Ireland: Hunger and Distress in 1831.

We are grateful to Colin and Barbara Bailey of Magor, Gwent, for drawing our attention to the following reports which appeared in ‘The Cambrian’ (Swansea) in its edition of Saturday, June 4, 1831.

a) Starvation in Ireland

It has been suggested to us by a Correspondent, that we should invite those whom the common Creator has blessed with the means, to contribute a mite of their superfluity towards the wants of their fellow‒creatures in Ireland, and to read the authenticated reports of the Committee for relieving these distresses. Our Correspondent implores his countrymen to contribute a portion, however small, to alleviate such misery as has scarcely before been recorded.

Among other facts, it is stated:
(That) …thousands are reduced to one meal of potatoes per day, with no other food of any description whatever;

(That) …large numbers are actually digging up the potato plants, and eating the old seed in its present unwholesome state;

(That) …hundreds of families go a distance of 15 miles to the sea‒shore to gather kelp and other sea‒weeds, to boil with their small remains of potatoes;

— with other proofs of misery and want equally appalling!

Can anything more be required to induce a benevolent Christian to assist in the alleviation of this extreme wretchedness, — a wretchedness in comparison to which the want and poverty of the poorest in this country is actual plenty?

Our Correspondent does not wish his name to appear at present, thinking it more favourable to the cause that some more influential person should originate the subscription; but we have his address for any who will co‒operate with him, and he has desired us to put his name down for £10 towards the object proposed.

The Archbishop of Tuam feeds 300 poor persons daily at his house during the calamity above described, and has devoted 15 per cent of his income to that purpose, as long as this misery shall last. — A Mrs. Palmer has given four thousand pounds for the same purpose, and the Marquess of Sligo one thousand five hundred pounds.

(Note: £1 in 1831 would be equal to about £100 today – Ed.).

b)Distress in Ireland

A public meeting was held on Thursday in the great room at Exeter Hall for the purpose of taking into consideration, and of providing increased means of relieving the frightful distress which prevails in many parts of the West of Ireland. Among those Noblemen and Gentlemen friendly to the object of the meeting were, the Marquess of Clanricarde, Viscount Lorton, the Bishop of Elphin, Lords Calthorpe, Teynham, Lifford, Manners, Ashtown, Selsea, and Lord James O’Brien, the Right Hon. Stratford Canning, Sir John Burke, M.P., Sir R. O’Donnell, the Hon. and Rev. G. Noel, J.E. Gordon, M.P., the Rev. E. Biron, the Rev. N. Armstrong, the Rev. W. Beamish, the Rev. Mr. Dalton, &c.

Soon after one o’clock Lord Lorton took the Chair, and after stating the purpose for which they were assembled, read three letters which he had just received.

The first was from Sir John Conroy, enclosing, by command of the Duchess of Kent, a cheque for £50, for the relief of the distressed Irish. The gallant officer stated in his note, that this was her Royal Highness’s third donation for the same object. It was added, that her Royal Highness and the young princess were engaged in making little articles, which were to be sold at the Bazaar for the relief of the Irish poor (patronised by the Queen), to take place in early June at the Hanover‒Square Rooms.

The next letter was from the Duke of Devonshire, enclosing £100, his Grace’s second donation, and regretting that he was not enabled to attend the meeting.

The third letter was from the Earl of Shrewsbury, expressing his regret that he was obliged to leave town, or he would willingly advocate the cause of the Irish poor. His lordship had previously given £100, and regretted that his aid must be limited to that sum, as he was not connected by property with Ireland.

The Report of the Committee was then read, which consisted for the most part of extracts of letters from the distressed districts, and detailing the most heart-rending and appalling instances of thousands nearly famishing from want of bread, and generally subsisting on barley‒meal mixed with sea‒weed. Unfortunately, however, for the object of the meeting, the interesting proceedings were degraded by a Protestant Clergyman exhibiting the most bitter intolerance against the very objects of their pretended humanity. This Pastor of the Christian faith contended that the distress now existing in that unhappy country was a visitation by the Almighty for their apostacy, and that the Roman Catholic religion was that of apostacy. Several persons rose at once, in different parts of the Hall, and endeavoured to obtain a hearing; one gentleman, in particular, in the body of the Hall, called out that the conduct of the Rev. Gentleman was most unfair to the object of the meeting, and most insulting to the feelings of those Roman Catholics who had come to the meeting to promote the common object. Others loudly deprecated the conduct of the Rev. Gentleman who had introduced religious controversy. The utmost confusion prevailed, and after several attempts to restore order in vain, Lord Lorton left the chair, and declared the meeting at an end. Several Gentlemen attempted to speak, but scarcely anything could be heard. At length the Marquess of Clanricarde came to the front of the platform, and expressed a hope that the meeting would forget everything but the benevolent purpose that had called them together. It was, however, too late to do any good, and the meeting soon after separated.

Though the meeting thus terminated in a way which was neither expected nor wished, we would fain hope that the indiscretions of individuals will have no effect on the current of English benevolence. The distress is great; the people are perishing – the cattle dying of hunger! What more can be said in favour of a subscription?

The Morning Herald of Saturday, in a leading article on this subject, says:

It is with great regret we observe that a Meeting, called for the express purpose of detailing the sufferings of the starving peasantry of some parts of Ireland, and of soliciting the aid of the affluent and humane for their immediate relief from actual famine, should have converted into a scene of sectarian acrimony and religious contention. There are persons who, in their intemperate zeal, forget that the first principle and finest lesson which religion teaches is Charity. Surely the angry discussion of abstract principles, while their fellow‒creatures, in the agonies of starvation, are appealing for succour from overwhelming calamity, indicates nothing like the true and vital spirit of religion in the theological gladiators who, at a time and place consecrated to the claims of benevolence, throw down to each other the gauntlet of religious battle. Their zeal, though not so intemperate, would appear to us to be more sincere, if they had the good feeling and decency to suppress their hostile emotions, until the duties of charity were performed, and have discussed the causes of human misery, after having first alleviated their effects.

Whatever share political or religious systems may had in producing the evils under which Ireland labours, and which render the peasantry of a fertile country the most wretched on the face of the earth, it is certain that the poor people, whose calls for relief are now so urgent, are the victims, not the authors, of the calamities which they endure. The first duty of Christian feeling is to afford them the assistance of which they stand in so much need, and when that is done, there will be leisure to inquire into the best means of preventing the recurrence of such desolating misery. Religion without charity, says the most eloquent of the apostles, is but a sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal and certainly the angry disputants who brought the meeting convened at Exeter Hall, on Thursday, for the starving Irish, to a violent termination, by turning it into an arena of religious controversy, displayed more of the ’sounding brass’ of outward piety, than the vital spirit of genuine religion, in their speeches and their actions.

Published in The Green Dragon No 1, December, 1996.