funeral because he died of fever, and they afraid they might
take it. My father said it was the saddest sight he'd ever seen."
"They saw the man coming along the road - Scannlon was his
name - and a load on his back. My grandmother asked him what he
had there, and he said ‘twas his wife that was dead and he was taking
her to Leitrum graveyard to bury her. He had her sitting on a board
fastened over his shoulders and she was dressed in her cloak and
hood just as she'd be when she was alive. His little son was with
him. My grandmother went into the house and brought them food and
milk. Scannlon wouldn't take anything; he said it would overcome
him and he wanted to have his wife buried before dark. The little
boy drank the milk." (16.)
Do these personal stories help to make individuals out of statistics?
Why did people die from eating food?
Why did the dead present such unusual problems for the living?
1. Litton, Helen, The Irish. Famine;. An Illustrated History Wolfhound
Press Ltd., Dublin, Ireland, 1994, P.40.
2. Ibid., p.38
3. Ibid., p.79
4. Poirteir, Cathal, Famine Echoes, Gill and Macmillan Ltd., Dublin,
Ireland, 1995, p.90.
5. Ibid., p.88
6. Gray, Peter, The Irish Famine,.Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York,
7. Ibid., p. 143
8. Gallagher, Michael & Thomas, Paddy's Lament. Harcourt Brace
Company, New York / London, 1982, p.104
9. Poirteir, p. 89
11. Ibid., p.ll
13. Ibid., p.183
14. Ibid., p.185
16. Gallagher, p.ll
Crossing and Arrival
ADDITIONAL UNIT GOALS:
1. The student will be able to describe the conditions in Liverpool,
where Famine emigrants disembarked, and explain the deaths on board
the "coffin ships".
TEACHING/LEARNING STRATEGIES AND ACTIVITIES
Students will examine the problems faced by Famine victims before
and during their transport to America.
Activity 1. Students will read excerpts from The Great Hunger,
and The End of Hidden Ireland, and answer questions immediately
following. Students will discuss the viewpoint of landlords, ship
captains, and the public, as well as the hazards faced by the emigrants.
Scally, Robert James, The End of Hidden Ireland: Rebellion, Famine,
and Emigration, Oxford University Press, New York, 1995, pp.212-215
Woodham-Smith, Cecil, The Great Hunger; Ireland 1845-1849 Penguin
Books, London, England, 1991. First printing: 1962. pp.226-228
The student will be able to describe the conditions at the quarantine
station at Grosse Ile (Isle) Quebec, where the Famine emigrants
TEACHING/LEARNING STRATEGIES AND ACTIVITIES
A.Examine two of the historical descriptions of Grosse Ile.
Activity 1. Students will read excerpts from The Great Hunger and
Robert Whyte's 1847 Famine Ship Diary, answer questions following
the readings and discuss the issues raised.
Mangan, James (Ed.), Robert Whyte's 1847 Famine Ship Diary Metclef
Press, Dublin Ireland,
Woodham-Smith, Cecil, The Great Hunqer: Ireland 1845-1849 Penguin
Books, London, England, 1991. First printing: 1962. pp. 218-221
LEAVING FROM LIVERPOOL
The passage through the Liverpool funnel was also the most common
experience of the famine emigrants. One might even say it was their
first truly "national" experience. The sight of the exodus
was concentrated and magnified in the few square miles of the waterfront
where, in a sense, all of Ireland's townlands met for the first
time and witnessed the commonality of their fate. Whatever the circumstances
of their leaving home or their ultimate destination, the vast majority
of emigrants were unmistakably linked by characteristics that identified
them as one in the eyes of Liverpool if not yet in their own. Rags,
disease, and the ravages of hunger were among the signs attached
to them, as we have seen.
For Rushton's police, baggage was the telling sign. The health
officers looked for symptoms of "Irish fever." Adult males
of the most ordinary appearance in Ballykilcline were the ape-like
"Milesian' brutes of Victorian caricature. Above all, the symbols
of Irishness in Liverpool were the signs of a poverty so extreme
that, when found in the heart of the empire, it was seen as a fall
from civilization and likened to savagery.
In Liverpool, the poverty of the emigrants was visible in their
bodies, in their rags, and malnutrition. Toothlessness, matted hair,
body smells, and other missing vanities also set them apart. But,
according to some observers Irish poverty could be distinguished
from that of other paupers as something more than just a lack of
cash, something as evident in their gait and demeanor as in their
obvious need. "Passive," "resigned," "stunned,"
and "mute" were descriptions most commonly given to distinguish
Irish emigrants along the docks. The authorities, especially the
unenviable health and parish relieving officers, were repeatedly
frustrated by the tendency of sick or starving emigrants to hide
themselves from view in the cellars and tenements, as though fearing
to approach even those who meant to help them.
There was some reason to remain unseen, since Irish-born paupers
could be brought before the magistrates and immediately returned
to Ire-land under the Poor Removal Acts. Short of that dreaded prospect,
the sick could be removed from the family for quarantine or "treatment"
in the fever sheds. Inadvertently, the law also gave the lodging-house
keepers and their intermediaries a new means of threatening their
guests with exposure and repatriation. The laws and regulations
aimed at emigrants, as well as the discretionary powers of health
and parish officers, tended to reinforce the ingrained habits of
isolation and secrecy with which the emigrants had long used to
cloak themselves from scrutiny. In the townland, all deputies of
the law or authorities were to be shunned indeed, many succeeded
in evading them and some lived entirely out of their sight for years.
But anonymity was no longer possible, since in Liverpool the law
or the threat of it was everywhere in the person not only of every
official but of almost any native citizen.
It is unlikely that most of the newly arriving emigrants understood
the variety of proceedings of the law that could derail their hopes
and plans: discovery by the relieving officers might be followed
in a few hours by a summary hearing before the magistrates and forced
removal along the same route they had just survived, as deck passengers
back across the Irish Sea. Medical or ship's officers could reject
one or all in a family without appeal moments before they boarded.
Health officers could order immediate quarantine in the fever sheds
or the hulks moored in the river to isolate the infected. Doctors
or beadles could remove "lunatics" from the poorhouses
to the crowded asylum at Rainhill, where the wards were filled with
hundreds who were diagnosed as suffering from "mental paralysis".
A large minority were also handicapped by language or illiteracy.
The Irish accents of both native- and Irish-born could be heard
throughout the city, distinguishing their bearers' place of origin
or even their religious identity to each other. But speaking Irish
above a whisper outside the Irish wards instantly marked the emigrant
to both the authorities and the swarms of predators. More than half
of the native population of the city was also illiterate, but new
arrivals from Ireland were at greater risk of exploitation from
this cause in the unfamiliar workings of the emigration system,
in which reliable information and directions about ship movements,
delays, and regulations were essential. At least in these circumstances,
the literate children were more likely to be a help than a burden
to many emigrant families; indeed, the value and status of the young
adults had almost certainly risen as the distance from the townland
lengthened and the powers of the elders diminished.
Another large but unknown number arrived in Liverpool with their
tickets or their fares only and were completely unprepared for even
slight setbacks. The routine delays in sailing dates were especially
dangerous for these and accounted for the thousands caught in the
gauntlet of official and criminal coercion from which few emerged
unscathed and many totally penniless. Many were also vulnerable
to the devious practices of the freelance banditti who infested
the lower levels of the emigrant trade, being as unused to complicated
transactions as they were to schedules or lodging houses. These
easily fell afoul of money changers, offering to "dollar"
their English coin into American currency of less or no value, or
of lodging-house keepers who might keep a family "on the cuff"
for food and shelter and strip them bare when payment came due,
by force if threats failed.
Many of the petty frauds practiced on them were common bullying:
baggage would be stolen by the runners and "commissions"
demanded for its return; half-fare childern's tickets were sold
to illiterate adults who would then be turned away at the gangplank.
Worthless out-of-date tickets were casually altered and bought by
the gullible or desperate. Others were refused passage because they
lacked the additional one dollar "head money" required
at American ports. In their rush to fill the steerages, brokers
were known to book emigrants for New York on vessels bound for Baltimore
or Boston, or even New Orleans, assuring them that these places
were only hours apart.
The fleecing of "greenhorns" was widely practiced in
all big cities in Europe and America, often as in Liverpool by those
who had survived a similar experience themselves not long before.
It soon became a kind of initiation rite for migrant peasants in
the new moral niceties of city life. But Liverpool's well-earned
fame for this skullduggery could probably not have been achieved
but for the overabundance of fresh and easy victims, a role the
townland emigrant of 1848 was suited for as if by order.
The exposure of their weakness had begun at the moment they were
assembled in the Strokestown square and proceeded daily on the road
to Liverpool as they were marched and herded under the eyes of strangers,
all now reduced to homeless paupers whatever their former standing
had been. Patriarchs and independent widows who had ruled adult
families on the land became burdensome dependents when severed from
their holdings, and together with infants and children under five
suffered the highest rates of attrition en route.
James Connor's father, a patriarch of one of the largest and oldest
townland families, was rejected as "too old and debilitated"
by a reputable captain who merely wished to reduce the risk of mortality
aboard his ship during the crossing. Such descriptions tell us little
about the old man's actual condition, since the same description
was sometimes used of men or women of less than forty years of age
as reason for rejection. Hundreds of similarly described emigrants
were "repatriated' weekly from Liverpool alone, some of them
no doubt creating bits of the scenes of "want and woe"
described by Melville. Of the nearly 300,000 who arrived in 1847,
some 15,000 were removed to Ireland under the new Poor Law Removal
Scally, Robert James, The End of Hidden Ireland: Rebellion, Famine,
and Emigration, Oxford University Press, New York, 1995, pp.212-215
How were the Irish waiting to emigrate from Liverpool set apart
How were the Irish famine refugees in Liverpool victimized and exploited?
"In April Stephen de Vere, of the well-known family of de Vere,
Curragh Chase, County Limerick, took a steerage passage on an emigrant
vessel to Quebec, in order 'that he might speak as a witness respecting
the sufferings of emigrants'. 'Before the emigrant has been a week
at sea,' wrote Stephen de Vere, 'he is an altered man... How can
it be otherwise ? Hundreds of poor people, men, women and children,
of all ages from the drivelling idiot of 90 to the babe just born,
huddled together, without light, without air, wallowing in filth,
and breathing a fetid atmosphere, sick in body, dispirited in heart...
the fevered patients lying between the sound in sleeping places
so narrow, as almost to deny them... a change of position... by
their agonized ravings disturbing those around them... living without
food or medicine except as administered by the hand of casual charity,
dying without spiritual consolation and buried in the deep without
the rites of the church.'
The food, de Vere continued, was seldom sufficiently cooked because
there were not enough cooking places. The supply of water was hardly
enough for drinking and cooking-washing was impossible; and in many
ships the filthy beds were never brought up on deck and aired, nor
was the narrow space between the sleeping-berths washed or scraped
until arrival at quarantine. Provisions, doled out by ounces, consisted
of meal of the worst quality and salt meat; water was so short that
the passengers threw their salt provisions overboard - they could
not eat them and satisfy their raging thirst afterwards. People
lay for days on end in their dark dose berths, because by that method
they suffered less from hunger. The captain used a false measure
for water, and the so-called gallon measure held only three pints;
for this de Vere had the captain prosecuted and fined on arrival
at Quebec. Spirits were sold once or twice a week, and frightful
scenes of drunkenness followed. Lights below were prohibited because
the ship, in spite of the open cooking-fires on her decks, was carrying
a cargo of gunpowder to the garrison at Quebec, but pipes were secretly
smoked in the berths, and lucifer matches used. The voyage took
three months, and apart from fever, which does not seem to have
been serious, many of the passengers, wrote de Vere, became 'utterly
debased and corrupted'. Yet he was told that the ship was 'more
comfortable than many'.
The worst ships were those which brought emigrants sent out by
their landlords, and of all the sufferings endured during the famine
none aroused such savage resentment, or left behind such hatred,
as the landlord emigrations.
Before the famine, responsible landlords, for instance, Lord Bessborough
and Lord Monteagle, advanced money and paid the cost of passages
for tenants to emigrate. Lord Monteagle, in particular, believed
that in emigration lay the solution of Ireland's population problem,
and the Monteagle Papers contain a number of letters from grateful
emigrants; he was also responsible for setting up the Select Committee
of the House of Lords on Colonization, that is, emigration, in 1847.
Another landlord, Mr. Spaight, of Limerick, a well-known ship broker,
bought Deify Castle, in Tipperary, for ?40,000 in 1844, and found
`a dead weight of paupers'. As he was engaged in the passenger trade,
he offered free passage and provisions to those willing to emigrate,
and the value of two pounds on landing, provided the tenants 'tumbled',
that is, pulled down, their cabins. He made the offer only to entire
families, and said he had 'got rid of crime and distress for ?3
10s. a head'. The first failure of the potato was followed by a
number of landlord emigrations, and a total of more than a thousand
tenants from various estates reached Quebec in 1846, those arriving
early in the season being reasonably healthy and, on the whole,
adequately provided for.
The fatal year 1847 brought a change. In January the Government
announced that the whole destitute population was to be transferred
to the Poor Law, to be maintained out of local rates at the expense
of owners of property, and the only hope of solvency for landlords
was to reduce the number of destitute on their estates. Emigration
began to be used as an alternative to eviction, and Sir Robert Gore
Booth, a resident landlord, was accused by Mr. Perley, the Government
emigration agent at St. John, New Brunswick, of 'exporting and shovelling
out the helpless and infirm to the detriment of the colony'. Sir
Robert in reply put forward the landlord's point of view, declaring
that emigration was the only humane method of putting properties
in Ireland on a satisfactory footing. The country was overpopulated,
and it was not right to evict and turn people out on the world.
To emigrate them was the only solution.
Emigration also saved money; the cost of emigrating a pauper was
generally about half the cost of maintaining him in the work-house
for one year, and once the ship had sailed the destitute were effectually
got rid of, for they could return only with immense difficulty.
In 1847, therefore, the temptation was strong to ship off as cheaply
as possible those unfortunates who, through age, infirmity or the
potato failure, had become useless and an apparently endless source
No attempt was made to regulate landlord emigration, but the Colonial
Land and Emigration Commissioners did warn landlords that each tenant
should have at least one pound landing-money, and provided the necessary
organization for remitting money to British North America. No money,
however, was sent.
On December 11, 1847, Mr. Adam Ferric, a member of the Legislative
Council of Canada, wrote a furious open letter on Irish landlord
emigration to the British Colonial Secretary, Earl Grey. He denounced
landlords by name, the best-known being Lord Palmerston and Major
Mahon, of Strokestown, County Roscommon, who later was tragically
murdered. Hordes of half-naked, starving paupers, declared Mr. Ferric,
including aged, infirm, beggars and vagrants, had been shipped off
to 'this young and thinly populated county without regard to humanity
or even to common decency'. They were given promises of clothes,
food and money and told that an agent would pay from two to five
pounds to each family, according to size, on arrival at Quebec;
when they arrived no agent could be found, and they were thrown
on the Government and private charity. Twice as many passengers
as the ship should hold were 'huddled together between decks'; there
was too little food and water and conditions were 'as bad as the
Nine vessels had left Sligo carrying tenants emigrated by Lord
Palmerston from his estates, and additional passages were hooked
from Liverpool, about 2,000 persons leaving in all. The first vessel
to arrive, the Elira Liddell, at St. John, New Brunswick, in July,
1847, raised a storm of protest; it was alleged that she brought
only widows with young children, and aged, destitute, decrepit persons,
useless to the colony. Another vessel, the Lord Ashburton, arrived
at Quebec on October 30, dangerously late in the season, carrying
477 passengers, 174 of whom, Lord Palmerston's tenants, were almost
naked: 87 of them had to be clothed by charity before they could,
with decency, leave the ship. On the Lord Asburton 107 persons had
died on the voyage of fever and dysentery; 60 were ill, and so deplorable
was the condition of the crew that five passengers had to work the
ship up to Grosse Isle. The Quebec Gazette described the condition
of the Lord Ashburton as 'a disgrace to the home authorities'. Even
later in the year, on November 8, 1847, the brig Richard Watson
arrived, carrying tenants of Lord Palmerston's, one of whom, a woman,
was completely naked, and had to have a sheet wrapped round her
before she could go ashore.
Most notorious of all was the Aeolus--bringing tenants of Lord
Palmerston's from Sligo--which arrived at St. John, New Brunswick,
on November 2. The St. Lawrence was then closed by ice, the Canadian
winter had begun, and caleches, or horse-drawn sleighs, had replaced
carriages in the snow-filled streets of Quebec. The captain of the
Aeolus paid ?250 in bonds to be allowed to land 240 emigrants at
St. John. They were 'almost in a state of nudity', and the surgeon
at Partridge Island, the quarantine station, asserted that ninety-nine
per cent must become a public charge immediately: they were widows
with helpless young families, decrepit old women, and men 'riddled
The citizens of St. John declared that they could not feed or shelter
the unfortunate emigrants; notices were posted in the streets offering
to all who would go back to Ireland a free passage and food; and
message was sent to Lord Palmerston that the 'Common Council of
the City of St. John deeply regret that one of Her Majesty's ministers,
the Rt. Hon. Lord Palmerston, either by himself or his authorized
agent should have exposed such a numerous and distressed portion
of his tenantry to the severity and privations of a New Brunswick
winter... unprovided with the common means of support, with broken-down
constitutions and almost in a state of nudity'."
Woodham-Smith, Cecil, The Great Hunqer; Ireland 1845-1849 Penguin
Books, London, England, 1991. First printing: 1962. pp.226-228
What were the conditions for the Irish Famine victims on board
the "coffin ships"?
Why did the landlords in Ireland wish to pay for their tenants to
Why were the worst conditions found on the ships paid for by the
Regulations at Quebec required that all ships with passengers coming
up the St. Lawrence should stop at the quarantine station on Grosse
Isle, thirty miles down the river, for medical inspection; those
vessels which had sickness on board were then detained and the sick
taken to the quarantine hospital. Grosse Isle, a beautiful island,
lying in the middle of the majestic St. Lawrence, had been selected
as the site for a quarantine station in 1832, at the time of a cholera
On February 19, 1847, Dr. Douglas, the medical officer in charge
of the quarantine station at Grosse Isle, asked for ?3,000 to make
preparations for the coming immigration, pointing out that during
the previous year the number admitted to the quarantine hospital
had been twice as large as usual, and that reports from Ireland
indicated that the state of the immigrants this year would be worse.
Far from getting ?3,000, Dr. Douglas was assigned just under ?300.
He was allowed one small steamer, the St. George, to ply between
Grosse Isle and Quebec and given permission to hire a sailing-vessel,
provided one could be found for not more than ?50 for the season.
The citizens of Quebec, however, were so uneasy, that at the beginning
of March, 1847, they sent a petition to the Secretary of State for
the Colonies, Earl Grey, in which they pointed out that the number
of Irish immigrants was annually rising, that the present distress
in Ireland must mean a further large increase, that they viewed
with alarm the probable fate of poor Irish immigrants in the rigorous
winter climate of Canada, and that there was also the possibility
of such immigrants bringing disease. They begged the Canadian Government
to take action.
The Montreal Gazette, prophesying that Canada was going to be 'inundated
with an enormous crowd of poor and destitute emigrants', called
for 'legislative measures' to meet the coming crisis. Everyone knew,
declared the Gazette, that Quebec was merely the port where emigrants
disembarked for a few hoists, to embark again for Montreal, and
it was on Montreal that the inundation would descend. However, a
meeting of Montreal citizens, called by the Emigration Committee
of Montreal on May to, 1847, to consider what steps should be taken,
was so poorly attended that the meeting was adjourned.
There was one man who might have been able to convince the Canadian
Government that a catastrophe was approaching, Alexander Carlisle
Buchanan. He was the Chief Emigration Officer, he was esteemed in
official circles, his reports were studied, his opinion carried
weight. Nevertheless, Buchanan, though he anticipated a very considerable
increase in sickness, 'did not make any official representation
to Government' because, as he wrote, 'it was a subject that did
not come within the control of my department'.
The Government, therefore, received no official warning that the
emigration from Ireland was likely to present any problem, beyond
being unusually large; and in April, 1847, the Colonial Land and
Emigration Commissioners made their seventh report without any inkling
that disaster threatened. In the Canadian Legislature soothing assurances
were given; the coming immigration would certainly he large, but
the present system was adequate to deal with it; in 1846, 125,000
persons had arrived (this was an exaggeration), but the system had
been found to work, 'and in general there were no complaints'.
The opening of the St. Lawrence was late in 1847; 'the merry month
of May started with ice an inch thick', reported the Quebec Gazette,
and the first vessel, the Syria, did not arrive until May 17. Less
than a week later the catastrophe had taken place, and was beyond
control. The Syria had 84 cases of fever on board, out of a total
of 241 passengers--nine persons had died on the voyage, and one
was to die on landing at Grosse Isle. All her passengers were Irish,
had crossed to Liverpool to embark, and had spent one night at least
in the cheap lodging-houses of Liverpool. In Dr. Douglas's opinion,
20 to 24 more were certain to sicken, bringing the total for the
Syria to more than 100, and the quarantine hospital, built for 150
cases, could not possibly accommodate more than 200.
Dr. Douglas now told the Canadian Government that he had 'reliable
information' that. 10,600 emigrants at least had left Britain for
Quebec since April 10: 'Judging from the specimens just arrived',
large numbers would have to go to hospital, and he asked permission
to build a new shed, to cost about ?150, to be used as a hospital.
On May 20, he received authority to erect the shed provided the
cost was kept down to ?135."
Four days after the Syria, on May 21, eight ships arrived with
a total of 430 fever cases. Two hundred and five were taken into
the hospital, which became dangerously overcrowded, and the remaining
216 had to be left on board ship. 'I have not a bed to lay them
on or a place to put them,' wrote Dr. Douglas. 'I never contemplated
the possibility of every vessel arriving with fever as they do now.'
Three days later seventeen more vessels arrived, all with fever;
a shed normally used to accommodate passengers detained for quarantine
was turned into a hospital and instantly filled. There were now
695 persons in hospital and 164 on board ship waiting to be taken
off; and Dr. Douglas wrote that he had just received a message that
twelve more vessels had anchored, 'all sickly'.
On May 26 thirty vessels, with 10,000 emigrants on board, were
waiting at Grosse Isle; by the 29th there were thirty-six vessels,
with 13,000 emigrants. And 'in all these vessels cases of fever
and dysentery had occurred', wrote Dr. Douglas-the dysentery seems
to have been infections, and was probably bacillary dysentery.
On May 31 forty vessels were waiting, extending in a line two miles
down the St. Lawrence; about 1,100 cases of fever were on Grosse
Isle in sheds, tents, and laid in rows in the little church; an
equal number were on board the ships, waiting to be taken off; and
a further 45,000 emigrants at least were expected.
On June 1 the Catholic Archbishop of Quebec addressed a circular
letter to all Catholic Bishops and Archbishops in Ireland, asking
them to 'use every endeavor to prevent your diocesans emigrating
in such numbers to Canada'. Nevertheless, the numbers continued
to mount; ultimately, in 1847, 109,000 are stated to have left for
British North America, 'almost all', stated the Colonial Land and
Emigration Commissioners, 'Irish'.
By July, more than 2,500 sick were on Grosse Isle, and conditions
were appalling. 'Medical men,' wrote Dr. Douglas, were 'disgusted
with the disagreeable nature of their duties in treating such filthy
cases.' Many doctors died; Dr. Benson, of Dublin, who had experience
in fever hospitals in Ireland, arrived on May 2d and volunteered
his services, but caught typhus and died six days later. Each of
the medical officers was ill at some time, and three other doctors
died of typhus, in addition to Dr. Benson. At one period twelve
out of a medical staff of fourteen were ill; of the two others,
one left because he was afraid of catching typhus and one was summoned
to a dying parent, leaving Dr. Douglas virtually single-handed.
Patients on the ships were often left for four or five days without
any medical attention: under the Passenger Act of 1842 ships were
not compelled to carry a doctor, and only one doctor besides Dr.
Benson happened to have been a passenger.
Nurses, too, were unobtainable, and the sick suffered tortures
from lack of attention. A Catholic priest, Father Moylan, gave water
to sick persons in a tent who had had nothing to drink for eighteen
hours; another, Father McQuirk, was given carte blanche by Dr. Douglas
to hire nurses, as many as possible, from among the healthy passengers.
He offered high wages and told the women that, speaking as their
priest, it was their duty to volunteer; not one came forward. The
fear of fever among the Irish, said Dr. Douglas, was so great that
'the nearest relatives abandon each other whenever they can'. The
only persons who could be induced to take charge of the sick were
abandoned and callous creatures, of both sexes, who robbed the dead.
Woodham-Smith, Cecil, The Great Hunger; Ireland 1845-1849 Penguin
Books, London, England, 1991. p.218-221
Activity 1 APPENDIX III
ON THE ISLAND: THE HORRORS OF GROSSE ISLE'
The Canadian authorities were hardly less remiss than the British
in preparations to meet the terrible emergency before them; although
they had equally received ample warning of it. In 1846, Dr Douglas,
the medical superintendent at Grosse Isle, had repeatedly urged
them to get ready for what was coming. The British, Irish, American
and Canadian newspapers had almost daily reported and commented
on the alarming progress which the famine and pestilence were making
in Ireland, so that they could not plead ignorance of the ominous
outlook or of the fact that the emigration from the Green Isle to
Canada in 1847 would be on a very large scale.
Early in that year Mr. Robert Christie, the historian, then a leading
member of the Provincial Parliament, wrote to the Provincial Secretary,
Hon. Dominick Daly, complaining of the Government's inexcusable
failure to take proper and necessary precautions and pointing out
the great danger to which the country would be exposed, together
with the measures to be adopted to avert it. Reverend Fr Moylan,
the Catholic missionary at Grosse Isle in those days, also gave
timely forewarning to the Government with respect to the gravity
of the situation and it was upon his urgent recommendation that,
later when the crisis was on, the available police force to keep
order on the island was increased by 50 men of the 93rd Regiment,
under Lt. Studdard, sent down from Quebec.
But all the signs and the warnings of the coming storm were virtually
unheeded until it was practically too late. The only additions made
to the Quarantine establishment were through the purchase of 50
bedsteads, double the quantity of straw used in former years and
the erection of a new shed or building to serve as a hospital and
to contain 60 more beds. In this way, provision, including the old
hospitals and sheds dating from 1832, was made for only 200 sick,
the average of former years never having attained half that number
requiring admission at one time. How utterly inadequate this was,
the alarming sequel soon showed.
But, while there was little or no excuse for the failure of the
British authorities to have risen equal to the great emergency,
there was certainly a good deal for that of their Canadian colleagues.
At that time the British North American provinces were comparatively
new and poor, carrying on a struggling existence and possessing
little means or few re-sources that were then available. Their political
and social organization was yet in a more or less primitive and
chaotic state, and as already seen, they were also divided among
themselves by conflicting opinions as to the gravity of the danger
and the steps to be taken to avert or meet it.
However, they were very soon brought face to face with it in all
its hideousness and scarcely a month had elapsed after the opening
of navigation in 1847, when a session of the Provincial Parliament
was hurriedly called and held in Montreal, a select committee was
appointed to inquire into the situation, and a commission was also
appointed consisting of Drs. Painchaud, of Quebec and McDonnell
and Campbell, of Montreal, to investigate the character and amount
of sick-ness prevailing among the emigrants at Grosse Isle and the
best mode to be adopted to arrest the disease and prevent its dissemination,
with full powers to make all such changes on the island as they
The commissioners reported. Of the sick in the hospitals, sheds
and tents, they said: "We found thence unfortunate people in
the most deplorable condition for want of necessary nurses and hospital
attendants; their friends who had partially recovered being in too
many instances unable and in most, unwilling, to render them any,
assistance, common sympathies being apparently annihilated by the
mental and bodily depression produced by famine and disease. At
our inspection of many of the vessels, we witnessed some appalling
instances of what we have now stated - corpses lying in the same
beds with the sick and the dying, the healthy not taking the trouble
to remove them."
Immediate steps were taken by the commissioners for affording temporary
shelter on the island, by means of spars and sails borrowed from
the ships and the putting up of shanties for the accommodation of
What pen can fittingly describe the horrors of that shocking summer
at Grosse Isle? All the eye-witnesses, all the writers on the subject,
agree in saying that they have never been surpassed in pathos, as
well as in hideousness and ghastliness. In a few months one of the
most beautiful spots on the St Lawrence was converted into a great
lazar and charnel-house to be forever sanctified by the saddest
memories of an unhappy race.
In speaking of the fever sheds, Mr. De Vere says: "They were
very miserable, so slightly built as to exclude neither the heat
nor the cold. No sufficient care was taken to remove the sick from
the sound or to disinfect and clean the beddings. The very straw
upon which they had lain was often allowed to become a bed for their
successors and I have known many poor families prefer to burrow
under heaps of loose stones, near the shore, rather than accept
the shelter of the infected sheds."
Captain, afterwards Admiral Boxer, of Crimean fame, stated that
there was nothing more terrible than the sheds. Most of the patients
were attacked with dysentery and the smell was dreadful, as there
was no ventilation.
Frs. Moylan and O'Reilly saw the emigrants in the sheds lying on
the bare hoards and ground for whole nights and days without either
bed or bedding. Two, and sometimes three, were in a berth. No distinction
was made as to sex, age or nature of illness. Food was insufficient
and the bread not baked. Patients were supplied three times a day
with tea, gruel or broth. How any of them ever recovered is a wonder.
Fr O'Reilly visited two ships, the Avon and the Triton. The former
lost 136 passengers on the voyage and the latter 93. All these were
thrown overboard and buried in the Atlantic. He administered the
last rites to over 200 sick on hoard these ships. Fr Moylan's description
of the condition of the holds of these vessels is simply most revolting
As for the dead, who were not buried at sea, it has been already
seen how they were taken from the pest ships and corded like firewood
on the beach to await burial. In many instances the corpses were
carried out of the foul smelling holds or they were dragged with
boat-hooks out of them by sailors and others who had to be paid
a sovereign for each.
A word more as to the removal of the corpses from the vessels.
They were brought from the hold, where the darkness was, as it were,
rendered more visible by the miserable untrimmed oil lamp that showed
light in some places sufficient to distinguish a form, but not a
face. It was more by touch than by sight that the passengers knew
each other. First came the touch and then the question, who is it?
Even in the bunks many a loved one asked the same question to one
by his or her side, for in the darkness that reigned their eyesight
was failing them.
The priest, leaving daylight and sunlight behind, as each step
from deck led him down the narrow ladder into the hold of the vessels
of those days, as wanting in ventilation as the Black Hole of Calcutta,
had to make himself known and your poor Irish emigrant with the
love and reverence he had for his clergy, who stuck to him through
thick and thin, endeavored to raise himself and warmly greet him
with the little strength that remained.
Another death announced, orders were given by the captain for the
removal of the body. Kind hands in many cases attended to this.
In other cases, as we have seen, it was left to strangers. Up the,
little narrow ladder to the deck, were the corpses borne in the
same condition in which they died, victims among other things of
filth, uncleanliness and bed sores and with hardly any clothing
on them. There was no pretence of decency or the slightest humanity
On deck a rope was placed around the emaciated form of the Irish
peasant, father, mother, wife and husband, sister and brother. The
rope was hoisted and with their heads and naked limbs dangling for
a moment in mid-air, with the wealth of hair of the Irish maiden,
or young Irish matron, or the silvered locks of the poor old Irish
grandmother floating in the breeze, they were finally lowered over
the ship's side into the boats, rowed to the island and left on
the rocks until such time as they were coffined. Well might His
Grace the Archbishop of Quebec, in his letter to the Bishops of
Ireland, say that the details he received of the scenes of horror
and desolation at the island almost staggered belief and baffled
There was no delay in burying the dead. The spot selected for their
last resting place was a lonely one at the western end of the island
at about 10 acres from the landing. At first the graves were not
dug a sufficient depth. The rough coffins were piled one over the
other and the earth covering the upper row, in some instances, was
not more than a foot deep and generally speaking about a foot and
a half. The cemetery was about 6 acres in extent. Later huge trenches
were dug in it about 5 or 6 feet deep and in these the bodies were
laid often uncoffined. Six men were kept constantly employed at
Be'chard, in his history of the island, adds a new horror to the
ghoulish scene. He states that an army of rats, which had come ashore
from the fever ships, invaded the field of death, took possession
of it and pierced it with innumerable holes to get at and gnaw the
bodies buried in the shallow graves until hundreds of loads of earth
had to be carted and placed upon them.
At first, says the late J. M. O'Leary, the sick were placed in
the hospitals, while the seemingly healthy were sent to the sheds,
but emigrants were continually arriving who were left for days and
nights without a bed under them, or a cover over them, wasting and
melting away under the united influence of fever and dysentery,
without anyone to give them a drink during their long hours of raging
thirst and terrible sufferings.
For want of beds and bedding, for want of attendants, hundreds
of poor creatures - after a long voyage consumed by confinement
and hunger, thirst and disease - were compelled to spend the long,
long nights and sultry days, lying on the hard boards without a
pillow under their burning heads, without a hand to moisten their
parched lips or fevered brows and what was the result? They who,
by a little providential precaution and ordinary care, might have
been restored to their large, helpless families and distracted relations,
were hurried away in a few hours to their premature and unhonored
graves while those who should at once have provided for their salvation
at any cost and sacrifice were haggling about the means.
What encouragement was it for a young professional man to expose
himself to almost certain death for the paltry remuneration of 17
shillings and 6 pence a day held out to those who tendered their
services? What could be hoped for or expected from nurses who were
willing to spend their nights and days in a fever hospital for 3
shillings a day?
In the sheds were double tiers of bunks, the upper one about 3
feet above the lower. As the planks of the former were not placed
close together, the filth from the sick fell upon those in the lower
tier who were too weak to move. Filth was thus allowed to accumulate
and with so vast a crowd of fever cases in one place and with no
ventilation, generated a miasma so virulent and concentrated that
few who came within its poisonous atmosphere escaped.
Clergy, doctors, hospital attendants, servants and police, fell
ill one after the other and not a few of them succumbed. A number
of the captains, officers and crews of the pest ships also died
at Grosse Isle and some of the vessels were so decimated of these
during the voyage across and so short-handed, that it is a wonder
how they ever reached the island.
Often times there were two and sometimes three in a bed without
any distinction of age, sex or nature of illness. Corpses remained
all night in the places where death occurred, even when there was
a companion in the same bed, while the bodies that had been brought
from the ships were piled like cordwood on the beach without any
covering over them until such time as they were coffined.
In the midst of this fierce Canadian summer, thousands of sick
kept pouring into Grosse Isle. Not a drop of fresh water was to
be found on the island, no lime juice, no clean straw even to protect
the patients from the wet ground in the tents while in the beginning
of July, with the thermometer at 98° in the shade, hundreds were
landed from the ships and thrown rudely by the unfeeling crews,
on the burning rocks and there they remained whole nights and days
without shelter of any kind.
Mangan, James (Ed.), Robert Whyte’s 1847 Famine Ship Diary, Mercier
Press, Dublin, Ireland, 1994. P.111-121
Questions for discussion:
How many famine and fever victims were the medical authorities at
Grosse Isle prepared to handle? How many arrived in 1847? Why were
they so unprepared?
What was the general state of the Irish emigrants as they arrived
at Grosse Isle?
Were the famine victims given food, water, shelter, clothing, medical
care and decent burials?
In what sense were the Irish better off than they were in Ireland?
The student will weigh the opinions of historians and attempt to
come to a conclusion about genocide in Ireland during the Great
Teaching/learning Strategies and Activities:
Students will study the opinions of historians and compare them
with definitions of genocide provided.
Activity 1. Students will read "Genocide", answer questions
following the readings and discuss the issues raised.
"Genocide" (see footnotes for sources)
The American Heritage Dictionary defines genocide as: "The
systematic, planned annihilation of a racial, political or cultural
The United Nations Convention on Genocide, adopted by the U.N.
in 1948 lists this as one of the acts which qualify: "deliberately
inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about
its destruction in whole or part."
Richard L. Rubenstein in his book The Age of Triage: Fear and Hope
in an Overcrowded World offers yet another definition. He states,
"...a government is as responsible for a genocidal policy when
its officials accept mass death as a necessary cost of implementing
their policies as when they pursue genocide as an end in itself."
BRITISH, IRISH AND AMERICAN VOICES:
Oxford history professor James Anthony Froude, who once wrote that
Irish folk were "more like squalid apes than human beings"
wrote the following in his book, English in Ireland: "England
governed Ireland for what she deemed her own interest, making her
calculations on the gross balance of her trade ledgers, and leaving
moral obligations aside, as if right and wrong had been blotted
out of the statute book of the Universe." (2.)
In his essay, "Ideoloqy and the Famine", Belfast-born
and Cambridge-educated historian Peter Gray wrote that:
"It is difficult to refute the indictment made by one humanitarian
English observer in the later stages of the Famine, that amidst
'an abundance of cheap food...very many have been done to death
by pure tyranny'. The charge of culpable neglect of the consequences
of policies leading to mass starvation is indisputable. That a conscious
choice to pursue moral or economic objectives at the expense of
human life was made by several ministers is also demonstrable."
Professor Gray concludes, however, that British government policy
"was not a policy of deliberate genocide", but a dogmatic
refusal to admit the policy was wrong and "amounted to a sentence
of death to many thousands." (3.)
Dennis Clark, an Irish-American historian, wrote in The Irish in
Philadelphia that the famine was "the culmination of generations
of neglect, misrule and repression. It was an epic of English colonial
cruelty and inadequacy. For the landless cabin dwellers it meant
emigration or extinction... (4.)
The dimensions of the calamity can hardly be delineated by simple
statistics. England had presided over an epochal disaster too monstrous
and too impersonal to be a mere product of individual ill-will or
the fiendish outcome of a well-planned conspiracy. It was something
worse: the cumulative antagonism and corruption of the English ruling
class was visited with crushing intensity upon a long-enfeebled
foe. It was as close to genocide as colonialism would come in the
About the 500,000 evictions that took place during the Famine,
Clark wrote: "The British government's insistence on 'the absolute
rights of landlords'" to evict farmers and their families so
they could raise cattle and sheep, was a process "as close
to 'ethnic cleansing' as any Balkan war ever enacted." (5.)
Professor James S. Donnelly Jr., a historian at the University of
Wisconsin, wrote the following in Landlord and Tenant in Nineteenth-Century
"I would draw the following broad conclusion: at a fairly
early stage of the Great Famine the government's abject failure
to stop or even slow down the clearnaces (evictions) contributed
in a major way to enshrining the idea of English state-sponsored
genocide in Irish popular mind. Or perhaps one should say in the
Irish mind, for this was a notion that appealed to many educated
and discriminating men and women, and not only to the revolutionary
But Donnelly concludes otherwise: "And it is also my contention
that while genocide was not in fact committed, what happened during
and as a result of the clearances had the look of genocide to a
great many Irish..." (6.)
When the Irish Poor Law Commissioner, Edward Twisleton resigned
in protest over lack of relief aid from Britain, the Lord Lieutenant
of Ireland, the Earl of Clarendon, wrote the following to British
Prime Minister Lord John Russell:
"He (Twisleton) thinks that the destitution here [in Ireland]
is so horrible, and the indifference of the House of Commons is
so manifest, that he is an unfit agent for a policy that must be
one of extermination." (7.)
In 1849 Twisleton testified that "comparatively trifling sums
were required for Britain to spare itself the deep disgrace of permitting
its miserable fellow subjects to die of starvation." According
to Gray, the British spent 7 million Pounds for relief in Ireland
between 1845 and 1850, "representing less than half of one
percent of the British gross national product over five years. Contemporaries
noted the sharp contrast with the 20 million Pounds compensation
given to West Indian slave-owners in the 1830s." (8.)
The Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, the Earl of Clarendon wrote a letter
to Prime Minister Russell on April 26th, 1849, expressing his feelings
about lack of aid from the British House of Commons:
"I do not think there is another legislature in Europe that
would disregard such suffering as now exists in the west of Ireland,
or coldly persist in a policy of extermination." (9.)
Nassau Senior, a respected economics professor at Oxford University
said that the Famine in Ireland "would not kill more than one
million people, and that would scarcely be enough to do any good."
EDWARDS AND WlLLIAMS
In The Great Famine: Studies in Irish History 1845-52 Editors R.
Dudley Edwards and T. Desmond Williams wrote:
"The political commentator, the ballad singer and the unknown
maker of folk-tales have all spoken about the Great famine, but
is there more to be said? If man, the prisoner of time, acts in
conformity with the conventions of society into which he is born,
it is difficult to judge him with irrevocable harshness. So it is
with the men of the famine era. Human limitations and timidity dominate
the story of the Great Famine, but of great and deliberately imposed
evil in high positions of responsibility there is little evidence."
John Mitchel, leader of the Young Ireland Movement, wrote the following
"I have called it an artificial famine: that is to say, it
was a famine which desolated a rich and fertile island, that produced
every year abundance and superabundance to sustain all her people
and many more. The English, indeed, call the famine a "dispensation
of Providence;" and ascribe it entirely to the blight on potatoes.
But potatoes failed in like manner all over Europe; yet there was
no famine save in Ireland. The British account of the matter, then,
is first, a fraud - second, a blasphemy. The Almighty, indeed, sent
the potato blight, but the English created the famine." (12.)
OTHER IRISH NATIONALISTS
In 1848, Denis Shine Lawlor suggested that Lord John Russell was
a student of the poet Spenser, who had inhumanely calculated "how
far English colonization and English policy might be most effectively
carried out by Irish starvation." (13.)
That same year a Cork City Councilor named Brady told his audience
that the British Prime Minister had "violated every pledge
previously made on arriving at place and power... a million and
a half Irish people perished, were smitten and offered up as a holocaust,
whose blood ascended to the throne of God for redress..., but the
pity was that the minister was permitted to act so with impunity."
On April 1, 1848, an editorial writer in The Nation said, "It
is evident to all men that our foreign government is but a club
for grave-diggers...we are decimated not by the will of God but
the will of the Whigs." (14.)
WOODHAM - SMITH
At the end of The Great Hunger, Cecil Woodham-Smith concludes:
"These misfortunes were not part of a plan to destroy the
Irish nation; they fell on the people because the government of
Lord John Russell was afflicted with an extraordinary inability
to foresee consequences. It has been frequently declared that the
parsimony of the British Government during the famine was the main
cause of the sufferings of the people, and parsimony was certainly
carried to remarkable lengths; but obtuseness, short-sightedness
and ignorance probably contributed more."(15.)
"Much of this obtuseness sprang from the fanatical faith of
mid-nineteenth century British politicians in the economic doctrine
of laissez-faire, no interference by government, no meddling with
the operation of natural causes. Adherence to laissez-faire was
carried to such a length that in the midst of one of the major famines
of history, the government was perpetually nervous of being too
good to Ireland and of corrupting the Irish people by kindness,
and so stifling the virtues of self reliance and industry."
"In addition hearts were hardened by the antagonism then felt
by the English towards the Irish, an antagonism rooted far back
in religious and political history, and at the period of the famine,
irritation had been added as well...It is impossible to read the
letters of British statesmen of the period, Charles Wood and Trevelyan
for instance, without astonishment at the influence exerted by antagonism
and irritation on government policy in Ireland during the famine."
"It is not characteristic of the English to behave as they
have behaved in Ireland; as a nation, the English have proved themselves
to be capable of generosity, tolerance and magnanimity, but not
where Ireland is concerned. As Sydney Smith, the celebrated writer
and wit, wrote: 'The moment the very name of Ireland is mentioned,
the English seem to bid adieu to common feeling, common prudence
and common sense, and to act with the barbarity of tyrants and the
fatuity of idiots."' (16.)
At the end of The Great Calamity, Christine Kinealy writes:
"While it was evident that the government had to do something
to help alleviate the suffering, the particular nature of the actual
response, especially following 1846, suggests a more covert agenda
and motivation. As the Famine progressed, it became apparent that
the government was using its information not merely to help it formulate
its relief policies, but also as an opportunity to facilitate various
long-desired changes within Ireland. These included population control
and the consolidation of property through various means, including
Despite the overwhelming evidence of prolonged distress caused by
successive years of potato blight, the underlying philosophy of
the relief efforts was that they should be kept to a minimalist
level; in fact they actually decreased as the Famine progressed."
BRITISH COLONIAL POLICIES
Cecil Woodham-Smith, an Englishwoman, wrote that "It is not
characteristic of the English to behave as they have behaved in
Ireland." The following historical record offer contrary evidence.
Briefly consider five issues: British treatment of American prisoners
during the Revolution, British domination of the slave trade, British
government-backed "Opium War", British concentration camps
used during the Boer War, and the 1943 mass starvation in British-ruled
1. BRITISH STARVED AMERICAN REVOLUTIONARY WAR PRISONERS
During the American Revolution the British put captured rebel soldiers,
sailors, and civilians onboard floating dungeons called "horrible
hulks." According to Albert Martin in The War for Independence,
"They were worse than any prison ashore."
On the worst boat, H.M.S. Jersey, nicknamed `Hell Afloat’, "Prisoners
were allowed half the Royal navy's ration, and that was food rejected
as too spoiled even for Her Majesty's seamen. Rats and vermin swarmed
through Jersey, spreading disease."
"Although the Jersey held 1,100 prisoners with more arriving
daily, overcrowding was no problem, since the dying made way for
the newcomers. Each morning a Redcoat sergeant bellowed through
the bars, 'Rebels, turn out your dead.’ No fewer than five bodies
were hoisted up each day."
The only way to get off the hulks was to change sides and enlist
in the service of King George III. "British officers constantly
spoke of His Majesty's generosity toward rebels who mended their
ways. Yet very few accepted the offer to turn traitor. Their willingness
to suffer is proof of their devotion to the cause of American independence."
Over eleven thousand men died in these hulks, more than lost their
lives in a11 of George Washinqton's battles.. (18.)
2. DURING THE 17TH AND EARLY 18TH CENTURY, ENGLAND WAS THE LEADING
SLAVE TRADING NATION
According to a 1980 book, The African Slave Trade, England began
trading slaves in 1562 when London merchants financed "three
good ships" with hundreds of men in their crews, to sail under
the command of William Hawkins. In Guinea, they "got into their
possession, partly by the sword and partly by other means to the
number of 300 Negroes at least." (20.)
Between 1795-1804 when English slave trade was at its height, the
following were the clearances for ships from the three main English
Slaves allowed by regulation
"The value of British income derived from (slave) trade with
the West Indies was said to be four times greater than the value
of British incomes derived from trade with the rest of the world.
And this West India trade was in many respects the ideal colonial
system. The trade consisted in simple exchange of cheap manufactured
goods for African slaves, of African slaves for West India foodstuffs
and tobacco; and of these products, once brought to Europe, for
a high return in cash." (21.)
3. THE BRITISH USED WARSHIPS AND TROOPS TO FORCE CHINA TO ACCEPT
According to World History From 1500 the British wanted Chinese
tea, but had nothing but cash to trade for it. Their colony in India
was producing a good crop of opium, but it was prohibited in China
except for medical purposes. The Chinese resisted illegal British
opium trafficking, and that led to the "Opium War". Britain
used superior firepower, ships and troops to force the Chinese to
accept opium sales. "The opium trade amounted to millions of
silver dollars and hundreds of tons of opium annually." (22.)
4. THE BRITISH STARVED THOUSANDS IN BOER WAR CONCENTRATION CAMPS
Fifty years after a million Irish people starved to death under
British rule, the English fought their last great imperialist war.
Major-General Horatio H. Kitchener commanded the British troops
fighting the Dutch Boers in South Africa.
According to English author Thomas Pakenham, in his 1979 book The
Boer War, Kitchener hoped to defeat the guerilla forces by destroying
their means of support. He ordered the Boer farms burned and all
the cattle, sheep and other livestock killed. His soldiers then
rounded up all the men, women and children who were not guerilla
fighters, and put them into concentration camps near railroad lines.
One hundred and fifty thousand people, white and black, were interned
in camps with no running water, no meat, no milk for the children,
and little fresh fruit or vegetables. Humanitarians reported that
fever-stricken children-were dying in the dirt. Twenty to twenty-eight
thousand people died of malnutrition and related diseases, according
to Pakenham. British "methods of barbarism" in South Africa
shocked the world.
5. WHILE UNDER BRITISH COLONIAL RULE, MILLIONS STARVED IN BENGAL,
According to Dr. Gideon Polya, a professor in Victoria, Australian,
the 1943-44 famine that killed an estimated 3.5 to 5 million people
in Bengal was "man-made". Dr. Polya says that "the
British brought an unsympathetic and ruthless economic agenda to
India" and that "the creation of famine" was brought
about by British "sequestration and export of food for enhanced
He says that "British disinclination to respond with urgency
and vigor to food deficits resulted in a succession of about 2 dozen
appalling famines during the British occupation of India."
These swept away tens of millions of people. One of the worst famines
was that of 1770 that killed an estimated 10 million people in Bengal
(one third of the population) and which was "exacerbated by
the rapacity of the (British) East India Company".
Dr. Polya writes that "An extraordinary feature of the appalling
record of British imperialism with respect to genocide and mass,
world-wide killing of huge numbers of people (by war disease and
famine) is its absence from public perception. Thus, for example,
inspection of a selection of British history texts reveals that
mention of the appalling Irish Famine of 1845-47 is confined in
each case to several lines (although there is of course detailed
discussion of the attendant, related political debate about the
Corn Laws). It is hardly surprising that there should be no mention
of famine in India or Bengal."
The 1998 Nobel Prize winner in economics, Indian-born Amartya Sen,
was a childhood victim of the Bengal famine. He said, "Any
famine is easy to prevent if a government has the incentive to prevent
it. If the government generates the income, then the market can
deal with the supply problem very well by moving food." Famines
never strike democracies, Professor Sen contends. "Democracy
gives a political incentive for the government to intervene… elected
governments feel an obligation to intercede on behalf of constituents.
Autocrats feel no such compunction."
If the above historical record is true, then it is characteristic
of British officials to behave as they behaved in Ireland. However,
one cannot conclude that the ruthless actions of the ruling elite
had the complete support of the British people.
THE CASE FOR GENOCIDE IN IRELAND: A SUMMARY
1. British Laws enacted over centuries, deprived the Irish of their
land, language, trade, education, vote and religion.
2. British racism against the Irish people has been manifest for
centuries, and has been used to dehumanize, debase, criminalize
and enslave the Irish. British racism also extended to Africans,
Indians, Egyptians and other conquered peoples.
3. The British government upheld the absolute right of landlords
to evict Irish families during a terrible famine even in the dead
of winter. Further, the Poor Law was encouraged landlords to engage
in eviction in order not to be bankrupted by poor rates for their
4. The British allowed massive amounts of food to be exported from
Ireland during the Famine and justified it under the doctrine of
laissez-faire, or non-interference. However, British interference
in Irish trade has been prolonged and continuous, before, during,
and after the Famine.
5. The British authorities were well aware that the Poor Law made
landlords more likely to make a one-time payment for "coffin
ship" passage for their tenants rather that continue to pay
taxes for their upkeep in workhouses. Canadian officials repeatedly
sent reports informing British officials of the massive mortality
rates on these ships.
Which historian or author provides the weakest arguments about
genocide? Which the strongest? Why?
Which, if any, of the three definitions of genocide applies to British
rule in Ireland?
Why is it important to consider the other acts of starvation imposed
by the British in the historical period before and after the Famine?
Do the actions of the British government related to the Revolutionary
War prison ships, the slave trade, the Opium War, the Boer War,
and the Bengal famine influence your opinion about whether or not
the British were capable of genocide in Ireland?
1. Clark, Dennis, "The Great Irish Famine: Worse than Genocide?"
published by the Irish Edition (Philadelphia) July, August and September,
1993. p.7 2. 2. MacManus, Seumas, The Story of the Irish Race, The
Irish Publishing Co., New
3. Gray, Peter, "Ideology and the Famine" in The Great
Irish Famine Poirteir, Cathal, Editor, Mercier Press, Dublin, Ireland.
4. Clark, Dennis, The Irish in Philadelphia, Temple University Press,
Philadelphia, 1973. p.25
5. Clark, "The Great Irish Famine" p. 9
6. Donnelly, James S., Jr., "Mass Eviction and the Irish Famine:
The Clearnaces Revisited", from The Great Irish Famine, edited
by Cathal Poirteir. Mercier Press, Dublin, Ireland. 1995. p. 170-71
7. Woodham-Smith, Cecil, The Great Hunaer; Ireland 1845-1849 Penguin
Books, London, England, 1991. p.380
8. Gray, Peter, The Irish Famine, Discoveries: Harry N. Abrams,
Inc., New York, London, 1995, p.95
9. Woodham-Smith, p.381
10. Gallagher, Michael & Thomas, Paddy's Lament. Harcourt Brace
& Company, New York / London, 1982. p.84
11. Ibid., p.180
12. Ibid., p.178
13. Donnelly, p.172
14. Donnelly, p.173
15. Woodham-Smith, p.410
16. Ibid., p.411
17. Kinealy, Christine, This Great CalamitY; The Irish Famine 1845-52,
Roberts Rinehart, Boulder, 1995. p.352-3
18. Martin, Albert, The War For Independence, Antheneum, New York,
1988. p. 180-83
19. Davidson, Basil, The African Slave Trade, Little Brown, Boston,
20. Ibid., p.82
21. Ibid., p.78
22. Allen, J. Michael and James B., World History from 1500, Hatper
and Row, New York, 1990
1. The student will determine the attitude of the poet toward the
Famine experience by focusing on his/her use of imagery, allusion,
metaphor and refrain.
TEACHING/LEARNING STRATEGIES AND ACTIVITIES
A.Students will compare the points of view contained in the poems,
and discuss the poet’s ability to evoke empathy. Students will compare
the attitude of stoicism versus passionate defiance.
Activity 1. Students will read a variety of poems, answer questions
following the readings, and discuss the issues raised.
"GIVE ME THREE GRAINS OF CORN, MOTHER."
"FIELDS OF ATHENRY"
"THE PRATIES GROW SO SMALL"
"THE ITINERANT SINGING GIRL"
"THE BOREEN SIDE"
"FAMINE AND EXPORTATION"
"SONG OF THE FAMINE"
"THE FAMINE YEAR (THE STRICKEN LAND)"
Poetry used by permission of the Irish Academic Press, Dublin.
Excerpted from The Hungry Voice, Edited by Chris Morash, 1989
"GIVE ME THREE GRAINS OF CORN, MOTHER."
By Amelia Blanford Edwards
Give me three grains of corn, Mother,
Only three grains of corn;
It will keep the little life I have
Till the coming of the morn.
I am dying of hunger and cold, Mother,
Dying of hunger and cold;
And half the agony of such a death
My lips have never told.
It has gnawed like a wolf at my heart, Mother,
A wolf that is fierce for blood;
All the livelong day, and the night beside,
Gnawing for lack of food.
I dreamed of bread in my sleep, Mother,
And the sight was heaven to see;
I awoke with an eager, famishing lip,
But you had no bread for me.
How could I look to you, Mother,
How could I look to you
For bread to give to your starving boy,
When you were starving too?
For I read the famine in your cheek,
And in your eyes so wild,
And I felt it in your bony hand,
As you laid it on your child.
The Queen has lands and gold, Mother,
The Queen has lands and gold,
While you are forced to your empty breast
A skeleton babe to hold-
A babe that is dying of want, Mother,
As I am dying now,
With a ghastly look in its sunken eye,
And famine upon its brow.
There is many a brave heart here, Mother,
Dying of want and cold,
While only across the Channel, Mother,
Are many that roll in gold;
There are rich and proud men there, Mother,
With wondrous wealth to view,
And the bread they fling to their dogs tonight
Would give life to me and you.
What has poor Ireland done, Mother,
What has poor Ireland done,
That the world looks on, and sees us starve,
Perishing one by one?
Do the men of England care not, Mother,
The great men and the high,
For the suffering sons of Erin's Isle,
Whether they live or die?
Come nearer to my side, Mother,
Come nearer to my side,
And hold me fondly, as you held
My father when he died;
Quick, for I cannot see you, Mother,
My breath is almost gone;
Mother! Dear Mother! Ere I die,
Give me three grains of corn.
FIELDS OF ATHENRY (SONG)
By Pete St. John
By a lonely prison wall, I heard a young girl calling
"Michael, they have taken you away,
For you stole Trevelyan's corn,
So the young might see the morn.
Now a prison snip lies waiting in the bay."
Low lie the fields of Athenry
Where once we watched the small free birds fly
Our love was on the wing
We had dreams and songs to sing
It's so lonely round the fields of Athenry.
By a lonely prison wall, I heard a young man calling
"Nothing matters, Mary, when you're free
Against the famine and the crown,
I rebelled they cut me down.
Now you must raise our child with dignity."
By a lonely harbor wall, we watched the last star fall
As the prison ship sailed out against the sky
For she lived to hope and pray for her love in Botany Bay
It's so lonely round the fields of Athenry.
THE PRATIES GROW SO SMALL
O, the praties they grow small
over here, over here.
O, the praties they grow small,
and they grow from spring to fall,
and we eat them skins and all,
over here, over here.
O, I wish that we were geese,
night and morn, night and morn,
O, I wish that we were geese,
For they fly and take their ease,
And they live and die in peace,
over here, over here.
O, we're trampled in the dust,
over here, over here,
O, we're trampled in the dust,
But the Lord in whom we trust,
will give us crumb for crust,
over here, over here.
THE ITINERANT SINGING GIRL
By Jane Francesca Wilde (Oscar Wilde’s Mother)
Fatherless and motherless, no brothers have I,
And all my little sisters in the cold grave lie;
Wasted with hunger I saw them falling dead --
Lonely and bitter are the tears I shed.
Friendless and loverless, I wander to and fro,
Singing while my faint heart is breaking fast with woe,
Smiling in my sorrow, and singing for my bread --
Lonely and bitter are the tears I shed.
Harp clang and merry song by stranger's door and board,
None ask wherefore tremble my pale lips at each word;
None care why the color from my wan cheek has fled --
Lonely and bitter are the tears I shed.
Smiling and singing still, tho' hunger, want, and woe,
Freeze the young life-current in my veins as I go;
Begging for my living, yet wishing I were dead --
Lonely and bitter are the tears I shed.
THE BOREEN SIDE
By James Tighe
A stripling, the last of his race,
lies dead In a nook by the Boreen side;
The rivulet runs by his board and his bed,
Where he ate the green cresses and died.
The Lord of the plains where that stream wanders on, -
Oh! he loved not the Celtic race --
By a law of the land cast out fellow man,
And he feeds the fat ox in his place.
The hamlet he leveled, and issued commands,
Preventing all human relief,
And out by the ditches, the serfs of his lands,
Soon perished of hunger and grief.
He knew they should die -- as he ate and he drank
of the nourishing food and wine;
He heard of the death cries of the famish'd and lank
And fed were his dogs and his swine.
That Lord is a Christian! and prays the prayer,
'Our Father' -- the Father of all --
And he reads in the Book of wonderful care,
That marks when a sparrow may fall.
And there lies that youth on his damp cold bed,
And the cattle have stall and straw;
No kindred assemble to wail the lone dead –
They perished by landlord law.
He lies by the path where his forefathers trod –
The race of the generous deeds,
That sheltered the Poor for the honor of God,
And fed them with bread -- not weeds.
Unshrouded he lies by the trackless path,
And he died as his kindred died –
And vengeance Divine points the red bolt of wrath,
For that death by the Boreen side.
FAMINE AND EXPORTATION
By John O'Hagan
Take it from us, every grain,
We were made for you to drain;
Black starvation let us feel,
England must not want a meal!
When our rotting roots shall fail,
When the hunger pangs assail,
Ye'll have of Irish corn your fill --
We'll have grass and nettles still!
We are poor, and ye are rich;
Mind it not, were every ditch
Strewn in spring with famished corpses,
Take our oats to feed your horses!
Heaven, that tempers ill with good,
When it smote our wonted food,
Sent us bounteous growth of grain --
Sent to pauper slaves, in vain!
We but asked in deadly need:
'Ye that rule us! Let us feed
On the food that's ours' ~ behold!
Adder deaf and icy cold.
Were we Russians, thralls from birth,
In a time of winter dearth
Would a Russian despot see
From his land its produce flee?
Were we black Virginian slaves,
Bound and bruised with thongs and staves,
Avarice and selfish dread
Would not let us die unfed.
Were we, Saints of Heaven! were we
How we burn to think it -- FREE!
Not a grain should leave our shore,
Not for England's golden store.
They who hunger where it grew --
They whom Heaven had sent it to --
They who reared with sweat of brow --
They or none should have it now.
Lord that made us! What it is
To endure a lot like this!
Powerless in our worst distress,
Cramped by alien selfishness!
Not amongst our rulers all,
One true heart whereon to call;
Vainly still we turn to them
Who despoil us and contemn.
Forced to see them, day by day,
Snatch our sole resource away;
If returned a pittance be --
Alms, 'tis named, and beggars, we.
Lord! thy guiding wisdom grant,
Fearful counselor is WANT;
Burning thoughts will rise within,
Keep us pure from stain of sin!
But, at least, like trumpet blast,
Let it rouse us all at last;
Ye who cling to England's side!
Here and now, you see her tried.
By Sister Anne Therese Dillen
I thirst beside the heather-laden bogs –
no samaritan for me;
no one here to see
that I shall die amidst the
plenty, in the field –
and that its yield
will sail to shores beyond the sea.
How can it be
that flocks of sheep can find their fill
while I lie empty and in pain?
or is it vain
to beg attention to my plight?
How can I fight
when I am listless, drained alone,
shrunken to the bone
while others eat what I have
grown in toil?
Woman of the soil –
I fade against a wall of human greed
and - sower of the seed –
I languish as it grows...
THE SONG OF THE FAMINE
Want! want! want! Under the harvest moon;
Want! want! want! Thro' dark December's gloom;
To face the fasting day upon the frozen flags!
And fasting turn away to cower beneath a rag.
Food! food! food! Beware before you spurn,
Ere the cravings of the famishing to loathing madness turn;For hunger
is a fearful spell, And fearful work is done,
Where the key to many a reeking crime is the curse of living on
For horrid instincts cleave unto the starving life,
And the crumbs they grudge from plenty's feast but lengthen out
the strife –
But lengthen out the pest upon the fetid air,
Alike within the country hut and the city's crowded lair.
Home! home! home! A dreary, fireless hole –
A miry floor and a dripping roof, and a little straw -- its whole.
Only the ashes that smoulder not, their blaze was long ago,And the
empty space for kettle and pot where once they stood in a row!
Only the naked coffin of deal, and the little body within,
I cannot shut it out from my sight, so hunger-bitten and thin; -
I hear the small weak moan - the stare of the hungry eye,
Though my heart was full of a strange, strange joy the moment I
saw it die.
I had food for it e'er yesterday, but the hard crust came too late
It lay dry between the dying lips, and I loathed it -- yet I ate.
Three children lie by a cold stark corpse In a room that' s over
They have not strength to earn a meal,
Or sense to bury the dead!
And oh! but hunger's a cruel heart, I shudder at my own,
As I wake my child at a tearless wake, All lightless and alone!
I think of the grave that waits, and waits but the dawn of day,
And a wish is rife in my weary heart --I strive and strive, but
it won't depart-
I cannot put it away.
Food! food! food! For the hopeless day's begun;
Thank God there's one the less to feed! I thank God it is my son!
And oh! the dirty winding sheet, and oh! the shallow grave!
Yet your mother envies you the same of all the alms they gave!
Death! death! death! In lane, and alley, and street,
Each hand is skinny that holds the bier, and totters each bearer's
The livid faces mock their woe, and the eyes refuse a tear;
For Famine's gnawing every heart, and tramples on love and fear!
Cold! cold! cold! In the snow, and frost, and sleet,
Cowering over a fireless hearth, or perishing in the street,
Under the country's hedge, On the cabin's miry floor,
In hunger, sickness, and nakedness, it's oh! God help the poor.
It's oh! if the wealthy knew a tithe of the bitter dole
That coils and coils round the bursting heart like a fiend, to tempt
Hunger, and thirst, and nakedness, sorrow, and sickness, and cold,
It's hard to bear when the blood is young, and hard when the blood
Sick! sick! sick! With an aching, swimming brain,
And the fierceness of the fever-thirst, and the maddening famine
On many a happy face to gaze as it passes by –
To turn from hard and pitiless hearts, and look up for leave to
Food! food! food! Through splendid street and square,
Food! food! food! Where is enough and to spare;
And ever so meager the dole that falls, What trembling fingers start,
The strongest snatch it from the weak, For hunger through walls
of stone would break
It's a devil in the heart!
Like an evil spirit, it haunts my dreams, through silent, fearful
Till I start awake from the hideous scenes, I cannot shut from my
They glare on my burning lids, and thought, like a sleepless goul,
Rides wild upon my famine-fevered brain -- Food! ere at last it
come in vain
For the body and the soul!
THE FAMINE YEAR (THE STRICKEN LAND)
By Jane Francesca Wilde
Weary men, what reap ye? -- Golden corn for the stranger.
What sow ye? -- Human corpses that wait for the avenger.
Fainting forms, hunger-stricken, what see you in the offing?
Stately ships to bear our food away, amid the stranger's scoffing.
There's a proud array of soldiers -- what do they round your door?
They guard our masters' granaries from the thin hands of the poor.
Pale mothers, wherefore weeping -- Would to God that we were dead;
Our children swoon before us, and we cannot give them bread.
We are wretches, famished, scorned, human tools to build your pride,
But God will yet take vengeance for the souls for whom Christ died.
Now is your hour of pleasure -- bask ye in the world's caress;
But our whitening bones against ye will rise as witnesses,
From the cabins and the ditches, in their charred, uncoffin'd masses,
For the Angel of the Trumpet will know them as he passes.
A ghastly, spectral army, before the great God we'll stand,
And arraign ye as our murderers, the spoilers of our land.
"GIVE ME THREE GRAINS OF CORN, MOTHER.""
Because the child/poet knows his mother has no corn to give him,
is his pleading senseless? Does that make the poem more effective?
Do you identify more with the mother or the child?
Does the last half of the poem oversimplify the Famine story, or
is it the logical way a child would view the issue: plenty vs. scarcity?
"FIELDS OF ATHENRY"
How does the image of birds differ in this poem differ from the
geese in "The Praties Grow so Small"?
Why does the poet call it "Trevelyan’s corn"?
What can you gather about the destination of the prison ship: Botany
Bay? Locate it in a world atlas, and try to learn more about the
Irish who were sent there on prison ships.
"THE ITINERANT SINGING GIRL"
Why does the girl’s way of earning a living worsen her sorrow?
"THE BOREEN SIDE"
The poet compares the starvation deaths of the evicted to the well
being of the animals who replace them. How does he use it to support
the implication that the landlord is not a Christian?
"FAMINE AND EXPORTATION"
Which stanza best summarizes the poet’s chief argument?
How does the tone of the poem differ from "The Boreen Side"
and "Famine and Exportation".
Is the poem’s tone similar to "The Praties Grow so Small"?
"SONG OF THE FAMINE"
Which trial seem more terrifying: the physical or the emotional?
What seems to happen to compassion when survival is at stake?
"THE FAMINE YEAR (THE STRICKEN LAND)"
How does the poem use questions and answers to lead us from the
subject of exports to the plight of starving children?
Are those two themes carried out more effectively in "Famine
and Exportation" and "Give me three grains of corn, Mother"?
Do you think the poet finds real solace in the hope of an ultimate