The Tragedy Of Bridget Such-a-one

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In December 1845, in order to lower grain prices, Peel proposed repeal of the Corn Laws, import duties that protected British agriculture from foreign competition. He was convinced that increased competition would result in lowering the price of food for the British working classes, which it did. Cheap imports would not only lessen the immediate threat of mass hunger but help wean the poor from reliance on the potato and transform small tenants into landless, wage-earning laborers. As a result of Peel’s relief measures, Ireland averted the worst consequences of the blight through the winter of 1845–46. The weather was unusually cold. The poorhouses began to fill up. The poor exhausted whatever reserves they may have had. But starvation was held at bay.

 

The repeal of the Corn Laws in June 1846 quickly precipitated the fall of Peel’s government. Lord Russell, the new Whig prime minister, faced a more daunting challenge than had Peel. The return of the blight for a second year, and the devastation of three-quarters of the potato crop, drove thousands more on to the public works. In August 1846 the works were temporarily halted and overhauled along lines set down by Charles Trevelyan, the head permanent civil servant in the Treasury. The rules of employment were made stricter, and more of the cost was put on local landlords. By October the public works employed 114,000; three months later, in January 1847, more than 500,000; by March, 750,000. Reports of extreme suffering and death began to pour in from different parts of the country. In Skibbereen, County Cork, an artist sent by the Illustrated London News testified that neither pictures nor words could capture the horror of “the dying, the living, and the dead, lying indiscriminately upon the same floor, without anything between them and the cold earth, save a few miserable rags upon them.”

EMIGRAtion became a torrent, on vessels that quickly developed a well-earned reputation as “coffin ships.”

The American temperance worker Asenath Nicholson got her first view of the worsening condition of Ireland in the outskirts of Dublin. In December 1846 a servant in a house where she was staying implored her to see a man nearby, the father of seven, who, though sick with fever and “in an actual state of starvation,” had “staggered with his spade” to the public works. The servant brought in a human skeleton “emaciated to the last degree.” Horrified as she was, Mrs. Nicholson would remember this as only “the first and the beginning of … dreadful days yet in reserve.”

Daunted by the expense of the public works, the government decided to switch to soup kitchens, a form of relief introduced by the Quakers. The public works began to close in March. By midsummer of 1847 three million men, women, and children were being fed with soup. An indication of the government’s capacity to restrain the ravages of hunger, the soup kitchens were the apogee of the relief effort —and its effective end.

Writing in blackwood’s Magazine in April 1847, a commentator complained of the expense being incurred to help the Irish. The famine was not an English problem, he wrote, and there was no need for wasting another shilling on a disaster “which the heedlessness and indolence of the Irish had brought upon themselves.” A month earlier the Times of London had expressed a similar sense of the widespread frustration with the Irish, again connecting Ireland’s agony to the innate defects of its people: “The Celt is less energetic, less independent, less industrious than the Saxon. This is the archaic condition of his race .… [England] can, therefore, afford to look with contemptuous pity on the Celtic cottier suckled in poverty which he is too callous to feel, and too supine to mend.”

Since the abolition of the Dublin parliament in 1801, Ireland had theoretically been an integral part of the United Kingdom, its people entitled to the same protections and considerations as those of English shires. But as the famine made inexorably clear, Ireland remained a colony, one usually viewed as a turbulent, perplexing, intractable anomaly.

During the period immediately preceding the famine, Daniel O’Connell, who had led the agitation in the 1820s that won Catholics the right to sit in Parliament, had headed a movement to repeal the union with Britain and return a measure of self-rule to Dublin. The union was maintained, but now, in the face of Ireland’s continuing distress, a tired, broken O’Connell told the House of Commons: “Ireland is in your hands. If you do not save her, she cannot save herself.” His plea went unheeded. As framed by Sir Charles Wood, the chancellor of the exchequer, the challenge was no longer to help feed the Irish but “to force them into self-government… our song … must be—‘It is your concern, not ours.’”