1800-1859 | Famine

Earl Grey describes Ireland as ‘our disgrace’

A roofless village – the tenants evicted. Bridget O’Donnel, homeless with her children. The Illustrated London News – 22 December 1849, p. 405 and p. 404.

23 March 1846

Earl Grey, addressing the House of Lords on 23 March 1846, as the Irish famine began to take thousands of lives, declared that ‘Ireland is the one weak place in the fabric of British power, Ireland is the one deep ( and I almost said ineffaceable ) blot on the brightness of British honour. Ireland is our disgrace. It is the reproach, the standing disgrace of this country that Ireland remains in the condition she is. It is so regarded throughout the whole civilised world.’1

Over half of Ireland’s rural population eked out a living on holdings of 10 acres or less, and every year had to endure months of hunger between the exhaustion of the previous year’s potato stocks in the spring until the harvest in late July. At the same time, wealthy landlords ruthlessly evicted the penniless who could not pay their rent, often relying on the support of British troops, and forcing their tenants out ‘into ditches and dikes to die there like dogs.’2  Many could easily afford to be indifferent to the long term productivity of their land, preferring to spend the rents they squeezed from their vast estates lavishly in Dublin or London.

The juxtaposition was highlighted by the Wexford Independent on 25 March, which cited a report that while  ‘Ireland is poor and neglected… England, on the contrary, enjoys unparalleled commercial prosperity.’3  In 1845, that disparity had been aggravated as one third of the Irish potato crop was struck by blight, and increasing numbers began to succumb to famine. However, the poor laws which regulated the provision of relief, were designed by a privileged English elite who believed that such catastrophes were inevitable and that only a minimum of aid should be provided, so as not to interfere with the workings of the free market. Charles Trevelyan, who was in charge of organising emergency provisions for the destitute in Ireland, distributed copies of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, which championed self-interest and the free market, to his agents so they could understand why they should not be overly generous.4

Just three days prior to Earl Grey’s speech, Irish MP Daniel O’Connell denounced the British refusal to take any effective measures to alleviate the suffering and the increasing levels of mortality. He cited officials admitting that ‘misery in Ireland (was) unequalled in any country in Europe,’ but yet, he noted, there had been ‘no alleviation of the causes of that misery. No coercion for the landlords who exterminate by the clearance system… and no remedy for the innumerable evils that produce the maddening poverty of the Irish peasant.’5

The young daughter of a poor law inspector distributes clothing. She is besieged by rag covered skeleton like figures. The Illustrated London News, 22.12.1849, p. 404.


  1. Earl Grey cited in Tim Pat Coogan, The Famine Plot: England’s Role in Ireland’s Greatest Tragedy, Palgrave, Macmillan, 2012, p. 18.
  2. Daniel O’Connell MP cited in ‘Opening of O’Connell’s Letters by the Government,’ The Tablet, 22 March 1845, p. 84.
  3. ‘Report by T.M Ray,’ The Wexford Independent, 25 March 1846, p.1
  4. Tim Pat Coogan, Op. cit, pp. 35-36.
  5. Letter from Daniel O’Connell MP, 20 March 1846, cited in ‘Loyal National Repeal Association,’ The Newry Examiner and Louth Advertiser, 25 March 1846, p. 2.

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