A ‘selfish, perverse and turbulent’ people

This moving image, exquisitely drawn,  shows the local vicar sharing the final hours  of a dying man  in a hovel at Scull, Co Cork. The sketch was made by James Mahony who wrote that in order to make the drawing he had to stand ‘up to his ankles in the flith upon the floor’ The hut was less than 10 feet square. There were three children.
Mahony further wrote that the poor man had buried his wife five days previously. ‘Mullins died and three days later so did the vicar’. ( ILN February 20 1847)

This moving image, exquisitely drawn, shows the local vicar sharing the final hours of a dying man in a hovel at Scull, Co Cork. The sketch was made by James Mahony who wrote that in order to make the drawing he had to stand ‘up to his ankles in the flith upon the floor’ The hut was less than 10 feet square. There were three children. Mahony further wrote that the poor man had buried his wife five days previously. ‘Mullins died and three days later so did the vicar’. ( ILN February 20 1847)

As the Great Famine strengthened its fearsome grip on Ireland in the late 1840s and early 1850s, the people were doubly unfortunate that Charles Trevelyan, the Assistant Secretary to the British Treasury, had responsibility for Irish Famine relief.

He was a man of chilling rectitude. His solution to the problem was non-interference and to let the people sort themselves out. He saw the famine as a ‘mechanism for reducing surplus population,’ and in 1846 declared that the famine was ‘the direct stroke of an all-wise Providence in a manner as unexpected and as unthought-of as it is likely to be effectual.’*

The Great Famine was causing society to collapse. On May 1 1847 the Southern Reporter lamented ‘We are overwhelmed with distress; we are crushed with taxation; we are scourged by famine, and visited by pestilence. Our jails are full; our poor houses choked; our public edifices turned into lazar houses (places with infectious diseases ); our cities mendacities: our streets morgues; our churchyards fields of carnage. Our ordinary trade is gone; our people are partially demoralised. Society itself is breaking up; selfishness seizes upon all; class repudiates class; the very ties of closest kindred are snapped asunder. Sire and son, landlord and occupier, town and country repudiate each other, ceasing to co-operate. Terror and hunger, disease and death afflict us....horrible suffering, utter penury.’

The outspoken nationalist and political journalist John Mitchel argued that Ireland produced enough ‘to feed and clothe not nine but eighteen millions of people,’ yet ‘a government ship sailing into any harbour with Indian corn (for famine relief ) was sure to meet half a dozen sailing out with Irish wheat and cattle.**

Vicious characterisation

Trevelyan defended the export of grain from the starving country on the grounds that the government should not interfere with free trade, as “The real evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the Famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people.”

Even more appalling was the Duke of Cambridge who was quoted in The Nation January 24 1846 that ‘Irishmen could live upon anything and there was plenty of grass in the field even though the potato crop should fail’.

Warming to the theme of a ‘perverse people’ some years later, the Illustrated London News (ILN ), maintained that despite everything that had happened ‘the aboriginal trait remains, and even cholera and famine have been lenient enough to spare a sufficient number of murderers to perpetuate the race, and to retard the improvement and the prosperity of the country.’

Sadly, this smug judgment within some influential circles of Victorian society, who believed that the famine was a Providential judgment on a murderous people, led to quite vicious caricatures in the popular press. There was also a belief in the pseudo-science of phrenology. A man’s moral and intellectual development could be read on his face. Dehumanised images of the Irish appeared in ILN, and the satirical magazine Punch. This did not encourage much sympathy from the growing reading public.

Waking consciences

Yet along side these grotesques, there were many images from artists working among the victims of the Great Famine. They saw exactly what was happening. In the dramatic new presentation of the news on engraved pictures, which appeared for the first time in the popular newspapers of the day, artists presented the suffering of the people in a sensitive and skilful way. In her interesting book, The Tombs of a Departed Race,*** (from which I am gleaning this Diary piece ), Ms Niamh O’Sullivan invites us to see again these well known images of the famine. She rightly points out that it is time we re-access their reality, which eventually impacted on the awaking conscience of the Victorian world; and to admire the power of artists to open doors to new understandings.

Next week: Journalists have a go at the great Daniel O’Connell for the poverty of his tenants on his estate at Derrynane.

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