1800-1859 | Collective punishments | Famine

Relief works for famine struck Irish villagers suspended

Desperate famine victims at the gate of a workhouse.
From J. Ridpath’s ‘Ridpath’s History of the World,’ via Wikimedia

7 December 1846

In December 1846 Ireland was in the grip of a devastating potato famine as well as one of the worst winters in many years. Wherever a few people could find employment at a local public works, it provided the sole possible source of income and survival for the local community. One can only imagine the sheer despair when on 7 December, following the attempted murder of the overseer of the public works at Clare Abbey on Ireland’s west coast as he walked home along a rural footpath, the local works were closed as a punishment. The authorities refused to reopen them until the villagers of Clare identified or handed over the unknown assailant. Local officials realised that they probably did not know who it was. They were also sympathetic to the community’s plight, but they had to follow strict instructions, which had been issued from London that, regardless of the consequences, such works should be closed down wherever there was any act of violence, whether inspired by rebellion or fear of starvation.

Captain Wynne, Inspecting Officer of the County of Clare, noted that ‘900 persons are turned adrift… I don’t like to think what the consequences will be’.  He had earlier informed Charles Trevelyan, the Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, that the famine situation in the county was ‘frightful’ and that the Treasury’s demand to cut back on the numbers employed by public works was a difficult task requiring ‘strong nerves.’  It is likely that these ruthless and arbitrary decisions regarding whom to employ from the many who desperately applied for work led to the attempted murder of the overseer.1

For many days after the closure the wintry weather continued to be unusually severe with gales and heavy snowfalls.  On 14 December, Captain Wynne wrote to Colonel Jones at the Board of Works and to Trevelyan, imploring them to allow him to reopen the works. ‘I ventured through the parish this day,’ he explained, ‘to ascertain the condition of the inhabitants, and, altho’ a man not easily moved, I confess myself unmanned by the intensity and extent of the suffering I witnessed more especially among the women and little children, crowds of whom were to be seen scattered over the turnip fields like a flock of famishing crows, devouring the raw turnips… When may we expect to resume the works ?’2 On 19 December, he reported on conditions again, noting that the people were starving, ‘but as yet peaceably.’  It was not, however, until 28 December that London finally granted permission for the works to be reopened.  It is unlikely anyone will ever know how many men, women and children starved to death in Clare that month. Since such measures of collective punishment were considered routine, there was no need to investigate their devastating consequences.2


  1. Cecil Woodham-Smith, The Great Hunger: Ireland 1845-1849, Penguin Books, London, 1991, pp. 152-153.
  2. Ibid., pp. 154-155.
  3. Ibid., pp. 154-155.

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