Saving the Irish Poor: Charity and the Great Famine
The Great Hunger (An Gorta Mór) was one of the most devastating humanitarian disasters of the nineteenth century. In a period of only five years, Ireland lost approximately one-quarter of her population through a combination of death and emigration. Yet this tragedy occurred at the heart of the vast, and resource-rich, British Empire. The imperial government, however, chose not to use its resources to come to the aid of the Irish poor. Historians continue to debate the extent to which the British government was culpable for this tragedy. This article examines a lesser-known aspect of the Great Hunger, that is, the extent to which people throughout the world mobilized to provide money, food and clothing to assist the starving Irish. Helped by developments in transport and communications, newspapers throughout the world reported on the suffering in Ireland. This prompted fund-raising on an unprecedented scale, which cut across religious, ethnic, social and gender distinctions, with donations coming from as far away as Australia, China, India and South America. Many who gave so generously had no direct connection with Ireland. This paper will explore the private relief given to Ireland during these tragic years, which one volunteer described as ‘a labour of love’. The ideological context in which both charity and poor relief existed will also be briefly examined
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1Throughout the nineteenth century, charity played an important role in supplementing an increasingly centralized and stringent system of state-run poor relief in the United Kingdom. Both private charity and government relief were premised on similar attitudes towards the poor and the causes of their poverty. In general, the poor were deemed to be masters of their own destiny, with poverty regarded as being a self-induced condition caused by laziness, improvidence and excessive reproduction.
- 1 For example, Michael Quinn, ‘Mill on Poverty, Population and Poor Relief. Out of Bentham by Malthus (...)
2One of the most influential commentators on this topic was Thomas Malthus. The publication of his Essay on the Principle of Population in 1798 had provided a framework for discussing what were perceived to be the twin problems facing the United Kingdom – population growth and poverty. In subsequent decades, the book (which went through many editions) provided an ideological prism through which British politicians and economists could discuss and debate various solutions to this seemingly intractable problem.1
3The Acts of Union of 1800, which had created the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, meant that the newly enlarged parliament in Westminster assumed responsibility for welfare provision in Ireland. At the time of the Union, a major difference between Ireland and Britain was the lack of a national, state system of poor relief in the former. In Britain, state intervention in poor relief dated back to the sixteenth century. By the early nineteenth century, two distinct Poor Laws existed in Britain, one for England and Wales and one for Scotland, both of which recognized that the poor had a right to relief. After 1800, but more especially following the ending of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, a key question for the Westminster Parliament became whether a system of Poor Laws should be extended to Ireland. However, the relatively lax way in which the Poor Laws were administered in Britain was increasingly a source of concern to politicians and political economists.
- 2 Thomas Malthus, Essay on the Principle of Population (1803 edition) Cambridge, 1992, p. 100.
- 3 Ibid., p. 287.
- 4 An Act for the Amendment and Better Administration of the Laws relating to the Poor in England and (...)
4Indiscriminate poor relief, in Malthus’s eyes, perpetuated the cycle of excessive population growth and poverty, and, consequently, dependency. The ‘unreformed’ Poor Laws that were operative in England and Wales in the early nineteenth century, he argued, were too generous and ‘may be said therefore, to create the poor which they maintain’.2 To counter this, Malthus proposed a system of ‘less eligibility’, that is, that the relief provided and the circumstances in which it was provided had to be worse than what was available to the lowest level of independent labourer.3 Malthus died in 1834, the year that Poor Law Amendment Act (England and Wales) was introduced. Although a key objective was to make poor relief more regulated and more stringent, the right to relief remained.4
- 5 Third Report of His Majesty’s Commissioners for inquiring into the condition of the poorer classes (...)
- 6 George Nicholls, Poor Laws – Ireland. Three Reports, London, 1838.
- 7 ‘An Act for the more effectual Relief of the Destitute Poor in Ireland’, 1 & 2 Vic. c.56, 31 July 1 (...)
- 8 The Irish Poor law fitted more closely with Malthus’s idea in that the Irish destitute had no right (...)
5At the same time that changes were taking place in the English and Welsh Poor Laws, attention was being given to the relief of poverty in Ireland and the need for a national system of poor relief. In 1833, the British government appointed a Royal Commission to investigate this issue, chaired by the Anglican Archbishop of Dublin, Richard Whately, an eminent political economist. The Commission sat for three years during which time it carried out an exhaustive and detailed enquiry, which concluded that, for part of each year, two-and-a-half million Irish people lived in poverty. They recommended an imaginative system of public works and assisted emigration programmes to alleviate the situation.5 The government, alarmed by the implications of such extensive and expensive intervention, by-passed Whately’s report, instead appointing an English Poor Law Commissioner, George Nicholls, to travel to Ireland to judge if a Poor Law could be extended to the country. Following a six week tour of the south and west, Nicholls responded in the affirmative.6 Nicholls’s recommendations for a limited and centralized system of poor relief were welcomed by the Whig government. Consequently, on 31 July 1838, ‘An Act for the more Effectual Relief of the Destitute Poor in Ireland’ became law.7 Although closely modeled on the amended English Poor Law of 1834, the Irish Poor Law contained three substantive differences. In Ireland, all relief had to be provided within a workhouse, with no outdoor assistance; there was no legal right to relief for the Irish poor; and there was no Irish Law of Settlement (which meant that paupers in England and Wales could only obtain assistance if they had established a ‘residency’ in the locality). The deterrent principle of less eligibility, as suggested by Malthus, underpinned both the amended English Poor Law of 1834, and the new Irish Poor Law of 1838.8
6The Irish Poor Law was implemented with impressive speed. The country was divided into 130 new administrative units, known as ‘unions’, each of which contained its own workhouse. By 1845, 118 of Ireland’s 130 workhouses were providing relief. These institutions were financed by a new local tax, the poor rate, thus placing the fiscal burden on local tax-payers and not the government. However, the catastrophe of the Famine not only exposed the limitations of these financial arrangements but also the limitations of the philosophies that under-pinned the operation of the workhouses.
- 9 Cormac O Gráda, Black 47 and Beyond. The Great Irish Famine, Princeton University Press, 1999, p.29
- 10 Roy Foster, Modern Ireland, 1600-1972, Oxford, 1988, p. 318. Significantly, the chapter is entitled (...)
- 11 For examples see works by Joel Mokyr, Christine Kinealy, Eamonn Slater.
7Although Malthus’s writings on Ireland were relatively sparse, frequently inconsistent, and even occasionally optimistic, they were often interpreted in a much cruder and more negative way. In regard to the Poor Laws, they were used as a crude barometer of poverty that deemed Ireland to be over-populated. More dangerously, during the Famine, Malthus’s teachings became a blunt blueprint for understanding the catastrophe and justifying the harsh policies and dogmatic attitudes of the British government.9 However, if Ireland had been over-populated in 1845, a dramatic fall in population (it decreased by 50 per cent between 1841 and 1901) did not bring to an end either poverty or famine in Ireland. Nonetheless, Malthus’s influence continued long after the ending of the Irish Famine. Writing in 1988, historian Roy Foster judged the Irish Famine to be of less importance that the post-1816 economic slump, and referred to the tragedy as ‘a Malthusian apocalypse’.10 More recent scholarship, however, recognizes the complexity of the reasons for excess mortality, with political, rather than demographic, factors being a key cause.11
- 12 These attitudes were encapsulated by best-selling author Samuel Smiles in Self Help (1859), London, (...)
- 13 Ibid.
8Inevitably, the debates that were taking place regarding poor relief also spilled over into discussions on the role of charity and philanthropy in alleviating poverty. Charity, similar to poor relief, was based increasingly on a distinction between the deserving and un-deserving poor, the former being those who were capable of moral and social improvement if given assistance.12 Indiscriminate charity, it was agreed widely, did more harm than good.13 Consequently, most assistance was directed at those groups who were least able to help themselves - with children and the sick being at the forefront.
- 14 Brian Harrison, ‘Philanthropy and the Victorians’, Victorian Studies, vol. 9, No. 4, Jun., 1966, pp (...)
- 15 Howard M. Wach, ‘Unitarian Philanthropy and Cultural Hegemony in Comparative Perspective: Mancheste (...)
- 16 Ibid., pp.546, 548.
- 17 Abigail Green, ‘Rethinking Sir Moses Montefiore: Religion, Nationhood and International Philanthrop (...)
- 18 Alison Twells, The Civilising Mission and the English Middle Class, 1792-1850, London, Palgrave Mac (...)
9Like poor relief, well-regulated charity was viewed by contemporaries as having a secondary purpose, it being a tool that could help to bring about not only the social improvement of the poor, but could also lead to social amelioration.14 Historians, however, have questioned this claim. Howard Wach, for example, suggests that charity not only reflected existing ‘hegemonic social relationships’, but helped to maintain these social divisions.15 In this way, he argues, charity consolidated middle-class hegemony.16 Ultimately, therefore, charity can be regarded as another form of political brokering among the elites, which fulfilled their own socio-economic needs, and not necessarily those of the poor.17 Moreover, the charitable impulse and the theories that underpinned it extended beyond the borders of the United Kingdom, with British philanthropy becoming increasingly connected with the ‘civilizing mission’ that lay at the heart of the imperial project.18
- 19 For more on these and other differences, see Christine Kinealy, A Disunited Kingdom” England, Irela (...)
- 20 Ibid. Margaret Preston, Charitable Words: Women, Philanthropy, and the Language Of Charity in Ninet (...)
- 21 Kinealy, A Disunited Kingdom.
10As was often the case, Ireland played a distinctive role within the United Kingdom, with both the official Poor Law and private charity reflecting national differences.19 Historian Margaret Preston has suggested that Irish philanthropy was also permeated by notions of race, religion and class, which deemed the Irish poor to be inferior to those elsewhere in the United Kingdom.20 The draconian Poor Law of 1838 helped to reinforce the idea that the Irish poor were less deserving than the poor elsewhere.21
- 22 Maria Luddy, Women and Philanthropy in Nineteenth Century Ireland, Cambridge University Press, 1995 (...)
- 23 F. K. Prochaska, Women and Philanthropy in Nineteenth-Century England, Oxford University Press, 198 (...)
- 24 Luddy, Women and Charity, also see Christine Kinealy, Charity and the Great Hunger. The Kindness of (...)
- 25 There were notable exceptions. See Ibid., chapter 11 for more on proselytism.
11Irish philanthropy, inevitably, mirrored religious tensions in society, with many charitable organizations being controlled by a small elite group of middle class Protestant men. However, within private charity of all denominations, women, particularly unmarried women were prominent. As was the case elsewhere, Irish middle-class women ‘played a major role in providing charity to the poor and outcast’.22 Through this work, they gained an acceptable entrance from the home to society, giving them an influence beyond the domestic sphere. According to Frank Prochaska, ‘charity work did more than anything else to expand the horizons of women in the nineteenth century’.23 Much Irish philanthropy, however, was characterized by the same sectarian divides that permeated national and local politics.24 Interestingly, the involvement of women in Famine relief was unusual not only for its scale and diversity, but also because, for the most part, it cut across traditional religious divisions.25
12This chapter examines the largely un-examined role of private charity during a period of crisis for the Irish poor, that is, the Great Famine of 1845 to 1852. This brief overview provides some insights into the range of people who gave and their diverse motivations. It suggests that not only was this intervention unprecedented in terms of geographic range and the social, economic and religious diversity of those who gave, but that many of the ideological constraints generally present in giving charitable relief were subsumed beneath the more immediate desire to save lives.
13Most of the charity given to Ireland was donated in the wake of the second, more devastating appearance of potato blight in 1846. Some money had been raised, however, in 1845, in response to what at that stage appeared to be a short term, if serious, crop failure. The donations came from two distant and distinct locations: Calcutta in India and Boston in the United States.
- 26 Bengal Hurkaru, 12 November 1845.
- 27 Friend of India, 11 and 25 December 1845.
- 28 Bengal Hurkaru, 30 December 1845:
- 29 Ibid.
- 30 Indian News, 21 April 1846, p.176.
- 31 Ibid., 17 January 1846.
- 32 Bengal Hurkaru, 9 January 1846.
14News that blight had attacked the Irish potato crop first reached India in November 1845, although details about the extent of the loss were vague.26 Follow-up accounts in the local newspapers suggested (incorrectly) that over two-thirds of the crop had been destroyed. These accounts prompted English-born residents to organize a fund-raising committee.27 The Calcutta Committee was headed by Sir Lawrence Peel, an English judge, and Sir James Grant, an English Civil Servant, demonstrating that the fund-raising activities were not confined to people of Irish extraction. Although a number of Indians gave their support to the Calcutta Committee, membership was limited to British and Irish settlers.28 The Committee appealed to other Europeans and to the ‘native community’ to become involved in their philanthropic activities by making donations, making it clear that even the smallest amounts would be welcome.29 Donors cut across religious, ethnic and social divisions. They included soldiers (many of whom were Irish-born) serving in the British Army.30 A number of sepoys also gave.31 Donations from other Indians ranged from contributions from local (Hindu) princes, to ones made by some of the poorest groups in society. The latter included ‘Sirkars [book-keepers], Podars [book-keepers], Daitories, Peons Piyadus, [messenger or office boys or a native policeman], Burkhudasas, Coolies [unskilled labourers], Bheeties [water carriers] and Furrashes [carpet sweepers]. The donations from these poor Indians amounted to over 99 rupees.32
- 33 Ibid., 15 May 1846.
- 34 For example, Rev. Thomas Cahalan, PP of Killimer, recorded thanks for the receipt of £30 in Freeman (...)
15To distribute the money raised in Calcutta, a sister committee was established in Dublin which, at the behest of the committee in India, included both Catholics and Protestants. Two of its most prominent members were Dennis Murray, the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, and Richard Whately, the Anglican Archbishop. Throughout 1846, the Indian Fund distributed money in counties Galway, Limerick, Clare, Tipperary, King’s, Cork, Meath, Waterford, Mayo, Waterford, Kilkenny, Longford and Armagh.33 Most of the funding was issued directly to local parish priests, many of whom recorded their gratitude in the columns of the Irish newspapers.34
- 35 Daniel O’Connell (1775-1847) was known as the Liberator for his winning of Catholic Emancipation in (...)
- 36 Lists of Jurors returned by Collectors of Grand Jury Cess for County of Dublin; Special Jurors' Lis (...)
16Concurrently with the activities taking place in India, on the other side of the world, in Boston, money was also raised for Ireland, but the motivation and outcomes were very different. From the outset, relief efforts in this city were tied up with demands for Irish political independence, a committee being formed at the initiative of the local Repeal Association, who were supporters of the Irish nationalist, Daniel O’Connell.35 The Boston Repealers were led by American-born John W. James.36
- 37 Boston Pilot, 12 December 1845.
- 38 H.A. Crosby Forbes and Henry Lee, Massachusetts Help to Ireland during the Great Famine, Mass.: Bos (...)
- 39 Papers relating to this committee are in the archives of Liverpool University. See also Kinealy, Ki (...)
17The motivations of the Boston committee were political. The food shortages in Ireland were cited as the most recent example of British misrule. At a meeting in early December, at which $750 was collected, one speaker claimed that due to ‘the fatal connection of Ireland with England, the rich grain harvests of the former country are carried off to pay an absentee government and an absentee propriety’.37 The fund-raising efforts were short-lived, however, drying up at the beginning of 1846 when it was suspected that reports of the distress had been exaggerated.38 Following the second failure of the potato crop, Boston became the centre of the New England Relief Committee, which was associated with the voyage of the relief ship, the Jamestown, in 1847.39
- 40 Harrison, ‘Philanthropy and the Victorians’, p.359.
- 41 Editor’s note :
- 42 Helen E. Hatton, The Largest Amount of Good: Quaker Relief in Ireland 1654-1921, 1921, McGill-Queen (...)
18Following the second and more virulent appearance of potato disease, a number of private relief organizations were formed with the intention of not simply raising money, but becoming directly involved in its distribution. The Society of Friends, or Quakers, were amongst the first to respond, despite the relative smallness of their communities in both Britain and Ireland. In the latter, they had approximately 3,000 members, but they were part of a worldwide community, which included many successful bankers and merchants, also engaged in philanthropy. Moreover, Quakers, together with Unitarians, were disproportionately prominent in the charitable world within the United Kingdom.40 The Quakers also had a reputation for involvement in campaigns for social justice (including the movement for the abolition of slavery),41 and they were respected widely because they did not seek to proselytize. During the earlier crop failures and subsistence crises of 1822 and in 1831, Quaker committees had been established in Ireland. In 1822, they had raised £300,000, two-thirds of which was used to provide immediate aid, the remainder being used for longer-term improvement projects.42 This pattern of intervention – trying to balance between the immediate and longer-term needs of the poor – was also evident after 1845.
- 43 Freeman’s Journal, 14 November 1846.
- 44 R. Goodbody, ‘The Quakers and the Famine’, History Ireland, Spring, 1998, pp.28-29.
19A number of Quaker communities in Ireland commenced providing food rations in the wake of the second potato failure. In Cork City, local Quakers had responded by opening a soup kitchen in the market. There, they installed a boiler capable of making 100 gallons of soup, a task that they planned to do daily for period of four months. The soup was to be made from, ‘the best description of beef, and good split peas’. Money for this purpose came from a combination of local donations from the public and monthly subscriptions from the Quaker community.43 Concurrently in Dublin, a small group of Quakers, concerned that the condition of the country was deteriorating and that the government’s public work schemes were inadequate to meet the demands for relief and to save people from dying, decided to respond in a more structured way. In mid-November 1846, Joseph Bewley convened a meeting in Dublin, which led to the establishment of a Central Relief Committee consisting of 21 members. Auxiliary committees were formed in Cork, Clonmel, Waterford and Limerick, which were also locations of Quaker communities.44 However, in areas where suffering was proving to be the most extreme, there were insufficient Quakers to form committees but a number of English and Irish Quakers volunteered to travel to those areas and establish relief networks. In general, these itinerant Quakers provided money for boilers and for soup - they recognizing that people needed immediate access to food. In keeping with their practical approach to giving relief, they also made provisions to provide the poor with much-needed fuel, medicine, bedding and clothing – items not provided by government relief.
- 45 For more on the negative role played by the press see Michael de Nie, The Eternal Paddy. Irish Iden (...)
- 46 Anon., ‘James H. Tuke’s Visit to Erris in the autumn of 1847’, Transactions of the Central Relief C (...)
- 47 Ibid., p.207.
- 48 Edward Fry, James Hack Tuke, A Memoir, Macmillan and Co, 1899, p.63.
20In addition to providing relief, the Quakers who travelled throughout Ireland after 1846 provided powerful eye-witness testimony as to the devastation and the wretchedness of the Irish poor. These first-hand accounts were an important counterpoint to the negative reports appearing in influential papers such as The Times and Punch, which were suggesting that the news of suffering had been deliberately exaggerated.45 The Quakers’ reports in the newspapers provided an impetus for further charitable donations to be made. They also provided frank, and frequently critical, insights into the responses of the local landlords and the impact of British government policies. James Hack Tuke, a 26 year-old Quaker from Yorkshire in England, wrote a series of letters to the Dublin committee as he was travelling in the west of Ireland. Writing from north County Mayo he commented, ‘Human wretchedness seems concentrated in Erris; the culminating point of man’s physical degradation seems to have been reached in the Mullet’.46 He described the local people as ‘living skeletons’.47 Tuke published his experiences as a Visit to Connaught in 1847, which he had first sent as a letter to the committee in Dublin. In it, he gave an account of a number of heartless evictions by a local landowner, J. Walshe. Walshe retaliated by criticizing Tuke’s narrative and suggesting it was untruthful, which resulted in Tuke visiting the area again in 1848, to prove the veracity of his statements.48
- 49 The Friends made donations of rice to a number of dispensaries for the same reason, Anglo-Celt, 14 (...)
21It was not just rural districts that were making claims on the Quakers. As was the case in any famine, food shortages put pressure on the towns and cities, as people swarmed into them looking for relief or employment, or a port from which to emigrate. Within Dublin itself, even before 1845, there was also widespread poverty and the potato failures increased the pressure on the city’s limited resources. The Quakers opened a number of soup kitchens, the main one being located near the centre of the city, at Charles Street, Upper Ormond Quay. Within days of commencing operations it was serving 1,000 quarts of soup a day. In March 1847, cooked rice was included on some days, due to the prevalence of disease; rice, it was believed, had beneficial medical effects.49 Following the opening of the government’s soup kitchens under the Temporary Relief Act in the late spring of 1847, the demand on private soup kitchens reduced drastically. However, a delay in official relief becoming available meant that the Quakers did not fully close their soup depots until July 1847.
22By 1848, Quaker funds were almost exhausted, reflecting the drying up of donations to Ireland following the (relatively blight-free) harvest of 1847. In August 1847 also, an extended Poor Law was introduced to Ireland which, for the first time, allowed for relief to be provided outside the confines of the workhouse. However, the fact that Poor Law relief was financed by local taxation put further stress on Irish resources, especially in areas where poverty was most extreme. Unfortunately, the potato blight returned to Ireland in 1848 and was most destructive in the west of the country. Clearly, the Famine was far from over as in both 1848 and 1849 the levels of eviction, emigration, disease and death – all indicators of extreme famine – changed little. Regardless of palpable suffering in Ireland, the British government publicly adhered to the principle that Ireland’s salvation depended on her being forced to rely on her own resources. Privately, however, the government appeared less certain. In June 1849, the recently knighted Charles Trevelyan (now Sir), the Permanent Secretary at the Treasury, wrote privately to the Quakers’ Committee in Dublin in which he acknowledged the ‘great distress which still prevailed’. To entice the Quakers to become involved again, Trevelyan offered them the derisory sum of £100 from Treasury funds. The response of the Friends was telling in terms of how they viewed responsibility for saving lives:
- 50 Transactions, pp. 92-93.
… after full deliberation we were of opinion that, in the event of undertaking the distribution of relief as heretofore, the sum which we could hope to collect would be utterly inadequate for such an object; that even if sufficient funds were placed at our disposal, we could no longer calculate on the assistance of many of our most efficient agents and correspondents, and that the relief of destitution, on an extended scale, should in future be entrusted to the arrangements which parliament had provided for that purpose.50
- 51 Asenath Nicholson, Annals of the Famine in Ireland in 1847, 1848 and 1849, New York, E. French, 185 (...)
23When they ceased operations, the Dublin committee had received contributions in excess of £200,000. They had used this money to good effect. The Quakers were praised widely by contemporaries for their role in saving lives. Asenath Nicholson, an American relief giver who traversed Ireland in 1847 and 1848, witnessed the effectiveness of Quaker relief first hand. When visiting a Catholic convent in the west of Ireland, she observed how healthy the children looked, and was told, ‘The good Quakers … have kept them alive; all the clothes you see on them are sent through that channel.’51 The Dublin Freeman’s Journal praised not only the effectiveness of the relief given, but also actions of the men and women who had given their time so selflessly:
- 52 Transactions, pp.13 -14.
Their exertions have been taxed to the uttermost, involving a duty and responsibility such as never had been imposed on similarly constructed bodies in the history of the world... Testimonies of their promptitude and liberality have been afforded by all the representatives of local wretchedness; and it must be a consolation and a keen satisfaction to the minds of those gentlemen who have made such sacrifices of time and thought in the cause of charity, that their labours should be rewarded by the universal gratitude of their country.52
- 53 Ibid., Jonathan Pim to Committee, 2 September 1847, p.313.
- 54 Ibid., pp iv-v.
24The Quakers, however, paid a high personal price for what they had achieved in Ireland, with at least 13 of their members who had worked closely with the poor dying of ‘famine fever’ or ‘exhaustion’.53 Nonetheless, in the Transactions that were published in 1852, the Friends concluded that their interventions had not been a success.54 Such an admission was a melancholic reflection on the fact that, despite the tireless efforts of the Quakers and of other charitable organizations, and the generosity of those individuals who supported them, over a million people had died in Ireland.
- 55 Clifden 2012 Committee, Mr Tuke’s Fund. Connemara Emigration in the 1880s, Galway, Clifden & Connem (...)
25Although the Quakers had little direct involvement with the Irish poor after 1848, the impact of the Famine on Quakers who witnessed the misery and the death first-hand continued long after. The young James Hack Tuke, who had visited the remotest districts of County Mayo in 1846 and 1847, returned to Ireland during the Famine of 1879 to 1882. On the latter occasion, he implemented a well-financed emigration scheme, based on the lessons he had observed during the unregulated, and frequently deadly, exodus that he had observed in late 1840s.55
- 56 See Kinealy, Kindness of Strangers, 2013.
26While the contribution of the Society of Friends is generally acknowledged in the historiography of the Great Famine, the role of the British Relief Association has received relatively little scholarly attention. The latter organization, however, raised over double the amount of money donated to the Quakers, and it continued to provide relief in Ireland when other charitable bodies had left. Moreover, the agent employed by the British Relief Association, Count Paul de Strzelecki, proved to be an effective and popular champion of the starving Irish.56
- 57 Minutes of BRA, National Library of Ireland, MS 2022, 1 January 1847, pp 2-3.
- 58 Ibid.
27Although the idea of creating a fund-raising association based in London had first been mooted at the end of 1846, the first official meeting of the British Association for the Relief of Distress in Ireland and the Highlands of Scotland did not take place until 1 January 1847.57 As its name suggested, a portion of its funds (one-sixth) was to be used to help the Scottish poor in areas where the potato had also failed. The British Relief Association had largely been the idea of the successful Anglo-Jewish banker, Lionel de Rothschild, and he, together with his brother Meyer, played active roles in the day-to-day running of the committee. They were joined by some of the leading merchants and bankers in London, together with a small number of MPs. Their chairman was Samuel Jones-Loyd. At the first meeting of the Association, it was agreed that they would assist people who were beyond the reach of government aid and provide, ‘food, clothing and fuel, but in no case money … to the parties relieved’.58 However, as the extent of suffering in Ireland revealed itself, their approach became far more flexible, and money grants were sometimes given.
- 59 Kinealy, Kindness, ch. 9.
- 60 Minutes of BRA, 13 January 1847, p. 45.
28What distinguished the Association from the other relief organizations operating in Ireland was that its members chose to work closely with the British government, in order to make the most efficient use of their resources. This arrangement proved to be particularly beneficial to government officials who, on numerous occasions, relied on the resources of the Association to financially support their own, inadequately funded, relief measures.59 Within only a few days of being established, the Association achieved a major publicity coup when it was informed that Queen Victoria was to give them a donation of £2,000. A few weeks later, the members were told that they were to be the beneficiary of the proceeds of a ‘Queen’s Letter’ that was to be read in Anglican churches in Britain, calling for prayer and donations for Ireland.60 In addition to receiving these donations, the Association proved successful in fund-raising not simply in the British Empire as initially expected, but throughout the world. In the year that followed its establishment, in the region of 15,000 individual donations were sent to the British Association, coming from all parts of the world and from diverse social and religious groups. In total, £470,000 was raised — far more than any other relief organization.
- 61 Minutes of BRA, 20 January 1847, p.72.
- 62 Ibid., 21 January 1847, p.75.
- 63 Ibid., 22 January 1847, p. 80.
- 64 Strzelecki, Belmullet, 10 February 1847, Report of BRA, p. 93.
29The success of the Association was also due to the involvement and dedication of a man who had no direct connection with Ireland, but was Polish by birth. Count Strzelecki was an explorer and scientist who, since 1845, had been living in London. On 20 January 1847, according to the minutes of the Association, ‘a Polish gentleman of extensive travel had offered his personal services gratuitously to Ireland with a view of being useful to the committee’.61 The next day, Strzelecki’s offer was accepted and ‘the Secretary in informing Count Strzelecki himself, do thank him for his tender of service, and do write him to attend the committee tomorrow’.62 Following this meeting, Strzelecki immediately left for Dublin, in order to meet Sir Randolph Routh, chairman of the government’s Relief Commission. He then proceeded to counties Donegal, Mayo and Sligo where he had been asked to report on the condition of the population and to distribute a cargo of food on behalf of the Association.63 Strzelecki’s journey to the west of Ireland was not an easy one. The extreme weather of the winter of 1846-47 — a combination of snow, rain, hail, frost and bitter cold — hampered his movements. Undaunted though, when his carriage became stranded due to snow drifts, as occurred on a number of occasions, he proceeded to his destination on foot.64
30Count Strzelecki chose Westport in County Mayo as his base in Ireland. He immediately wrote to the committee in London:
- 65 Minutes of BRA, 1 February 1847, p. 111.
No pen can describe the distress by which I am surrounded. It has actually reached such a degree of lamentable extreme that it becomes above the power of exaggeration and misapprehension. You may now believe anything which you hear and read, because what I actually see surpasses whatever I read of past and present calamities.65
- 66 Christine Kinealy, ‘A Polish Count in County Mayo’ in Moran G, O Muraile N (eds.), Mayo. History an (...)
31Despite never marrying or having a family of his own, Strzelecki felt particularly for the suffering of children. To ensure that they were direct beneficiaries of the Association’s relief, he pioneered a system of giving children who attended the local schools in Westport a suit of clothing and a daily meal. The scheme proved so successful that he extended it to the rest of County Mayo, and then to other distressed areas in the west. When, due to lack of funds, the project came to a close in the summer of 1847, over 200,000 children were being fed daily in this way.66
32Strzelecki’s role with the British Relief Association officially ended in 1848, but even after that time he continued to return to Ireland in a ‘trouble-shooter’ capacity. His compassion and generosity towards the poor were appreciated within Ireland:
- 67 Tuam Herald, 22 September 1848.
Great credit is due to Count Strezelecki [sic] the benevolent Polish nobleman, who superintended the distribution of the remaining funds of the British Relief Association during the last ten months in Ireland. He refused to accept any recompense, and defrayed several considerable expenses out of his own pocket.67
- 68 Rawson, The Count, p. 171; When Strzelecki died, he left it to Thomson Hankey, ‘Will of Strzelecki’ (...)
- 69 Resolution of BRA, 20 July 1848, Papers relating to … unions and workhouses in Ireland.
- 70 W.P. O’Brien, The great famine in Ireland: and a retrospect of the fifty years 1845-95 with a sketc (...)
33Strzelecki was also missed by the people with whom he had worked so closely. Before he left Dublin, the Viceroy, landlords and clergy thanked him with a public address. The forty Poor Law officers to whom he had given much support presented him with a piece of silver plate on which their names were engraved.68 Praise for Strzelecki also came from the committee in London, on whose behalf he had worked so tirelessly in Ireland. In fulsome thanks, they acknowledged that his duties had required ‘great labour and anxiety, and a considerable degree of personable risk’.69 According to an early historian of the Famine, William O’Brien, ‘the name of this benevolent stranger was then, and for long afterwards, a familiar one if not a household word, in the homes of the suffering poor’.70 Nonetheless, when he died in London in 1873, his passing was not acknowledged in Ireland.
- 71 Christine Kinealy, “Potatoes, Providence and Philanthropy: the Role of Private Charity during the I (...)
34A general perception of Victorian philanthropy was that it was middle class ‘do-gooders’, perhaps supported by an aristocratic patron, using their resources to help an impoverished under-class. Their involvement was publicly recognized, with their names and the names of their donors listed in the national and local newspapers, most usually with the most generous donations at the head of the list.71 An interesting feature of charity given during the Famine is that individuals and groups who were themselves socially marginalized and economically impecunious acted to help others of similar background. Sadly, while their generosity was noted, their individual names were not recorded; their invisibility being a further example of how the poor were disregarded.
- 72 Church and State Gazette, 30 April 1847.
35There are many examples of poor people coming to the assistance of Ireland during the Famine, an early example being native Indians who donated to the Calcutta Fund, as outlined earlier. One of the smallest, but most remarkable donations came from convicts on board a prison ship, the Warrior, based at Woolwich in London. The prisoners had observed boxes in the dockyard being sent to Ireland, for the relief of the distressed inhabitants, and they asked if they could make their own contribution. Permission was granted, on the understanding that the donations were to be voluntary.72
- 73 Mr. T. Duncombe MP, ‘Treatment of convicts in the Hulks at Woolwich’, Hansard, HC, 28 January 1847, (...)
- 74 Duncombe, Treatment of Convicts, Hansard, cc. 512-18.
- 75 Church and State Gazette, 30 April 1847.
- 76 See Kinealy, Kindness of Strangers.
36The donation by the Woolwich prisoners was especially poignant when placed in the context of the conditions in which they themselves were living. In January 1847, the radical MP for Finsbury in London, Thomas Slingsby Duncombe, had requested that a select committee be held looking into the condition of the Woolwich prisoners. He described the findings to be ‘both distressing and disgusting’.73 In the subsequent debate in the House of Commons, Duncombe pointed out that, even when dying, these men were viciously, and sometimes fatally, flogged. Furthermore, ‘the medical treatment was so brutal, both as regarded the treatment of the prisoners while living and after death, as to be a disgrace to any country calling itself a civilized and Christian country’.74 Nonetheless, these brutalized men collected, in small donations of pennies and halfpennies, 17 shillings for the poor in Ireland.75 Within a year of making their donation, all of the convicts on board the Warrior were dead.76
- 77 Arkansas Intelligencer, 3 April 1847.
37A number of Native Americans contributed to Famine relief, including the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. The Choctaw people had suffered at the hands of the American government, being forcibly moved from their native fertile lands in Mississippi to more barren land in Oklahoma, in 1832. The journey, remembered as the ‘Trail of Tears’, reflects the high mortality amongst those people forced to participate. The President at the time, Andrew Jackson, was of Irish descent. Despite their own suffering, degradation and poverty, the Choctaw people donated $174 to Irish Famine relief.77 A local newspaper, the Arkansas Intelligencer, noted the donations in terms that both racialized and patronized the donors:
- 78 Ibid., 8 May 1847.
What an agreeable reflection it must give to the Christian and the philanthropist to witness this evidence of civilization and Christian spirit existing among our red neighbours. They are repaying the Christian world a consideration for bringing them out from benighted ignorance and heathen barbarism. Not only by contributing a few dollars, but by affording evidence that the labours of the Christian missionary have not been in vain.78
38Neither the names nor the motivations of the Woolwich convicts and the Choctaw Nation who contributed to Ireland are known. Their actions, however, challenged accepted stereotypes about the nature of poverty, crime, charity and civilization.
- 79 See, for example, Miriam Moffitt, The Society for Irish Church Missions to the Roman Catholics 1849 (...)
39An abiding memory of private charity during the Famine is the cynical exploitation of the vulnerability of poor Catholics to convert them to Protestantism. Proselytism, referred to in Ireland as souperism (because the potential converts were allegedly offered free soup), had been in operation prior to 1845 and it continued beyond 1852.79 Before the Famine, it had largely been associated with evangelical Protestant groups that targeted specific communities, such as in Achill Island in County Mayo, Clifden in County Galway and Dingle in County Kerry.
- 80 Grey, P., ‘Ideology and the Famine’ in Póirtéir, Cathal, The Great Irish Famine, Cork, Mercier Pres (...)
- 81 ‘The Scarcity’ in Hugh James Rose, Samuel Roffey Maitland, The British magazine and monthly registe (...)
- 82 Ibid., p.210.
40The repeated appearance of the potato blight after 1845 was viewed by many evangelicals through a providentialist prism, it being seen as retribution for the Catholicism of the Irish poor.80 It became, therefore, an opportunity to increase their activities. In a long article entitled ‘Scarcity’ that appeared in February 1847 in the British Magazine – a mouthpiece of the conservative section of the Anglican Church - the author cautioned against allowing Catholic priests to serve on relief committees. It accused them of ‘jobbing’ (showing favouritism), personally profiting by selling tickets to the starving poor and looking after their own friends.81 It concluded that, ‘there are few artifices to which they will not resort’.82 The writer also urged that charitable donations should be sent only to Protestant ministers:
- 83 Ibid., p.212.
…and by supplying him with funds, and provisions, and clothing, and seed, enable him to conciliate the affections of the suffering people to the Protestant church. It is, in fact, such an opportunity to doing lasting and extensive good as may never occur again.83
- 84 Irish Relief Association, The Lapse of Years, Or, Thoughts Suggested By the Close of Another Period (...)
- 85 Ibid., p.21.
41More unequivocally, at the end of 1847, the Irish Relief Association –which had been involved in providing relief since 1846 – published a report that demonstrated that their activities had been underpinned by a proselytizing agenda.84 The writer explained that, ‘primarily, it is the duty of those who have received, to promulgate and bring men under the power and saving influence of the gospel of Christ’.85 The opportunity presented by the distress to bring the gospel to the Irish poor was explained:
- 86 Ibid., pp.21-22.
Ever ready to sympathize in, and lend our aid to remunerate the spiritual condition of heathen lands in distant climes, surely we evidence a dereliction of duty, if we overlook the state of our native country, in which crimes, the result of its demoralizing condition, are daily recurring, which are unsurpassed in any heathen land.86
- 87 Ibid., p.18.
42The Report concluded that the blight and the consequent suffering had resulted in positive outcomes because of the opportunities they had created for proselytizing, proclaiming, ‘1846 forms an era which will be joyfully remembered throughout an endless eternity’.87
43While proselytizers formed only a small minority of relief-givers during the Famine, their activities and the publicity that they sought to bring to any instances of conversion served to overshadow the work of other Protestant relief, which was given without reference to the religion of the giver or of the recipient. Regardless of inflated claims made by proselytizing groups as to their successes, in reality they made little impact on the religion of the poor. However, in the short term their activities proved to be divisive within the communities in which they operated, and in the longer term, their involvement cast a deep shadow on the memory of private charity, and contributed to tensions between the main churches in Ireland.
44In the course of only six years, over one million starved to death or succumbed to famine-related illnesses in Ireland. Overwhelmingly, they were the poor who had been the subject of so much debate in the preceding decades.
45Much of the excess mortality was not inevitable but resulted from policy failures which, in turn, were based on inflexible and inappropriate views of the Irish poor. Charity had sought to assist in saving lives and filling the vacuum left by inappropriate government policies. The full impact of what this achieved is impossible to measure but part of the success is largely due to the fewer restrictions – legislative and ideological – that accompanied its giving.
- 88 The BRA gave financial support to government officials during the transition to Poor Law relief in (...)
46The Great Famine was not the first time, nor would it be the last occasion, when external philanthropy came to the assistance of the Irish poor during a subsistence crisis. However, in terms of its extent and magnitude, it was unique. While much remains unknown, and possibly unknowable, in terms of motivation and impact, there is no doubt that private relief was effective in saving lives even though this may have proved to be only temporarily. Moreover, private charity was not only involved in its own life-saving activities, the two main organizations – the Quakers and the British Relief Association – provided vital assistance to the government’s relief schemes. This intervention was most evident in 1847, when government relief changed from public works, to soup kitchens, to an extended Poor Law. During each transition, these two organizations assisted the government by providing interim relief and even direct support.88 On many occasions therefore, private charity, either by its own volition or at the request of the British government, intervened to provide a life-line to the poor. Finally, when dealing with victims of the Famine, private charity brought a degree of compassion and openness that was absent at many levels of government relief. Charity not only saved lives, it gave dignity to the Irish poor whose survival depended on it.
1 For example, Michael Quinn, ‘Mill on Poverty, Population and Poor Relief. Out of Bentham by Malthus?’, in Revue d’études benthamiennes, 4, 2008.
2 Thomas Malthus, Essay on the Principle of Population (1803 edition) Cambridge, 1992, p. 100.
3 Ibid., p. 287.
4 An Act for the Amendment and Better Administration of the Laws relating to the Poor in England and Wales [4 & 5 Will. IV cap. 76], 14 August 1834.
5 Third Report of His Majesty’s Commissioners for inquiring into the condition of the poorer classes in Ireland, with appendix and supplement, British Parliamentary Papers, 1836 , xxx.
6 George Nicholls, Poor Laws – Ireland. Three Reports, London, 1838.
7 ‘An Act for the more effectual Relief of the Destitute Poor in Ireland’, 1 & 2 Vic. c.56, 31 July 1838.
8 The Irish Poor law fitted more closely with Malthus’s idea in that the Irish destitute had no right to relief. For more on the poor law see Christine Kinealy, ‘The Role of the Poor Law during the Famine’ in Cathal Póirtéir, The Great Irish Famine, Cork, Mercier Press, 1995, pp. 104-22.
9 Cormac O Gráda, Black 47 and Beyond. The Great Irish Famine, Princeton University Press, 1999, p.29
10 Roy Foster, Modern Ireland, 1600-1972, Oxford, 1988, p. 318. Significantly, the chapter is entitled 'The Famine. Before and After’.
11 For examples see works by Joel Mokyr, Christine Kinealy, Eamonn Slater.
In the latter, he argued that misdirected charity did more harm than good.
14 Brian Harrison, ‘Philanthropy and the Victorians’, Victorian Studies, vol. 9, No. 4, Jun., 1966, pp. 353-374, p.355.
15 Howard M. Wach, ‘Unitarian Philanthropy and Cultural Hegemony in Comparative Perspective: Manchester and Boston, 1827-1848’, in Journal of Social History, vol. 26, No. 3, Spring, 1993, p.541.
16 Ibid., pp.546, 548.
17 Abigail Green, ‘Rethinking Sir Moses Montefiore: Religion, Nationhood and International Philanthropy in the Nineteenth Century’ in The American Historical Review vol. 110, no. 3, June 2005, Review vol. 110, no. 3, June 2005,, p.648.
18 Alison Twells, The Civilising Mission and the English Middle Class, 1792-1850, London, Palgrave Macmillan, 2009, 4-7.
19 For more on these and other differences, see Christine Kinealy, A Disunited Kingdom” England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales 1800-1949, Cambridge University Press, 1999.
20 Ibid. Margaret Preston, Charitable Words: Women, Philanthropy, and the Language Of Charity in Nineteenth-Century Dublin, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2004, pp.69-70.
21 Kinealy, A Disunited Kingdom.
22 Maria Luddy, Women and Philanthropy in Nineteenth Century Ireland, Cambridge University Press, 1995, p.1.
24 Luddy, Women and Charity, also see Christine Kinealy, Charity and the Great Hunger. The Kindness of Strangers, London, Bloomsbury, 2013, chapter 7.
25 There were notable exceptions. See Ibid., chapter 11 for more on proselytism.
26 Bengal Hurkaru, 12 November 1845.
27 Friend of India, 11 and 25 December 1845.
28 Bengal Hurkaru, 30 December 1845:
30 Indian News, 21 April 1846, p.176.
31 Ibid., 17 January 1846.
32 Bengal Hurkaru, 9 January 1846.
33 Ibid., 15 May 1846.
34 For example, Rev. Thomas Cahalan, PP of Killimer, recorded thanks for the receipt of £30 in Freeman’s Journal, 9 July 1846; the Very Rev. J. MacHale of Hollymount, received £15, Ibid., 26 July 1846; Ibid., 20 January 1847.
35 Daniel O’Connell (1775-1847) was known as the Liberator for his winning of Catholic Emancipation in 1829. Throughout his long political career, he refused to use violence in order to achieve Irish independence. He died at the height of the Famine in Genoa, having undertaken a personal pilgrimage to visit Rome.
36 Lists of Jurors returned by Collectors of Grand Jury Cess for County of Dublin; Special Jurors' List, 1844; Affidavits filed in Case, Queen v. O'Connell, December 1843, p.349; Noel Ignatiev, How the Irish Became White, London, Routledge, 1996, p.15.
37 Boston Pilot, 12 December 1845.
38 H.A. Crosby Forbes and Henry Lee, Massachusetts Help to Ireland during the Great Famine, Mass.: Boston, 1967, pp.3-6.
39 Papers relating to this committee are in the archives of Liverpool University. See also Kinealy, Kindness of Strangers.
40 Harrison, ‘Philanthropy and the Victorians’, p.359.
41 Editor’s note :
42 Helen E. Hatton, The Largest Amount of Good: Quaker Relief in Ireland 1654-1921, 1921, McGill-Queen’s University Press, Kingston & Montréal, 1993, p.63.
43 Freeman’s Journal, 14 November 1846.
44 R. Goodbody, ‘The Quakers and the Famine’, History Ireland, Spring, 1998, pp.28-29.
45 For more on the negative role played by the press see Michael de Nie, The Eternal Paddy. Irish Identity and the British Press 1798-1882, Madison (WI), University of Wisconsin Press, 2004.
46 Anon., ‘James H. Tuke’s Visit to Erris in the autumn of 1847’, Transactions of the Central Relief Committee of the Society of Friends, Dublin, Hodges & Smith, 1852, p.205.
47 Ibid., p.207.
48 Edward Fry, James Hack Tuke, A Memoir, Macmillan and Co, 1899, p.63.
49 The Friends made donations of rice to a number of dispensaries for the same reason, Anglo-Celt, 14 May 1847.
50 Transactions, pp. 92-93.
51 Asenath Nicholson, Annals of the Famine in Ireland in 1847, 1848 and 1849, New York, E. French, 1851, 236; Maureen Murphy, “Asenath Nicholson & the Famine in Ireland,” in Women & Irish History: Essays in Honour of Margaret MacCurtain, ed. Maryann Gialanella Valiulis and Mary O’Dowd, Dublin, Wolfhound Press, 1997, pp.114-17.
52 Transactions, pp.13 -14.
53 Ibid., Jonathan Pim to Committee, 2 September 1847, p.313.
54 Ibid., pp iv-v.
55 Clifden 2012 Committee, Mr Tuke’s Fund. Connemara Emigration in the 1880s, Galway, Clifden & Connemara Heritage Group, 2014.
56 See Kinealy, Kindness of Strangers, 2013.
2. Geoffrey Rawson, The Count: a Life of Sir Paul Edmund Strzelecki, explorer and scientist, London, Heinemann, 1953, p. 3
57 Minutes of BRA, National Library of Ireland, MS 2022, 1 January 1847, pp 2-3.
59 Kinealy, Kindness, ch. 9.
60 Minutes of BRA, 13 January 1847, p. 45.
61 Minutes of BRA, 20 January 1847, p.72.
62 Ibid., 21 January 1847, p.75.
63 Ibid., 22 January 1847, p. 80.
64 Strzelecki, Belmullet, 10 February 1847, Report of BRA, p. 93.
65 Minutes of BRA, 1 February 1847, p. 111.
66 Christine Kinealy, ‘A Polish Count in County Mayo’ in Moran G, O Muraile N (eds.), Mayo. History and Society, Dublin:,Geography Publications, 2014, pp 415-30.
67 Tuam Herald, 22 September 1848.
68 Rawson, The Count, p. 171; When Strzelecki died, he left it to Thomson Hankey, ‘Will of Strzelecki’ in
Rawson, pp 191-3.
69 Resolution of BRA, 20 July 1848, Papers relating to … unions and workhouses in Ireland.
70 W.P. O’Brien, The great famine in Ireland: and a retrospect of the fifty years 1845-95 with a sketch of the present condition and future prospects of the congested districts, London, Downey, 1896, p.190.
71 Christine Kinealy, “Potatoes, Providence and Philanthropy: the Role of Private Charity during the Irish Famine,” in The Meaning of the Famine, ed. Patrick O’Sullivan, Leicester, Leicester University Press, 1997, p.143.
72 Church and State Gazette, 30 April 1847.
74 Duncombe, Treatment of Convicts, Hansard, cc. 512-18.
75 Church and State Gazette, 30 April 1847.
76 See Kinealy, Kindness of Strangers.
77 Arkansas Intelligencer, 3 April 1847.
78 Ibid., 8 May 1847.
79 See, for example, Miriam Moffitt, The Society for Irish Church Missions to the Roman Catholics 1849-1950, Manchester University Press, 2010.
80 Grey, P., ‘Ideology and the Famine’ in Póirtéir, Cathal, The Great Irish Famine, Cork, Mercier Press, 1995, pp.86-103.
81 ‘The Scarcity’ in Hugh James Rose, Samuel Roffey Maitland, The British magazine and monthly registers of religious and ecclesiastical information, parochial history, and documents respecting the state of the poor, progress of education, etc. vol. 31, February 1847.
82 Ibid., p.210.
83 Ibid., p.212.
84 Irish Relief Association, The Lapse of Years, Or, Thoughts Suggested By the Close of Another Period of Time, Dublin, William Leckie, 1847.
85 Ibid., p.21.
86 Ibid., pp.21-22.
87 Ibid., p.18.
88 The BRA gave financial support to government officials during the transition to Poor Law relief in August 1847, see, Count de Strzelecki, Dublin, 1 January 1848, Committee of BRA, Report of the British Relief Association for the Relief of Extreme Distress in Ireland and Scotland, London: Richard Clay, 1849, p.132.Haut de page
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Christine KINEALY, « Saving the Irish Poor: Charity and the Great Famine », Mémoire(s), identité(s), marginalité(s) dans le monde occidental contemporain [En ligne], 12 | 2015, mis en ligne le 16 avril 2015, consulté le 24 février 2017. URL : http://mimmoc.revues.org/1845 ; DOI : 10.4000/mimmoc.1845Haut de page
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