Reign of Queen Victoria - M. B. Synge

Ireland and the Famine

If the condition of the English labourer was bad, that of the Irishman was worse. The poverty and discontent in the sister island across the Irish Channel were indeed grievous. Statesmen tried in vain to remedy evils which had been growing with the passing centuries, and were "the legacy of an unhappy past ". The ignorance of the British people was responsible for some of the trouble; they seemed unable to understand the desire of many Irishmen for the recognition of their strong feeling for nationality. The leader of these "Nationalists", as they were called later, was, in 1838, a lawyer named Daniel O'Connell, who may be called the first Home Ruler. A few words will make clear the crisis.

Until 1800, Ireland had her own Parliament, sitting in Dublin. It was composed entirely of Protestants; no Roman Catholic was allowed to sit in it. For the past hundred years, Scottish members had sat in Parliament at Westminster with English members. At the end of the last century an Act of Union was passed by which the Irish members should likewise sit at Westminster, where all the affairs of the United kingdom could be settled.

Daniel O'Connell


On January 1, 1801, the Act came into force. The new Union flag with the harp of Ireland quartered in one corner flew over Dublin Castle, guns fired their salute, bells clanged merrily from church and steeple. But these were outward symbols, and did not represent the real feelings of the Irish people. In the ears of Daniel O'Connell the bells sounded harshly.

He vowed he would never rest till a law was passed allowing Roman Catholics to sit in the British Parliament. Then he might gain a seat and lift up his voice to secure Home Rule for Ireland, or, as it was called in those days, the Repeal of the Union.

The Bill for Catholic Emancipation was not passed till 1829, and the following year found Daniel O'Connell representing Ireland in the Parliament at Westminster. From this time forward he flung aside his profession, and devoted himself to political agitation: "I embraced the cause of my country, and, come weal or woe, I have made a choice which I shall never repent."

O'Connell was fifty-five when he first entered the House of Commons, which had been the ambition of his life. He had set himself a colossal task at which he worked with colossal zeal. He soon made his power felt as an orator. He was a thorough Celt, passionate and impulsive, with a voice unrivalled for sweetness and strength.

Throughout the early years of Queen Victoria's reign, he addressed numerous meetings in Ireland. At last he gathered up his huge strength for the final plunge.

"The year 1843 is and shall be the great Repeal year," he said. "My struggle has begun, and I will end it only in death or repeal."

As the summer wore on, he summoned a monster meeting to the Hill of Tara, the coronation place of the old Irish kings. His call was answered by thousands of devoted Irish, and great was the enthusiasm when, attended by 10,000 horsemen, the hero arrived. At the end of the meeting, O'Connell was crowned king, with the Irish national cap.

It was the last great meeting. An order came over from England forbidding any more such to be held, and O'Connell refused to resort to force, which was the only alternative. Further, he was charged with conspiracy and sentenced to a year's imprisonment.

When he came out of prison in the following year, Ireland was in deep distress, owing to the failure of the potato crop, on which the people depended for their food. There was no more thought of repealing the Union now. In the heat of political agitation men had overlooked the social evils growing up in their midst.

Hill of Tara


"Ireland is in your hands," cried O'Connell to the House of Commons. "If you do not save her, she cannot save herself."

For himself, he could do nothing; his day was done. He was an old man, and his spirit was broken. The voice that had once thrilled thousands was sunk to a whisper, his head was bowed, his eye was dim. And so he passes from our history to die.

But if the first signs of potato disease had appeared in 1845, far more complete was the destruction of the crop the following year. The fatal blight swept over the land one summer night. Morning found a blackened mass of decay, where but recently whole fields and patches of potato plants had shown promise. Wretched men were seen sitting on the fences of their decaying gardens, wringing their hands and wailing bitterly at the plague, which had left them absolutely without food.

Whole generations of Irish in the south and west of Ireland had grown up, married, and died, without knowing the taste of meat. Disraeli said, in 1844, that the Irish were the "worst fed and the worst clothed of any in Europe. They live in mud cabins littered with straw; their food consists of only dry potatoes."

It was on such a poverty-stricken race that famine now strode pitilessly—such a famine as had not been known in the British Isles since the fifteenth century. In some parts of the country one-tenth of the population died before help could be obtained.

Men were seen wandering about, searching for stray turnips, watercress—anything to stay their terrible hunger. Whole families perished: women and children just lay down in their cabins and died of sheer starvation. All the sheep had been killed, all the poultry, all the pigs: the very dogs had been slain to feed the hungry multitudes.

Irish Cabin


Not only Britain, but all Europe and America heard the cry of the famished Irish. Large sums of money were sent from the British treasury, stores of Indian corn were shipped into the country, relief works were set on foot, and "famine roads" may be seen all over the country to-day. British gold was poured into the land, and for a time 3,000,000 people were fed daily.

"It was the grandest attempt ever made to grapple with famine over a whole country, to which neither ancient nor modern history can furnish a parallel."

Still, the deaths sometimes numbered 100 a day, and when the days grew brighter and the famine ceased, it was found that out of a population of 10,000,000, only 8,000,000 were left.

Thousands emigrated to America, where they made fresh homes in that land of plenty, and the whole-sale exodus which began at this time has thinned the Irish at home till to-day there are but half the number there were at the accession of the Queen.