April 1847

The Famine in the Land. What Has Been Done, and What Is To Be Done.

(Pages 523-540, edited for length)

The country must prepare itslef for a permanent change in the diet of the great mass of the population. We earnestly hope that never again will the potato be the staple food of her peole. Independently of those frequent failures which have brought periodical disress upon our poor -- the difficulty of its transportion -- the impossibility of storing it up in a year of abundance to meet the wants of a year of scarcity -- apart from all these objections which economists have so frequently pointed out, as existing to its adoption as the staple food of a country, we believe the potato diet of the population, in the manner in which they subsided on it, to have had the most injurious effects upon the character and habits of our people. It might appear almost fanciful to say, that the necessities of its culture fostered those habits of filth which have given so squalid an aspect to the wretchedness of an Irish hovel. The dunghill before the cottage was almost the necessary adjunct to the potato garden in the rear. . . . The dunghill, the pig, and the potato garden, wer the poor Irishman's world. Receiving no money wages, he neither knew the value or money, nor what it was to save. Men who toiled for their daily money, and purchased their loaf with their shilling, would soonlearn the value of husbanding a penny out of each shilling; but the man who received his wages by the process of digging a basket of potatoes from his ridge would never have suggested to his mind the idea of saving one potato out of twelve. The worst of this mode of subsistance was that it shut out the man who so existed from any contact with mercantile and social world. In the simple process by which he heaped up his dunghill, manured his potato garden, and dug out the root as he wanted it, requiring nothing but the process of boiling to make it fit for food, he was never driven to rely on the help of his fellow man. What room, in such a miserable and wretched process, for that mutual dependence, that division of labour, even in its rudest form, to which we owe all the progress of the most refined civilization! . . .

To the permanent prosperity of Ireland, we believe that an extension of the poor law, even more liberal than that now proposed, to be an indispensable requisite. No matter at what expense to the upper classes, we hold that no state can prosper in which the right of every man who is willing to work to be fed is not fully and liberally recognized. The rights of property do not arise until this obligation is discharged. . . . To the principle of the poor law bill of the ministry, we give our cheeful and cordial assent. . . .

This bill proposed to introduce into the poor law system of Ireland two changes, the magnitude and importance of which it is impossible to overrate. IT RECOGNIZES FOR THE FIRST TIME IN ANY CLASS OF PERSONS, A RIGHT TO SUPPORT, AND IT AUTHORIZES, IN CERTAIN CIRCUMSTANCES, OUT-DOOR RELIEF.

The persons whose right to relief is fully recongnized bythis bill, are those who are "permanetly disabled from labour by means of old age, infirmity, or bodiy or mental defect;" and it directs drelief to be given to them in or out of hte workhouse as the guardians may deem expedient. Practically there can be no doubt that this will be, and ought to be, a full and unqualified recognition of the right of such persons to be supported by out-door relief, leaving the possibility of enforcing the workhouse test as merelythe means of detecting and obviating attempts at imposture.

Such a privision as this is one which the first dictates of Christiantiy, of humanity, obviously demand.

In addition to this, th eable-bodied poor, "when destitute and unable to support themselves by their own industry or by other lawful means," acquire by this bill a partial recognition of their right to be maintained -- that is, the guardians are bound by this proposed act to take order for relieving and setting to work in the workhouse all such persons, whenever there is sufficient room in the workhouse for them to do so.

If, however, the workhouse should be full, or unfit for the reception of inmates, from the pressure of infectious disease, then comes the much-dreaded provision of out-door relief. In this case the Poor Law Commissioners are empowered tomake an order for the extension of our-door relif to the able-bodied poor; this order cannot extend beyond a period of two months, and the relief shall only be given in food.

In addition to this, a relieving and a medical officer are to be appointed in each union, and the relieving officer are to be appointed in each union, and th relieving officer is empowered, in cases of urgent necessity, to give immediate relief in lodging, food or medical attendance.

To these provisions, we confess, we cannot understand how any one cna object, who is not prepared to leave the destitute population of Ireland to a state of misery and wretchedness unparalleled in the civilized world. Twelve years ago that destitution was laid bare to the legislature and the empire, in the report of teh Commissionera of the Irish Poor Law Inquiry. What effort was made to relieve it then? With the statement in that report, that two millions of peole were for a considerable portion of each year in want of sufficient food, a measure was introduced which could not do more than feed 80,000 people in workhouses. What effort has been made to relieve that destiution since? We left our poor tothe helpless misery in which they were proved then to drag out a wreetched existence, supported often upon the seaweed of the rocks. . .

The measures of this character which we have suggested may perhaps be classed under three heads. Measures to improve the general condition of the country, by facilitating the construction of railways; measures to facilitate emigration of the destitute; and lastly, measures to increase the productiveness of the soil by the reclamation of waste lands, or the improvement of those already under cultivation. . . .

I. As to measures for promoting the construction of railways.

Scarcely had parliament assembled when Lord George Bentinck, to whom appears to have been awarded by unanimous consent, the place of leader of the party now termed the Protectionist party in the House of commons, in conjunction with Mr. Hudson, a name celebrated in the annals of railway enterprises, introduced "a bill to stimulate the prompt and profitably employment of the people by the encouragement of railways in Ireland." This measure proposed an advance of sicteen millions to be distributed among such Irish railways as could give the security of the expnediture of capital tohalf the amount requried from the state. With the debate and the votes that followed, Ireland is unhapily too familiar. . . . .

The measure of Lord George Bentinck would have given relief to all grades and clases of the Irish nation, without costing the BRitish Treasury one penny. It would have meployed our destitute labourers; it would have stimualted our stagnant trade; developed the resources of our soil. about to be subjected to novel and unprecedented burdens; and poured into Ireland rapidly and yet naturally an amount of capital, produtively employed, that would have arrested the evils effects of the present calamity upon her commerce and her trade.

It is impossible to bestow too much or too high praise upon the speech of Lord George Bentinck in introducing this bill. It was spoken in a spirit worthy of the best days of British statesmanship, with a reliance upon the energies of the country, to which in better days a British House of Commons would proudly have responded, and in a generous spirit to Ireland, that proved the difference betwen genuine and mock liberality to this country -- between the liberality that contents itself with taking privilege from one class of the people to give it to another, and the liberality that sympathizes with the distress, vindicates the character, and would employ the resources of the empire for the benefit of all. . . .

II. A LARGE ENCOURAGEMENT TO EMIGRATION.

Emigration is not, perhaps a popular word -- we do not wonder that in Ireland it should not be so, becuase it has hiterho been associated with the loss of the best and the bravest of her people. So long as emigration is left to the unaided efforts of the emigrants themselves, it must be the natural result that the most industrious and most enterprising of our peasantry should be those who would hazard the adventure of a new world. Emigration, besides, requires some little expenditure to make it productive; and in former years it has been our duty in the pages of this very periodical, to point the attention of our rulers tot he tide of emigration which was rapidly draining Ireland of her Portestant population -- the yeomanry of Ulster. To recommend emigration, too, appears to favour the harsh doctrine of political economist, which representes the increase of population as the origin of all the evils of the humanrace. The recommendation may be answered by many specious arguments, and met by many plausible appeals to fact. . . .Among the Englishjournals, the Morning Herlad has recommended the adoption of a system of emigration, with equal perseverance and ability; and to the advocates of an extended emigration -- although his valuable letters on the state of Ireland were not written directly with reference to this subject -- we can add, on the testimony of these letters, the honoured name of the Earl of Rosse. . . .

The Morning Herlad, a journal whichhas advocated Irish interests always with generosity and ability, generally with accurate knowledge of the circumstances of the country, has recently referred to avery striking statement in the report of the commission to inquire into the stae of the Irish poor. The statement and the comment emobdoy in clear and truthful language facts of the utmost importance in estimating the value of emigration, either in relation to the general ste of Ireland, or the measures that are in progress. . .

III. MEASURES FOR IMPROVING THE PRODUCTIVENESS OR EXTENDING THE SURFACE OF THE CULTIVATED LAND IN IRELAND.

Upon the first degree of these objects we have, in a great degree, anticipated our comment. The Drainage Act of last year supplies unquestionably most valuable facilities for the permanent improvement of the estates; and were the suggestion followed, or permitting proprietors and farmers to relieve the burden of the Treasury Relief Act, by taking the labourers to works of profitable occupation, giving some similar security for the repayment to that which we have suggested, we believe much might be done this year in making the soil of Ireland more productive. . . .

Were Ireland in rebellion instead of famine, and the money asked for an armament to conquer her, would this argument have prevailed? Miserable and short-sighted policy, even of finance! It never entered into the calculations of those who adopted it, to consider whether the ruin of all classes in Ireland would bring no derangement to the money upon 'Change.

The assistance we ask for is a matter of humanity, of prudence, of duty; but it is far more -- it is, by the treaty of Union, a matter of national faith. . . .These opportunities are the compensation by which national calamities that threaten utter destruction to a people have been often more than atoned for, in the results for which they made way. Let Ireland now be dealt with in no ignorant, no procrastinating, no niggard hand; let all the energies of the empire be directed to do all that her necessities require, and an opportunity is presented for altering her social condition, for which cneturies might have waitied in vain. From the results of the very calamity that oppressed her it is possible for British statesman to make her an ally and support of England's honour and strength, no longer the cause of her shame and weakness, and in elevating her people from their prostrate condition to a state of comfort never knew before, to conciliate the affections of an entire population, and thus increase the strength, and extend the resources of what will be in heart and affection this united empire. . . .

We cannot close this article without pausing earnestly to thank the ministry for an act which has drawn on them rebuke from some of whome we had hoped better things -- we mean the appointment by the Sovereign's proclamation for a day of solemn humiliation and prayer.

Never, perhaps, was the lesson so fearfully taught, as in the recent visitation, how vain is all the wisdom and the strength of man, to secure to a people. Never was there an occasion upon which it was more fitting, that our Sovereign and her people should bow in submission to the mysterious will of the great Being who rules us all -- and earnetly implore his mercy for a suffering land; and that blessing, without which the wisest of human legislation is in vain. And believe it sincerely and reverently we do, that the supplications in which millions of our fellow countrymen have fervently and earnestly joined, have not ascended up to heaven in vain. Just now, perhaps, the subject is too sacred and solemn for controversy -- alas, that it should call forth any. But we could not close this artcile without expressing our deep gratitude to the advisers of our Sovereign, for this step, conceived and carried out in a manner worthy of a Christian nation, without recording our deep and earnest conviction, that the solemn offering up of a nation's confession and prayer to god, is not the mere homage of a ceremony and a form, but a reality, from which, with the deepest reverence, and without daring in presumption to point out how the prayers of the people and the Sovereign may be answered, we yet may humbly and confidently look for an answer, and a blessing on the nation from on high.