1800-1859 | Famine



The burden of raising relief fell on the impoverished tenants. British troops attend an eviction. The Illustrated London News, 16 December 1848, p. 380.

[ 22 November 1847 ]

On 22 November 1847, in what was possibly the worst year of the Irish famine, Chancellor of the Exchequer Sir Charles Wood advised Lord Clarendon, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, to use every means possible to collect the rates. ‘Arrest, remand, do anything you can,’ he suggested: ‘Send horse, foot and dragoons, all the world will applaud you, and I should not be at all squeamish as to what I did, to the verge of the law, and a little beyond.’1

These draconian measures were deemed essential, after the passing of the Poor Law Extension Act in June. It ensured that the entire burden of raising relief for famine victims fell on Irish property owners and consequently on their poverty-striken tenants who were inevitably forced to pay a large portion of their landlord’s rates. These tax demands were highest in the most distressed counties and, with the Treasury refusing to contribute to the relief effort in any significant way, the income from rates, though ruthlessly raised, was still woefully insufficient to provide for those whom Lord Clarendon’s commissioners themselves described as the ‘three millions of people’, who were now ‘in a state of destitution in Ireland.’2

In December Lord Sligo wrote to The Times reporting that there were now ‘26,000 people in Westport who are destitute of food, fuel and clothing’ and that since all the money raised from the rates could ‘not feed the crowds of destitute…. if the union (the local area) be left to the fund alone, these myriads must perish by famine.’ Even Lord Clarendon was anxious, advising Sir George Grey, the Home Secretary, that ‘I dread some calamity,’ but Grey and almost the entire political establishment were indifferent to such sentimental concerns. ‘It may be that if numerous deaths should occur the Government would be blamed,’ Grey admitted, ‘but there is such an indisposition to spend more money on Ireland, that the Government will assuredly and severely be blamed if they advance money to pay debts.’3


  1. Tim Pat Coogan, The Famine Plot: England’s Role in Ireland’s Greatest Tragedy, Palgrave Macmillan, London, p. 167.
  2. Lord Clarendon’s commissioners cited in ‘Remedies,’ The Limerick and Clare Examiner, 6 November 1847, p. 4.
  3. Tim Pat Coogan, op. cit., p. 168.

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