The Longford Letter
The Longford Letter
By: Alexander Somerville
Date: March 5, 1847
Source: Somerville, A. Letters from Ireland during the Famine of 1847. Edited by K. D. M. Snell. Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1995.
About the Author: Alexander Somerville (1811–1885), was a British journalist who traveled throughout Ireland in the 1840s writing newspaper reports on the famine there for the Manchester Examiner.
This article by English journalist Alexander Somerville attacks the Irish gentry—and especially those landlord members of the Repeal Association—for their part in the Irish famine of the 1840s. At this time, Ireland was a predominantly rural country with a rapidly growing population. Most people were poor tenant farmers or agricultural workers who rented their land and homes from rich landlords. For the majority of the population, the potato was the main source of food. In 1845, the potato crop failed for the first time, followed by even worse failures in the succeeding four years. The result was a widespread famine that killed over a million people through starvation and disease, and forced around one and a half million to leave Ireland for England or America.
Although the famine was sparked by potato crop failures, many other factors contributed to the scale of the disaster. Because Ireland was part of Great Britain, the British government was blamed for not sending more food and help to Ireland. The Liberal government that came to power in 1846 believed that free trade and the market would resolve the problems and restricted its assistance to loans and establishing work programs.
In response to the crop failure many landlords sold their grain to merchants in England to offset their own losses, instead of retaining it for consumption within Ireland. Livestock that could have been used to feed the Irish population were also exported. At the same time, cheap cornmeal was imported to feed the peasant families, but this provided very little nutrition and did not help to solve the problems of starvation and the many diseases which rapidly spread among a malnourished population.
Somerville's commentary about the "natural order" of things is rich in sarcasm as he reflects on the causes of the famine. First, he makes reference to the theory of Thomas Malthus, who believed that population size would always be kept in check, since any rapid population increase would ultimately outrun the available food supply, and famine would be the result. Somerville adds to this, however, the view that agriculture will always be insufficient to feed the population when the crops are appropriated for profit by an exploitative landlord class, reducing any incentive for the agricultural workers to work harder and produce more. He also argues that famine is inevitable in a purely agricultural economy, since there are no non-rural communities to buy the produce, and, because people tend to have big families to help work the land, when crops fail there is not enough to feed everyone.
In 1840, a Repeal Association had been formed by Daniel O'Connell, a leading Irish politician who believed that independence from Britain was necessary for Ireland to solve its problems. O'Connell's Repeal Association, which campaigned for repeal of the 1801 Act of Union, gained support mainly from the poor Catholic peasant population, as well as some radicals and intellectuals. In 1843, a landowner and politician called William Smith O'Brien joined the Repeal Association, but broke away three years later to form the Young Ireland movement, a more radical group who stressed the cultural differences between Ireland and England, and advocated violence against the British government. This movement gained political influence in Ireland in 1847 and 1848, hindering relations between Ireland and England and reducing the level of assistance and charity provided to the Irish population.
Mr John O'Connell, M.P. for Kilkenny, has written a letter from London to the Repeal Association, which is reprinted in most of the Irish newspapers. It may possibly attract no attention in England, nor may this notice of it attract attention in Ireland; but the subject is profoundly important; and, as the member for Kilkenny has the temerity to provoke a discussion on such a subject—that of the generosity of the English public to the Irish people in this present season of distress—I shall not shrink from telling him, respectfully yet firmly, that his letter to the Repeal Association now circulated throughout Ireland is a most unfounded and unworthy libel upon the English people. And more, that of all the gentry in Ireland, the repeal members of parliament, so far as I have yet seen their estates and the starving people on their estates, (and I have already visited a considerable number of them,) are the gentry least entitled to accuse the English public of apathy or hardheartedness….
I can prove to Mr John O'Connell, and to all whom it may concern, by reference to Irish estates one by one, to farms upon those estates one by one, and by reference to the charity given or wages paid for actual labour now performed, giving the names of the proprietors and middlemen one by one, whose reputation is involved in the question, that, whatever the state of liberality may be now arrived at by the government, public opinion and public generosity in England are far in advance of public opinion and public generosity in Ireland.
Some Irish gentlemen may be too poor to have much to give away in the present emergency; but the poorest of them might give something. The greatness of the necessity seems to be, for them, an excuse for doing nothing at all—literally nothing at all. Moreover, they might pay wages sufficient to keep their work-people out of the public soup-kitchens, and in a condition able to work. I shall here relate a case I witnessed the other day; I might relate twenty such seen within a week.
Seven men were in a field which measured three acres, and which had just been sown with oats. They were employed in breaking the clods of earth, in clearing the furrows for letting off top water, and in otherwise finishing the sowing of the oats. It was about four in the afternoon when I saw them. They appeared to me to work very indifferently; the whole seven were doing less than one man's work. I watched them for some time, while they did not see me, consequently they could not be enacting a part before a stranger. I was soon convinced that the men were, some of them, leaning on their implements of work, and others staggering among the clods, from sheer weakness and hunger. I concluded this to be the case from the frequency of such signs. One of the men, after I had watched them some time, crawled through a gap in the hedge, came out upon the road on his hand and knees, and then tried to rise, and got up bit by bit as a feeble old man might be supposed to do. He succeeded in getting upon his feet at last, and moved slowly away, with tottering steps, towards the village, in a miserable hovel of which was his home.
I thought I would speak to the feeble old man, and followed and came up with him. He was not an old man. He was under forty years of age; was tall and sinewy, and had all the appearances of what would have been a strong man if there had been flesh on his body. But he bowed down, his cheeks were sunken, and his skin sallow-coloured, as if death were already within him. His eyes glared upon me fearfully; and his skinny skeleton hands clutched the handle of the shovel upon which he supported himself while he stood to speak to me, as it were the last grasp of life.
"It is the hunger, your honour; nothing but the hunger," he said in a feeble voice: "I stayed at the work till I could stay no longer. I am fainting now with the hunger. I must go home to lie down. There is six children and my wife and myself. We had nothing all yesterday, (which was Sunday,) and this morning we had only a handful of yellow meal among us all, made into stirabout, before I came out to work—nothing more and nothing since. Sure this hunger will be the death of all of us. God have mercy upon me and my poor family."
I saw the poor man at home and his poor family, and truly might he say, "God have mercy!" They were skeletons all of them, with skin on the bones and life within the skin. A mother skeleton and baby skeleton; a tall boy skeleton who had no work to do; who could now do nothing but eat, and had nothing to eat. Four female children skeletons, and the tall father skeleton, not able to work to get food for them, and not able to get enough of food when he did work for them. Their only food was what his wages of 10d. [10 pence] per day would procure of "yellow meal"—the meal of the Indian corn. The price of that was 3s. [3 shilings] per stone of 16lb. This gave for the eight persons 26lb. 10oz. of meal for seven days; being about seven ounces and a half per day for each person. No self-control could make such persons distribute such a starvation measure of food over seven days equally. Their natural cravings made them eat it up at once, or in one, or three days at most, leaving the other days blank, making the pangs of hunger worse still.
But in this calculation I am supposing all the wages to go for meal. I believe none of it was expended on anything else, not even salt, save fuel: fuel in this village must all be purchased by such people; they are not allowed to go to the bogs to cut it for themselves. Nor is this the season to go to the bogs, if they were allowed. The fuel required to keep the household fire merely burning, hardly sufficient to give warmth to eight persons sitting around it, to say nothing of half-naked persons, would cost at least sixpence per day. Wherefore, no fuel was used by this family, nor by other working families, but what was required to boil the meal into stirabout.
Now this was one of the best paid men on the estate; all have not such large families as him, but all have as low wages; all have to pay the same price for food and fuel; all have to pay house rent….
It is said to be "in the natural order of things for a population to suffer from a diminution of food, and to sink in wretchedness and suffering in proportion to the increase in their numbers and the decrease in the supply of their food; ultimately, if the diminution of food becomes excessive and of long duration, to die and diminish with it." It is in the natural order of things for human beings to die if they do not obtain sustenance for their bodies, just as it is in the natural order of things for agriculture to languish and fail to produce food for a great population when idle, dissolute, and improvident proprietary classes exact, and compulsorily extract, from the cultivators all their capital, the improving cultivator only being a mark for the landlord's cupidity. It is in the natural order of things for the tenant farmers of Ireland to be oppressed and degraded and made bad farmers when their political uses are deemed of higher importance by the landlords than their agricultural uses. It is in the natural order of things for the oppressed tenantry to listen to those who are continually telling them of their oppression, and promising them a blissful change by some one mighty action which cannot be performed, and which would be as worthless if performed as another moon would be in the sky to give them moonshine of their own. It is in the natural order of things, at least Irish things, for the people to be deluded.
It would be in the natural order of things for an Irish parliament of Irish landlords to legislate for themselves and against their tenantry and the great body of the people. Cruel as the political Protestant landlords have been in persecuting the Catholic tenantry for their religion and their adherence to repeal politics, they are exceeded in cruelty by landlords of the repeal party—the very vultures of a heartless, ignorant, haughty, and selfish class of men.
It is in the natural order of things for agriculture to be profitless without a manufacturing and trading population to purchase and consume the agricultural produce. It is in the natural order of things for an exclusively agricultural population to be always liable to famine; for it is in the natural order of things for such a population to overstock the land with itself, having no other outlet for the younger branches of families, until they become so numerous and so poor that they cannot afford to cultivate the land: they eat up their seed, their stock, their implements, and consume their own strength….
Alexander Somerville's graphic accounts of the suffering of the Irish during the famine, published in the British press, would probably have helped to raise public awareness of the appalling conditions in Ireland and may have increased the level of private charity, as well as government assistance that was extended to the Irish population. His interpretation of the problem, with its emphasis on the culpability of the Irish gentry rather than the British government would have been influenced no doubt by his own English nationality and perhaps his political beliefs; others have argued that the British government was largely responsible for the severity of the disaster by failing to provide adequate assistance. The government had even commissioned a study of Ireland in 1843 that highlighted the vulnerability of Ireland's agricultural economy, yet no steps were taken to address the problem.
As a result of the famine, the population of Ireland was reduced by more than two million between 1845 and 1851, as a result of death and emigration. The effects of this hampered economic progress in Ireland for many decades. The mass exodus from Ireland created substantial Irish communities overseas, especially in the United States, and these later contributed support and assistance to the Irish movement for Home Rule.
Somerville, A. Letters from Ireland during the Famine of 1847. Edited by K. D. M. Snell. Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1995.
Cronin, Mike. A History of Ireland. New York: Palgrave, 2001.
Harrison Jennifer. "William Smith O'Brien and the Young Ireland Rebellion of 1848." Australian Journal of Politics and History. 50 (March 2004).
Irish History Online. "Welcome to Irish History Online." 〈http://www.irishhistoryonline.ie/〉 (accessed June 23, 2006).