The Great Famine: a Church of Ireland Account

Proverbs 29:18. “Where there is no Vision the People Perish.”

I know that our Primate, Archbishop Eames, (of Armagh - Ed.) would want me to say how sorry he was not to be able to accept the invitation of the Wales Famine Forum to be present at this great and unique occasion. But you will understand that the pressures of his office and not least the particular pressures which affect all community leaders in Northern Ireland at present precluded him from being out of Ireland at this time.
I must confess that until I was contacted by Barry Tobin, the Secretary of the Wales Famine Forum, I had no idea of the part played by the post-famine Irish Diaspora in Wales generally, and in the growth of this great city of Cardiff in particular. Indeed it is staggering to be told that between 50% and 60% of the present citizens of Cardiff are of Irish birth or ancestry. Those who are Irish will spot that with a name like MacCarthy I must be a Munsterman, and in fact I only strayed into Connaught some 18 months ago.
My previous visit to Cardiff was occasioned by an interest in the work of the great Victorian architect, William Burges, whom we in Munster know as the creator of the great cathedral of St. Finnbarre which dominates the skyline of the city of Cork. Here, of course, it is Cardiff Castle and Castell Coch that the name of Burges conjures up. And in a way there is a link between my earlier visit and the present oc casion. Because it was Bute money which enabled Burges to build Cardiff Castle - and it was Bute money, a staggering six million of it, expended on Cardiff Docks from 1830 onwards, which enabled Cardiff’s population to increase from 3,521 in 1821 to 39,546 in 1871. This of course included a significant number of refugees from famine - stricken Ireland and some of them found a last resting place in the churchyard here, so it is right that this should be one of many commermorations of the Great Famine taking place all over Ireland and abroad at this time - because though it began in 1845 the famine reached its terrible climax only in 1847. And it is right that we should be informing ourselves both about its cause and its lasting legacy; for it was the worst social disaster of 19th. century Europe. Between 1846 and 1850 about 800,000 persons died from famine-related causes.
As one would expect, it fixed itself in Irish popular imagination as firmly as perhaps the curse of Cromwell two centuries earlier, and it is important to distinguish what actually happened at the time from what has been lodged in the popular imagination and passsed down through succeeding generations even to the present day.
It is well known that on the eve of the famine much of the population was dangerously dependent on the potato for survival. Not only that, the potato’s capacity to cleanse the soil played an important part in the peculiar revolution in Irish agriculture which gradually converted the country into a kind of granary for the rest of the U.K.
But the seeds of disaster were already present - on the eve of the famine one third of landholders farmed two thirds or more of the land, while the poverty of labouring families was already well marked. The poor were wretchedly housed - that is two thirds of the population - and were often hungry for three months of every year.
Thus a disaster was already sitting waiting to happen and it duly did with the first arrival of Phytophthora Infestans in September 1845. In normal years most Irish families were virtually self-sufficient in potatoes and only a small proportion of the total crop entered into commercial trade. The really significant result of the potato blight was that it forced the Irish population to buy the bulk of their food rather than produce it themselves. The result was that prices rocketed and thousands starved for lack of means to buy food.
We, from our experience of how modern economics work, are very much inclined to say that food prices should have been controlled and imports and exports of food carefully regulated. Such ideas would have been regarded as revolutionary by every European government of the time - and for long after. It was thought to be quite wrong to interfere with supply and demand - and what Mrs. Thatcher in the recent past would have described as “free market forces” - though indeed even her economic ideas would have seemed to any mid-19th. century economist to be the wildest form of socialist Utopia.
So what did the government do? First of all came the building of the workhoouses all over Ireland, which predated the famine. By 1845 a network of 130 workhouses was in place with accommodation for more than 100,000 inmates. They had been developed against the advice of a Commission chaired by Dr. Whately, the Protestant Archbishop of Dublin, who would have preferred public investments of various kinds as a solution to destitution.
Secondly came Sir Robert Peel, of whom the Freeman’s Journal declared, “No man died of famine during his administration.” Peel’s solution was to establish food depots and he spent 100,000 on buying Indian meal for secret shipment and storage in Ireland, and ultimately 185,000 was spent on the food scheme, food being sold through government depots either in small quantities to individuals or to local relief committess for resale. The clergy of all denominations were the moving force on many of these relief committees. And it could be said that private enterprise was not unsuccessful at responding to food shortage during the 1845-46 season.
But Peel’s government fell in the summer of 1846 and the Whigs came in under Lord John Russell. He was much less knowledgeable about Irish conditions than Sir Robert Peel, who had served his political apprenticeship in Ireland as Chief Secretary for Ireland from 1817. The Whigs were much more committed to a policy of economic non-interference and held that if food prices were allowed to rise imports would be encouraged and exports discouraged. Surprising as it may seem to us, this policy was warmly endorsed by Fr. Theobald Matthew, the Apostle of Temperance. The government had instituted a scheme of public works, partly financed from local taxation, with the object of providing the labouring population with sufficient money to buy food. By the spring of 1847, 750,000 persons were employed in public work schemes throughout the country; they mainly consisted of road works. Because there was no other form of relief available outside the workhouses, many of those employed on the public works were aged and infirm and many were women. Even though the public works in the autumn and winter of 1846-47 cost the then enormous sum of 4,848,235 people employed on them were actually starving because food prices continued to escalate out of reach even of those in receipt of wages.
As we know, governments today, though supplied with every modern method of communication, react painfully slowly to new situations. Thus thousands died before the government eventually admitted that its vastly expensive policy of providing paid employment had failed and it came round to the wholly unprecedented idea of feeding the starving directly by setting up food depots (the notorious soup kitchens) which would supply cooked food - mostly soup - to the destitute. This represented a break with all previous famine relief policies and showed that the government was not as inflexible as some have suggested then and since - and I may say that a persuasive precedent had been set by the network of soup kitchens already being operated by the Society of Friends throughout the worst hit areas - which we must remember were largely confined to the provinces of Munster and Connaught.
Some 1.7 million was advanced by the state for the running of soup kitchens during the summer of 1847 and these relied very heavily on local initiative to set them up - local landowners, clergy of all denominations, and many other benevolent people did tremendous work in this area.
Just one snapshot of the tremendous work which people of substance and goodwill were achieving is provided by the case of Richard Chenevix Trench, at this time a vicar in England and much later to be Archbishop of Dublin. In April of 1847 he paid a visit to Schull in West Cork with funds provided by well-wishers in England to see what he could do to further the relief efforts already in progress. He found 1,500 persons being supported in feeding centres and before he left he was instrumental in increasing that number to 3,000 persons fed daily. The fact that famine mortality was no respecter of persons is shown by the death from famine fever of the Rector of Schull, Dr. Traill, during Trench’s visit.
Meanwhile, between January and July 1847, more than 100,000 people were being maintained in workhouses throughout the country. A separate Irish Poor Law Commission was established in the summer of 1847 when it seemed that famine was becoming semi-permanent, and thereafter all government assistance, whether inside or outside the workhouses, was directed by the Poor Law Unions. And so the horror went on: the 1851 census recorded 20,402 deaths from starvation and 22,384 from hunger oedema, but in fact the overwhelming majority of famine deaths occurred from typhus, relapsing fevers and dysentry. Indeed 1 in 13 of the 473 medical officers appointed during the famine died from typhus themselves.
Let us reflect on it all in the light of my text: “Where there is no vision the people perish.” There was no vision to see and prepare adequately for the approaching catastrophe; there was no vision to tackle the hopelessly unjust land system under which the tiller of the soil supported ascending layers of middle men, all creaming off portions of the fruit of his labours; there was no vision to see that Ireland was hopelessly overpopulated in the years before the famine and that an attractive and well-managed system of emigration to the New World was essential. And where there was not that vision the people perished in tens of thousands as never before or since in that land.
But we must not leave it at that. This is One World Week and we must recognise the fact that in other parts of the world God’s people have starved to death on a similar scale and even still are doing so in spite of the vast increase in all forms of technology since those times. The world’s resources have never been so easily known or deployed and yet in our day and generation famines have raged through Africa and the Third World generally which have been every bit as bad as the Great Famine which we commemorate today. Throughout the Third World people are changing from growing food to growing cash crops for export to re-pay their external debts to bodies such as the World Bank. More and more people are being forced into “living on the edge” - whether in the economic or social sense. Isn’t there a clear echo there of the way in which Ireland was bled of its natural resources during the famine years?
We in Ireland today are probably better off than ever before – certainly than when I was growing up in County Waterford, when only a few had electricity or piped water. And yet much of our current standard of living is undergirded by the European Community. The E.U. maintains its affluence over against the developing world by hoarding its resources in beef mountains, milk lakes and all the rest of it, designed to ensure a perpetual regime of haves and have-nots. What did we care when 1.5 million Angolans faced hunger and starvation in 1994? “Nothing”: is the honest answer, and the same goes for the present situation in Rwanda-Burundi.
The familiar folk-tale called “Dives and Lazarus” which our Lord used to telling effect will be well known to you. The point our Lord made was not that Dives - the man clad in purple and fine linen - did any harm to Lazarus, the blind beggar lying embarrassingly at his entrance gate. He didn’t send for the police to have him removed as we might have done - the point our Lord makes is that he did nothing positive for him either - and that is why he ends up in Hell and that is why Dives is so surprised to find himself there.
And we too fail to appreciate the words which our Lord Jesus Christ puts to us with chilling directness: “As ye did it not to the least of these - ye did it not unto me.”

The above is the text of the sermon preached by the Very Revd. Dr. Robert MacCarthy, Provost of Tuam, County Galway, representing the Church of Ireland, during the Civic Memorial Service in memory of the victims of the Great Famine arranged by the Wales Famine Forum and held at Saint John’s (Church in Wales), Trinity Street, Cardiff, on Saturday 26 October, 1996. The Memorial Service was taken by the Vicar, the Revd. Canon Malcolm Ellis, in the presence of the Lord Mayor and the Lady Mayoress of Cardiff, Councillor John Phillips and Mrs. R. Phillips.

Published in The Green Dragon No 1, Winter, 1996.

Home