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ABSTRACT: This paper examines the writings produced by a selection of travellers from England and the US during the Great Famine. The authors surveyed spent a period of time journeying throughout the country reporting their findings on the progress of the Famine. The accounts covered different areas and times, but together provide a thorough and detailed picture of conditions in Ireland in 1845-1850. The results are interesting because of physical descriptions and the insights offered into contemporary perceptions of the political and ideological arguments of the day.
KEYWORDS: Great Famine, Ireland, travel writing, philanthropists, political treatises
Chronicon 1 (1997) P1: 1-57
If meddlesome people had staid at home, minding their own concerns, who would have ever thought of complaining about bread ...
A. Nicholson, Lights and Shades. 1850
1. The travel literature produced during the Famine differs greatly from the general corpus of such material. It is distinctive as a sub-genre within the framing tradition because of its overt and deliberately political nature. While the individual treatment of this agenda differs, the overall picture presents common traits and similarities of approach. The authors are not simply interested in detailing `scenes of death by starvation', but in discovering both causes and consequences and using this knowledge as a vehicle to censure or praise those held ultimately responsible for the distress.1 Thus, the narratives are intimately involved with local situations and do not hesitate to condemn individuals or institutions in an official or unofficial capacity. The end result offers a number of severe and damning indictments of personality and government, which catapults these narratives into the political arena, and which serves to explain the inevitable public response they generated, ranging from the laudable to the hostile.
Information on the books studied
2. Nicholson, a prolific writer born in Vermont, first came to Ireland in June 1844 and spent the next four years and four months travelling around Ireland and produced two books. Ireland's Welcome to the Stranger or Excursions through Ireland in 1844 and 1845 for the Purpose of Personally Investigating the Condition of the Poor (New York, 1847) is an anthropological study of society, economy, and culture, following an extensive tour, mainly on foot. Nicholson based herself in Dublin from winter 1846 to summer 1847, cooking and distributing food daily. The next year was taken up with travelling in Connaught and the south-west and led to her next publication---Lights and Shades (London, 1850). The section dealing with the Famine was released separately as The Annals of the Famine (New York, 1851). The latter is one of our most detailed accounts spanning practically the entire duration of the Famine and encompassing the whole island.
3. Bennett, an English Quaker, conducted a tour of Ireland during March and April 1847, mainly keeping to the west and south-west coast, distributing sizeable quantities of seed and instructing recipients in their use. He was encouraged by the English Quakers but acted independently at his own expense. He later edited his correspondence of this time Six Weeks in Ireland and donated the proceeds of the book to Famine relief.
Tuke accompanied William Forster on his tour of the west in November 1846, probably the most well-known one of its kind, and returned in 1847. Tuke's Visit to Connaught (1847) was followed by a second edition after a subsequent visit to Erris in 1848. Tuke caught fever while working in Ireland but recovered, and retained a life-long interest in Ireland.2 In the early 1880s, 10,000 impoverished westerners were assisted to emigrate under Tuke's supervision, and funding was shared between the government and `Mr. Tuke's Committee'.3
Osbourne, a Protestant clergyman, had spent a life working with the poor in England and was acquainted with Ireland through frequent holidays. He was a regular correspondent to The Times and a series of reports of a visit to the west was printed in summer 1849 (see Appendix). These articles were reworked and added to following a second tour which yielded Gleanings (1850).
Balch, a native of Vermont, first came to Ireland in May 1847 and spent a year travelling through the four provinces. Although he had had no previous contact with Ireland, within months he was politically radicalised to such an extent that Ireland. As I Saw It could be mistaken for nationalist propaganda. The narrative was published in London and New York in 1850.
The five narratives studied cover different areas and periods, with a significant amount of overlap, all of which affords us a thorough and comprehensive view of the Famine in the eyes of a foreigner.
Public response to the narratives
4. Each of these authors went to Ireland with the intention of recording conditions exactly as they found them, whether satisfactory or not. They do not shrink from publicising controversial details, but rather embrace the opportunity to uncover them. The writers believed it an essential part of their duty to alert public opinion to happenings in Ireland and to expose scandals that they came across. It was this very resolve that motivated travellers to go to the most remote and inaccessible areas: so that `anything might be done, and the chance of exposure be small', because `humanity ... has been so taxed, that it has become blind to anything, which might increase its burden'.4 Nicholson voices this same concern following her protest at the distribution of black bread which was causing food poisoning. In an ironic tone, she wonders if meddlesome people had staid at home, minding their own concerns, who would have ever thought of complaining about bread'.5
5. The authors' anxiety to persuade us of the accuracy of their reports, without any embellishment, manipulation, or distortion of facts, alerts us to the evident scepticism, criticism, and hostility that greeted the works. The defensive stance was a necessary weapon for the authors who expected aggressive attacks on their publications, given their extremely provocative, and even libellous, nature.6
A number of telling inferences and incidents indicate that the travel literature did command a hearing and did have an impact upon both the general public and the political world. This theme will be developed throughout the essay but a few telling examples are worth citing here.
6. Nicholson was publicly acknowledged and loudly praised for her efforts, both physical and literary, in the Cork Examiner.7 The relevant articles demonstrate that Nicholson's endeavours were well known throughout Ireland and elicited respect and support from the masses.
Osbourne's apologia illustrates the public interest his reports generated and claims to have had a positive effect in stirring people into action. The Times articles `brought public opinion to bear on ... the treatment of the poor' and this perceived success was instrumental in encouraging him to publish the findings of his second trip in book form.8 Osbourne defended himself against the charge of being a government employee or Times reporter and emphatically stressed that he worked freelance in a wholly disinterested, unofficial capacity. The fact that such a vindication is necessary suggests that the charge that Gleanings was politically motivated was laid with vigour and carried some weight.9
We have most information about the public reception of Tuke's Visit. It generated a considerable amount of controversy which involved even Westminster and was taken out of circulation for over a month.10 The Parliamentary Papers testify that Tuke's narrative was crucial in provoking a government investigation into the disputed allegations. The extent to which Tuke was involved in politics is shown by his meetings with the highest government officials from as early as October 1847, in an effort to bring about reforms in land legislation.11
The Traveller Network
7. The narratives can be read as a collective group as well as individual enterprises because their content supplements each other, and because they were initiated in a climate where travellers were acutely aware of their being but one agent in a wider circle. There is almost a missionary quality to the journeys and a sense that the writers were all working separately to the same united goal, with the unspoken approval and welcoming gratitude of the Irish. Nicholson tells us how the Famine precipitated an opening of all doors for any willing commentator who offered some hope of relief: `From the mud cabin to the estated gentleman's abode, all strangers who wished, without the usual circuitous ceremony, could gain access'.12
8. Anecdotal references alert us to the communal spirit amongst writers which was reaffirmed by physical or literary contact. We are given some instances of actual meetings between the different writers, or cases where one account impresses and influences another writer. Because the narratives record the activities of other writers, they are an important source for discovering books which have been forgotten or left unread by historians and would otherwise have gone unnoticed.
9. Nicholson informs us that the general public were well aware of the exertions of travel writers for she continually heard praise for `blessed William Forster' from the people she met as she followed in his path.13 Tuke and Nicholson met and briefly travelled together, an encounter which further increased the former's admiration for the latter `whose faithful researches and candid recitals of the state of Erris and Connaught have lived, and will live, in spite of all opposition'.14 One may infer from reports by both Bennett and Nicholson that they also met. Nicholson was clearly aware of Bennett's work and was encouraged to retrace his steps after his ` ... painful descriptions had awakened a strong desire to see for myself'.15 A description of Bennett's meeting with an American woman in Dublin seems likely to be Nicholson: ` ... We met an American lady, of singular and strong character, whose first acquaintance with the Irish peasantry, in the garrets and cellars of New York, ... had induced ... her to come over on a mission of philanthropy ... and has now spent upwards of two years in walking over nearly every part of Ireland'.16
Representation of Famine Victims
10. There are many descriptions of Famine victims throughout the narratives detailing the physical and psychological effects of starvation and fever. This allows us to witness at first hand the devastating impact of the Famine which is all the more intense because of its immediate and personal nature. These images are crucial to our reading of the Famine because they alert us to the contemporary perceptions of the victims, and help us to understand the mentality of those observing and shaping public opinion.
11. The authors interact with the Famine victims in a limited way through physical contact, interviews or acts of charity, but they are ultimately distanced by choice and circumstances. The image of Bennett or Nicholson standing within and looking out the window at the vision of `misery without a mask', captures their relationship with the people they can sympathise, but not empathise, with.17 Bennett describes how the crowds `thronged the windows, which presented framed pictures of living groups of want and wretchedness, almost beyond endurance to behold'.18 Nicholson is weakened by this `spectacle of distress indescribable; [with the people] naked, cold, and dying, standing like petrified statues at the window'.19
12. The authors' attitudes towards the victims range from pity, to admiration, to disgust, to contempt. They are outraged at the terrible condition of the victims, and deeply moved by the patience, gratitude, and self-sacrifice of the dying. Nevertheless, there is still an `othering' of the suffering people---a sense that they have been reduced to half-crazed, inhuman creatures. The descriptions of crowds fighting for bread illustrates the travellers' terror when they were overwhelmed by the people. Osbourne and his travelling companion were mobbed in a bread shop and only escaped when the police battened back the crowds. Osbourne watches his friend who is lost amongst `bony fleshless arms' with uneasy yet fascinated interest and repulsion at this image of `famished creatures ... in hot hungry pursuit' who are more like `ravening wolves' than people.20 Balch, too, is horrified at the crowds who chase him `with the ferocity of wild beasts, famished with hunger, and doubtful of their prey'.21
Frequently, animal, ghost or skeleton analogies are employed in describing the people. This owes its origin partly to the gothic imagery of Victorian literature and partly to the nineteenth-century conception that the poor were innately degraded and morally inferior to their social `betters'. It may also derive from racial perceptions, but is more likely to be a product of class prejudices given that the stereotypes are only directed at the lower echelons of society.
13. From the narratives we are given different and often contradictory accounts of the responses to the Famine. The victims are seen paradoxically as gracious and self-sacrificing, but also slavish and vicious in their treatment of others. This can be understood with reference to the prejudice of the authors who at times display an almost schizophrenic attitude towards the Irish. Nicholson is particularly affected by the `astonishing suffering and self-denial of that people for their friends'.22 Yet, even Nicholson, probably the most sympathetic of all the writers, is moved to declare disbelief `that these creatures were my fellow beings'.23 Balch declares that he pities and even loves the dying people because he can sense ` ... in their humblest conditions a living semblance of the original image; deformed, defaced, and broken'.24
14. Bennett toured some cabins in an area devastated by Famine and found many orphaned relatives and strangers amongst the inhabitants, `for the poor people are kind to one another till the end'. However, in spite of this admiration, Bennett is disgusted by the `form(s), wild and all but naked, scarcely human in appearance ... one mass of communal fetid squalor'.25 He considers `the miserably clad female forms we met along the public road ... disgraceful, disgusting'.26 Bennett is outraged at the fraud of the Arranmore islanders whom he claims were merely pretending to be sick. He denies them relief and instead makes ` ... lecturing ... the condition of our gift'.27
Balch, Osbourne, and Bennett share a common concern that the Famine was driving people to desperate acts of barbarous proportions. They focus on the degradation of the people and the perceived increase in immorality. Osbourne attended a trial where the defendant was charged with manslaughter because he had thrown a dying neighbour out of his house. The sub-inspector of police wanted the trial to stand as a warning ` ... to deter others ... from similar acts of brutality, as they thought no more of the life of a fellow creature than they would of that of a dog'.28 Osbourne warns that `every feeling of natural kindness, every tie of nature ... is in deliberate course of extinction'.29 Bennett, too, feels that ` ... the bonds of natural affection were fearfully broken'.30 Balch quotes from the Tipperary Vindicator stating that the people were `fast degenerating into brutality', the evidence being that families secretly bury their dead in order to continue claiming their meal.31 Osbourne laments that `want of respect for the dead is a sign of barbarism, civilisation is in rapid decay'.32
While Osbourne is outraged at conditions in the workhouse, he is still somewhat repelled by the victims. He blames the workhouse for so thoroughly degrading its inmates that they might be better off dying, because `if they escape a pestilence, which shall destroy life, they cannot escape an amount of moral disease'.33 He describes the workhouses as `rank schools of evil' and concentrates his attack on the `black women' who lie in filth and idleness.34 He agonises over the dilemma about what to do with these able-bodied women who content themselves with `squatting and lying about the yard ... combing their own or each other's hair'.35 He argues that these `workhouse mermaids' should not be sent to the colonies because their degraded state would make them unfit, and even dangerous, to be colonial mothers or servants.36 Osbourne insists that `as mere animals, they would rank high, for they are ... a powerfully framed, well-formed race; but woe to the colony that seeks for mothers for its future generations, wives for the present'.37
15. The traveller's perception of the dying people as `other' disturbs the reader, but is necessary to our understanding of contemporary attitudes towards the Irish. Our realisation that repulsion could exist simultaneously with genuine concern for the suffering poor will be useful in our examination of official policy formulated by those often less well disposed to the Irish.
Treatment of landlord's role during the Famine
16. The writers are severely critical of landlord actions during the Famine and launch a scathing attack on their policy of distraint and eviction. They discuss the arguments justifying these moves---the enormous poor rates, and the demand for consolidation. In conceding that many landlords cannot be held responsible for the inherited problems of bankruptcy and nominal ownership, the authors deny that this excuses them, insisting that landlords must be held accountable for their actions. We are repeatedly told that the travellers are not anti-landlord, or against the inherent right of a proprietor to evict a renegade tenant. Nevertheless, the gross abuse of landlord privilege is loudly denounced and a new class of landlord is called for. The authors do not engage in a blanket condemnation of landlords or in a simplistic evil landlord / good tenant dichotomy. Their discussion of improving landowners introduces a comparative element which allows us to weigh the different models against each other.
17. Lord George Hill, Gweedore, Donegal is repeatedly given as an example of a model landlord.38 In spite of local opposition, Hill established farms of ten acres and created a productive, efficient `English'-type estate. Hill's Facts on Gweedore (1845) is presented as the good landlord guide. John Leslie Foster and Lord Headley, both landowners in Kerry, conducted similar successful experiments.39
18. Tuke observes that in one particularly destitute area, the owner of 300 acres of land applied to the Board of Guardians for out-door relief. He admits pity for the `well-disposed owner' who has inherited a deeply encumbered estate and is now impoverished. However, he stresses that the landlord is still `morally liable' for the lives of his tenants and therefore condemns `that system of extermination which many Irish landlords think themselves justified in adopting'.40 In a similar tone, Osbourne states that regrettably, `the general spirit of landlordism ... connives at ... that class extinction, which has existed, and now exists, to a degree defying all contradiction'.41 He bluntly and categorically pronounces that `eviction ... is very much the same as Extermination'.42 Balch describes how the `country appeared like an enormous graveyard---the numerous gables of the unroofed dwellings seemed to be gigantic tombstones'.43 He accuses landlords of deliberately attempting `to extirpate ... the whole Irish race' and declares that it would be no surprise `if another half-century should see the Irish people all banished'---words that could have been taken directly from The Last Conquest.44 And yet such foreigners cannot be lightly dismissed as nationalist propagandists.
19. The travellers determine to publicise their findings about the system of clearances, in spite of the opposition and outright hostility they encounter. The authors do not hesitate to indict specific individuals for evicting their tenants. The problem was that in areas like Kilrush where the authorities sanctioned evictions, `there is every endeavour to confine the knowledge of them to the neighbourhood in which they occur; and such is the power, exercised by proprietary machinery, that it is very difficult to lift the veil'.45 Nevertheless, many landlords are publicly exposed in an attempt to provoke a public outcry and thereby to prevent further evictions. The limited evidence we have from the Parliamentary Papers and the popular newspapers indicates that these efforts had some success.
Balch gives examples of the scandalous process of `depopulation' in Kilrush, on the properties of Massy Dawson, Glen of Aherlow, and the estates of Lord Kenmare.46 He quotes from a Limerick paper which records local evictions, where 72 families, consisting of 521 people, had been evicted from one estate. He cites Scrope's Notes on Ireland which claimed that 4,000 families, comprising 20,000 people, had been evicted over the previous two years in the Galway Union.47
Osbourne also uses the Kilrush Union as a case study, and he refers the reader to Captain Kennedy's reports.48 He mentions a public notice issued by Crofton M. Vandeleur of Kilrush House (21 April 1850), threatening eviction for those found helping anyone from outside the Union. Osbourne devotes a chapter to evidence taken at inquests or official enquiries which describes how people died from cold and exposure having being evicted from their homes. He indirectly charges Vandeleur with their deaths.49
Tuke and Nicholson focus on Mayo and give extensive detail of the evictions carried on there. Tuke condemns the eviction of 140 families by the resident landlord, John Walsh, in West Erris, when the loss of a patch of land was `a question of existence' for the tenants and the nearest workhouse was 50 miles away. He accepts that some tenants may have acted `improperly', thus meriting punishment, but he argues that they deserve some pity given the circumstances. Tuke is still burdened with a suspicion of the Famine victims, in spite of his open sympathy for their plight. Tuke's accusation drew an angry response from the named proprietor who attempted to refute his allegations in the Dublin Evening Post of 8 February, 1848. This prompted Tuke's return visit to Erris to prove the truth of his original charges and initiated a government enquiry.50
20. The official correspondence between the local relieving officer and the Board of Guardians records that Tuke's accusations and Walsh's public defence brought about the government investigation.51 The results confirm Tuke's credibility but, in spite of this, the enquiry was aborted. Accepting that Walsh was guilty of mass clearances, the Board took only one action: to urge that he be forced to pay his outstanding rates. It is possible that Walsh exerted political pressure and had the enquiry quashed, or that the government backed down for fear of provoking the wrath of the Irish landowners.
21. The government is attacked by the writers for its refusal to intervene in Irish land politics and is accused of complicity in landlord depopulation of the peasantry. Tuke criticises the government for failing to provide `legislative interference ... to prevent the misery, disease and death, which are inseparable from these wholesale evictions'.52 Osbourne upbraids the government for giving tacit consent through non-action to the `pure tyranny' of evictions, which was in effect a sentence of death.53
22. The 140 families evicted by Walsh were to receive relief from the rates struck, but the Parliamentary Papers confirm Tuke's claim that Walsh had not paid rates for 1846 or 1847.54 Tuke visits Aughleen, the feeding station for Clogher and Mullaroghe, where 300 to 400 people were gathered, `emaciated people in various stages of fever, starvation, and nakedness; the majority of whom were the evicted tenantry'. The vice-guardian told Tuke that `the worst had not yet made their appearance, as many were too ill to crawl out of their hiding-places'. The inspecting officer confirmed this and added that `all his efforts to keep the population from starvation and death had been baffled by the system of eviction'.55
23. Tuke records the eviction of 40 families at Kiel, Achill, owned by R. O'Donnell, who employed 1,000 people harvesting flax at his residence in Newport, 25 miles away. The nearest workhouse at Westport was 40 miles away. O'Donnell disclaimed knowledge of the evictions and argued that `being only the nominal owner, he was not personally responsible'.56 Tuke uses this case to highlight `the fearful evils resulting from the present encumbered condition of much of the landed property in Ireland' and argues for legislation to aid the sale of such debt-ridden land.57
Condemnation of government response to the FamineBureaucracy
25. Bennett met a relief officer in Cahir who criticised the government schemes because of `the impossibility of working it, from ... mere friction ... In one district alone it would require 13,000 signatures of the noble chairman, in duplicate!'.60 Officials would sometimes send people away empty handed because their names were not on file.61 Osbourne cites a relief officer at Kildysart who claimed that he could not plead for the 840 applicants for relief because the guardians who dealt with his area were not available. An audience was not procured for four weeks, after which time many of those who had been waiting for relief were dead and others were denied help. 62 Nicholson argues that `the four millions of starving ... were calling for food today ... they could not wait days, and possibly weeks, till the honesty of a landlord, should go through the trial of a jury'.63
Temporary Relief Act---`free relief'
26. Tuke and Bennett criticise the granting of free relief which they believe encouraged idleness and moral deterioration. Both are laissez-faire doctrinaires, ultimately concerned with `selfreliance' and they deplore the idea of free relief.64 Tuke argues that a system of public works should be again initiated, which would `certainly be preferable, morally as well as otherwise, to a gratuitous administration of outdoor relief'.65 Bennett protests against `the system which makes no attempt to cause or encourage useful employment', instead entrenching `the compulsory idleness [which] continues the demoralisation ... and throws up a more luxuriant growth of sin and shame'. He denounces the government policy which produces `hundreds of ablebodied men, willing to work, lounging in discontented idleness round the soupkitchens, while thousands of acres are lying in a comparative state of unproductiveness' and declares conviction in `the madness that leads to legislation of this nature as the curse we are suffering under, and not the failure of the poor potato'.66 Bennett declares that an English mind `deplores the consequences of the gratuitous relief that has been pouring in on all sides, knowing that it must inevitably breed a mass of corruption; and with their natural inclinations, was almost the worst thing that could be done for her people'.67
Ending of the Temporary Relief Act and new Poor Law
27. The government falls under general attack for the ending of the Temporary Relief Act which had disastrous consequences.68 It is not the closure of the kitchens alone that draws criticism, but the fact that relief under the act was not replaced by any effective measures. The new poor law is dismissed on the grounds that it is unworkable. Nicholson asks how are landlords supposed to support the poor `for they are paupers'.69 She quotes O'Connell who warns that `you had better at once make one grand roof over the whole island, for in due time the whole country will need a shelter under it'.70
28. Tuke praises Westminster's decision that `the property of the country should be chargeable with the support of the poor', but argues that it cannot work given the gross poverty in the west and the reluctance of landlords to support the destitute in poorer areas.71 Vaughan Jackson, the resident landlord at Ballina, expresses anger at `the load which the poor on the estates of absentees or mere nominal proprietors, bring upon him'.72 Tuke and Bennett are laissez-faire ideologues, but even they recognise that Ireland cannot support herself and condemn the government for effectively abandoning the country.
Tuke shows how disproportionately affected different areas are by the Famine and how relief is distributed unevenly, often failing to reach the worst hit localities. The net annual valuation per head for Connaught and Leinster was 20 shilllings and £3 respectively. However, some unions in Connaught only realised an equivalent of 3shillings to 5 shillings. Many unions were in severe debt, or bankrupt and were forced to close the workhouse.73 Tuke argues that one quarter to one half of Connaught's population needs to be supported. However, in spite of the much greater need in Connaught and its poverty compared to the rest of the country, Leinster had nearly double the number of workhouses although roughly the same area and population. The parish of Belmullet, barony of Erris, was as large as the county of Dublin, but was 50 miles away from the nearest workhouse at Ballina. In the second edition of his narrative, Tuke tells us that a workhouse has since been established at Binghamstown and plans are underway for an additional one at Belmullet. It is quite possible that Tuke's book was responsible for yielding such results, or at least for stimulating the discussions that prompted action.
29. Osbourne visited eleven unions in the West and found that in March 1850, nearly a third of the entire population of these unions was in the workhouse. For the quarter ending in June 1850, the situation was even worse: 44,000 people receiving indoor relief, as compared to 34,621 in March 1850. This was after a population decrease of twenty five percent since 1841. Osbourne found the workhouses `cruelly and disgracefully crowded'. Gross neglect often accompanied overcrowding, diet was insufficient and cases of fever were ignored. At Limerick, the inmates showed signs of terrible abandonment: `They were evidently eat up with vermin---very many were mere skeletons'.74
Osbourne concludes that the Poor Law failed because people were still starving in 1850 even though the Famine was officially over. He argues that the problem is not the Poor Law in itself, but that the workhouses have not performed according to the law. He does not blame the government exclusively because he is convinced that `the real condition of many of the Union Houses, has not until now, been known at the seat of government---but it ought to have been'.75 He acknowledges that the government is not responsible for landlords who refuse to pay their rates, but argues that it is responsible for the poor who have been guaranteed protection under the law. `If the landlord has a right to eject, the pauper has a right to certain shelter, certain support'.76 Thus, it is the government's duty to provide for these people if the property of Ireland is not prepared to do so.77
Osbourne praises the government's response in the early stages of the Famine, but charges the government with ending relief efforts because of a belief that the scale of the disaster was too great. He fears `that there has been a disposition to look at the difficulties of the crisis in these respects as so great, that there was a sort of tacit determination, to let things take their course, at any cost. If we were dealing with ... animals ... this would not surprise me; but I cannot admit, that any amount of expense ... should be spared, to simply secure to the destitute, what the destitute have ... a right to demand'78. Bennett, too, states that the government's attitude to `the question is surrounded with difficulties; dangerous to meddle with'.79 Balch accuses the government of `stoic indifference ... [and] inhuman neglect' in their dismissal of Ireland, which they justified by pronouncing her irredeemable.80 By claiming that `England has exhausted her ability and patience in attempting to improve the condition of Ireland' the government could wash its hands of famine-stricken Ireland.81
Causes, Consequences and Proposals for Reform
30. Probably one of the most interesting discussions in the narratives studied is that concerning the causes of the Famine and its implications for the future. In sharp contrast to the bulk of the historiography, these writers are primarily concerned with understanding the reasons for the Famine and apportioning blame, not for the fact of judging per se, but in an attempt to understand the problems of Irish society in order to alleviate or remove them. The authors are quite explicit in their condemnation of those they hold accountable for the Famine. The violently contested theories about providentialism and overpopulation are dismissed as excuses promulgated by gentry and government to justify and to vindicate their inadequate response to the Famine. The central question is how representative were these writers and how influential were they in shaping public opinion and influencing political developments and law making?
31. Bennett is highly contemptuous of the theory of Providentialism, dismissing this as a convenient cry to disclaim responsibility. He warns that before the Famine can be dismissed as `a Divine dispensation and punishment ... we must be satisfied that human agency and legislation, individual oppressions, and social relationships, have had no hand in it'.82 Nicholson vehemently denounces the theory that `God's Famine' destroyed the Irish, declaring that `God is slandered, where it is called an unavoidable dispensation of the wise providence ... as a chastisement which could not be avoided'.83 While Bennett merely implies that other forces are to blame, Nicholson wastes no time in indicting the holders of power who deny food to the starving and then brazenly proclaim that God has caused the hunger. She denies that the government was incapable of feeding the people, arguing that `there was not a week during that Famine, but there was sufficient food for the wants of the week', but that food was deliberately kept in reserve, following the ` ... principle of throwing away life today, lest means to protect it tomorrow night might be lessened'.84 `The novel prudence ... was keeping the provisions for next week, while the people were dying this'.85 This policy was doubly detrimental because the food supplies deteriorated and had to be thrown in the sea, `while the objects for whom it was intended died without relief'.86
32. Tuke, Osbourne, Bennett and Balch emphatically denounce all claims that Ireland could not support her population and thus was doomed to inevitable disaster. Tuke uses Russell's authoritative voice to attack the Malthusian thesis, and to argue that if agriculture were developed, `there exists the means in Ireland of supporting, not only as great, but even a greater population than it has hitherto done'.87 Bennett is aware of the theory that the ever increasing population which existed `on the borders of starvation; checked only by a crisis like the present, to which it inevitably leads', could be used in `almost verifying the worst Malthusian doctrines'.88 He counterargues that if Ireland were treated fairly, she would prosper and be `capable of maintaining several times its present amount of population'.89 In a more subtle attack, Osbourne argues that even if there had been a case for the overpopulation thesis before the Famine, this could no longer hold or excuse inaction in reforming the allegedly irredeemable land system of pre-Famine Ireland.90
33. The authors try to impress upon the reader the danger of not enacting immediate, thorough and wide-ranging social and moral reforms. They warn that the consequence would be revolution---an unavoidable and (to a certain degree) defensible revolution. This ominous tone was intended to shock the public out of complacency and bring speedy action. It presupposes that the demands for justice will not sufficiently mobilise resources and uses the threatening note to convince through fear where the moral imperative failed. It was a risky device given the hostility towards the Irish following the rebellion of 1848. It may demonstrate the desperation of the authors, or it may show their pragmatism based on what was believed the inevitable outcome.
34. Although the accusation that the Irish are innately violent is strenuously denied, the authors warn that they will be driven to extreme measures unless something is done to redress their grievances. The evils of the land system are blamed for producing agrarian outrages.91 Nicholson notes the growth of secret societies and defends their actions claiming that `if ever oppression was justifiable in making wise men "mad", it is in Ireland'. She sees the 1848 rising as a mark of desperation on the part of the educated leaders `who were too enlightened not to know the causes of their country's sufferings, and too humane to look on with indifference'. The starving victims who supported them were motivated by a belief that they would find a quick death, which would be `better than the long hunger'.92
Osbourne sees the rebellion as being the protest of the misguided, `starving mobs [who] were led to give support to the so-called patriots' in a frenzied bid to get relief.93 He claims that it is natural that the peasant should want vengeance because `they see their race in the process of extinction ... Doomed to the Workhouse, to banishment, or to death---who can wonder that they are ever ripe for every deed of violence'.94
35. Foster's denunciation of `atrocities and cowardly assassinations' is refuted by Balch as being the propaganda of `an English partisan writer'. He argues that hostility is natural when `the people are starved and oppressed' and asks `who is at fault but they who have produced it, or having the remedies, refuse to apply them?'.95 The shooting of landlords and agents is not a conspiracy against landowners, but `in retaliation for the personal injuries, which they honestly believe to be the cause of the suffering which has destroyed their wives and children, and threatens their own lives. It is a sort of desperation which frequently accompanies starvation'.96
36. Balch had become so radicalised after his year in Ireland that he was moved to advocate rebellion as the necessary step for the people `to redress their wrongs, throw off their fetters and repel the aggressions of the tyrant few'.97 Balch warns prophetically that the Famine would be used as propaganda by all those grieved at English injustice, as `the graves of their ancestors ... call to them for redress'.98 The danger was all the more pressing because of the increasing number of Irish immigrants in America, who `are becoming an important item in the constitution of our community'.99 He explains that `a great many of the lower classes have gone to that country, who would neglect to do nothing to revenge themselves on the landholders'.100
Reform ... Reasons and Remedies 37. The authors categorically state that they are publishing proposals for reform. These remedies are crucial to our perceptions of the authors' agenda and the context in which they were writing.
38. The horrific condition of pre-Famine Ireland is partly attributed to historic oppression, which is dated from the `time of the invasion'.101 Balch goes even further in claiming that church, government and landlords abandoned `mercy, justice, and common humanity', and deliberately planned `to reduce this nation to its present condition of destitution, and misery'.102 Balch's extremism in his charge of genocide finds expression in a more diluted form by the other authors, who make an emotional appeal for justice for Ireland.103
39. Balch rejects the claim that Ireland is incapable of improvement, since England has never governed her except as `an enemy, [and] a conqueror'.104 He argues that if Ireland were once treated fairly, then there would be no more complaints of `Irish outrages, and Irish ignorance, and Irish recklessness, and Irish indolence, and Irish hatred of good government, and Irish ingratitude'.105 Bennett repeats this charge, arguing that Ireland is degraded because she has not been treated like a sister, but `as a captive slave won by the force of arms, kept by coercion, and therefore unattached and restless, miserable, and easily to be won by others'. If Ireland is `an integral part of the same empire', then she should be placed on `an equal footing with England' and not demeaned as `a conquered province'.106 They demand disestablishment as an essential starting point, calling for an end to `the paramount injustice, and the deteriorating and disorganising effect ` of an established church which is `not in harmony with the sympathies of the people'.107
40. The writers employ the discourse of race theory in an attempt to address the general preconceptions and prejudices concerning Ireland. It was claimed that Irish moral degradation was partly responsible for the Famine and that it militated against any hope of future improvement. In order successfully to attack these claims, the authors engage in the debate about national character, discussing the credibility of the stereotypical image of the improvident, indolent, ignorant, and violent Celt. Although they attempt to re-define the Irish national character, they carry some of the ideological baggage that generates the stereotype.
41. Bennett is concerned with the moral effect of deprivation on the population and even wonders `how far does its existence lie at the very base of the low social condition of the people?'108 Osbourne gives as the ` antecedents of the Famine, [which] all combined to aggravate it; the virtual bankruptcy of so many of the proprietary; the amount of absenteeism; the long fostered false habits of the people' (italics author's own).109 Balch declares that `there is no cause for the misery and degradation ... except in the monstrous exactions and oppressions of the Government and the Church, and the consequent ignorance and inanity of the people'.110
42. The authors argue that circumstances have formed the peasant and that they would be capable of improvement if given fair opportunity. Tuke reasons that although there are `dark shades in the moral character of the poor neglected Irishman', he will still redeem himself when given a chance.111 As to the charge of Irish violence, the authors argue that no people ever endured their suffering with such `patience and submission to the laws'.112 Bennett describes the Irish as `naturally a contented and happy race', and points to `the perfect safety of a stranger amongst them' as proof of this.113
43. To the assertion that the Irish are deceitful, Osbourne retorts that if they are, they have been made so for `cunning is the child of circumstance' and that `when well treated, they were and are an honest race'.114 The hope was that education would address the `moral disease' of the people.115 Osbourne asks who is at fault if the peasants are ignorant since they are denied an education. He alerts us to the cultural anomaly of the official instruments of government using English to address peasants who speak only Irish.116 This gives us an indication of the cultural politics that were at play in the 1840s and the linguistic difficulties for the native speaker.
44. The most serious and frequently levied charge against the Irish peasantry is that of indolence and improvidence. The authors deny these accusations, arguing that the Irish work industriously, act soberly and save religiously when they are given employment. They use the emigrant experience to prove this and publicise the enormous amount of remittances sent home regularly which bear witness to their strong sense of responsibility. Tuke estimates that £20,000 was sent from England to Connaught by seasonal labourers in ten months of 1847, and that $1,600,000 was sent from the US in the first six months of 1847.117 He claims that there is no `justification of the opinion that they would be less industrious in the glens and on the mountain sides of their own lovely Erin, than they are found to be in the land of strangers'.118
45. Nicholson uses the example of the industrial schools in Connaught which shows the peasant to be diligent and hard working when released from `degraded unrequited servitude'.119 Bennett points out that it is the Irish who go to England `to reap our harvests, dig our canals, construct our railroads, in fact wherever hard work is to be obtained', saving rigorously and managing to `send over sums exceeding all that the wealthy have raised in charity'.120 Balch amusingly contributes that the Irish emigrants in America are often labelled `ignorant, bigoted, dirty, clannish, quarrelsome, drunken, improvident ... but never lazy'121---an interesting catalogue of complaints and a distinctive way of discrediting the `lazy Irish' myth!
Evils: Nominal Owners and Tenant Insecurity
46. The writers concentrate the bulk of their attack on the evils of the land system, which they see as producing and perpetuating gross poverty and allowing the tragedy of the Famine. In defending the tenants against the charge of complicity in their own downfall, the authors attempt to show how Ireland's problem is one of mismanagement and not one of overpopulation, divine intervention, or peasant moral corruption.
47. Landlords are condemned for following the practice of subdivision to the detriment of the peasant before the Famine. Osbourne argues that landlords encouraged subdivision, which was extremely profitable due to the competition for land, and attractive because it made them `lords over an almost countless peasantry'.122 He rejects the claim that landlords were not aware of the subdivision carried on by agents under them, since, `the middlemen, he must have known, could never have paid the rent he did, had he not looked to redivide his holdings again and again'.123 Tuke accuses landlords of favouring the division of land in order `to increase their own political influence'.124 Balch concurs arguing that landlords forced farmers to subdivide in order to create more 40shilling freeholders, and secure them more votes.125
48. Nominal ownership and tenant insecurity are seen as the most serious factors militating against improvement. Balch argues that `the monstrous injustice of entail and primogeniture ... are the direct and principal cause of all the crime and misery of these masses'.126 Tuke agrees, arguing that `the system of nominal ownership, either of bankrupt residents, or of absentees, is certainly one of the greatest impediments to the improvement of Ireland'.127 The problem was that because landlords were so indebted, they had no money for improvements and were forced to charge excessively high rents. Their only other option was to let the property to mortgagees, but these estates were `notoriously ill-managed and neglected'.128
49. Another major criticism of the land system is that of tenant insecurity which militated against their making any improvements.129 John Leslie Foster's address to the Select Committee of the Lords (1825) is quoted as saying that the tenant `is deterred from making any improvement ... by the knowledge, founded on experience, that if he improve his farm or build a better cabin, he will, most likely, without any remuneration ... be turned out of possession, or be forced to undertake an increased rent'.130
50. The calls for land reform are interesting given that they are part of one of the central debates provoked by the Famine which led to the Encumbered Estates Act. A new race of landowners was demanded as essential for improvement. Balch, Nicholson, Bennett and Tuke argue that the government must `free the land' as they had freed the corn, advocating the forcible sale of encumbered and bankrupt estates, including those held by entail or in perpetuity. Landlords have forfeited their rights to their land if they cannot maintain it. `There is no right without a duty, and the right ceases if the duty is not performed'.131 This is an extremely radical position because it undermines the whole legal basis of landholding in Ireland. It threatens to set people on an equal footing in a society which was founded on the principles of privilege, the rights of property and the inviolability of the hierarchy.
51. Bennett argues that the government should force landlords of bankrupt or mismanaged estates to sell, `at what it is worth under his management ... [to] facilitate its transfer, in every legitimate way, from the hands of nominal to those of real proprietors ... [and] the millions of uncultured, and at present worthless acres, would put on a value, and be brought under the productive labour of the millions of unemployed poor'.132 Tuke advocates that every small farmer should be given ten to twenty acres of unreclaimed land, with moderate rates and security. Large farms could give employment to labourers previously involved in conacre.133
52. Balch dismisses the claims of the author of The Times letters, presumably Osbourne, that Irish poverty arises from the negligence of landlords and the ignorance of tenants, arguing that these are only superficial causes. `The real cause of the evil ... lies in the fact that the people have no acknowledged, actual right to the soil'.134 He claims that Ireland's only hope for redemption lies in `attaching the people to the land by some legal enactment, which will give them security, and encourage them to make an effort to improve their own condition'.135 Here we see an even more extreme departure. Balch, some thirty years before the Land League, is proposing tenant proprietorship---a position which was strenuously opposed in the 1880s, when it had the force of a popular mass movement and a political party behind it.
53. Osbourne vigorously opposes any form of tenant ownership as an infringement on the inalienable rights of landlords.136 He warns that `taking from one, the power he ought to hold over his own property; giving to the other possession' would destroy `those principles of justice, as regards the rights of ownership, which are the very basis of civilisation'.137 This was the crux of the debate---how were the problems of the land system to be addressed when the legal owners were believed to be the single greatest obstacle to improvement? Osbourne advises the government to administer `the same justice alike to Poverty and Property'.138 Justice, according to Osbourne, was a stricter regulation of landlord power and a curtailment of `that reckless abuse of the rights of property, which deliberately compasses ... the ruin, if not the deaths, of tens of thousands'.139
However, Osbourne voices general satisfaction with the act which was seen to vindicate claims that the land system was corrupt. By 31 July 1850, 1,085 petitions had been filed on which the encumbrances were £12,400,368, while the rental only amounted to £655,470. In many cases the nominal owners had long ago lost their rights to the property.140
Clearance and Consolidation
54. The authors are severely critical of the policies of clearance and consolidation and sceptical of their benefits. Osbourne claims that resident landlords and agents conspire `to clear their lands of the existing tenantry', often involving the relief officer in such `inhumanity'. Relief would sometimes be denied until a voluntary surrender of the property occured, or the cabin would be burnt or pulled down while the family were at the workhouse.141 Osbourne accuses landlords of being merciless in encouraging subdivision when it profited them and evicting tenants when they became a burden: `Hence the wholesale clearances ... which has ... caused the death ... of very many thousands'.142
55. Tuke supports Osbourne that the clearances are `a violation of the great principles of justice and humanity'.143 They deny that consolidation is the only way to improve the land as this is incompatible with the reality of many European countries.144 Osbourne claims that the farms which were amalgamated have not been put to good effect, because the new tenants have no capital, skill, or security, and they merely exist as `the proprietor's apology for eviction'.145 Tuke cites the experiments in the Scottish highlands, as reported by The Times, which prove that `the sweeping away of the little tenantry is not attended with the benefits anticipated by the proprietor'.146
56. Both Osbourne and Tuke insist that there can be no justification for treating people as if they were disposable, thus sacrificing them at the altar of economic doctrine. Tuke denounces the assumption `that we have a right to deal with human beings as if they were mere inert matter which obstructs our path; instead of considering it an axiom that our plans must be adapted to their presence, and that every scheme for the improvement of the land is to be deemed unsound in which the first and great consideration is not the welfare and happiness of the resident population'.147
57. What importance can be claimed for the travel literature produced during and about the Famine? Firstly, they are eye-witness accounts written by foreigners and therefore give us a different insight than that of Irish commentators or government publications. Secondly, they help us to access the contemporary mind, alerting us to the prejudices and ideologies that predominated in the 1840s. Finally, they are intimately involved with the political questions that shaped legislation, but have no direct interest in Ireland, other than the philanthropic. Thus, although their accounts are fundamentally political, their slant is different than that of the main contenders who stood to benefit or lose in the questions under consideration.
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