Critical Evaluation of Relief Efforts Administered by Conservative and Liberal Whig Governments during The Great Irish Famine Period 1845-1852

This paper aims to provide a critical evaluation of the relief efforts administered by the Conservative and Liberal Whig governments during the period of the Great Irish Famine 1845-1852
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  As Mary Kelly observes, any discussion of the relief measures carried out by the successive British governments during the Great Famine must consider not only the extent of the crisis  but also the nature of society at the beginning of the nineteenth century and the prevailing attitudes possessed by the British governments regarding the Irish crisis. 1  Considering these factors then, this paper aims to critically discuss the relief measures administered by both the Conservative and Liberal Whig governments in operation between 1845 and 1852 and will  place particular focus on the ways in which these relief measures both served and failed to assist those in need in Ireland during the famine period. While Britain, by 1845 had successfully embraced the advancing technologies of the industrial revolution, Ireland, with its ever-increasing and predominantly poor rural population, was still almost entirely dependent upon agriculture as a means of subsistence. 2  Furthermore, the unbalanced social structure of Ireland was dominated by the Protestant Ascendancy who, as absentee landlords owned the majority of land across the country and enforced limitless power over their impoverished Irish tenants. 3  Additionally, as a consequence of its forced union with Britain in 1801, Ireland was governed by a detached parliament at Westminster which, recognizing Ireland’s lack of innovation and perpetuation of an economy sustained by  perceivably substandard crop, took a providential view of the Famine crisis upon its arrival in September 1845. Viewing it as a direct ‘blessing’ from God 4 , many felt this would rectify the economic and demographic instabilities of Irish society which was proving to be an ‘on -going source of dependency’ upon British resources . 5  While some historians like A.R.G Griffiths are critical of the relief measures undertaken by Robert Peel during his ten months as Prime Minister during the Irish famine crisis, 6  James S. Donnelly acknowledges that historians have generally credited Robert Peel’s Cons ervative government with having reacted promptly to the partial failure of the Irish potato crop in 1   Mary E. Daly, ‘The Operations of Famine Relief, 1845 - 47’, in The Great Irish Famine , ed. by Cathal Póirtéir (Dublin: Mercier Press, 1995), p. 213. 2  Christine Kinealy, The Great Irish Famine: Impact, Ideology and Rebellion  (Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), p.18. 3  Helen Litton, The Irish Famine: An Illustrated History (Dublin: Wolfhound Press, 1994), p. 9. 4  Charles Edward Trevelyan , ‘Letter    to Thomas Spring-Rice, Lord Mounteagle, 9 October 1846 ’, <> [accessed: 16 November 2018]   5  Kinealy,  The Great Irish Famine,  p.19   6   A.R.G. Griffiths, ‘The Irish Board of Works in the Famine Years’, The Historic Journal  , 13 (1970), 634-652.  1845. 7   Controversially favoring ‘free and unrestricted importation’ , Peel ’s secret purchase of £140,000 worth of Indian corn from the United States in November 1845, not only bypassed the protectionist Corn Laws of 1815 but proved particularly effective in combating the initial threat posed by the famine crisis.  8  Rather than being released all at once, Peel distributed this questionably ‘nutritious quality’  meal in small quantities priced at one penny a pound,  9  which as John Percival notes, ultimately helped avert disaster, particularly in the west and south-west of Ireland where private wholesaling and retailing facilities were weakest. 10   Notably, an article printed on 5 April 1847 in the nationalist newspaper, the  Freeman’s  Journal   declared that ‘no man died of famine during Peel’s administration , ’  which bolsters the argument that Peel’s imported grain was on the whole, successful in sustaining the Irish  population in the early stages of the famine. 11  While it appears that Peel achieved significant success with his imported meal, less effective was the limiting system of the Public Works Scheme implemented in 1846. Where Peel’s government had hoped the provision of paid employment to the poor would provide temporary relief and ultimately serve to permanently strengthen the Irish economy, the reality in Ireland was less idyllic. As Helen Litton notes, Peel was almost dependent upon local landowners to fund his relief works, of which very few contributed. This was in part due to the British distrust of local committees operated by the Irish. 12  In addition, the overall implementation of the works has also been widely discredited. In a letter to the  Freeman’s  Journal   in May 1846, a Dunshaughlin resident brought attention to the failures associated with the localized realization of the works, noting how the ‘poor were left to starve’ with the lack of government-promised employment. 13   Because of this, it can be argued that Peel’s Public Works Scheme was ineffective in its attempts to curtail the famine crisis. 7   James S. Donnelly Jr., ‘Famine and Government Response, 1845 - 6’, in  A New History of Ireland V: Ireland Under the Union 1801-70, ed. by W.E Vaughan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 272-285 (p. 276).   8   Sir Robert Peel’s Speech on the Repeal of the Corn Laws, 22 January 1846, <> [accessed 16 November 2018].   9   William Hewetson, ‘Letter to Charles Edward Trevelyan, June 1846’, in  A New History of Ireland V: Ireland Under the Union 1801-70, ed. by   W.E Vaughan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 282. 10  John Percival, The Great Famine: Ireland’s Potato Famine 1845 -51  (London: BBC Worldwide Publishing, 1995), p.58; James S. Donnelly Jr., ‘Famine and Government Response, 1845- 6’, in  A New History of Ireland V: Ireland Under the Union 1801-70, ed. by W.E Vaughan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 272-285, (p.281). 11    Freeman’s Journal, 5 April 1847, quoted in The Great Famine , ed. by R.D Edwards and T.D Williams (Dublin: Browne and Nolan Limited, 1956) 12  Litton, p. 34. 13   Mathew Marmion, ‘Letter to the Editor of the  Freeman Journal  , Woodlands, Dunshaughlin, May 14 1846’ .  As a consequence of his controversial repeal of the 1815 Corn Laws, Peel’s government fell  in 1846 and was replaced by a Liberal government led by Lord John Russell, which, as Mohamed Salah Harzallah notes, was much less inclined to approve the government financing of relief measures for the crisis in Ireland. 14  Instead, by maintaining the principles of political economy, a system of task-work was enforced by the Liberals which, in an effort to decrease relief expenditure, reduced the level of assistance available to the able-bodied destitute. 15 An article printed in the  Kerry Evening Post on 16 December 1846, openly criticizes the relief measures enacted by Russell’s government , claiming the much-needed Indian meal to be ‘heating in the government stores’ while the ‘ gaunt, lean and hollow-eyed stalk the country ’ . 16  In addition, a Cork man  participating in Russell’s public works scheme was reported as being ‘exhausted for the want of food’ having eaten nothing for two days  prior to his death. 17  As Cormac Ó Gráda observes, Russell’s scheme was unsuccessful in its attempts to contain the Irish crisis and fell short of its idealized ‘workfare’ vision due to  its failure to target those suffering the worst cases of destitution. It also failed to provide a decent average wage and its laboring of malnourished workers who were less than ill-equipped to withstand harsh Irish conditions . 18  Furthermore, as Christine Kinealy notes, these systems in the majority of areas across the country, took anywhere up to two months to set up, making them both a cruel and ineffective means of emergency relief. 19  Recognizing the frustrations of those opposing the lack of effective government relief measures, the Liberals abandoned the relief works system in February 1847 and passed the Temporary Relief Act, establishing temporary soup kitchens across Ireland which, according to Russell, appeared ‘the most immediate relief  . ’ 20  An article printed in the Cork Reporter in April of the same year however, documents the multitude of ‘people dying in the streets from want and fever’, which calls into question both the diligence and the effectiveness of these 14   Mohamed Salah Harzallah, ‘The Great Irish Famine: Public Works Relief During the Liberal Administration ’ ,  Nordic Irish Studies, 8 (2009), 83-96 (p.85). 15   ‘ Starvation-Deaths-Whig Rule ’ ,  Kerry Evening Post  , 16 December 1846, p.2 ; John Mitchel, The Last Conquest of Ireland (perhaps),  p.123   <> [accessed: 27 November 2018].   16   ‘ Starvation-Deaths-Whig Rule ’ ,  Kerry Evening Post  , 16 December 1846, p.2. 17   E. O’ Sullivan, Cork Reporter, 11 January 1847 . 18  Cormac Ó Gráda,  Ireland’s Great Famine: An Overview (Dublin: UCD Centre for Economic Research, 2004), p. 9 <> [accessed: 28 November 2018]. 19  Christine Kinealy, The Great Irish Famine: History of Modern Ireland (1997). <> [accessed: 27 November 2018]. 20   Peter Gray, ‘British Relief Measures’, in  Atlas of the Great Irish Famine’  , ed. by John Crowley, William J. Smith and Mike Murphy   (Cork: University College Cork, 2012), p. 58.  measures.  21  Additionally, Thomas Keneally emphasizes the fact that prior to the government  provision of soup kitchens, some public officials, financed by the Lord Lieutenant, had already embarked on feeding the poor. However, as Keneally notes, the government at Westminster impeded their relief operation only due to it being considered outdoor relief, for which the Poor Law Amendment Act, had not yet been passed, and which consequently serves to reinforce criticisms concerning Conservative relief measures. 22  By August 1847 then, the Poor Law had become the principal agency of relief provision in Ireland. Where before, under the previous Poor Law Act of 1838 relief was confined to the workhouse, the administering Board of Guardians ‘of every union in Ireland’ were now  permitted by law to dispense relief assistance to ‘all destitute poor persons’ outside these overcrowded institutions. 23   However, as Thomas P. O’Neill emphasizes, this ‘legal title’ did little to provide food to the starving.  24  Additionally, as Kinealy argues, this transfer of relief not only resulted in an immediate increase of both evictions and emigrations as a result of the ‘quarter acre clause’  but also saw the immediate growth in the number of deaths occurring as a direct result of starvation. 25  Though the Liberal government was aware of the Irish ‘dying and wasting away’ as a result of the food shortage, it refused to deviate from its policies, instead adhering to the ideological belief that such outdoor provisions would be both demoralizing and ruinous, and also that the crisis itself could potentially bring about long-term benefits to Ireland, specifically the consolidation of property through the ever-decreasing number of Irish occupying the land. 26  Additionally, with the apparent absence of  blight in 1847, Charles Trevelyan was permitted to prematurely declare that the famine was over and that no further relief could be justified. 27  Because of this then, it can be strongly argued that Russell’s government did not implement all  measures of relief within its power when administering aid to the Irish during the famine period. 21   Cork Reporter  , 29 April 1847. 22  Thomas Keneally, Three Famines: Starvation and Politics (New York: Serpentine Publishing Co., 2011), p. 238. 23  Fifth Report of the Poor Law Commissioners, p. 4; Thomas P. O’Neill, ‘The Organization and Administration of Relief’, in The Great Famine , ed. by R.D Edwards and T.D Williams (Dublin: Browne and Nolan Limited,1956), 207-260 (p. 249). 24   O’Neill, p. 249. 25   Christine Kinealy, ‘The Irish Famine 1845 - 52’,  North Irish Roots, 2 (1990), 158-161 (p. 160). 26  Edward Twistleton, ‘Speech to Parliamentary Committee’, 1849;  Tim Pat Coogan, The Famine Plot (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), p. 162; Christine Kinealy, ‘The Irish Famine 1845 - 52’,  North Irish Roots, 2 (1990), 158-161 (p. 160). 27  Peter Gray , ‘The Triumph of Dogma Ideology and Famine Relief’,  History Ireland, 3 (1995), 26-34 (p. 32)  With the arguable exception of Peel’s purchase and distribution of Indian meal, this paper has outlined the ways in which the various relief measures implemented by both Robert Peel’s Conservative government and the Liberal Whig government of John Russell both failed to  provide adequate or effective support to the destitute Irish during the famine crisis. In  particular, this paper has highlighted how the ideological beliefs possessed by the British during this period affected the decisions made by both the Conservative and Liberal governments at this time, most notably those negatively affecting the operation and distribution of inadequate famine relief measures. Having established the deliberate failures of the Conservative and Liberal Whig governments to enforce critical famine relief measures in Ireland between 1845 and 1852, it can, therefore, be securely argued that both these governments hold partial liability for the extended suffering of the Irish during the famine crisis.
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