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Old 02-22-2023, 10:29 AM   #151 (permalink)
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So much for the man at the top; we’ll see soon enough what, if anything, he did to help stave off the Famine. For now though, let’s return to people who did at least seem to have some sort of compassion for the Irish farmer, but whose voices were either shouted down or ignored altogether. Yeah, back to the Devon Commission we go. One of the observations made by the earl was the absolute naked poverty of the people, as he noted “It would be impossible adequately to describe the privations which they [the Irish labourer and his family] habitually and silently endure ... in many districts their only food is the potato, their only beverage water ... their cabins are seldom a protection against the weather ... a bed or a blanket is a rare luxury ... and nearly in all their pig and a manure heap constitute their only property.”

The Commissioners pointed out that the Irish tenant farmers were working for basically their oppressors, the English. There was no loyalty and no real communication between the two. The one thought the other savage and almost subhuman, the other thought the landlord cruel and unfair, and between both stood the ever-present spectre of religion and sectarianism. It’s fair to say that had these tenants been Protestants, they might have expected better treatment from their Anglican landlords. But to the English, the Irish Catholics were, to put it mildly, scum, who deserved no sympathy and who had to be kept beaten down. In the role of the occupier throughout history, the Ascendancy asserted its power and ensured its authority was unchallenged. England had suffered similarly under the Normans, hundreds of years in the past, but seemingly had not learned from the experience.

Not that the landlords were even there to see the deprivation of their tenants. Most visited Ireland maybe once or twice in their lives, perhaps like plantation owners who left it to the overseers to get things done, and worried only about profits, not caring about the welfare of the men and women who toiled to afford them the luxury in which they lived. Even at that, the profits from the farms went outside the country, over six million pounds being spent overseas in 1842 alone. The hated middlemen, who worked on behalf of the landlord, were cruel and vicious and uncaring, and only wanted to make as much money from the land as they could. They leased it from the landlord and then, like the equally hated slumlords, who would take a house and rent as many rooms as they could in that house to as many people as possible, cramming more and more bodies into a single room with no regard for health or safety, they subdivided it into smaller and smaller parcels of land to maximise their profits. This of course meant that each tenant farmer had a smaller patch to work on, usually bad land too, making it harder to even exist and hold body and soul together, never mind make any money. Most labourers on farms worked for food to feed their families, and the work was often very sporadic and always very hard.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, tenants had no rights. They could be thrown off the land at any time, at the whim of the landlord or middleman, and any improvements they might have made to their lands automatically became the property of the landlord when their lease expired or they were kicked out, so nobody bothered. So with such rotten land to grow anything on, and with so little of it, what choice had the farmers but to sow potatoes? It might seem like (mixed metaphor time) putting all your eggs in one basket, or hedging your bets on the one thing, but they really had no option. Potatoes would grow in hardy soil where other crops would not, and could basically be eaten out of the ground (oh yeah: some people did eat raw potatoes) or at least just peeled and thrown into a pot to make a meal. Cereals such as grain, wheat, corn, oats etc all had to be made into something - usually bread - that would take time. Potatoes were also fed to livestock, so really formed the lynchpin of the Irish diet, both for humans and animals.

Not that it was a reliable crop. The Great Famine was by no means the first time that a potato crop had failed. In fact, there had been multiples failures from as far back as 1728, though none of these were nationwide failures. But then, again, as I say, it’s not like the farmers had any choice. It’s not like they could say, well the potatoes have failed, let’s try something else. Unless they wanted mud for dinner, potatoes was all they had. Which of course led up to the catastrophic potato crop failure due to blight, or Phytophthora infestans in 1845. To some degree, and stretching it a lot I know, but the arrival of the blight in Ireland must have been a little like Spanish Flu or SARS or Covid; it absolutely destroyed people’s lives and livelihood, and was directly responsible for the deaths of over a million Irish. It wasn’t confined to Ireland, but it was here that it hit hardest, for reasons already outlined.

Nobody is certain, even now, where the blight originated, though it’s thought to have begun in Mexico, and then been introduced to Ireland via clipper ships carrying passengers from America to Ireland, in the potatoes used in the food those passengers were fed on board. Like all viruses and pathogens (unless there is an antidote or vaccine) once here it was here to stay. Kind of horribly ironic, I feel, that the people who abandoned Ireland in search of salvation in America were quite likely retracing the path the blight had taken to get here, though of course in reverse. A chronology, then, of the arrival of the blight shows the steps taken, or not, as the spectre of famine leered towards Irish shores.

Countdown to famine: how apathy and disinterest doomed Ireland

As we’ve already noted, Sir Robert Peel was the Prime Minister at the time, and so to him fell the opportunity to help, or to ignore. To be fair to him, he did try, just too little too late. His already-quoted statement about things being exaggerated helped to hammer nails into the coffins of a million people who need perhaps never had died. The response, in general, from the English was a shrug and a sort of who cares, it’s only the Irish. Maybe that’s being overly harsh, is it? Let’s see.

1843: First reports of Phytophthora infestans around the ports of New York and Philadelphia.

1844: Panic in Belgium as the crop failed. In desperation - and surely exacerbating the problem - the Belgian government imported seed potatoes from America. Were they not already aware that the blight was there? Perhaps not: news would not have travelled as fast in the nineteenth century as it does now. Still: a year? Does this not strike you as similar to importing meat from China just as Covid broke out? Anyway, to the surprise of nobody in hindsight, the crop was rotted. The blight spread to France, and then England.

1845

August: Kent had a diseased potato harvest.

September: Blight reported in Ireland. Questions are asked but the British government adopt a “wait and see” approach until the harvest is completed.

October: Evidence began emerging of the scope of the disaster as the potato crop was dug, but the British again hummed and hawed and thought well it can’t be that bad. When it was clear that yes, it was that bad, they hummed and hawed over the expense of providing humanitarian relief to the Irish, nobody wanting to put their hand in their own, or the British public’s pocket. Peel tried to repeal the Corn Laws, which in the case of the approaching famine sounds to me like putting a sticking plaster on after your arm has been chopped off. He sent a scientific team to Ireland to investigate the reports. Tories who were furious with Peel for granting Catholic emancipation, and now his intention to repeal the Corn Laws, refused to allow meetings to even discuss Irish relief, and the whole thing assumed a somewhat Covid-like aura, where people - English of course, and wealthy English - claimed it was all a big hoax, built up to be more than it was, and blamed it on Irish - wait, what? Alligators? Oh no. Agitators. Well. Anyway.

November: A lot happened, but nothing happened really. Peel arranged for the purchase of £100,000 worth of Indian corn to be shipped to Ireland, while his scientific committee confirmed the devastation of the potato crop, this backed up by the Mansion House Committee. Nobody cared. Peel, unable to gain enough support to have the Corn Laws repealed, resigned. His resignation only lasted days though and he was back, leading the government into 1846, the first real year of the Famine.

1846
In March, as the first deaths occurred from the famine, Peel set up projects for public works and relief in Ireland, but three months later his government fell, and the new Prime Minister reversed all his policies, basically telling the Irish they could starve for all he cared. We’ll have a look at Lord Russel later. If there had been any hope of staving off, or nipping the Famine in the bud before it grew to national proportions, they were destroyed by the rise to power of the Whigs, who certainly played their part in dooming Ireland. The Quakers (remember our friend John Bright, one of the founders of the Anti- Corn Law League, was a Quaker?) did what they could to plug the gap, and presumably embarrassed by being shown up by a bunch of peaceniks, the government grumpily reinstated the public works, but dragged its feet on the release of food, while they continued to authorise the export of grain, which could have saved so many lives, from Ireland, even as the Famine tightened its grip.

1847
As famine fever gripped the country, and things began to spiral out of control, the government passed the Temporary Relief Act, also known as the Soup Kitchen Act, which was exactly what it sounds like, cheap food for the poor and starving. It only lasted till September then, when surely the worst of winter was about to descend on the country. After that, the relief was to be financed by the local Poor Law rates, something that was unsustainable. People began to see there was no hope for them in Ireland, and if they were going to die they may as well do so making an attempt to get to a new country. Thus the legend of the coffin ships was born, where vessels bound for America dumped corpses regularly overboard as immigrants died on the way to the New World. Passage on these ships was cheap, but so was life. Little if any food or water was provided by the owners, and it was said that sharks followed the ships, aware of the amount of bodies being thrown overboard. I can’t say of course, but I wonder how many of them were actually dead, and how many just dying of hunger or disease, and thrown over the side just the same? If so, a horrible way to end your journey. Rates are reported of up to thirty percent mortality on these ships, so if you survived to the destination you could consider yourself one of the lucky ones.

Lord Russel’s reaction to the horror being played out just over the Irish Sea was to crack down on agitators by passing the Crime and Outrage Bill (Ireland), which allowed for police forces to be sent into Irish districts, the eternal solution of the British to any sort of unrest (see also, miners’ strikes).

1848
After having peaked, the Famine returned and cholera spread across the island. Sympathetic as usual, the British landlords continued to evict anyone who could not pay their rent (what the fuck were they supposed to pay with, I ask you?) and famine relief at this time stood at 840,000 people. Confirming (hah) the Crown’s contention that there might be a rebellion (really? You think? In a country where you bastards were doing nothing to help and everything to ensure the Irish were wiped out? Never!) a small force of Young Irelanders had finally had enough and staged a tiny uprising, but it was the only spot of trouble in the time of the Famine - everyone else were probably too busy dying or trying to survive another day - and quickly put down.

1849
Another bad harvest, more cholera. More of the same. Minus the uprising.

1850
The famine finally ended.
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Old 03-01-2024, 10:28 AM   #152 (permalink)
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There's an old Irish saying (not really, it's a joke but we should adopt it): "Important" in Ireland means "what's yer hurry? There's time for another pint!" and as for "urgent", see under "important"! Although the circumstances under which this journal - and all my others - have been left languishing for next to a year are far from funny, in a way it fits. At any rate, time to head back to that dark time in Irish history when the only people who weren't dying of starvation were the rich and the English.

Welcome back, a chairde (friends) to the Great Famine.

But first things first. Let’s, then, before we go into the Great Famine in detail, as I promised we would, look into this guy who took over from Peel, and so was surely at least partially responsible for all the deaths in Ireland at the time.


John Russel, 1st Earl Russell (1792 - 1878)

It will come as a surprise to nobody to read he was a rich bastard, born into one of the richest and most noble families in Britain, his ancestry stretching back to the seventeenth century, and despite - or perhaps due to - his father being Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, he had no time for the Irish. Few British politicians did, all of them being Anglican Protestants and the hatred of both Catholics and, as the main exponent of that religion, Irish, almost hard-coded into their DNA by now. Like a lot of the young aristocracy, Russell’s seat in the House of Commons was literally given to him by daddy, the Duke of Bedford instructing his cronies to return his son (never understood that phrase: someone who is standing for the first time for a seat can be returned - doesn’t something have to be somewhere first before it can be returned?) despite his not even being of age to take the seat. Wasn’t even interested in politics, and only entered due to a sense of duty. Fucking rich bastards. One law for etc.

But maybe I’m wrong here. Seems he authored the Sacramental Test Act, which sought to remove the restrictions on Catholics and Dissenters, allowing them to hold public office. Hmm. And the bill passed. He also argued against the tithes in Ireland, suggesting that a proportion of the funds should go to help educate the Irish poor. Yeah. Seems like I have got him wrong. At least in the earlier days - this was around 1834 - he does look to have supported the Irish cause as much as would have been possible for him. He also got through the Marriages Act, which removed the requirements for Catholics to only marry in Anglican churches, and even helped reduce the amount of crimes punishable by death in Britain, paving the way for the almost-abolition of the death penalty for any crime but murder.

In opposition at the end of 1845 he supported Peel’s attempt to overturn the Corn Laws, so it seems odd to me that, once in power, he refused to help the Irish during the Famine. Let’s see. Came to power, as I said above, mid-1846, and seems to have made some efforts but realised they have failed (probably worried that the cost outstripped the political capital he would have to sacrifice in “siding with the Irish” maybe) and with a small majority barely keeping his government in power, and a financial crisis also to deal with, he just turned to other things. I’m sure a million Irish understood.

Men at work: The Public Works

Although the idea behind creating a system of public works was to allow people to earn money to buy food, there were a lot of drawbacks to this idea. Firstly, we’re talking here about people who could barely stand, never mind lift a shovel or pick, and not just the men: wives and children also worked. Apart from the child labour laws being entirely non-existent at this time, the simple arithmetic of it was that the more people in your family who worked, the more you got paid, and so everyone worked. Apart from anything else, would you want to be starving at home while your parents dug ditches or built roads? But that was all well and good until one bright spark decided hey, I’ve got an idea! Instead of paying these Oirish louts a day’s work for a day’s pay, let’s just pay them for the actual work they do. That will weed out the lazy and feckless among them, or Her Majesty isn’t Empress of India!

Great. So now by definition the strong got to eat, while the weak, unable to work, or at least unable to work as well as the stronger ones, would be paid less, or even nothing. It has been said, and I can see why, that far from actually creating relief these public works were all but slave labour, working people to death, and a percentage of the mortalities in Ireland at this time can certainly be put down to those who literally dropped dead at their work. Even if you did earn enough for a few scraps of food, you still had to travel some distance - on foot of course - with your stomach grumbling, no guarantee you would even reach the store before you just collapsed, both of hunger and weakness.

The other point about the works is that they were largely pointless, projects devised and put into operation for no reason other than to afford work to people. While this is all very philanthropic on the very skimmed surface - it would have been more Christian, would it not, to have given out bread free, as was happening in Europe? - it left Ireland with a bunch of roads and ditches and harbours and stuff which she did not need. They were, as Liam Neeson notes in the wonderful two-part documentary The Hunger “roads to nowhere”.

The Repealer tries to Repel: O’Connell’s efforts to stave off the Famine

Leading a deputation including the Duke of Leinster, Lord Cloncurry and the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Daniel O’Connell, who saw the Devon Commission as a pointless and one-sided endeavour, made up entirely of landowners with no representation from tenant farmers, went to the Lord Lieutenant in November 1845 with a petition and ideas, including opening up the ports to foreign corn, the end of the use of grain in distilleries and the prohibition of the export of foodstuffs. He also asked for the practice of “tenant right”, in operation over the border in Ulster, which gave the tenant farmer the right to compensation for any improvements he had made to the land he worked, to be introduced in the South. But Lord Haytesbury shrugged and told him not to be worrying; things were not as bad as they seemed.

O’Connell also lobbied - perhaps over-ambitiously, to say the least - for the repeal of the Act of Union, as he maintained that an Irish parliament would have instigated his ideas, closing the ports to export and opening them to import, and providing relief and work for the starving people of his island. Needless to say, this was shut down, if not actually laughed at. The idea that the British would allow Ireland to leave the Union in a sort of nineteenth-century Eirxit, just to save a few million lives, was ludicrous in the extreme. It’s hard, under the evidence of such intransigence and apathy on behalf of the British, to challenge the words of John Mitchell, Irish nationalist, poet and repeal advocate, quoted at the beginning of this piece. If the Great Famine was not a deliberate attempt at ethnic cleansing and genocide, it’s difficult to defend the notion that the British used it to try to accomplish their goal of pacifying Ireland and reducing significantly the number of Catholics living there.

It’s also a little hard to comprehend why the British government did not order the closure of the ports, as this had been British policy a hundred years ago, in 1782-83, and it worked. But showing the innate pig-headedness and casual cruelty and lack of compassion of the Whig government, the Gregory Clause of the Poor Law stated that - hold on here a moment. This is what I don’t understand. I assumed this guy Gregory (William H.) after whom the Clause is named, was some ultra-hardline Protestant, but then I read that he was sympathetic to the Catholic cause AND a friend of Daniel O’Connell! So how then could he have authored a clause in the Act which prohibited relief to anyone with a farm of a quarter of an acre or more? That’s approximately 10,000 square feet, or 1000 feet by 1000. Try to picture that. If your sitting room or bedroom is about maybe 15 feet (let’s assume, for the sake of my poor maths, that it’s ten) then push ten of them together and you have one side of the farm, another ten across and that’s the size of the land you have to work on. That’s not a farm; that’s not even a plot. That’s an allotment, and not usually even of good land.

So the idea of the Gregory Clause was that if you had this quarter-acre or more of land you worked, and it became necessary for you to seek relief because you couldn’t grow anything on the land you rented from the fat bastard landlord as, you know, potatoes were being blighted and there was a famine on and all, you had to sell your land in order to qualify for the relief! It sounds to me like in order to get the money for food you had to sell your house. This ended up creating a phrase, “passing paupers through the workhouse”: in effect, you went in a man and came out a pauper, with everything taken from you. And who knew what piddling amount they would condescend to give you in relief? Very little, surely. Not worth the land you had spent perhaps your life working on, which now went back to the callous landlord, who could rent it to someone else.

And then the government passed the Encumbered Estates Act, in 1849, which allowed for the sale of these lands at a knockdown price. The lands were of course then bought by speculators, who didn’t want no stinking tenants fouling the place up and moaning about being poor and hungry: who wanted to hear that, even if they weren’t actually there to hear it themselves? One must maintain some standards, don’tcha know? So the tenants were often evicted - and could be, without the slightest cause or reason, and with no recourse by the tenants to the law - so that the new owner could raise livestock or whatever they wanted to use the land for. Between 1849 and 1854 over 50,000 families were evicted. That’s one-twentieth, or five percent of the lives lost in the Great Famine. I said it before, and I’ll say it again: bastards. No wonder we hate them.

Still, before get too anti-British, let’s consider the military response. Between 1846 and 1847 the Royal Navy transported supplies into Cork and other ports in Ireland, the government having realised by January that the idea of leaving the Irish to it was not working duh, and two days after Christmas 1846 Sir Charles Trevelyan, in charge of relief in Ireland, ordered all available ships to assist in the effort. Royal Navy surgeons were also despatched in February 1847 to assist in rendering medical aid and to ensure all burials were undertaken with proper health and sanitation procedures followed.

While the general perception has been that people starved as food was exported from the country - and it was - statistics now seem to back up the fact that less went out than came in, but that complications with financing the relief effort through the Poor Laws, and the need to feed cattle, resulted in there being less food for the starving families, making it necessary for food to be sold so as to enable landlords to pay the rates and thereby fund the workhouses. Father Nicholas McAvoy, Parish Priest of Kells, wrote in The Nation in October of 1845:

On my most minute personal inspection of the potato crop in this most fertile potato-growing locale is founded my inexpressibly painful conviction that one family in twenty of the people will not have a single potato left on Christmas day next. Many are the fields I have examined and testimony the most solemn can I tender, that in the great bulk of those fields all the potatoes sizable enough to be sent to table are irreparably damaged, while for the remaining comparatively sounder fields very little hopes are entertained in consequence of the daily rapid development of the deplorable disease.
With starvation at our doors, grimly staring us, vessels laden with our sole hopes of existence, our provisions, are hourly wafted from our every port. From one milling establishment I have last night seen not less than fifty dray loads of meal moving on to Drogheda, thence to go to feed the foreigner, leaving starvation and death the sure and certain fate of the toil and sweat that raised this food.
For their respective inhabitants England, Holland, Scotland, Germany, are taking early the necessary precautions—getting provisions from every possible part of the globe; and I ask are Irishmen alone unworthy the sympathies of a paternal gentry or a paternal Government?
Let Irishmen themselves take heed before the provisions are gone. Let those, too, who have sheep, and oxen, and haggards. Self-preservation is the first law of nature. The right of the starving to try and sustain existence is a right far and away paramount to every right that property confers.
Infinitely more precious in the eyes of reason in the adorable eye of the Omnipotent Creator, is the life of the last and least of human beings than the whole united property of the entire universe. The appalling character of the crisis renders delicacy but criminal and imperatively calls for the timely and explicit notice of principles that will not fail to prove terrible arms in the hands of a neglected, abandoned starving people.”

It is fair though to say that the Famine opened hearts, and wallets, and many charitable
donations did give aid to the hungry. Perhaps surprisingly, English Protestants accounted for the highest amount of Irish famine relief outside of Ireland, Pope Pius XI issued an encyclical which called on the entire Catholic world to help in the relief of their Catholic brothers and sisters in Ireland, and a rough figure for donations - including about a half million from Britain - totalled in the area of £850,000. I mean, in real terms, that’s less than a pound per person who died in the Famine, but it does at least show that there was an appetite for aid and that Ireland did not stand entirely alone as the rest of the world looked on. And remember, too, that other areas of Europe - Belgium, France, even England - had suffered their own destruction of crops, though none of these hardships compared in any way to the Irish Famine, which is still seen as the greatest humanitarian disaster of the nineteenth century.
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Old 03-01-2024, 11:13 AM   #153 (permalink)
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That is a good read Trollheart, thanks for sharing. I don't know or didn't know much about the famine. I just knew a lot of people died :/
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Old 03-01-2024, 11:35 AM   #154 (permalink)
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Oh yeah, I've written a lot about it here. I think I spent originally like about a month researching and writing all I could about it. The Great Famine is a huge turning point in Irish history, and really in that of America too, given all the immigrants we sent over to them. You're welcome.
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Old 03-01-2024, 11:58 AM   #155 (permalink)
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Trollheart View Post
Oh yeah, I've written a lot about it here. I think I spent originally like about a month researching and writing all I could about it. The Great Famine is a huge turning point in Irish history, and really in that of America too, given all the immigrants we sent over to them. You're welcome.


My family came from County Donegal, Ireland. They first moved to Nova Scotia, then to Pennsylvania but must have wanted their peace and space so they eventually made it to Iowa (middle America) and had a huge farm. No cellphones back then, no internet. My dad knows all the detailed history but I just know it must have been hard.

That's my great-grandfather sitting there in the middle like a boss!
That is the family that made it from Ireland though.
They had a bunch of kids and my grandpa and his brothers all moved to the city, Davenport. Still in Iowa but no farms.
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Old 03-08-2024, 06:11 PM   #156 (permalink)
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While most of the history of the Great Famine is steeped in tears, tragedy, pain and anger, death and disease, despair and emigration, and a burning need for justice - or if that wasn’t possible, revenge would do - it is illuminating to just recount the many ways people across the world came to the aid of Ireland, many doing the little they could (which quite often means more than huge donations from banks and corporations and kings) and everyone trying to help a country that was really teetering on the edge of extinction. Irish-Americans of course dug deep, and even future President Abraham Lincoln, at the time a mere Congressman, donated ten dollars (doesn’t seem much, but that’s about three hundred in today’s money, and that was a lot for a private individual to contribute to any cause) while the president at the time, Jame Polk, gave five times that much. Choctaw Indians, who had just been resettled, read, forced to leave their native lands on the horrible journey of despair which came to be known as “The Trail of Tears”, gathered together a huge sum at the time, 170 dollars, which you can see yourself is more than three times what the President of the United States gave, almost five grand today.

Every country helped. Russia, Italy, Venezuela, South Africa, Mexico, Australia, while the British Relief Association, on foot of a letter from Queen Victoria urging donations to help the Irish poor, raised almost seventy percent of the total given by the British, over £390,000. It’s also really heartening to see that in America, religious groups put aside their differences as Jews, Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Episocopalians all banded together to help raise funds and send ships of food and goods to Ireland, and in South Carolina it was said that "The states ignored all their racial, religious, and political differences to support the cause for relief.”

Let’s be honest here: you can’t see that happening today, can you? In fact, it doesn’t. Other than going back to Bob and Live Aid as I mentioned at the start, we don’t see such universal comings-together in the name of starving people. We have, unfortunately - and this very much includes we Irish, who should know better - got so used to famine in general and to seeing pictures of starving children on our television that we just ignore it; another humanitarian disaster, terrible, wish there was something we could do, poor kids, change the channel. Not only that, but sharp religious and political differences have never been so at the forefront of politics all over the world now that such setting aside of enmities and prejudices and old rivalries seems, and in fact is, impossible to envisage. You only have to look at the ongoing migrant crisis to see how a stream of human beings, dispossessed of their homes and fleeing war zones, elicits nothing more than lip service and a shake of the head. Times have most definitely changed, and not for the better.

There was, however, another, less noble and somewhat more sinister practice involved in some of the charity given, where certain groups used the offer of food as an inducement, or rather put a condition on it. This was called “souperism”, from the practice of Protestant Bible schools setting up soup kitchens, to which anyone was admitted and would be fed, as long as they were prepared to learn the Protestant way of things. It amounted in effect to blackmail, a case of “if you want to eat worship our god”, and became a bone of contention with Catholic families, who felt they were being asked to choose between their religion and their family, which they were. Those who accepted the deal were looked down upon by those who did not, their full belly no guarantee the Catholic Devil would not drag them all down to Hell for such betrayal. They were called “soupers”, or “the ones who took the soup”, and both became a real insult in Catholic Ireland, similar to “taking the King’s shilling”, i.e., adopting the English way.

It is however important to understand that, like a lot of claims made about this or that by this or that injured party, and meaning to do my own countrymen no disservice, the practice of “souperism” is reported to have been quite minimal; many, in fact most schools, even many of those operated by Protestants, offered food and relief to people without any condition attached, though because of either the hyperbole of newspaper reporting, the inbuilt, deep-seated hatred and distrust of Catholics for Protestants, or to help special interest groups fan up that hatred and outrage, or a combination of all three, and maybe more, the word went around at the time that all Protestant schools were engaging in this form of spiritual blackmail, and as a consequence, even if the school in question was not, Catholics feared sending their children there in case they ended up being corrupted and forced into the wrong religion. As well as this, with or without riders, Protestant faith does not observe Good Friday, and so their schools would serve meat soup on Fridays, when Catholics were supposed to abstain from meat. This was another reason why they were shunned by the Irish, and why many children went hungry, the health of their everlasting soul deemed more important than that of their temporary body.

To some extent, you could say the term “souper”, used not for those who provided the food under these restrictions, but for those who partook of it, became almost as much an insult as “collaborator.” The idea was of course that those who gave in and accepted the charity - even if it was a case of their doing the reverse of above, and putting the health of their children - their very survival, their lives - ahead of religious matters were seen as giving in, as bowing down and all but accepting the Protestant faith. That wasn’t true of course; these weren’t, to my knowledge, boarding schools, and the children’s parents could correct any erroneous notions put in their heads by the teachers by explaining they had to endure this in order to get food, but that what they learned in these schools was nonsense.

Nevertheless, the very act of crossing the threshold of a “souper” school made the parents responsible in the eyes of other Catholics, and traitors to their religion. They would be ostracised, in some cases British soldiers even having to be called in to protect them from their furious neighbours. How incredible, that even at death’s door with hunger, people could still find reasons to fight over religion. If it had been me, and Satan had opened up a soup kitchen, I’d have had my kids down there. But the Catholic religion teaches that the body is nothing but a shell, and everyone should be more concerned about how their soul will fare after death. Only here for a short time, not a good time, could be a motto for the Catholic Church, and its priests joined in the condemnation, loudly lambasting known soupers from the pulpit. With full bellies, no doubt.

Nice as it is, and a change, in the midst of so much horror and death, to talk about charity and kindness shown to the victims of the Great Famine, it is sadly inevitable that we have to return to the darker, more prevalent side of the crisis, and specifically to the ones who, it could very well be said, precipitated and then exacerbated the misery by refusing to recognise, or care about, the depth of the poverty of the people they demanded rent from. All they cared about was their pockets, and yeah, you’ll not be surprised to hear I’m talking about the landlords and the middlemen, the scourge and curse of the Irish poor, and almost the incarnation of evil with very little if anything to mediate their greed, lack of compassion or even humanity. Let’s shuffle into the rogues’ gallery to meet some of them.

Marcus Keane

Feared and hated by thousands as “the exterminator-in-chief”, Keane was the son of a landowner whose family had come over to Ireland almost with King Henry II, and had been in Clare since the thirteenth century. He worked as an agent for some of the bigger landlords - the Conynghams, the Vandeleurs and the Westbys - but had by degrees built up his own landholdings until he owned about 4,500 acres. Consider that: if each tenant farmer, as noted earlier, had a quarter acre to farm (they didn’t; many had larger, but not much. This would have been the average) then Keane’s landholding would have supported - in the loosest possible sense - over 18,000 families. He got married the year the Great Famine struck, 1847, no doubt a lavish wedding feast that could have fed most if not all of those 18,000. He would not have cared. From the epithet above, you can guess he was not a nice man.

A hardline Protestant, he refused the local parish priest, Father Michael Meehan, permission to build a Catholic church on his land in Kilbaha, as his master, the landowner and his father-in-law, Edward Westby, did not want such a focus for Catholic worship. In defiance, Father Meehan built a small mobile church called the Little Arc on the foreshore, and this became a focus for resistance to the tyrannical landlord. But this was mild. Through 1847, at the worst heights of the Famine, Keane evicted twelve families from his land in Garraunnatooha, the most famous - or infamous - of these being Bridget O’Donnell and her family. Bridget was pregnant at the time, and her husband worked a small farm of five acres from Keane. He had purchased oat seeds from the landlord, grown the corn and harvested it, then had it confiscated by Keane’s agent, Dan Sheedy. Sheedy had then arrived with a gang to evict the O’Donnell’s. Owing to the trauma, Bridget had given birth to a stillborn baby and received the last rites from Father Meehan, though whether she survived, died or what happened to her afterwards is unknown.

Also unknown, and of some small comfort, is what happened to Keane’s body after he died. Supposed to have been interred in his own private mausoleum, he rather inconveniently (but not before time, if you ask me) died before it was completed, and so was instead laid to rest in the vault of the Burkes, where he had had the body of his governess, Margaret Barnes buried. When the new tomb was ready his son came to move the body but found to his dismay that it was gone, along with that of the governess. A search party found nothing, and it would be a full seven years before the two corpses would be discovered to have been buried nearby in another plot, with the nameplates removed from their coffins. Perhaps the ghosts of the victims of the Irish families he treated so reprehensibly had their revenge from beyond the grave?

His kind of brutish, unprincipled, evil behaviour would not have been typical, in fairness, of every landlord in Ireland, but the few who were decent and treated their tenants well would certainly have been in the minority. Bridget’s plight came to national attention when an engraving of her appeared in the London Illustrated News, the picture like something out of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, where Scrooge is shown the spectres of want and ignorance skulking beneath the cloak of the Ghost of Christmas Present. The pathos and pity such a figure elicited threw into sharp relief the disgraceful practices of Irish landlords, Keane being accused of being over-zealous in his eviction of tenants from Klirush, especially in the local Poor House, from 1848 - 1849, and a parliamentary committee was convened to look into the allegations, which had been brought to British officials by the Poor Law inspector for the Union, Captain Kennedy. As a result, a reporter was despatched from the London Illustrated News, and he brought back this harrowing account.

“It is a specimen of the dilapidation I behold all around. There is nothing but devastation, while the soil is of the finest description, capable of yielding as much as any land in the empire. Here, at Tullig, and other places, the ruthless destroyer, as if he delighted in seeing the monuments of his skill, has left the walls of the houses standing, while he has unroofed them and taken away all shelter from the people. They look like the tombs of a departed race, rather than the recent abodes of a yet living people, and I felt actually relieved at seeing one or two half-clad spectres gliding about, as an evidence that I was not in the land of the dead.”

Perhaps it did English people some good to see the way their representatives were treating the Irish people in their power, perhaps they didn’t care, but the engraving of Bridget O’Donnell and her pathetic family remains one of the striking images of the Great Famine, akin perhaps to that picture of the GIs raising the flag at Iwo Jima, or the Chinese student facing the tank in Tiananmen Square. Even when the evicted tenants did their best to set up makeshift shanty towns, huts of mud and sticks called “scalps”, near to where they had only just recently lived before being thrown out by an uncaring landlord, they were not safe. This account tells of how one woman lost not only her second, lean-to home, but also her child, no doubt the work of the “wreckers”, bands of tough, young, ill-educated poor yobs who worked for the landowner or his agents, and must have been equated to the Yeomanry of earlier decades.

Having put together their scalp, the woman’s husband went off somewhere while she visited a “neighbour” about 100 yards away. While she was out of the scalp it was set on fire. She ran back to try to save her child, but was only in time to see them being ‘taken out of the scalp on a shovel, all burnt to death, by a man named Michael Griffin. I am sure that the scalp was set on fire by some person or persons, for it could not otherwise take fire’ Utter scum. Not content with destroying the family’s poor home and kicking them off the land, they burned down their makeshift one, and never bothered to check if anyone was inside. True, they probably did not mean to kill anyone, but I doubt the fact they did caused them any sleepless nights.


George Bingham, 3rd Earl of Lucan(1800 - 1888)

Another serious offender was a nobleman, an earl, who was so dismissive of and uncaring of his tenants that he snapped he “would not breed paupers to pay priests”, had over 300 homes knocked down, making over 2,000 people homeless in Ballinrobe, Co. Mayo, and even went so far as to destroy their only alternative means of support, the workhouse. He, too, earned the nickname “The Exterminator” among the Irish. For his crimes against humanity he was appropriately punished, being promoted from colonel to major general in 1851. He was not a popular man, enraging the local garrison by demanding their barracks windows be blocked up, as he snarled the men were looking at his wife as she took her walks in the garden of his house, which the barracks overlooked. On arriving in Ireland he dismissed his land agent, a popular man called St. Clair O’Malley, and immediately set about enforcing the kind of reputation he had enjoyed in the army, as a martinet and a bully.

One one occasion, his tenants in Castlebar, believing him to be in London, burned him in effigy, and then had to scatter in panic as he rode up upon them, shouting “I’ll evict the whole bloody lot of you!” An interesting fact here is that after returning to England, he was posted to the Crimea and actually led the doomed and pointless but very famous Charge of the Light Brigade. Odd to read that when he came back to Castlebar he was welcomed, the city illuminated in his honour. As a postscript, it seems his son was far better than his father, returning to Mayo and being much fairer with the tenants, providing education for Catholic children and allowing the tenant farmers to buy their land.

Denis Mahon

A major in the British army, he secured landlordship of Strokestown, in Co. Roscommon, by having its previous owner, his uncle Maurice, declared mentally unfit and taking over. His first move was to inform the tenants there that rents, which had lapsed during the tenure of his uncle, were now due, including all arrears, going back three years. Obviously nobody could pay this sort of money, and a strike was quickly organised, whereby everyone refused to pay. Mahon responded with mass evictions, but the families returned to their homes, he would have them evicted again, they would return, and the whole thing took on the complexion of a crazy game of roundabouts.

Mahon broke this cycle by ensuring those evicted were moved onto chartered “coffin ships” bound for Canada. Almost everyone on board died or were refused admittance, the news coming back to their families in Roscommon. This led to an attack on Mahon in which he was killed on November 2 1847, the murder sparking off a tinderbox of similar killings of landlords, and threats against others. Not surprisingly, the Ascendancy back in London were quick to jump upon this as a Catholic plot against Protestant landlords, without bothering to consider how brutal a man Mahon had been, and four men were eventually accused of his death, two hanged, one sentenced to transportation for life (which, given the coming years of famine, may very well have saved his life. Or he may have died over there, but at least he would have had more of a chance than those he left behind) and one who escaped to Canada.

The final word on evictions can perhaps be best left to the Bishop of Meath, The Most Reverend Thomas McNulty, who wrote, in a pastoral letter to his congregation:

Seven hundred human beings were driven from their homes in one day and set adrift on the world, to gratify the caprice of one who, before God and man, probably deserved less consideration than the last and least of them ... The horrid scenes I then witnessed, I must remember all my life long. The wailing of women—the screams, the terror, the consternation of children—the speechless agony of honest industrious men—wrung tears of grief from all who saw them. I saw officers and men of a large police force, who were obliged to attend on the occasion, cry like children at beholding the cruel sufferings of the very people whom they would be obliged to butcher had they offered the least resistance. The landed proprietors in a circle all around—and for many miles in every direction—warned their tenantry, with threats of their direct vengeance, against the humanity of extending to any of them the hospitality of a single night's shelter ... and in little more than three years, nearly a fourth of them lay quietly in their graves.”
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