‘BLACK ‘47’ – THE DARKEST OF YEARS; For Ireland, it marked the full onslaught of the Famine

Second of four parts

“Black ‘47” – just two words at first glance. In all of Ireland’s history, however, few phrases resonate with such horror.
As peasant families in all corners of Ireland struggled to survive in the winter of 1846-47, desperate men, women, and children turned to the government’s hastily and ill-conceived public works projects for survival. Charles Edward Trevelyan, head of the British treasury, or Exchequer, oversaw all Famine measures after the fall of Prime Minister Robert Peel’s Conservative administration to the Whigs, led by Lord John Russell. A proponent of letting free markets operate no matter the consequences, Trevelyan shut down Indian corn depots throughout Ireland and banned a ship headed for Ireland with a cargo of corn for the starving populace, asserting that the Irish could not remain “habitually dependent” on the British government and had to learn how to make “Irish property support [redress] Irish poverty.”

Trevelyan further contended that a full-blown Famine aid effort could “paralyze all private enterprise.” In short, he wanted Parliament to do nothing and let Ireland figure out a “free-market” solution, a stance that was to have catastrophic consequences for the Irish.

Stone roads to nowhere

The onset of 1847 found some 500,000 Irish laboring to build stone roads that led to nowhere throughout rural regions. The men smashed boulders with heavy hammers and were paid piece-work for every basket they could fill. Women and children lugged the baskets to meandering road beds where the stones were dumped. With one of the harshest winters in Irish memory unleashing one storm after another, bitter gales, snow, and sleet battered the road crews. Men, women, and children, weakened from hunger, clad in rags, and barefoot in many cases, collapsed with fever amid the piles of stone and froze to death where they fell.

The paltry pay allotted by the Crown proved barely enough to feed workmen and their families, especially as food prices soared. Coarse corn meal coast three times its pre-Famine price, but desperate Irishmen had nowhere to turn except the back-breaking road work.

As the Irish people’s misery and fear swelled with each day of the new year and the British government appeared incapable of or unwilling to address the catastrophe, Britain’s Quaker community strove to help the starving millions. William Forster, a leader of the Central Relief Committee of the Society of Friends, which had branches in Dublin and London, had been directed to investigate the Famine and set up relief efforts, and he was stunned by the scope of the disaster. In an appeal to Britain’s collective conscience, he wrote of countless children who looked “like skeletons, their features sharpened with hunger and their limbs wasted, so that little was left but bones, their hands and arms, in particular, being much emaciated, and the happy expression of infancy gone from their faces, leaving behind the anxious look of premature old age.”

Frightful spectres

Nicholas Cummins, a magistrate in Cork, toured Skibbereen and sent the Duke of Wellington and The Times of London a letter describing the starving, disease-wracked people of the snow-cloaked countryside. Wrote Cummins: “I entered some of the hovels, and the scenes which presented themselves were such as no tongue or pen can convey the slightest idea of. In the first, six famished and ghastly skeletons, to all appearances dead, were huddled in a corner on some filthy straw, their sole covering what seemed a ragged horsecloth, their wretched legs hanging about, naked above the knees. I approached with horror, and found by a low moaning they were alive – they were in fever, four children, a woman and what had once been a man. … in a few minutes I was surrounded by at least 200 such phantoms, such frightful spectres as no words can describe, [suffering] either from famine or from fever.”

Corpse-filled cottages, shallow graves, and massive, unmarked trenches in which countless bodies were dumped and covered up with quicklime and earth stretched across the island. Along with starvation, dysentery, typhus, and fevers of all sorts decimated the population, as well as doctors, priests, nuns, and Quaker relief workers striving to help. Entire families lay down along the road and died of “Road Fever.” Trevelyan’s misguided program of useless public-works projects and the cutoff of Indian corn was a disaster.

Merchant vessels laden with privately purchased cargos of Indian corn and other food did begin to dock in Ireland’s ports and offload shipments to warehouses, but because most Irish could not afford to buy food, the warehouses remained full, and people continued to starve.

Disastrous response

By the end of June 1847, the British government ceased all public-works sites as Prime Minister Russell decided that simply “keep[ing] the people alive” superseded everything else. The new policy intended for the Irish to be fed for free through the Soup Kitchen Act, spearheaded by local aid organizations and paid in large part by taxes on Irish landlords and merchants. Once again, the British government’s response proved disastrous.

The Famine was bankrupting landlords whose tenant farmers could not pay their rent. Few people could pay merchants, and shops closed everywhere, the businessmen and their families joining the starving peasants on the streets. At the soup kitchens, demand far outstripped supply; in Killarney, only one soup kitchen existed and it had to contend with more than 10,000 people. The soups themselves – rancid meat, coarse corn, and often-rotting vegetables in boiled water – caused bowel and stomach woes for the lines of men, women, and children clutching small pots or bowls in hopes of getting soup before the pots were empty. Eventually, kitchens began to issue a four-ounce slice of bread and “stirabout,” porridge consisting of corn meal, rice, and water. Some three million Irish fought to survive on such skimpy rations throughout the summer of 1847, malnutrition and disease still claiming thousands of victims with each week.

A ‘coffin ship’ on starvation

In a perverse turn, the fall 1847 potato harvest was not blighted, but yielded only a quarter of the pre-Famine crop. Cash-hungry landlords, large and small, decided to turn their acres over to cattle and sheep and to plant, but in order to do so, they had to move off the tenant farmers clinging to their meager plots. The answer was eviction on a massive scale. The Irish Diaspora was about to swell to unprecedented levels as desperate Irish faced a choice of “coffin ships” carrying them from their country or starving to death. In “Black 47,” hundreds of thousands had perished and many thousands of the living were boarding ships barely seaworthy that were bound for Boston.