Irish famine fears exaggerated – delay in acting desirable
13 October 1845
On 13 October 1845, a report from Lord Heytesbury, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, lay on Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel’s desk. It predicted the failure of Ireland’s potato crop, on which almost its entire population depended for survival. Peel considered his response carefully. He insisted he needed to see conclusive proof of widespread famine before he would consider even token remedial measures. In a memo to Sir James Graham, the Home Secretary, he explained that ‘there is such a tendency to exaggeration and inaccuracy in Irish reports that delay in acting on them is always desirable.’1
Nearly a month earlier, on 17 September, a correspondent for the Dublin based Freeman’s Journal had already reported the growing concern of Irish farmers, and had warned that ‘a famine will ensue from this calamity unless the government stops distillation from oats and wheat. Not an hour should be lost, that is if the lives of the poor are worth preserving.’2 In contrast, a report on 23 September by the Dublin correspondent of the Morning Chronicle typified the more relaxed view of English newspapers, claiming that although ‘very alarming reports of the potato crop are still occasionally published… I am disposed to believe that they are considerably exaggerated, and the injury only partial in this part of the Empire. Altogether the Irish potato crop is likely to be abundant and generally very excellent in quality.’3
By 13 October, Sir Robert Peel was aware of the much bleaker assessment from Lord Heytesbury, who as the Home Secretary reminded the Prime Minister, ‘does not readily give credit to false alarms.’ For Peel such demands for extra government spending were inconvenient and he knew that the easiest way to justify Britain’s refusal to intervene was, at least initially, through intentional ignorance. Even as the crisis escalated and the evidence of mass starvation became indisputable, he still declined to implement any wide scale relief programme, though he now pleaded either budget constraints or that large scale free food handouts were contrary to the sacrosanct principles of laissez-faire economics. Such indifference was by no means unique to Peel. His successor Lord Russel, who became prime minister the following year, was even more scrupulous in prioritizing such economies, regardless of the consequences.
Over the next five years, starvation and diseases linked to malnutrition were to claim the lives of one million Irish people, and forced another two million to emigrate. As with other famines within the British Empire, most of the deaths were avoidable. Tim Pat Coogan and other Irish historians have convincingly demonstrated that it was the insistence of the British government on delaying and limiting remedial measures, so as to allow market forces to prevail, that exacerbated and prolonged ‘the Great Hunger’, resulting in a far higher loss of life than in any other famine in nineteenth century Europe.5
- Sir Robert Peel cited in Cecil Woodham-Smith, The Great Hunger: Ireland 1845-1849, London, pp. 40-41.
- ‘The Potato Disease in Irealnd,’ Freeman’s Journal, 17 September 1845, p. 1.
- ‘The Harvest,’ The Morning Chronicle, 23 September 1845, p6
- Sir James Graham cited in Cecil Woodham-Smith, The Great Hunger: Ireland 1845-1849, London, p. 41.
- Tim Pat Coogan, The Famine Plot: England’s Role in Ireland’s Greatest Tragedy, Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.
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