1800-1859 | Famine

Prime Minister – Irish treachery means they must starve

The famine memorial in Dublin –
Ceridwen – CC License – via Wikimedia Commons.

13 February 1849

On 13 February 1849, Prime Minister Lord John Russel wrote to the Earl of Clarendon, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, instructing him to ‘leave things to the operation of natural courses.’ He was referring to several letters from the Earl appealing for some intervention to help mitigate what was known as ‘the Great Hunger’ in Ireland, then in entering its fifth year. In them, Clarendon had expressed his despair over reports of famine which ‘exceed all I have ever heard of horrible misery.’1

Russell was unsympathetic. He explained that a loan for Ireland was not possible as parliament would refuse it. MPs, he claimed, were furious over Ireland’s ‘faction’, ‘mendicancy’ and ‘ingratitude’ and he added that the uprising of the previous year, though it had involved at most only a few hundred desperate men and women, could not be easily forgiven. ‘We have subscribed, worked, visited, clothed for the Irish,’ wrote Lord John, ‘millions of money, years of debate, etc. etc. etc. The only return is rebellion and calumny. Let us not grant, lend, clothe, etc. any more and see what that will do.’2

On that same day as Russel informed Clarendon that there would be no help for the starving, the Freeman’s Journal published a pastoral address by John MacHale, Archbishop of Tuam, in which he reflected on the suffering of Ireland’s population and the refusal of ‘the wealthiest empire in the world’ to help them ‘by daily parading the savage and unfeeling maxims of state policy or economy.’ He asked his audience to consider what thoughts would occur, ‘were some stranger, accustomed to witness the tender care to which the poor of God are treated in every civilised and Christian country, now to come among us and contemplate the heartrending scenes of misery and desolation which everywhere meet the eye.’

Archbishop John then spoke about how such desperate families struggling to survive in the midst of famine were being evicted by their landlords; ‘cottages leveled under pretended sanction of law, and their inmates driven in defiance of the divine law to perish in the ditches as they daily seem to do; numbers of them flocking to the poor houses in the hope of promised relief; and again repulsed under the plea of inadequate accommodation to receive, or means to support them.’    The stranger who witnessed this, the Archbishop suggested, ‘would imagine that those helpless beings were shut out of the pale of humanity and mercy.’3


  1. Lord Clarendon cited in Cecil Woodham-Smith, The Great Hunger: Ireland 1845-1849, Penguin Books, London, 1991, p. 375.
  2. Lord John Russel cited in Cecil Woodham-Smith, The Great Hunger: Ireland 1845-1849, Penguin Books, London, 1991, p. 375.
  3. ‘The Pastoral Address of The Metropolitan and Suffragans of the Ecclesiastical Province of Tuam,’  The Freeman’s Journal, 13 February 1849, p. 3.

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