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From: "Jean R." <>
Subject: [TRANSCRIPTIONS-EIRE] Great Famine: British Government 1845-46 -Prime Minister Robert PEEL's Response - Corn Laws
Date: Mon, 29 Sep 2008 10:29:10 -0700


SNIPPET: "Scenes of starvation were commonplace in Ireland by the end of
1846, but they had been a year in the making. Actual starvation had been
averted at first, when the British government under Prime Minister Robert
PEEL moved aggressively to counter the potato famine in 1845. PEEL was an
old hand on matters Irish; he had been the government's chief secretary in
Ireland, which meant that he was responsible for implementing government
policy on the island. One of those policies was the introduction of a
police force to keep watch over the rebellious Irish, and so even today it
is not unusual to hear the police referred to as "peelers." PEEL had
received an early warning of the potential disaster in Ireland when potatoes
on the Continent and in England failed several times before the blight was
detected in Ireland. While the potato was notoriously fickle, any report of
its failure was bound to be greeted with apprehension, for even in England,
the poor depended on the potato as a twice-a-day staple. In Ireland, the
poor had nothing else, as everyone from prime minister to farm laborer knew.
An Irish newspaper referred to the potato as 'the poor man's property' --
the only property the poor owned. William GLADSTONE, the future British
leader, understood what might happen: "Ireland, Ireland, that cloud in the
West, that coming storm," he wrote. When it came, its winds lashing
Britain's political establishment, PEEL and his Conservative Party
government scrambled to build makeshift shelters. They quickly ordered
supplies of American corn shipped to Ireland, where the food was held in
depots for eventual sale to the Irish poor. Public works projects, usually
consisting of road building, were devised to give employment to men, women,
and children, many of them so weak they could barely expend the energy, but
all so desperate that they flocked to the projects. More dramatically, PEEL
proposed a genuinely radical and politically courageous reform. For years,
British farmers (and, more to the point, British landowners) had enjoyed
government sanctioned protections in the form of high taxes on imported
grain. The so-called Corn Laws were a linchpin of Britain's agricultural
economy and indeed its social structure, for the land-owning aristocrats
profited immensely from protection against foreign competition, allowing
them to charge artificially high prices for their grain. Those landed
aristocrats also happened to be the core of PEEL's party. The prime
minister, however, decided that the Corn Laws would have to go, that the
emergency in Ireland demanded nothing less. Free trade would lower grain
prices and encourage shipments to Ireland, where bread and other grain
products could take the potato's place. PEEL told his cabinet that the
government could no longer in good conscience purchase corn from America for
Ireland while a set of laws kept the price of food artificially high. His
colleagues were appalled. As reports of dreadful, though not yet fatal,
conditions in Ireland continued to pour into London, the cabinet debated,
revolted, and adjourned; then debated, revolted, and adjourned again without
taking action, even as conditions in Ireland worsened. But this was no act
of callousness, for what PEEL proposed was nothing short of revolutionary.
So much of what his colleagues held dear was intertwined with the Corn Laws.
Their social, political, and economic dominance was held in place by the
artificial prosperity of government-guaranteed profits from the land. Just
before Christmas in 1845, PEEL paid the ultimate political price for his
courage. With his own cabinet against him, he resigned. QUEEN VICTORIA
asked the opposition leader, John RUSSELL, to form a Whig government, but he
could not do so because his own party, though pledged to reform the Corn
Laws, also was divided on the issue. PEEL once again became prime minister
(even though a parliamentary colleague declared that he ought to die an
unnatural death) and found himself forced to work with the Whigs to win
reforms -- all in the name of saving the Irish poor. He won the battle in
June 1846, and shortly thereafter his enemies in both parties combined to
oust him once and for all from the prime minister's office. His career was
ruined, a casualty of the Irish Famine. Under PEEL, nobody died of
starvation in Ireland, though many suffered. With the change of
administration in London, however, the situation in Ireland would change,
too. In early July 1846, a shipload of American corn was turned away from
Ireland on orders of the man PEEL had appointed to oversee relief operations
in Ireland. Charles TREVELYAN was a devoutly religious and hardworking
young man in his late thirties, and while he owed his assignment to PEEL's
patronage, he strongly disagreed with his approach to easing the crisis. In
TREVELYAN's eyes, the Famine quite literally was a God-sent opportunity to
reorder Irish society. With PEEL out of office, TREVELYAN began to put his
own stamp on Britain's response to Ireland's misery. He and the new prime
minister, John RUSSELL, were much more compatible. As the new potato crop
neared harvest in late July 1846, all seemed well, and it appeared as though
the suffering would soon be at an end. TREVELYAN began shutting down relief
operations in anticipation of an abundant harvest. Like so many of his
peers, TREVELYAN believed that government should not meddle with the
marketplace, for the market was nothing less than a reflection of God's
will. As TREVELYAN closed up the food depots, he argued that it was "the
only way to prevent people from becoming habitually dependent on
government." Almost overnight, in early August, the promised harvest, the
anticipated salvation, was ruined. The potatoes of Ireland turned black and
rancid, and the fields smelled of death itself. Disaster had returned, and
now the suffering would be fatal thousands of times of over. A police
official wrote: 'A stranger would wonder how these wretched beings find
food ... They sleep in their rags and have pawned their bedding.' Landlords
began evicting their tenants, sending families into the countryside with
nothing save the rags they wore on their backs. The eviction process was
stark in its brutality: An eviction party, usually accompanied by
constables, arrived to serve notice and, to underscore the point, pull down
the roof of the tenant's cottage. The Irish countryside was filled with
scenes of families, desperate and weeping, scrambling to retrieve what they
could as the eviction party proceeded with its work. After the cottage was
razed, most had nowhere else to go. And it was just beginning. The
bureaucrats and politicians in London, charged as they were with seeing to
it that the Irish people did not become dependent on government assistance,
took a decidedly unemotional view of the suffering. TREVELYAN continued
with the work he had begun in midsummer, when the potato crop had held such
promise. He continued to shut down government-run food depots and public
works projects ...." -- Excerpts, "The Irish In America," Coffey & Golway
(1997).


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