1800-1859 | Curfews | Famine | Martial law

British react to famine in Ireland with martial law bill

British troops back up the landlord's men as they enforce a tenant family's eviction.
 The Illustrated London News, 16 December 1848, p. 380
 British troops back up the landlord’s men as they enforce a tenant family’s eviction.
The Illustrated London News, 16 December 1848, p. 380

23 February 1846

On 23 February 1846, the Irish Coercion Bill was introduced into the House of Lords, following reports that famine struck tenants in Ireland were not paying rent to their landlords. The bill was to allow for the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland to introduce martial law to any district, impose curfews from sunset to sunrise and give magistrates exceptional powers, including the right to sentence petty criminals or anyone violating the strict military regulations to transportation for seven years.1

Not one voice was raised against the proposed measures in the House of Lords but in the House of Commons, William Smith O’Brien, the MP for Limerick, was one of the few voices of dissent arguing that while the Irish faced famine, the British response was not to send food, but instead soldiers.  His was met with what the Cork Southern Reporter described as ‘unanimous hostility.’ The newspaper asked mockingly, ‘How dare Smith O’Brien doubt their brimming, abounding, inexhaustible benevolence ?,’ adding that ‘it was a daring act to deny the extravagant prodigality of English munificence, and can we wonder that members set up their throats and bawled out “ingratitude”.’2

The bill, however, never became law, not due to any late surge of sympathy for Ireland’s famine victims, but due to an unexpected turn in the political shenanigans at Westminister.  There had been no significant opposition in parliament to the harsh measures the bill proposed but it finally failed due to a successful attempt by a majority of MPs, who feared a repeal of the protectionist Corn Laws which the government was proposing,  to force Sir Robert Peel, the prime minister, to resign.  The Irish author John Wilson Croker, reflecting on the unexpected outcome, noted in his diary that it ‘had as much to do with Ireland as Kamchatka.’3


  1. Cecil Woodham-Smith, The Great Hunger: Ireland 1845-1849, Hamish Hamilton, London, p. 70.
  2. ‘Smith O’Brien in Parliament,’ The Cork Southern Reporter, 17 March 1846, p. 2
  3. John Wilson Croker cited in Cecil Woodham-Smith, The Great Hunger: Ireland 1845-1849, Hamish Hamilton, London p. 87.

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