Recognition of the size and seriousness of the famine

Slowly, gradually, and with a voice that was for a long time discredited, the news spread itself through the country that the food of the people was gone. That his own crop was rotten and useless each cotter quickly knew, and realized the idea that he must work for wages if he could get them, or else go to the poorhouse. That the crop of his parish or district was gone became evident to the priest, and the parson, and the squire; and they realized the idea that they must fall on other parishes or other districts for support. But it was long before the fact made itself known that there was no food in any parish, in any district.

When this was understood, men certainly did put their shoulders to the wheel with a great effort. Much abuse at the time was thrown upon the government; and they who took upon themselves the management of the relief of the poor in the south-west were taken most severely to task. I was in the country, travelling always through it, during the whole period, and I have to say—as I did say at the time with a voice that was not very audible—that in my opinion the measures of the government were prompt, wise, and beneficent; and I have to say also that the efforts of those who managed the poor were, as a rule, unremitting, honest, impartial, and successful.

The feeding of four million starving people with food, to be brought from foreign lands, is not an easy job. No government could bring the food itself; but by striving to do so it might effectually prevent such bringing on the part of others. Nor when the food was there, on the quays, was it easy to put it, in due proportions, into the four million mouths. Some mouths, and they, alas! the weaker ones, would remain unfed. But the opportunity was a good one for slashing philanthropical censure; and then the business of the slashing, censorious philanthropist is so easy, so exciting, and so pleasant!

I think that no portion of Ireland suffered more severely during the famine than the counties Cork and Kerry. The poorest parts were perhaps the parishes lying back from the sea and near to the mountains. . . . The sternest among landlords and masters were driven to acknowledge that the people had not got food or the means of earning it. The people themselves were learning that a great national calamity had happened, and that the work was God's work; and the Government had fully recognized the necessity of taking the whole matter into its own hands. They were responsible for the preservation of the people, and they acknowledged their responsibility. [Chapter 7, “The Famine Year”]

How the starving reacted (1) — “Grateful for what?”

The hardest burden which had to be borne by those who exerted themselves at this period was the ingratitude of the poor for whom they worked;—or rather I should say thanklessness. To call them ungrateful would imply too deep a reproach, for their convictions were that they were being ill used by the upper classes. When they received bad meal which they could not cook, and even in their extreme hunger could hardly eat half-cooked; when they were desired to leave their cabins and gardens, and flock into the wretched barracks which were prepared for them; when they saw their children wasting away under a suddenly altered system of diet, it would have been unreasonable to expect that they should have been grateful. Grateful for what? Had they not at any rate a right to claim life, to demand food that should keep them and their young ones alive? But not the less was it a hard task for delicate women to work hard, and to feel that all their work was unappreciated by those whom they so thoroughly commiserated, whose sufferings they were so anxious to relieve. [Chapter 7, “The Famine Year”]

How the starving reacted (2) — apathy

And now the great fault of those who were the most affected was becoming one which would not have been at first sight expected. One would think that starving men would become violent, taking food by open theft—feeling, and perhaps not without some truth, that the agony of their want robbed such robberies of its sin. But such was by no means the case. I only remember one instance in which the bakers' shops were attacked; and in that instance the work was done by those who were undergoing no real suffering. At Clonmel, in Tipperary, the bread was one morning stripped away from the bakers' shops; but at that time, and in that place, there was nothing approaching to famine. The fault of the people was apathy. It was the feeling of the multitude that the world and all that was good in it was passing away from them; that exertion was useless, and hope hopeless. "Ah, me! your honour," said a man to me, "there'll never be a bit and a sup again in the county Cork! The life of the world is fairly gone!"

“And thus life and soul were kept together” — Government and private solutions

And then two great rules seemed to get themselves laid down—not by general consent, for there were many who greatly contested their wisdom—but by some force strong enough to make itself dominant. The first was, that the food to be provided should be earned and not given away. And the second was, that the providing of that food should be left to private competition, and not in any way be undertaken by the Government. I make bold to say that both these rules were wise and good.

But how should the people work? That Government should supply the wages was of course an understood necessity; and it was also necessary that on all such work the amount of wages should be regulated by the price at which provisions might fix themselves. These points produced questions which were hotly debated by the Relief Committees of the different districts; but at last it got itself decided, again by the hands of Government, that all hills along the country roads should be cut away, and that the people should be employed on this work. They were so employed,—very little to the advantage of the roads for that or some following years. [Chapter 31, “The First Month”]

It may probably be said that so large a sum of money had never been circulated in the country in any one month since money had been known there; and yet it may also be said that so frightful a mortality had never occurred there from the want of that which money brings. It was well understood by all men now that the customary food of the country had disappeared. There was no longer any difference of opinion between rich and poor, between Protestant and Roman Catholic; as to that, no man dared now to say that the poor, if left to themselves, could feed themselves, or to allege that the sufferings of the country arose from the machinations of money-making speculators. The famine was an established fact, and all men knew that it was God's doing,—all men knew this, though few could recognize as yet with how much mercy God's hand was stretched out over the country.

Or may it not perhaps be truer to say that in such matters there is no such thing as mercy—no special mercies—no other mercy than that fatherly, forbearing, all-seeing, perfect goodness by which the Creator is ever adapting this world to the wants of His creatures, and rectifying the evils arising from their faults and follies? Sed quo Musa tendis? Such discourses of the gods as these are not to be fitly handled in such small measures. . . .

It is in such emergencies as these that the watching and the wisdom of a government are necessary; and I shall always think—as I did think then—that the wisdom of its action and the wisdom of its abstinence from action were very good. And now again the fields in Ireland are green, and the markets are busy, and money is chucked to and fro like a weathercock which the players do not wish to have abiding with them; and the tardy speculator going over to look for a bit of land comes back muttering angrily that fancy prices are demanded. "They'll run you up to thirty-three years' purchase," says the tardy speculator, thinking, as it seems, that he is specially ill used. Agricultural wages have been nearly doubled in Ireland during the last fifteen years. Think of that, Master Brook. Work for which, at six shillings a week, there would be a hundred hungry claimants in 1845,—in the good old days before the famine, when repeal was so immediately expected—will now fetch ten shillings, the claimants being by no means numerous. In 1843 and 1844, I knew men to work for fourpence a day—something over the dole on which we are told, being mostly incredulous as we hear it, that a Coolie labourer can feed himself with rice in India;—not one man or two men, the broken down incapables of the parish, but the best labour of the country. One and twopence is now about the cheapest rate at which a man can be hired for agricultural purposes. While this is so, and while the prices are progressing, there is no cause for fear. [Chapter 17, “The Famine Relief Committee”]

Related Material


Trollope, Anthony. Castle Richmond. London & New York: 1906. Project Gutenberg. E-text prepared by Charles Aldarondo, Charles Franks, and revised by Rita Bailey and Joseph E. Loewenstein, M.D.. 5 August 2013.

Last modified 13 August 2013