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Government Relief Policy and the Great Irish Famine

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1 Government Relief Policy and the Great Irish Famine 1845-51
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 Governance context of Great Famine Ireland’s relationship with England, later with the UK, was historically a colonial one – dating back to the 12th century and consolidated in the 16th and 17th. The legacy of this for the 19th century lay in the structure of socio-economic power in Ireland, where the descendants of British colonists made up the great majority (but not all) of the landowning class and professional elites, as well as the majority of the population of the heavily planted parts of north-east Ulster. It could also be found in the continuing political subordination of Ireland to the centre of UK power at London. However, Ireland’s place within the British empire was highly unusual and complex. Unlike all other parts of the empire (if we put aside the cases of Wales and Scotland), Ireland was after 1800 constitutionally united with the UK – making it part of the imperial centre and thus governed in a quite different way from either Canada or India. Unlike these colonies, Ireland sent MPs and representative peers to the Westminster Parliament; its citizens were (at least in theory) members of the unitary state of the UK of GB and Ireland. Of course constitutional theory did not necessarily match political reality: Union passed 1800 without Catholic emancipation – so the new UK parliament excluded Catholics from full political rights for its first 29 years; and when Catholics were finally admitted, was after political mobilisation that had taken on a distinct nationalist tinge. Even after 1829, high property qualifications excluded all but the wealthy from seeking election, while a change in the electoral law in 1829 removed the vote from many of the middling and smaller tenant farmers. Moreover, while Ireland was legislatively united with the UK, it retained a separate government after 1801 based in Dublin Castle, headed by a peer (usually, but not always English) the Lord Lieutenant, a Chief Secretary – who managed Irish business in parliament – and an administrative under-secretary. This administration was appointed by the government in London and answerable to it. Ireland retained its own legislation (including greater security powers for most of the 19th century) and legal structure. Unlike Scotland and Wales, national feeling in Ireland reacted against perceived continuing subordination and denial of full political rights to majority community by embracing political nationalism. Not new, but taken in new, democratic constitutionalist, direction by charismatic political leader Daniel O’Connell between 1810s and 1840s. From 1830 O’Connell campaigning (with greater of lesser degree of urgency for ‘Repeal of the Union’ – restoration of Irish self-government with some looser constitutional tie to GB. His success in mass political mobilisation (esp. early 1830s, early 1840s) was a serious concern for British govts – which responded in different ways, sometimes with concessions, sometimes with coercion.

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 In assessing the reaction of the state to the Great famine, we need to start with a basic question: What could govt have done? To answer this we need to consider the capacity and ability of government by the mid 19th century. A contrast might be drawn with the state in Ireland at the time of the last great famine, in At that time, the state did little more than maintain its military capacity and internal ‘law and order’; local elites or corporate bodies took responsibility (such as it was – and outside Dublin it was minimal) for welfare or infrastructure activity. After the Union, the state’s capacity to act increased significantly, and this was evident by the time of the regional famine crisis of What made state intervention possible was the development of executive agencies which gave it both the eyes and the tools to act in different ways (rather than relying on local authorities and elites). The Commissariat, the supply division of the army, was created in 1809 to support the feeding and supply of British armies overseas (initially Spain); but in peacetime it became potentially the supply agency of humanitarian intervention, as a body capable of organising the transfer, storage and distribution of large quantities of food on state account. Several agencies began to provide the state with more accurate statistical information, after a false start in 1813, from 1821 Ireland acquired an ever more elaborate census system, reporting every 10 years; the country was mapped in detail by the OS from 1824; and from 1836 the reformed IC started to provide reports on economic conditions as well as crime to Dublin castle. From 1831 the state took direct responsibility for both the education of the Irish people (through the National Education Board) and for the country’s infrastructure through the Irish Board of Works. State-funded medical relief had been gradually extended from the 1790s through dispensaries, county infirmaries, fever hospitals and asylums – by the 1830s these institutions reached most parts of Ireland, although they were still scattered and underfunded in the west. Perhaps most importantly, and after long debate, in 1838 Ireland was finally given a poor law, making the state the body responsible for providing welfare relief (however minimal) to all those deemed ‘destitute’. Theoretically, after 1838, no-one need starve in Ireland – though as we shall see that would depend on sufficient resources and flexibility being provided to make the system work. So, the state certainly grew in early 19th-century Ireland, but it remained dependent on financial transfers from London. The separate Irish exchequer was abolished in 1816 and all these agencies reported not only to Dublin Castle, but to the Treasury at Whitehall for their funding.

5 Expectations of state action
Little expectation of central state intervention in 18th 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 Not only the capacity, but the expectation that the state could and should act in case of famine, increased in the half-century preceding 1845. The state and the Irish Parliament of the 18th century had done relatively little but exhort local authorities and landowners to act. By the time of the regional famines of and 1822, it was widely expected that the central state – the Irish administration at Dublin castle – should take some action, and this was acknowledged by ministers. Sir Robert Peel, then a Tory, later a Conservative minister, was charged with famine relief in Ireland as Chief Secretary in , and with oversight for a second installment of aid as Home Secretary in Peel’s concern, largely shared by ministers in both Dublin and London, was to demonstrate that the government took these subsistence crises seriously, by assisting local elites through direct state assistance. Reluctant to intervene with the trade in food, Peel’s Irish administration nevertheless raised money to fund public relief works, and to import quantities of food aid to distressed districts, largely to keep local prices down. These experimental interventions, limited but reasonably effective in the face of the short-term crises witnessed on the west coast, became the model for subsequent action. Mortality did occur, although principally due to fever epidemics rather than mass starvation. Govt action was short-term, and aimed at stabilising the situation in crisis-hit areas, rather than addressing underlying causation. Smaller-scale but occasionally locally acute crisis returned in some western areas in the 1830s when the Whigs were in power and again in 1842 following Peel’s accession as Prime Minister. Similar policies were adopted in all these cases, albeit with increasing grumbling from many in GB that too much money was being spent for Irish relief, and that the Poor Law should in future take responsibility.

6 Areas of possible state intervention
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 If we turn to the Great Famine and the policies adopted in that period, we might usefully divide the sort of action taken, or which might have been taken, by the state into 4 categories (as above). We’ll see how policy shifted between these over time during the later 1840s. 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 ( ) The first thing to establish is that two UK governments were in power in the Famine years. The first was a Conservative govt, headed by Sir Robert Peel, between 1841 and its fall in early July 1846. Peel, as a former Irish minister, was highly experienced in dealing with Ireland and the practicalities of famine policy. He was also, in , anxious not to cede political ground to his political enemy, Daniel O’Connell. Despite his background in anti-Catholic politics (‘Orange Peel’), he had sought to weaken the Repeal Association from 1844 by winning over moderate middle-class Catholics through concessions on clerical education (the Maynooth grant), charitable bequests, and university education (‘the Queen’s Colleges). When the blight broke in 1845, Peel was conscious that any gains made in the previous year might be lost to O’Connell if his govt appeared callous or hostile. Peel’s other major concern was the British political battle raging over the Corn Laws, introduced in 1815 to keep grain prices artificially high by taxing imports. By 1845 a major middle-class campaign, the Anti-Corn Law League, as pressing for abolition; Peel himself was a believer in free trade and awaiting the ‘right moment’ to remove them; his party, however, represented the British landed interest which saw its economic and symbolic interest in lying with preservation. The Irish potato blight – and threatened famine – polarised the debate, and after some hesitation, Peel decided the moment was right to abolish the corn Laws. This was both seizing a political opportunity and responding to what he thought necessary for Ireland (how could the UK continue to tax food imports when one part faced starvation?). -The right of his party saw this as cynical and rejected his leadership, leading to a Conservative split (with the ‘Protectionists’ led by Lord Derby in the Lords, and Benjamin Disraeli and Lord George Bentinck in the Commons) – and hence to the collapse of the govt (after securing the phased abolition of the Corn Laws with Whig support) in summer 1846. Despite this preoccupation, Peel’s ministers had in taken a number of policy initiatives in expectation of Irish famine. Key ministers listed above – with remembering that Charles Trevelyan, not a minister, but most senior civil servant in Treasury, served this ministry as well as its successor.

8 Peel’s policy Organisation: Relief Commission established to co-ordinate response 1846, chaired by Sir Randolph Routh 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 Peel’s Famine relief policy reflected a number of the areas we identified earlier. Organisationally, it was overseen by a special relief commission, made up of officials, and chaired by the head of the Commissariat – Sir Randolph Routh. Peel’s food policy was rapidly implemented (and an extension of principles). As adherents to free-trade principles, he refused O’Connell’s pleas to ban exports or prohibit the distillation of spirits. At the same time, he did prioritise the import, by govt, of a supply of food sufficient to allow regulation of local grain prices. To avoid ‘upsetting the market’ (which Peel clearly believed could be trusted to take over this role once the Corn Laws had gone), he ordered the secret purchase of £100K worth of maize – the cheapest substitute foodstuff for potatoes – at New York for transfer to Ireland. Once in Ireland, the maize was ground and stored in depots by the Commissariat and in Spring 1846 gradually released for sale at subsidised prices to local relief committees.

9 Works put into operation spring 1846 under Irish Board of Works
(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 Food was of little use to those unable to purchase it, and, following previous precedents, Peel’s administration passed legislation through parliament to fund public relief works. Peel’s approach was to put the local elites (represented by the county grand juries of leading landowners) into co-operation with the Board of Works. Relatively generous loans and grants in aid (including half the costs of road works) were made in early 1846, and put into operation (pressurised by unrest associated with food and employment riots in many places by Easter)

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) Peel’s policy appeared to be relative successful ... ... Punch cartoon satirises Peel’s use of a coercion bill to discipline the child-like Irish as ‘justice to Ireland’. Punch on Peel’s Coercion Bill, Apr. 1846

12 Russell’s government (July 1846-52)
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 1848-9 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 ( ) Following the fall of Peel’s Conservative govt in July 1846, a minority govt was put together, headed by the Whig leader Lord John Russell, but dependent on the continuing support of Peel’s followers (‘Peelites’) to retain power. -Govt’s lack of strength only marginally aided by result of general election in August 1847; some Whig-Liberal gains, but ‘Radical’ wing of party strengthened and did not accept discipline of govt. -Russell’s new govt faced a much more serious food crisis in Ireland following massive potato failure August 1846 and failures of subsequent years; also coincided with a banking and industrial crisis and recession in GB in A weak govt facing a restive parliament and with serious economic difficulties. Key ministers (above)

13 Charles Trevelyan (1807-86). Assistant Secretary to the Treasury
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 First phase of Russell govt’s famine policy. Drops Peel’s Relief Commission – control of policy more centralised from Treasury in London under direction of Trevelyan – this gave rise to constant friction between Dublin Castle and London, but with London having ultimate control of expenditure. Food policy sees deliberate withdrawal of government from any fresh interference in the markets – import or export. ... Has the role of food policy been exaggerated in causing famine? Tendency in nationalist writing to blame absence of export ban for virtually all suffering in Famine. See next slide for figures on exports/imports.

14 Irish grain exports/imports (000s of tons grain equivalent) - after Bourke (1976)
. exports Here are Bourke’s figures for grain exports/imports for Ireland (n.b. most exports took place in the 2-3 months following harvest – Sept-Nov) Figures for 1844 and 1845 show ‘normal’ profile for Irish grain movements – exports of ,000 tons of grain (the majority of it oats). 1846 shows a mixed picture – exports about half the usual amount (c.200K tons), but for the first time significant imports also (over 100K tons of maize – mostly private, but including Peel’s state imports); still there was net export of about 100K tons in that crucial season 1847 sees this reversed – with only small amounts of oats being exported, huge amounts of maize coming in (600K tons), and even some wheat imports. Even in 1848, with oats exports reviving, combined maize and wheat imports meant a net import of grain. imports

15 Revives public works employment under ‘Labour Rate Act’ August 1846
. Employment: Revives public works employment under ‘Labour Rate Act’ August 1846 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 In employment policy, the Russell govt did not at once abandon the public works relief of its predecessor, but responded to public criticism of Peel’s ‘generosity’ by imposing harsher conditions for aid. After initially seeking to suspend the relief works, the govt responded to the return of blight in August 1846 by rushing through parliament a new ‘Labour rate act’, raising money for additional relief work loans, but under new regulations.

16 Relief Committee ticket for relief, c.1846 (NMI)
(3) Direct relief: Cuts grants in aid to relief committees Numbers of inmates in workhouses rise – many full and turning people away by late 1846 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) The Russell government also withdrew initially from direct aid, reducing grants in aid to money raised locally by relief committees. Instead it looked to the poor law system to bear more of the weight, but with the workhouses not designed or intended for famine relief, and the local poor rate collection declining, the system soon found itself under great pressure in much of the west. Conscious of growing mortality, the govt promoted the work of private charity – as well will see in the next lecture.

17 Policy phase 2: Apr-Sept 1847
Organisation: Relief Commission re-established under Sir John Burgoyne 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 Second Phase April – Sept 1847 Why change of policy: Govt embarrassment at evidence of massive famine mortality by early 1847; shamed by publicists such as Quakers; also concerned at spiralling costs of public works. New approach pushed through parliament Feb-March 1847, but not put into practice until later in spring (April-June) - New Relief Commission headed by General Sir John Burgoyne put in charge - Food policy doesn’t change, but situation gradually eased by high imports finally arriving and reducing market costs – by July grain prices ½ what had been in February.

18 . (2) Employment: Public works rapidly phased out from March 1847
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 Govt decided to abandon failed and expensive public works system

19 . (3) Direct relief: Government follows Quakers in establishing extensive network of soup kitchens providing free rations under ‘Temporary Relief Act’ of Feb. 1847 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 1847 Temporary fever act April 1847 allows for temporary hospitals Major change the shift to direct relief through soup kitchens system

20 Soyer’s model soup kitchen, Dublin (ILN, 1847)
Soup Kitchens Soyer’s model soup kitchen, Dublin (ILN, 1847) In some parts of Connacht % of population on soup dole in summer 1847 % of population on soup rations, July 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 Food policy: All remaining food depots wound up by 1848 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 Employment: - Despite debates on new public works, no serious employment policy in Government abandons soup kitchen relief Sept 1847 – Why? - Official view that famine ‘over’ and that ‘normal’ system must replace ‘abnormal’ one; political pressure from GB to reduce expenditure; ideological obsession with ending Irish ‘dependency’.

22 Notice of end of Soup Kitchen relief, Aug. 1847
(3) Direct aid: Soup kitchens wound up by Sept 1847 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-1848 ‘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 From Sept 1847 the Poor Law was given direct responsibility for famine relief. Law was changed to allow outdoor relief (i.e. Dole in return for labour in work yards outside workhouses), but PL system was overwhelmed by sheer extent of destitution, and in much of west collapsed into chaos. Political sympathy for Ireland was exhausted, with much of British political opinion insisting that they had already done too much and that ‘Irish property’ (Irish landlords) must now ‘pay for Irish poverty’ through the poor rates. Govt assistance to Ireland fell to virtually nothing in , despite another savage attack of the potato blight and mortality spike that winter. Only belated was another loan advanced in spring 1849, and then only as an advance for the proceeds of a ‘rate in aid’ – a tax on the recovering unions of eastern and northern Ireland to pay for the continuing misery of the west and south. Later in the famine, assisted emigration schemes started to be seriously debated, but were consistently foiled as being too expensive or likely to deter private enterprise; and only very small-scale schemes to assist a few thousand workhouse inmates came into operation

23 Irish workhouse plan (1839)
Poor Law Irish workhouse plan (1839) Graph shows (blue) total numbers relieved under Poor Law – shows 1849 as a peak year of distress; and (red) total capacity of workhouse system – raised as auxiliary buildings hired by guardians, and from 1850 a second wave of workhouses built.

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

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