The Tragedy Of Bridget Such-a-one


The potato didn’t fail in the summer of 1847, yet the distress of the past two seasons had seriously curtailed the scale of plantings. Trevelyan, however, convinced that Ireland’s problem wasn’t inadequate food supplies but “the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people,” pronounced the famine over. There would be no more extraordinary measures by the Treasury, not even when the potato failed again in 1848, 1849, and into the early 1850s. Irish needs would be met out of Irish resources.


The government’s change of direction went beyond the withdrawal of desperately needed assistance. The passage in June 1847 of the Irish Poor Law Extension Act married racial contempt and providentialism—the prevalent conviction among the British elite of God’s judgment having been delivered on the Irish—with political economy. According to the theorists of the iron laws of economics, the great deficiencies of Ireland were a want of capital accumulation—the result of the maze of small tenancies—and the incurable lethargy of a people inured to indolent reliance on an inferior food. The famine provided an opportunity to sweep away the root causes of Ireland’s economic backwardness.

The amendment of the Irish Poor Law made landlords responsible for the rates (taxes collected to support the workhouses) on all holdings valued under four pounds per year. Another provision—the Gregory Clause —denied relief to anyone holding more than a quarter-acre of land. This left many tenants with the choice of abandoning their holdings or condemning their families to starvation. Together these clauses were a mandate to clear the land of the poorest and most vulnerable. Entire villages were “tumbled.” In one instance a newspaper reported that some of the evicted were found dead along the roadsides, “emitting green froth from their mouths, as if masticating soft grass.” On the Mullet Peninsula in Mayo, James Hack Tuke, a Quaker involved in the intensive relief effort undertaken by the Society of Friends, witnessed an entire settlement being razed: “Six or seven hundred people were evicted; young and old, mother and babe, were alike cast forth, without shelter and without means of subsistence! A fountain of ink (as one of them said) would not write half our misfortunes.”

MANY Americans saw the Irish as a threat to prosperity and liberty, their poverty a function of character.

Asenath Nicholson traveled some of the same territory as Tuke and was horrified by the sheer scale of what she witnessed: “Village upon village, and company after company, have I seen; and one magistrate who was travelling informed me that at nightfall the preceding day, he found a company who had gathered a few sticks and fastened them into a ditch, and spread over what miserable rags they could collect … under these more than two hundred men, women, and children, were to crawl for the night … and not one pound of any kind of food was in the whole encampment.”

Across much of Ireland the purgatory of the first two years of famine became a living hell. The workhouses, which the people had once done their best to avoid, were besieged by mobs clamoring to get in. The dead were buried coffinless in mass graves. The Reverend Francis Webb, a Church of Ireland rector in West Cork, published an account of dead children being left unburied and asked in anger and disbelief, “Are we living in a portion of the United Kingdom?” Asiatic cholera, carried from India in the bowels of British soldiers, eventually arrived and cut down thousands of those already weakened by hunger.

Emigration from ireland became a torrent, no longer a quest for new opportunities but a question of life or death. The ports filled with people. Most sought passage to Liverpool, the former capital of the slave trade and now the entrepôt of emigration. From there they hoped to find a cheap fare to America. Jammed in the holds of coal barges and on the decks of cattle boats, three hundred thousand Irish sailed to Liverpool in 1847 alone.

The government made a pretense of enforcing regulations that prescribed medical inspection of all passengers and minimum space and rations for each. In reality emigrants, having scrambled however they could to put together the four pounds that passage to America typically cost, were at the mercy of a laissez-faire system that treated them more like ballast than like human beings. Dr. J. Custis, who served as a ship’s surgeon on half a dozen emigrant vessels, published a series of articles that described their sailings: “I have been engaged during the worst years of famine in Ireland; I have witnessed the deaths of hundreds from want; I have seen the inmates of a workhouse carried by the hundreds weekly through its gates to be thrown unshrouded and coffinless into a pit with quicklime … and revolting to the feelings as all this was, it was not half so shocking as what I subsequently witnessed on board the very first emigrant ship I ever sailed on.”