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The Famine 3: Peel's Relief Programme to July 1846
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In United Kingdom politics at the time of the famine, there were two main political parties. The Tories were liberals who supported the Monarchy, and enjoyed the support of most Irish landlords. The Whigs were strong believers in free trade and had a policy known as laissez-faire, which stated that government should interfere as little as possible in  affairs of trade and that the free market would deal with any crises. The UK government at the start of the famine was a Tory government led by Sir Robert Peel.

Looking for Potatoes [10kB]A third of the potato crop was wiped out in 1845. Crop failures were relatively common in Ireland (there had been famines in 1741, 1745, 1755, 1766, 1783, 1800, 1816, 1822 and 1830, although only that of 1741 was comparable to the Great Famine [1]). Because of this, it took some time before the government realised that this failure was more serious than usual. In mid September 1845, a week after the fungus first appeared, a government inquiry concluded that, although there had been failures, the crop was also unusually heavy and that the extra crop would compensate for the loss. [2] A month later another government inquiry revealed that the crop losses were more serious in 17 of the 32 counties. The image on the left shows a family searching for unblighted potatoes in a blighted field. The government responded to this second inquiry by setting up a commission to seek cures for the blight. (This has already been discussed in The Famine 1: Potato Blight.) The Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel, offered to give away free any chemical that would cure the blight, but the commission failed to find one.

The government soon realised that more food was needed from somewhere to make up the shortfall. Peel had two options. The first was to stop exports. The landlords of Leinster, many of whom cultivated grain, often sold to the large markets in Britain. In 1844 there was a net export of grain of 294,000 tons and 485,000 in 1845. Private individuals in Ireland met the Lord Lieutentant of Ireland in Dublin to push for this solution.

The other solution was to import more food. There were two problems with this. Firstly, many other European countries were also fearing famines and had banned exports of food, reducing the markets from which to buy. Secondly, there was a law called the 'Corn Law' which sought to protect local farmers by banning cheap foreign imports of food. The Corn Law was a key Tory policy, so by considering removing it Peel was going to invite the wrath of his party.

Sir Robert Peel, after much deliberation decided that merely preventing grain exports was not enough. Ó Gráda [1] comments that "...about three million extra acres of grain would have been needed annually to meet the food shortfall caused by the blight. This was out of the question". Peel instead decided to push for an import of food from America to make up the shortfall. Nevertheless, some [1] have argued that Peel would have been better to both ban exports and import food.

In Westminster, the seat of government, Peel's opponents accused him of using the blight as a ploy to get rid of the Corn Law. Some even accused him of making up the blight or at least of exaggerating its likely effects. The repeal of the Corn Law was to cost him and the Tory party the next election, in July 1846. In November 1845, £105,000 worth of Maize was imported from the USA and £46,000 from Britain. This was enough food to feed a million people for a month, although there were few people actually starving in 1845. A law from 1838 meant that aid could only be given out in Workhouses organised by local boards called Poor Law Unions. However, Peel felt that the workhouses did not have sufficient capacity to do this effectively, so he set up a temporary Relief Commission to organise relief. The Commission organised the distribution of food at cost price (although some people still had to pawn clothes and furniture to buy it). At first, many Irish people disliked accepting this charity, but in the end many accepted. He also set up (locally funded) work schemes which, at their peak, employed around 140,000 people [2]. These measures sustained 700,000 people and, although the salaries they paid were very low, were the main reason that there were very few deaths in 1845. The measures stayed in this form until the unseating of the Tory government in July 1846.

> Next > The Famine 4: The Winter of 1846 to 1847 >


[1] Ó Gráda, Cormac; "The Great Irish Famine", Cambridge University Press, 1989.
[2] Dudley-Edwards, R; Williams, TD; "The Great Famine, Studies in Irish History 1845-52", Lilliput Press, 1956, (Reprinted 1997)

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