‘A fever amongst people living under the mockery of a poor-law which recognizes no right to relief in destitution’: reflections on the Irish Potato Famine from 1846

240px-Skibbereen_by_James_Mahony,_1847

Today is St Patrick’s Day and there will be drinking galore in Dublin, London and Boston and throughout the Irish diaspora. The island of Ireland is small, just 32, 500 square miles, and today it is home to around 6.5m people, but it bats above its average in terms of political importance and influence. This is due in no small part to its strategic significance, situated as it is between continental Europe, Britain and the Atlantic, and also of course, because of its long and troubled history. It is not for nothing that the Brexit wrangling in recent months has focused so much on the so-called ‘Irish backstop’; the determination not to recreate a hard border between Eire (the Irish Republic) and the six counties of Northern Ireland.

The Irish influence is widespread however, because of the waves of Irish emigration from the ‘emerald isle’ that took place, for the most part at least, in the nineteenth century. Millions of Irish men and women left their homes to travel in search of food, shelter and work – a better life – in the wake of famine, persecution, and religious intolerance.

St. Patrick's Day Parade in America, Union Square, 1870s (colour litho)

Many went to their nearest neighbours, settling in England and Scotland (in London, Liverpool and Glasgow in particular) while many others traveled to the United States (especially New York and Boston). They took their culture with them, hence the St Patrick’s Day parades in US cities today (as above from Boston in the 1870s).

The famine began in September 1845 so by the winter and spring of 1846 it effects could be felt throughout Ireland and the British Isles. England had always had a large Irish immigrant population and they were generally regarded as second-class cousins at best and dangerous Catholic troublemakers at worst. Most of all perhaps the Irish were generally poor and considered to be ‘feckless’ ‘work-shy’ and a burden on the rates. When the numbers of the existing populations were swelled by tens of thousands of new migrants in the mid 1840s antagonisms were heightened.

The Police courts of the English capital were often visited by members of the Irish community, who gravitated to the poorer areas around St Giles, Covent Garden, Whitechapel and Southwark. The Irish had a reputation for hard drinking and ‘fair fights’ (when they were drunk). Brawls in pub spilled over into the streets and there altercations with the police were inevitable.  So arrests would be made for drunken and disorderly behaviour, refusing to quit licensed premises, and assaults on the constabulary. Many Irish ended up in the workhouse or as vagrants and beggars and this could also lead to an appearance before a magistrate.

The situation in Ireland was caused by the failure of the potato crop but exacerbated by the actions of the English landowners, poor law authorities  and government that failed to help the people affected. This was hotly debated in Parliament (just as today’s MPs debate Brexit and the ‘backstop’). Discussions turned around debates between those seeking trade tariffs for imported corn and those opposed to them. Peel wanted to repeal the Corn Laws but this split the Tory party (rather like Brexit has) meanwhile Irish people were literally starving to death. This is a flavor of the debate as reported in the Daily News on the day following St Patrick’s Day 1846:

This measure is an impressive commentary on the time occupied by the Protectionists [those that wanted to keep tariffs] in their long protests. It is fever against which Parliament has to provide. An infliction of fever so national, that Government must interpose to prevent the dying and dead from making the Green Isle a very Golgotha.

It is fever induced by starvation; and hastening on, with giant strides, while week after week is wasted in describing and deprecating the horrors of a superabundant influx of food from foreign countries. Moreover it is a fever amongst people living under the mockery of a poor-law which recognizes no right to relief in destitution’.

Peel’s early attempt to import American corn in secret failed because the quality of the grain was so poor that it was virtually inedible, causing widespread digestive problems so it became known derogatively as ‘Peel’s brimstone’.    At least 800,000 Irish men, women and children died as a direct result of the famine and the failure of the British government to support them, the figure is probably closer to 1-1.5m. A further million (at least) emigrated. If you ever wondered why anti-English feeling remains prevalent at all in the Ireland and amongst Irish communities elsewhere perhaps a reflection on the events of 1845-49 would be instructive.

And that is without considering the actions of the early modern rules of England, the atrocities committed by Oliver Cromwell’s troops, the long battle over Home Rule in the late 1800s, the brutal repression following the Easter Rising in 1916, the ‘black and tans’, ‘Bloody Sunday’, Diplock courts and all the other measures used to govern the northern counties in the Troubles, and of course decades of jokes at their expense.

Happy St Patrick’s Day folks – God save Ireland!

[from Daily News, Wednesday, March 18, 1846]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s