2 DECEMBER

BRITISH OFFICIAL ON THE ‘MORAL EVIL’ OF THE ‘SELFISH, TURBULENT’ IRISH

Charles Trevelyan – lithograph – 1840s

2 December 1846

On 2 December 1846, during Ireland’s great potato famine, Charles Trevelyan, Assistant Secretary at the Treasury and the official responsible for food and work relief, wrote to Colonel Harry Jones, Chairman of the Board of Works, expressing his opinion on the Irish character. Trevelyan was exasperated by reports that 500,000 Irish starving peasants had appealed for employment on public works to earn a shilling a day. An amount which was barely sufficient to feed themselves and their families. He refused to believe such a large number of people could be in such desperate need. Even the news of hunger riots failed to convince him. ‘The great evil with which we have to contend,’ he cautioned Colonel Jones, is ‘not the physical evil of the famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people.’ This was a prejudice shared by many other British government officials and it resulted in a obdurate indifference to the mounting death toll. Although at least one million had succumbed to famine by the end of the decade, their deaths were still conveniently blamed on the supposed flaws in the Irish character.

FOOTNOTE

  1. Charles Trevelyan cited in Cecil Woodham-Smith, The Great Hunger: Ireland 1845-49, Penguin Books 1991, London p. 156.

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