This essay will investigate the response of the British Government during the great famine of Ireland between 1845 and 1852. It will look at the political ideology that inspired the public relief works and how they failed to offer relief from starvation, but instead focused on bringing about social change inspired by largely an anti-Irish sentiment. It will also examine the role of the soup kitchen’s that were set up to attack famine conditions directly and how this represented and exposed the Governments lies that they in fact could have done more to prevent the deaths of so many. Considered is also the role in which Free Trade had during the famine period, when food was needed most it continued to leave the country, only for the food that did arrive to be highly out of reach for those destitute who’s only income was from the largely unsuccessful Public Relief works.
At the turn of 1840 it was estimated that the population of Ireland stood at approximately eight million. By this time, some 40% of the population were dependant on the potato for food and even employment. When the blight hit Ireland in September 1845 the consequence for the Irish poor would be devastating, but as the famine of 1782-84 demonstrated, manageable, provided the government responded in the correct way .
By late 1846 famine conditions were spread throughout Ireland, but most notably the famine had took on a regional dimension, hitting places worst in the South and West. Already suffering from the effects of decline in trade, poverty was already well planted in places like Connaught, in the West, and Munster, in the South, years before the blight struck. As consequence, employment moved eastward to Dublin which left many unemployed on the eve of famine. This slump in industry was also heavily felt in Britain following the collapse of the railway and corn trade in 1847-1848. This prompted anti-irish sentiment when coupled with famine relief. The Times condemned any further British aid to Ireland, labelling it as an unfair burden on England and a ‘misplaced humanity’ inhibiting Irish self-reliance . This industrial depression coincided with the failure of the potato crop and was not exclusive to Ireland. It left many out of work and increased their vulnerability to such an unforeseen event, leading to mass destitution .
Ireland, under British control from 1800, was often treated poorly and even referred to as the ‘Prodigal son’ of the United Kingdom. With many now out of work and beginning to starve, government intervention was desperately needed. Lord John Russell – who later became Prime Minister in 1846 – Insisted that the responsibility of relief lay on the shoulders of Irish landlords who ought to provide employment for the poor . However, following the severe crop failures between 1845 and 1848, combined with the slump in trade, landlords were more concerned with trying to off load surplus workers they could barely afford to pay. .
Sir John Peel stated to parliament his wish ‘to take advantage of this calamity for introducing among the people of Ireland the taste for a better and more certain provision for their support…and thereby diminishing the chances to which they will be constantly liable, of recurrences of this great and mysterious visitation. ’ He believed that Ireland was full of resources that only required entrepreneurship and a reinvigorated industry to be released and that the potato enabled the Irish population to maintain an alleged lazy and indolent lifestyle leaving no incentive for the Irish farmers to modernise their agriculture or the economy . Peel was convinced that Ireland’s problems lay in root of their social backwardness. He saw maize, which would be cheaply imported from America, as a permanent substitute for the potato in the Irish diet, and insisted that the rural poor had to become landless labourers, working for wages on the land of substantial farmers. He was confident that if social...
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