Irish Potatoe Famine Essay, Research Paper
Ireland is a country that has had many crop failures but the Famine of 1845-1849 was the worst ever. The people had become so dependent on the potato that when it failed they had nothing else. They had no money, no parliament in country to give them relief and no rights to keep them from being evicted from the land they diligently worked each year for their landlords. Many died, many immigrated to other nations but those who stayed cried out for security. In the years following the famine tenant associations, a push for home rule and the dissolution of the Church of Ireland were just a few things to change in Ireland after this horrid period in history.
The potato became the primary source of food sometime in the eighteenth century. They are very nutritious and many could be grown in a small plot of land. In 1845 the first failure of the potato crop occurred, little did the people know that this would happen the next four years. Sir Edward Peel, Tory Prime Minister, saw there was a need of relief. Though he did not have support from the House of Commons, he secretly ordered a supply of Indian corn from America. He did not plan to give the corn away but sell it just over cost price. By doing this he could keep the private merchants from raising the price of food. He kept secret how much corn the government had so the merchants would not find out how little corn they really did have. If the government had distributed it all at once they would have run out in just a few weeks. The problem with selling food though in an economy where there was not much money the poor still could not buy the food. The tenant farmers made little money and that was used to pay the rents on their farms. The government set up a public works system some areas so that they could earn money for food. It was a good idea in theory but the farmers were making barely enough money to feed their families and the work was so hard they barely had the strength to make it through the day. There were also areas that had no public works at all. In these areas there was a lot of distress but in the first year very few people died of actual starvation. The families just lost most of what they had by selling it off to see them through the year. So in other words they would not have anything to see them through another year.
Sir Edward Peel who was sympathetic to the farmer was put out of office in July 1846. He wanted to reform the Corn Laws, which kept the tariffs high on imported grains. He wanted to reduce the tariffs on imported corn. His supporters were dead against it. Lord John Russell was to follow as Prime Minister and he really believed that everything would sort itself out with little interference from the government this laissez faire mind set was what most politicians believed at the time. The Assistant Secretary of the Treasury Sir Charles Trevelyn agreed with Russell, he did not want to send British money to Ireland. He wanted the local governments to be responsible.
As the famine continued people began from other diseases not just starvation. Scurvy was one of them; it is caused by a lack of vitamin C in the corn that the people were eating. Gums swelled, teeth fell out, and black sores appeared on their bodies and death from gangrene. Little children had protein deficiency that led to a disease called marasmus, it aged the children prematurely. Elderly people suffered from oedema, the accumulation of fluid in the lymphatic system which made them swell up. Anemia was also there, from eating too little food over a long period of time. The conditions were not getting better but worse. If they didn?t starve to death they came down with some other disease.
There were private organizations that tried to help farmers by setting up soup kitchens. Even Quakers from America came over to help where the government would not. Some of the kitchens though would not give out food unless the person converted to Protestantism. Many absentee landlords did try to help also by setting up soup kitchens. The soup kitchens were feeding nearly three million people a day.
In 1847 with the famine still happening Lord John Russell?s government passed the Poor Extension Act. They wanted to put an end to the government paying for the famine and putting the responsibility on the Poor Law System. Basically they wanted to stop wasting British money on saving Irish lives.
At this point was the beginning of eviction for the tenants from the land. Their last hope was taken away when their land was taken. Most landlords could not afford to let the tenants stay on the land. Many landlords did pay for passage to emigrate out of Ireland. Many Irish emigrated to America, England, Canada and Australia. Emigration was not much easier though than staying in Ireland. The ships now called coffin ships were in poor condition. Most of the time a lot of the people died from disease, the conditions were unsanitary and close and there was not always enough food and water for the journey. Many continued to emigrate after the famine and the population of Ireland went down to around four million. Those who stayed behind in Ireland were ready for change and some rights to their lives.
?Ireland lay shocked and hopeless after the Great Famine; she was like a corpse on the dissecting table. There was no leadership anymore, no great movement, no cause, no political clubs, no heroism and no ideas.? (Gaven Duffy, The Nation) The ?sickness? as it was called was that the tenants needed to be able to improve their land without the fear of a raise in rent or eviction. This was not going to be an easy task. Most of the parliament in Britain was from families who owned land in Ireland. What needed to be done was get rid of the landlords and replace them with real farmers who could oversee the production and improvement. Encumbered Estates Act was passed in 1848 and 1849. It made sales of the lands that were encumbered by mortgages, entails and family settlements easier. Hundreds of Irish Landowners put their land on the market because they were almost bankrupted by the famine. Land became inexpensive, but the people who came in and bought the land were not people who were concerned for improvement but speculators trying to make money. There were not as many workers left with the emigration and the death of many Irishmen but the rents were raised yet again. Eviction was happening again to those who could not afford to pay these rents.
Tenant Associations emerged from this, in the north Ulster Protestant ministers helped to form the Tenant Right Association and in the south they formed the Tenant Right League. Both organizations worked together to get politicians elected to office. Forty seats in the parliament were held by men with this platform, soon though, they broke their election promises. They could not get anything accomplished so they lost heart on the matter. No land reform came out of these associations.
A group founded by John O?Mahoney called the Fenian Brotherhood came next. The Fenians were not a peaceful group; they wanted radical group that wanted separation and revolution. The people were afraid at first to openly support the Fenians; Priests condemned all secret societies and actually excommunicated people who joined them. Open support started slowly but did come. The Fenians infiltrated the British Army with their own men and also wanted to take a British town, they tried to take Chester unsuccessfully. They failed because they were not prepared properly to fight and were fighting among themselves. It did make people in Britain become aware however that there were problems in Ireland.
William Edward Gladstone, the leader of the British Liberal Party told a public meeting that the Irish violence was a result of Irish grievances, and it was Britain?s duty to remove those grievances. He was a devote Protestant but had sympathy for the Nonconformists. He believed it was an injustice that a country that was primarily Catholic had an established Protestant church and all the endowments and revenues that came with it. He used this as his platform to run for Prime Minister. Gladstone had a census taken in Ireland in 1861. The population was 5.75 million at this time. 4.5 million were Catholic and members of the established Protestant church were only 700,000 and most of them were in the north. He was elected on this ticket. In 1869 he put a bill before parliament to disestablish the Church of Ireland and it was passed. The government confiscated all of the church?s holdings. Half of it was put aside to provide for the clergy, schoolmasters and various officials. The rest was put aside to help the poverty stricken, to make agriculture and fishing better and to promote higher education. Most of the land owned by the church was sold. Gladstone slipped clauses in to give the tenants an opportunity to buy the land they lived on.
The clauses Gladstone put in the Irish Church Act helped to make the Irish Land Act in 1870. Before a landlord was presumed to have made it possible for the improvement of the land. The new act made the presumption that the tenant made the improvements. If the tenant was evicted he had to be given compensation for improvements unless the landlord could prove differently. Landlords did not feel that the state should be interfering with their relationships with their tenants. The act failed though because Gladstone?s safeguards were taken out and things did not change between the landlord and the tenant.
Irishmen were beginning to get discouraged at the failure to receive some justice or rights. People began again to think of having their own parliament. In 1870 Isaac Butt drew together Protestants, Catholic Liberals and Fenians to form a group called the Home Government Association. This group became the Home Rule League three years later. In 1874 they put their own candidates in the general election, 59 were elected to parliament. The party did not work together though and the party failed. Isaac Butt?s leadership was not powerful not cohesive, he was more worried about his own financial problems. He also believed the way to get what they want was to be nice to the British government. J.C. Bugger, from Belfast did not believe this. He would hold the floor for hours in the House of Commons keeping anything from being accomplished. He was strong but not someone that the gentry would follow. They needed to find a new leader that everyone would follow. Parnell became that leader; he was elected from Meath in 1875. He like Bugger would obstruct business in the Commons. He didn?t have any respect for the British government. He was supported by the Fenians they began a new movement to support a constitutional nationalism, pressed for land reform with protection for tenants and ultimately land ownership. Both the military extremist and the Home Rulers were finding common ground to fight for.
There still is so much more that can be said about the years after the famine. This paper just touches on the beginning of the fight for change, rights for the tenant farmers that barely survived because of the Famine. Nobody caused the famine but more assistance could have been given to those who stayed in Ireland. They had little means to keep their families from starving or dying from disease. They had no rights to stay on the land they worked unless they paid their rent. There is no reason to ask why they did not try to improve their living conditions if they could be evicted at any time or can not even receive assistance when the crop that feeds them fails. Many attempts were made my various people and organizations after the famine to change these conditions. They did not always work or accomplish what they set out to do. These people and organizations paved the way for future leaders to fight and win for Irelands freedom and basic human rights.
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