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Government Relief Policy and the Great Irish Famine 1845-51 Prof Peter Gray Queen’s University Belfast.

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Presentation on theme: "Government Relief Policy and the Great Irish Famine 1845-51 Prof Peter Gray Queen’s University Belfast."— Presentation transcript:

1 Government Relief Policy and the Great Irish Famine Prof Peter Gray Queen’s University Belfast

2 Key questions What was the governing context? Britain and Ireland in 1845 What could government have done? What expectations were there of government action? What did government do? What role did ideology play in shaping policy? What evidence is there for ‘genocide’? What responsibility did the state play for mass mortality?

3 Governing Context A colonial context? A hybrid constitutional position From 1801 Ireland part of UK unitary state in theory Ireland represented in Westminster Parliament – 105 MPs and 32 peers Since 1829 Catholics admitted to Parliament; but property qualifications for vote and seats Separate executive for Ireland at Dublin Castle under Lord Lieutenant, Chief Secretary and Under-Secretary Separate legislation and legal structure for Ireland Nationalist movement (Repeal) active under Daniel O’Connell from 1830

4 What could government have done? Contrast government action in and Developing financial power of state, bureaucratic organisation and reach of state agencies: -Commissariat (1809) -Census of Ireland (1821) / Ordnance Survey (1824) -Irish Board of Works (1831) / National Education Board (1831) -Irish Constabulary (1836) -Irish Poor Law (1838) / Dispensaries and fever hospital network But no separate Irish Treasury: financial power in London

5 Expectations of state action Little expectation of central state intervention in 18 th century Government intervention in crises from creates expectations Robert Peel’s experience as CSI , Home Secretary 1822 Whig experience of regional crises 1831, 1835, 1839 Small-scale intervention in west to keep down prices, provide employment Relief directed from Dublin Castle Debate about relationship between poor law to relief

6 Areas of possible state intervention (1)Food availability / price -export/import policy -price control policy (2) Employment -public employment (3) Direct aid -food rationing -provision of shelter -provision of medical aid (4) Assisted emigration Soup ration tickets, 1847

7 Peel’s government (1841-July 1846) Conservative Party administration Faces limited crisis of Experienced in dealing with Irish famine Anxious not to concede political ground to Daniel O’Connell Response to Irish crisis interconnected with repeal of UK Corn Laws Political constraints: split in Conservative party early 1846 and denial of Irish crisis by ‘Protectionists’ Charles Trevelyan (Assistant Secretary to Treasury, – civil servant) Sir Robert Peel ( )

8 Peel’s policy Organisation: Relief Commission established to co- ordinate response 1846, chaired by Sir Randolph Routh (1)Food policy -Secret purchase of £100,000 of maize from US -Lodged in Irish depots run by Army Commissariat for release to depress grain prices -No other interference with grain trade -Hoped repeal of Corn Laws 1846 would stimulate ‘natural’ trade in maize to Ireland

9 (2) Employment: -Public Works legislation 1846 allocates funds for employment on roads and drainage works -Terms were relatively favourable to Irish landowners; half of costs of road works granted in aid -Works put into operation spring 1846 under Irish Board of Works -Pressured by food riots and disturbances; Irish political pressure Food riot at Dungarvan, ILN, 1846

10 (3) Direct aid: -Government prefers to co-operate with local ‘Relief Committees’ (c.650) of private individuals and clergy -Aids local subscriptions with grants in aid -Relief committees expected to buy grain and sell at cost price; & select persons deserving relief -Govt attempts to keep relief separate from poor law (fears of outdoor relief becoming permanent)

11 Success of Peel’s policy? Relatively low excess mortality Contains political or peasant insurgency backlash in Ireland But calculated on basis of single year of famine; no contingency plan for Provoked a political backlash in GB against ‘over-generosity’ to Irish landlords and peasants Government falls end June 1846 on revolt against Irish Coercion Bill (Whig-Protectionist- O’Connellite alliance vs Peel) Punch on Peel’s Coercion Bill, Apr. 1846

12 Russell’s government (July ) Whig-Liberal Party administration Faces much more serious and prolonged crisis in Ireland Has to deal with banking crash and recession in Great Britain, ; revolution in Europe A minority government ; party divided after 1847 election – Radical revolt over taxes Weak leadership from Lord John Russell (PM); factionalism in government Charles Trevelyan (Asst Sec to Treasury – civil servant) 3 phases in relief policy: Lord John Russell ( )

13 Policy phase 1: Aug 1846-Mar 1847 Organisation: Drops Relief Commission; policy conflict between Dublin Castle and Treasury Food policy: -Abandons any new interference in food trade or pricing policy – minimal new purchases of grain -Residual use of remaining food depots in west until stocks run out -Reliance on ‘market forces’ for private imports of grain -Context of international shortages of grain (bad harvests and lack of imports) -Contributes to ‘hunger winter’ in Ireland But has the role of food policy been exaggerated in causing famine? Charles Trevelyan ( ). Assistant Secretary to the Treasury

14 Irish grain exports/imports (000s of tons grain equivalent) - after Bourke (1976). exports imports

15 . (2)Employment: -Revives public works employment under ‘Labour Rate Act’ August Insists on greater Treasury control over works projects and reduces ‘grant in aid’ -Vetoes works of ‘permanent improvement’ -Sets public works wages below level for private employment; later adopts ‘piece work’ scale of payments to labourers -Introduces ‘half-day’ wages in harsh winter of when work impossible -Wages did not keep pace with food price increases -Over 700,000 workers on public works by March 1847 Board of Works tools, 1846

16 . (3) Direct relief: -Cuts grants in aid to relief committees -Numbers of inmates in workhouses rise – many full and turning people away by late Emphasis on private charity – promoted by government (British Association) -Limited response to medical crisis (4) No assisted emigration or interference with Canadian passenger trade despite high mortality Relief Committee ticket for relief, c.1846 (NMI)

17 Policy phase 2: Apr-Sept 1847 Organisation: Relief Commission re-established under Sir John Burgoyne (1)Food policy: -No dramatic change, but food prices falling by early summer -US maize surplus reached Europe -Imports outstrip exports from late spring 1847 Gen. Sir John Burgoyne

18 . (2) Employment: -Public works rapidly phased out from March Absence of private employment or other forms of relief in many areas -Some very limited state employment on railway and drainage schemes -Half of public works debt commuted to grant -Thousands left destitute during ‘transition’; some rioting against closure of works Proportion of population supported by public works March 1847

19 . (3) Direct relief: -Government follows Quakers in establishing extensive network of soup kitchens providing free rations under ‘Temporary Relief Act’ of Feb Lengthy bureaucratic and financial delays in setting up system – govt insists on local financial responsibility -At peak in July 1847 more than 3m daily rations doled out -Funded by loans; comes in under budget -Weak soup later replaced by ‘stirabout’ porridge -Minimum nutrition given, but has effect in lowering famine mortality in summer Temporary fever act April 1847 allows for temporary hospitals

20 Soup Kitchens % of population on soup rations, July 1847 Soyer’s model soup kitchen, Dublin (ILN, 1847) Drawing of soup queue, 1847

21 Policy phase 3: Sept Organisation: Relief Commission wound up; responsibility passed to Irish Poor Law Commission, Sept 1847 (1)Food policy: -All remaining food depots wound up by Imports continue to outstrip exports; prices remain relatively low -But food distribution limited in west and many lack ability to consume what food is available (2)Employment: -Despite debates on new public works, no serious employment policy in

22 . (3) Direct aid: -Soup kitchens wound up by Sept Responsibility for relief placed on Poor Law (Poor Law Extension Act introduced Aug. 1847) -Some residual aid to ‘distressed unions’, but this was exhausted by mid ‘Irish property must pay for Irish poverty’ -‘Rate in Aid’ imposed on north and east, in spring 1849 – regional tax to pay for western distress (4) Assisted emigration: -Proposals 1848 and 1849 come to nothing -Only small-scale assistance to workhouse inmates to emigrate (Australian workhouse girls scheme) Notice of end of Soup Kitchen relief, Aug. 1847

23 Poor Law Irish workhouse plan (1839)

24 The Irish Poor Law headed by Irish Chief Commissioner Edward Twisleton 130 Unions each governed by part-elected Board of Guardians Funded by rates on local property Half of rates to be paid by landowner; also all for holdings valued under £4 pa Quarter-acre clause of 1847 facilitates evictions Crisis of union bankruptcy, workhouse overcrowding and disease in west Corruption a significant problem in many unions late 1840s Inspection regime fails to stop this Twisleton resigns as Commissioner Mar Londonderry Union workhouse (now museum) Dublin workhouse scene, c.1895

25 Failure of Russell’s policy Mass famine mortality (c 1.1m excess deaths) Failure to ensure adequate food supplies and equitable distribution to those who needed food But capacity of state to act demonstrated under soup kitchen regime of summer 1847 False belief that famine was ‘over’ by autumn 1847 Withdrawal from state responsibility with reliance on locally-funded poor law relief only in Failure to introduce ‘comprehensive measures’ (development works, emigration) to relieve pressure on the poor law Punch imagines the Famine over, 1847

26 Reasons for failure? 1. Constraints on government: -Scale of food crisis, especially in International food shortage in Political weakness in parliament and internal divisions within government -British recession and financial difficulties; growing public opposition to Irish aid -Problems of agency in Ireland (corruption, administrative inefficiency) -Lack of co-operation from local elites in Ireland

27 2. Ideology No evidence for genocide (deliberate killing) But considerable evidence of responsibility by omission and neglect. Shaped by: -Laissez-faire – reliance on market forces -Providentialism – belief that famine divinely- ordained for good -Moralism – concern to force the Irish (landlords and peasants) to help themselves -Racism? – evident in some press coverage; less so in government – but concern with English opinion -Pre-occupation with permanent ‘improvement’ over immediate aid: e.g. Encumbered Estates Act 1849

28 Punch, 1849 ‘Moralism’ represented in visual form.


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