The Victorians - Towards the Modern World

A Defining Moment: the Irish Famine

With the population continuing to increase, 'till, in ordinary years, it is but barely fed, a year of scarcity will at length come - and with it a visitation of the most awful famine... (the earl of Rosse, an improving Irish landlord, writing in 1843)

The proper business of Government is to enable private individuals of every rank and file to carry on their several occupations with freedom and safety and not itself to undertake the business of the landowner, merchant, moneylender, or any other function of social life.? (Charles Trevelyan, permanent under-secretary to the Treasury during the period of the Famine)

Ireland was known to be a disaster waiting to happen. Irish agriculture was in a very poor state, with estates let and sub-let and many absentee English landlords uninterested in improvement, which in any case would have been resisted by the tenants. Thousands of families were cultivating tiny plots, only viable because the main crop - the potato - was such a rich source of nutrition. Should anything happen to damage the potatoes, starvation on a huge scale would result.

The first signs of potato-blight reached Ireland from America late in 1845. The British prime-minister, Robert Peel, knew the problem at first hand, having been Irish secretary under Lord Liverpool. Although his new Conservative party was deeply opposed to government interference, he secretly bought in supplies of Indian maize (not a crop then marketed in England) to sell cheaply to the hungry. A programme of public works also helped. However, when Peel decided to repeal the infamous Corn Laws (passed after the Napoleonic Wars to protect English agriculture from continental competition), his party revolted and he lost office (July 1846). The incoming Whig administration were much less sympathetic.

By October 1846 it was obvious that the potato crop was going to be blighted again. Public works were re-started but the wages were insufficient and many labourers died of exhaustion and malnutrition. Not surprisingly disorder broke out in the worst affected parts of Ireland and the response of the authorities was often brutal (as in the Hanging Gale). Whilst private charities tried to help, for many families the workhouse was the only alternative.

But now the flaws in the workhouse system were revealed. With thousands of desperate men, women and children seeking shelter, the boards running the workhouses began to go bankrupt. In June 1847 the government passed a Poor Law Amendment Act requiring Irish landowners to put enough money into the workhouse system to ensure that it worked. Threatened with bankruptcy themselves many landowners were forced to begin rationalising their estates along English lines. This meant wholesale eviction of smaller tenants and squatters, easily achieved because the former were almost always in arrears with their rent and the latter had no rights at all. Disorder spread, with many land-agents and bailiffs being attacked and killed.

Before long the misery had reached epic proportions. As many as a million people may have died of starvation or disease. For some observers there was only one solution: emigration. In 1847 up to 300,000 Irishmen and women sought refuge in mainland Britain. Thousands more went to America and Canada. By the autumn of 1851 the situation in most parts of Ireland had stabilised. The tiny plots had all but disappeared - taken over by those with larger holdings, some of whom actually gained from the Famine. Moreover, the weaknesses of the workhouse system led firstly to the creation of larger unions and eventually to the realisation that the state had to assume greater responsibility for the welfare of its citizens even if this meant becoming ?landowner, merchant or money-lender??

Ironically, these very improvements heightened political tension in Ireland. The Encumbered Estates Act of 1849 allowed the bankrupt owners of entailed land to sell up but it turned out that the new owners were often more ruthless than the old. During the next thirty years violence in the Irish countryside actually increased.

Meanwhile the Secret Ballot Act of 1872 led to the emergence of an Irish Party in Parliament whose twin objectives were a land-owning peasantry and home rule. Under the brilliant leadership of Charles Stuart Parnell the Irish MP's successfully stalled parliamentary business at the start of Gladstone's second ministry (1880-5) until he agreed to give greater security to tenants (the 'treaty' of Kilmainham, 1881). By 1885 Gladstone had himself come to believe in home rule but his attempts to introduce it in 1886 and 1893 failed a) because a substantial section of his own Liberal party deserted him, and b) because there was a built-in Conservative majority in the House of Lords opposed to it.

No-one today needs reminding of the consequences of Gladstone's defeat. However the Irish Famine had changed attitudes within the governing class for ever. Never again would the rights of property over-ride the claims of common humanity.