"Letter of Charles Edward Trevelyan to Thomas Spring-Rice
"Letter of Charles Edward Trevelyan to Thomas Spring-Rice, Lord
Mounteagle", 9 October 1846
To the Right Hon. Lord Mounteagle
My Dear Lord,
I have had the pleasure of receiving your letter dated 1 inst., and before proceeding to
the subjects more particularly treated in it, I must beg of you to dismiss all doubt from your
mind of the magnitude of the existing calamity and its danger not being fully known and
appreciated in Downing Street.
The government establishments are strained to the utmost to alleviate this great
calamity and avert this danger, as far as it is in the power of government to do so; and in the
whole course of my public service, I never witnessed such entire self-devotion and such
hearty and cordial co-operation on the part of officers belonging to different departments met
together from different parts of the world, as I see on this occasion.
My purchases are carried to the utmost point short of transferring the famine from
Ireland to England and giving rise to a counter popular pressure here, which it would be the
more difficult to resist because it would be founded on strong considerations of justice.
But I need not remind your lordship that the ability even of the most powerful government is
extremely limited in dealing with a social evil of this description. It forms no part of the
functions of government to provide supplies of food or to increase the productive powers of
the land. In the great institutions of the business of society, it falls to the share of government
to protect the merchant and the agriculturist in the free exercise of their respective
employments, but not itself to carry on these employments; and the condition of a community
depends upon the result of the efforts which each member of it makes in his private and
individual capacity. …
In Ireland the habit has proverbially been to follow a precisely opposite course, and the
events of the last six weeks furnish a remarkable illustration of what I do not hesitate to call
this defective part of the national character. The nobility and the gentry have met in their
respective baronies, and beyond making presentments required by law, they have, with rare
exceptions, confined themselves to memorials and deputations calling upon the government to
do everything, as if they have themselves no part to perform in this great crisis of the country.
The government is expected to open shops for the sale of food in every part of Ireland,
to make all the railroads in Ireland, and to drain and improve the whole of the land of Ireland,
to the extent of superseding the proprietor in the management of his own estate, and arranging
with his tenants the terms on which the rent etc. is to be adjusted. …
I must give expression to my feelings by saying that I think I see a bright light shining
in the distance through the dark cloud which at present hangs over Ireland. A remedy has
already been applied to that portion of the maladies of Ireland which was traceable to political
causes, and the morbid habits which still to a certain extent survive are gradually giving way
to more healthy action. The deep and inveterate root of social evil remains, and I hope I am
not guilty of irreverence in thinking that, this being altogether beyond the power of man, the
cure has been applied by the direct stroke of an all-wise Providence in a manner as
unexpected and unthought as it is likely to be effectual. God grant that we may rightly
perform our part, and not turn into a curse what was intended for a blessing. The ministers of
religion and especially the pastors of the Roman Catholic Church, who possess the largest
share of influence over the people of Ireland, have well performed their part; and although
few indications appear from any proceedings which have yet come before the public that the
landed proprietors have even taken the first step of preparing for the conversion of the land
now laid down to potatoes to grain cultivation, I do not despair of seeing this class of society
still taking the lead which their position requires of them, and preventing the social revolution
from being so extensive as it otherwise must become.
Believe me, my dear lord, yours very sincerely,
C. E. Trevelyan. Treasury, 9 October 1846.
Donnchadh Ó Corráin
No need to apologise for the potato famine
1 sur 2
No need to apologise for the potato
The disaster was the result of desperately bad luck not bad men, says Ruth Dudley Edwards
Ruth Dudley Edwards
Tuesday, 3 June 1997
A benign consequence of "the great sacrifice" which England had made to help the starving Irish
during the potato famine, wrote the editor of The Economist in 1847, was that "of convincing
every reasonable Irishman, and the world at large, of the deep interest which is felt by the
Government and the people of this country for the welfare of Ireland".
James Wilson would have been bewildered and horrified to learn that 150 years later Britain is
credited in the Irish folk memory - and general liberal opinion - with callously allowing a million
people to starve to death; at the extreme end of the spectrum, in the ghettos of West Belfast and
the dumber reaches of Irish-America, she is accused of genocide. He would have been
incredulous, also, to hear that a British prime minister has sent to a famine commemoration
event a message that says, inter alia: "Those who governed in London at the time failed their
people through standing by while a crop failure turned into a massive human tragedy."
Admittedly, Tony Blair's statement last Sunday was cautiously worded. He did not in fact
apologise, for that implies retrospective responsibility, but he sadly noted the failure of his
government's predecessors. Had New Labour been in power in the 1840s, we infer, everything
would have been different: efficiency tempered with humanity would have sorted the problem
Mr Blair is too sanguine. Even in these days of instant communications, fast transport and
international co-operation, the developed world has still found no way of eradicating famine. The
heart directs that immediate needs be met; the head fears worse long-term suffering if peoples
give up self-reliance in favour of aid-dependency.
The debate has altered little from that which divided Westminster politicians 150 years ago. The
Tory government, under Sir Robert Peel, used its heart, provided cheap food, set up public works
and was accused by Whigs such as James Wilson of inviting disaster by giving way to dangerous
sentimentality. The Whigs saw the protectionist Corn Laws as having been a major cause of the
famine, and enthusiastically supported Peel in bringing about their abolition.
The consequent split in the Tory Party brought the Whigs into office in June 1846, determined on
hard-headedness, but confident that a free market in corn would resolve the problem of food
shortages. They were not expecting that the potato crop would fall again, and when it did, they
had no idea what to do.
On the one hand were the free-market ideologues who believed utterly that government
interference was malign: "irremedial ruin and degradation" would follow, explained Wilson,
should Ireland not be left to her own devices. What was wrong in principle had to be wrong in
practice: "The science which serves only to navigate a ship in fine weather, and is inapplicable in
a storm, is unworthy of the name." Yet his friend Lord Clarendon, then President of the Board of
Trade and later Lord Lieutenant of Ireland - normally a stout proponent of laissez faire defended the Whig government's feeble efforts to provide some temporary remedies: "you in fact
say do nothing, which is exceedingly comfortable for a gentleman writing by his fireside in
London, but not at all practicable for a government having to answer to the humanity and
generosity of England for the mortality of Ireland."
No need to apologise for the potato famine
2 sur 2
The disaster that between 1845 and 1851 caused a million deaths and led about one and a half
million people to emigrate was largely a result of desperately bad luck. The population had
doubled over the previous half- century; dependence on the potato - the staple food of half the
Irish people - was greater than ever before; the fungus that destroyed the crop was unknown
(no antidote was discovered until 1882); and Britain had suffered a bad harvest in 1846 and a
financial crisis in 1847. The scale and duration of the Irish famine would have made it
impossible for any British government to have coped with it, but it was calamitous for the Irish
that the Russell government were anti-interventionist ideologues.
Of course, some in the British government were callous, many more were unimaginative and
compassion fatigue set in early, but most of the politicians and public servants involved were
trying honourably to deal with a disaster way beyond their competence.
The belief among Irish nationalists that the British can be blamed for the famine is founded to
some extent on our Irish national inferiority complex. Whether complaining about the Northern
Ireland of today or the Ireland of yesterday, nationalists tend to see British cock-ups as
conspiracies. And there is, too, a national enjoyment of the culture of victimhood. The Irish
people were "more sinned against than sinning", observed Bertie Ahern, the Fianna Fail leader
who hopes shortly to become prime minister - a remark which is first cousin to republican
propaganda about the Irish having been what the historian Liam Kennedy calls MOPE, the Most
Oppressed People Ever.
The Prime Minister mercifully avoided setting a precedent by making an apology based on a false
premise. He will shortly be asked to say "sorry" for Bloody Sunday; there are many more
grievances to follow. It is time for him to take advantage of his youth and newness and say with
his customary trenchancy that then was then and now is now, and that grown-up and equal
neighbours should draw a line under their past and get on with making the best of their present.
Rev. Richard Francis Webb, Rector of Caheragh, to the Editor of the Southern
Reporter, February 1847
Moulnaskehy, Monday Morning.
It is wrong that I should be silent any longer, surrounded as I am by such scenes as the
following letter describes, and I therefore beg you will insert it in your next number.
What gave occasion to its being written to me was my stating at church on Sunday last
(yester-'day), that I had sent on the day before two confidential men -one a Protestant, and
the other a Roman Catholic through a great portion of this parish, to ascertain again the state
of the population of each farm, so as to enable me to amend the list of those to whom I was,
and have been, for three months, giving gratuitous relief.
On their return, they came to a farm called Toureen, the destitute of which have been, from
the beginning, receiving relief here, and the men I sent were warned not to go near a batch
of houses, as the inhabitants were all dead or dying; on my mentioning this, and saying I had
so very much to do that I could not go to ascertain their state exactly, a gentleman, who
attends ray church, and was present, and who lives on the bounds of the parish, not very far
from this most miserable spot, volunteered to go himself and investigate its state.
I this morning received his report, which I now copy; he has no idea of its being published,
and only wrote it, most kindly, to inform me of the situation of this part of the parish.
It is as follows, verbatim: "The following is a statement of what I saw yesterday evening on
the lands of Toureen.
In a cabbage garden I saw (as I was informed) the bodies of Kate Barry and her two children
very lightly covered with earth, the head and legs of the large body entirely exposed, the
flesh completely eaten off by the dogs, the skin and hair of the head lying within a couple
yards of the skull, which, when I first threw my eyes upon it, I thought to be part of a horse's
Within about thirty yards of the above-mentioned garden, at the opposite side of the road, are
two most wretched-looking old houses, with two dead bodies in each, Norry Regan, Tom
Barry, Nelly Barry (a little girl), and Charles M'Carthy (a little boy), ail dead about a fortnight,
and not yet interred; Tim Donovan, Darrig, on the same farm, died on Saturday, his wife and
sister, the only people I saw about the cabin, said they had no means to bury him.
You will think this very horrifying ; but were you to witness the state and condition of the dead
and dying here at Toureen, it would be too much for flesh and blood to behold.
May the Lord avert, by his gracious interposition, the merited tokens of his displeasure."
I need make no comment on this; but ask, are we living in a portion of the United Kingdom?
William Bennett's Narrative of a Recent Journey of Six
Weeks in Ireland. 1847
Many of the cabins were holes in the bog, covered with a layer of turves, and not
distinguishable as human habitations from the surrounding moor, until close down upon them.
The bare sod was about the best material of which any of them were constructed. Doorways,
not doors, were usually provided at both sides of the bettermost-back and front-to take
advantage of the way of the wind. Windows and chimneys, I think, had no existence.
A second apartment or division of any kind within was exceedingly rare. Furniture, properly
so called, I believe may be stated at nil. I would not speak with certainty, and wish not to with
exaggeration, -we were too much overcome to note specifically; but as far as memory serves,
we saw neither bed, chair, nor table, at all.
A chest, a few iron or earthen vessels, a stool or two, the dirty rags and night-coverings,
formed about the sum total of the best furnished. Outside many were all but unapproachable,
from the mud and filth surrounding them; the same inside, or worse if possible, from the
added closeness, darkness, and smoke.
We spent the whole morning in visiting these hovels indiscriminately, or swayed by the
representations and entreaties of the dense retinue of wretched creatures, continually
augmenting, which gathered round, and followed us from place to place,-avoiding only such
as were known to be badly infected with fever, which was sometimes sufficiently perceptible
from without, by the almost intolerable stench.
And now language utterly fails me in attempting to depict the state of the wretched inmates. I
would not willingly add another to the harrowing details that have been told; but still they are
the FACTS of actual experience, for the knowledge of which we stand accountable. I have
certainly sought out one of the most remote and destitute corners; but still it is within the
bounds of our Christian land, under our Christian Government, and entailing upon us-both as
individuals and as members of a human community-a Christian responsibility from which no
one of us can escape.
My hand trembles while I write. The scenes of human misery and degradation we witnessed
still haunt my imagination, with the vividness and power of some horrid and tyrannous
delusion, rather than the features of a sober reality. We entered a cabin.
Stretched in one dark corner, scarcely visible, from the smoke and rags that covered them,
were three children huddled together, Iying there because they were too weak to rise, pale and
ghastly, their little limbs-on removing a portion of the filthy covering - perfectly emaciated,
eyes sunk, voice gone, and evidently in the last stage of actual starvation. Crouched over the
turf embers was another form, wild and all but naked, scarcely human in appearance. It stirred
not, nor noticed us.
On some straw, soddened upon the ground, moaning piteously, was a shrivelled old woman,
imploring us to give her something, - baring her limbs partly, to show how the skin hung
loose from the bones, as soon as she attracted our attention. Above her, on something like a
ledge, was a young woman, with sunken cheeks, -a moother I have no doubt,-who scarcely
raised her eyes in answer to our enquiries, but pressed her hand upon her forehead, with a
look of unutterable anguish and despair.
Many cases were widows, whose husbands had recently been taken off by the fever, and thus
their only pittance, obtained from the public works entirely cut off. In many the husbands or
sons were prostrate, under that horrid disease,-the results of long-continued famine and low
living,-in which first the limbs, tand then the body, swell most frightfully, and finally burst.
We entered upwards of fifty of these tenements. The scene was one and invariable, differ- ing
in little but the number of the sufferers, or of the groups, occupying the several corners within.
The whole number was often not to be distinguished, until-the eye having adapted itself to the
darkness-they were pointed out, or were heard, or some filthy bundle of rags and straw was
perceived to move. Perhaps the poor children presented the most piteous and heart-rending
spectacle. Many were too weak to stand, their little limbs attenuated, - except where the
frightful swellings had taken the place of previous emaciation,-beyond the power of volition
Every infantile expression entirely departed; and in some, reason and intelligence had
evidently flown. Many were remnants of families, crowded together in one cabin; orphaned
little relatives taken in by the equally destitute, and even strangers, for these poor people are
kind to one another to the end. In one cabin was a sister, just dying, Iying by the side of her
little brother, just dead. I have worse than this to relate, but it is useless to multiply details,
and they are, in fact, unfit. They did but rarely complain. When inquired of, what was the
matter, the answer was alike in all-'Tha shein ukrosh,' -indeed the hunger. We truly learned
the terrible meaning of that sad word 'ukrosh'. There were many touching incidents. We
should have gone on, but the pitiless storm had now arisen, beating us back with a force and
violence against which it was difficult to stand; and a cutting rain, that drove us for shelter
beneath a bank, fell on the crowd of poor creatures who continued to follow us unmitigatedly.
My friend the clergyman had distributed the tickets for meal to the extent he thought prudent;
and he assured me wherever we went it would be a repetition of the same all over the country,
and even worse in the far off mountain districts, as this was near the town, where some relief
could reach. It was my full impression that one-fourth of those we saw were in a dying state,
beyond the reach of any relief that could now be afforded; and many more would follow.
The lines of this day can never be effaced from my memory. These were our fellowcreatures,-children of the same Parent,-born with our common feelings and affections -with an
equal right to live as any one of us,-with the same purposes of existence,-the same spiritual
and immortal natures, -the same work to be done, -the same judgment-seat to be summoned
to,-and the same eternal goal.
Source: William Bennett, Narrative of a Recent Journey of Six Weeks in Ireland. London: C.
Gilpin, 1847, pp. 25-9.