Friday, 26 August 2011

A History of Ireland - 4. Suppression & Starvation

Part 4 of A History of Ireland

Catholic Suppression.

Anti-Catholic Penal Laws
Whilst these events were taking place in Ulster, the rest of Ireland was far from quiet. Ulster-style plantations had been established in other areas and primarily English Protestants were moved in there too. The Reformation had delivered the churches to them but the majority population remained resolutely Catholic.  William III enacted a draconian series of penal laws. These, whilst not actually outlawing the Catholic Church services and the ministry of priests, excluded Bishops, Archbishops and friars of Catholic orders, notably Dominicans and Augustinians, from Ireland on pain of deportation or even death.

Mass Under the Penal Laws, St Mullins, Co. Carlow
In theory, it should have been impossible for new priests to be ordained. The intention being to allow the Catholic Church to wither away. Other penal laws excluded all Catholics from holding any office of state, from standing for election to parliament, from voting, from practicing at the bar, and from joining the army or navy. Perhaps most importantly, Catholics were prohibited from buying land or holding land on a lease longer than thirty years, and from bequeathing land to their heirs. On his death, a Catholic’s land had to be divided equally between his children, unless one of them had converted to Protestantism. If so, he inherited the lot. By the 1760s only five percent of the land in Ireland belonged to Catholics.

In fact, the penal laws as they related to the clergy, were widely flouted. Priests continued to be ordained by friars who stayed in Ireland. Local officials turned a blind eye, or were bribed to ignore them. It was simply impracticable to enforce the law in a country so overwhelmingly Catholic, so the church continued. Masses were said in the open or in ruined churches over makeshift altars. Being excluded from just about every other institution Catholics turned increasingly to the Church for identity and to secret societies such as he Whiteboys, an agrarian movement.

Early Nationalism.

Today, Irish Nationalism and Roman Catholicism seem inextricably interwoven. Generally speaking, Catholics are Republican and Nationalist and Protestants are Royalist and Unionist. Of course this is something of an over-simplification and many communities can be found, and may examples of people from both communities who are neither one nor the other. None-the-less, the association is strong. Certainly, no one would seriously doubt that Irish Nationalism is strongly Catholic.
Jonathan Swift

It was not always so.

Irish Nationalism had its beginnings, not amongst the downtrodden, dispossessed and desperately poor Gaelic Irish, but amongst the emergent, affluent, and mostly Protestant, Irish middle class. It was predominantly inspired by the same sentiments that motivated the descendants of the original colonist of America to seek independence from the old country. It was the belief that they had come of age and were ready to determine their own destiny; to become a nation state in their own right.  These new Irish rebels were the product of a society that had prospered and built the splendid buildings of Dublin and had produced a unique culture as expressed in the literature of Swift, Sherridan, Goldsmith and Burke. They were the new Irishmen.

So it was, that early in the eighteenth century, the Protestant Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, Jonathan Swift, had urged his fellow Irishmen to burn everything English except English coal. The theory was developing that in fact the English parliament had no legal right to legislate on Irish affairs; that the was the prerogative of an Irish parliament.

Henry Grattan (towards the left in red) addressing the Irish Parliament
When, in the 1770s, the American colonists rebelled, this not only provided inspiration to the Irish nationalists, but it also provided them with the opportunity to advance their cause. Under the pretext of defending the Irish coast they raised an army of ‘volunteers’. This armed force gave Henry Grattan, the leader of the ‘Patriot Party’ the leverage he needed to extract a Declaration of Independence from Britain in 1782. In theory at least, Ireland had won the right to legislate on Irish affairs and Westminster had lost that right. There were to be two independent nations linked only through the Crown. There was little enthusiasm in the newly-independent Irish parliament for full Catholic emancipation, however. The Irish Protestants viewed the Gaels much as the Americans viewed the Native Americans. They were a lesser people; not part of the world of the cultured and civilised. The Protestant Ascendancy was to remain.

Then, in 1789, the French Revolution shook Europe. The Idea that the will of the people could shape nations made the established order tremble and the ordinary man to sit up and take note. It found fertile ground in Ireland, particularly in the anti-establishment minds of Ulster Presbyterians. In what was at first sight seems a remarkable paradox when seen against today’s circumstances, a group of Belfast Presbyterians formed the Society of United Irishmen to promote the twin goals of parliamentary reform and unification of the Catholic and Protestant nations into one. Such was the impact of the ‘New Order’ in France. New times, new direction. The time for the common man to come together in brotherhood. The Dublin-born Protestant, Wofe Tone, adopted the idea with enthusiasm.

United Irishmen
The United Irishmen had little success with the government however and, by 1796, they had become a secret revolutionary movement. They plotted with revolutionary France and on 21 December 1796, a Fench invasion fleet anchored in Bantry Bay in south-west Ireland intending to help United Irishmen bring about a Republic by force of arms. The entire operation failed due to a great gale which drove the French out to sea, but the event brought home to the government the extreme danger they faced and they acted with, by now, customary savagery. In 1797, the United Irishmen in Ulster were virtually destroyed. Instrumental in this was the reversion to sectarianism under the leadership of the newly formed Orange Society. Ulster had re-polarised.

In the rest of Ireland however, the United Irishmen were still organised and beginning to make links with the Catholic secret society, the Defenders, which was beginning to develop nationalist political thinking. Before long though, informants in high positions devastated the movement. Almost the entire leadership was arrested in one swoop in March 1798. The government again acted with characteristic brutality. In order to extract information the army used flogging as a torture. The standard punishment for a soldier was between 500 and 999 lashes and for civilians it was even worse. It mattered not whether the victim was guilty. If he had information, or only if he might have had information, the method was the same. He was tied to a wooden triangle and publicly flogged until he told what he knew. One eyewitness account says:

There was no ceremony used in choosing victims, the first to hand done well enough. ... They were stripped naked, tied to a triangle and their flesh cut through without mercy. And though some stood the torture to the last gasp sooner than become informers, others did not and one single informer in the town was enough to destroy all the United Irishmen in it.
Half Hanging
Other torture included ‘pitch-capping’. A paper bag of pitch was jammed on the head and, after it had partly set, it was set alight. The burning pitch fell into the victim’s eyes and he burned his hands trying to rip it off. The only way he could do so was by pulling off his hair and scalp as well. It also included half-hanging. The rope would be slackened every time the victim lost consciousness, only to be tightened again as he recovered.

It was against this backdrop of a systematic campaign of torture, and probably as a panicky reaction to it, that the first Catholic uprising occurred in support of the United Irismen’s cause at Wexford in 1798. Wexford had not been an especially troublesome area and had been lightly garrisoned, but the government got wind of an expected French landing and sent reinforcements with orders to search for arms. They set about the task with zeal and began flogging the Catholics with relish. What began as a localised resistance grew into a rebellion, but it was a rebellion that lacked direction, strategy, and leadership and which soon degenerated into atrocities. It culminated in the slaughter of 200 Protestant men, women and children prisoners who had been held in a barn at a farm known as Scullabogue. The barn was set on fire and those not burned to death were shot or piked to death. Finally, less than a month after the rebellion broke out the rebels were driven out of their main encampment at Vinager Hill.

Vinegar Hill Massacre
In the vicious slaughter which followed the scattered rebels were hunted down and killed. An estimated 50,000 rebels were put to death. The United Irishmen movement virtually died with them, their cause having degenerated into an orgy of bloodletting. In a final gasp, Wolfe Tone, attempting to land with a French force in the north, was captured when the French were defeated at sea. Tone was taken to Dublin for trial and committed suicide in prison. The noble aspirations of a united Irish people had foundered on the rocks of confusion and prejudice.

Last Meeting of the Irish Parliament.
Most of the penal anti-Catholic laws had been repealed and in 1793, Catholics ad been given the vote (though they could still not stand for election or hold public office) but the rebellion had shown that Ireland was still two nations. Protestants had received such a fright that they turned their backs on independence and saw union with Britain as their best hope of remaining in the ascendancy. In 1800, the Protestant Irish parliament acceded to the Act of Union, uniting Ireland again with Britain ‘for ever’ and the Irish parliament was abolished in 1801.


One event that perhaps stands out more than any other in the long tale of the Irish Gaelic suffering and humiliation, was the Great Famine of 1845-9. It has had a lasting influence on Irish Catholic psychology. Its impact has been likened to that of the Holocaust on the Jews. It is seen, rightly or wrongly, as a form of genocide perpetrated by the English on the Irish. The important thing, as with the 1642 massacre of Protestants at Porterdown Bridge, is not what actually happened, but what is believed to have happened.

Potato Famine
Why the poor Irish peasantry had become so dependent on the potato as sometimes the only food is complex. Most of Ireland was remote and poorly served by roads. Most Catholic families lived miserably poor lives subsisting on land for which they paid an extortionately high rent. Few of them owned any land at all. The only way they could feed themselves was to pay the rent in order to keep enough land on which to grow food. Any cereal crops they grew just about paid the rent and so they concentrated their efforts into growing the only plant that could provide enough on the small patch they had left. The potato was the only plant that could provide anything like enough, so it became the staple, and for many families, the only food.

Coupled with this was a huge population increase, almost doubling from four and a half million in 1800 to eight million by 1841. Population pressure resulted in more and more people living on smaller and smaller patches of land and concentrating more and more on the potato. The poorest had to hire out their labour, not for wages but for a small plot of land. With hindsight, disaster was inevitable should the potato crop fail. In fact, it did not need hindsight. The government was aware of the consequences, there having been a famine with thousands dead in 1817.

In 1845, it happened. On 20 August 1845, the Freeman’s Journal reported:


We regret to have to state that we have had communications from more than one well-informed correspondent announcing the fact of what is called ‘cholera’ in potatoes in Ireland, especially in the North. In one instance the party has been digging potatoes – the finest he had ever seen – from a particular field, and a particular ridge of that field up to Monday last; and on digging in the same field on Tuesday he found the tubers all blasted, and unfit for the use of man or beast.

Potato blight had struck.

By the middle of October, there were extensive reports of potato crop failures and they were most widespread in the west. By February 1846, three quarters of the potato crop had been lost, there were outbreaks of typhus in Cork and Kilkenny and, by March, it had been recorded in twenty-five of the thirty-two counties.

An eviction during the Great Famine
The story of the potato famine is a story of a third religion; the religion of supply and demand economics. Almost unshakeable economic beliefs were held by the political classes of the day including a belief that the law of supply and demand was God-given and inviolate. Interference with market forces would endanger the flow of trade and would bring economic ruin. Foremost amongst the disciples of this creed was a Treasury civil servant by the name of Charles Trevelyan, Permanent Head of the Treasury. He was considered the best person to go to Ireland to manage the situation and the solution, naturally, was to be rigorously enforced supply and demand economics.

Food had to be paid for at the market rate.  This, of course, completely failed to take account of the fact that the poor Irish could not afford to buy food, which is why they depended almost wholly on the potato in the first place. It would have mattered not how low the price was since they had no money. For very many Catholics, rural Ireland was a cashless economy.

The Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole, instigated a three-point plan:

  1. Repeal of the Corn Law, which was an essentially protectionist measure to keep the price of imported corn high, so reducing the price of bread.
  2. Introduce a system of public works to provide employment.
  3. Import supplies of maize (Indian corn).

The first of these measures, though, for Walpole the most imaginative and politically difficult, was almost completely irrelevant to the starving Irish since they could not afford to buy bread no matter how cheap it became.

The second had some success but, because of bureaucratic obstacles, was slow.  It was usually too little and too late. Many people who found work building roads were simply too weakened by hunger to work and very many died on the job. Additionally, the money was so slow in being released that many people went unpaid, often for several weeks. One such was Jeremiah Hegarty, whose body had been found on the road outside Skibbereen. The coroner’s jury found that death was due to ‘want of sufficient sustenance for many days previous to his decease, and that this want of sustenance was occasioned by his not having been paid his wages on the public works... for eight days prior to the time of his death.

The third, though perhaps, at first sight a humanitarian measure, was in fact nothing more than a limited and timid attempt to influence the market for food. There had not been a market at all for maize, or Indian corn, as it was then known in Ireland, so it was considered safe to allow it to be sent there since there was no sacred market to damage. However, the plan was not simply to give it to the starving Irish. It was to be stored in the Government depot in Cork to be used judiciously as an economic lever when the general price of food rose too high. The first shipment of Indian corn in January 1846 but was not released until April that year. Then a near riot broke out.

Almost unbelievably, Ireland was not short of food. It was exporting vast quantities. Crops of other food were excellent; they were just not available to the starving poor. People were starving in the midst of plenty. In the autumn of 1848, just as news that the potato crop had failed again, the export of food from Cork on a single day, 14 November 1848 was:

147 bales of bacon
120 casks and 135 barrels of pork
5 casks of hams
149 casks miscellaneous provisions
1,996 sacks, and 950 barrels of oats
300 bags of flour
300 head of cattle
239 sheep
9398 firkins of butter
542 boxes of eggs

Trevelyan’s chief concern was that the market forces were being interfered with. People in Ireland normally suffered distress at this time of the year. It was natural and part of the economic cycle. He wrote:

Indiscriminate sales have brought the whole country on the depots, and, without denying the existence of real and extensive distress, the number are beyond the power of the depots to cope with. They must therefore be closed down as soon as possible.

Population Change During the Great Famine
The Government always maintained that dealing with the problem should be the moral responsibility of the landlords. In some areas, indeed, some landlords did a great deal for their tenants. In many other the story was very different. Some landlords took the view that those who could not pay their rents were vermin, to be driven from their homes. A correspondent for the Freeman’s Journal recorded:

It was the most appalling sight I ever witnessed: women, young and old, running to and fro with small portions of their property to save it from the wreck – the screaming of the children, and wild wailings of the mothers driven from home and shelter... In the first instance the roofs and portions of the wall only were thrown down. But that Friday night the wretched creatures pitched a few poles slant-wise against the walls covering them with thatch in order to produce shelter for the night. When this was perceived the next day the bailiffs were dispatched with orders to pull down all the walls and root up the foundations in order to prevent the poor people from daring to take shelter amid the ruins”.

So the famine dragged on. A Catholic priest wrote:

Potato Famine Memorial
... funerals passing and re-passing in every direction, the congregation on Sunday reduced by half, the churchyard like fields lately tilled, without a green spot, constantly visited by processions of a few gaunt figures, carrying with difficulty the remains of some more fortunate relative or friend... From the sad effects of the calamity all classes have suffered severely, but most of all those on the public works, and especially the old and decrepit of both sexes who were exposed without food or clothing to the piercing cold of winter. Indeed, almost all of these are dead. Being secretary to the relief committee of the district I have had a good opportunity of witnessing the dreadful effects of the system... on these poor creatures and could at this moment refer to many casesof persons who attended the committee for weeks before they could be admitted on the books, and, when admitted a few days later, had scarcely time to earn themselves the price of a coffin.

The population of Ireland in 1841 had been 8,175,124. At normal rates of increase, it would have been 9,018,799 by 1851 but a census in that year shows it to have been 6,552,285. Given that about 1,500,000 emigrated between 1845 and 1849 this still leaves about 1,000,000 unaccounted for. Modern Irish historians put the actual death from famine at about 800,000. They died in a nation that had plenty, the victims of official indifference and doctrinaire free-market economics. They were just as much the victims of religious zealotry as the victims at Porterdown Bridge and Drogheda, though on a vastly larger scale.

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  1. Love the st mullens penal mass image above. Can you tell me where it is from originally? Rob J

    1. Found it here with a Google Image search on 'Penal Laws Ireland':


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