Robert Peel and the Irish potato famine

In 1845 a devastating blight hit the Irish potato crop, the primary diet of millions of people. It wasn’t the first of its kind, but it was the worst. That is until the following year which was worse again. A third blight in 1848 left Ireland reeling in a way it has never fully recovered from. Millions died, and millions more fled to Britain and North America. Today, the island of Ireland’s population is two million less than it was in 1845. There was well meaning sympathy next door in the wealthiest country on earth, but the problem was ignored whenever a solution threatened to interfere with British financial interests.

Robert Peel

The problem was slow to manifest. As the harvest progressed in the autumn of 1845, the news from Ireland grew steadily worse. By mid October, the local constabulary was reporting crop failure across the country. In Monaghan it was remarked “potatoes brought a few days ago, seemingly remarkably good, have rotted.”

Farmers were bewildered as a splendid crop decayed in front of their eyes. Wild theories were put forward. Some blamed static electricity in the atmosphere generated by smoke from locomotives that had just come into use. Others said the culprit was “mortiferous vapours” from “blind volcanos” deep in the earth. Another school of thought blamed a recent fashion: the collection of guano manure.

British Prime Minister Robert Peel asked his friend Dr Lyon Playfair to investigate. Playfair headed a Scientific Commission to see what could be done to save the Irish potato. He studied under Liebig but was a better courtier than chemist. Playfair asked the editor of the leading horticultural paper in Britain, Dr John Lindley to join him on his expedition.

They were met by eminent Irish Catholic scientist Professor Robert Kane. Peel knew Kane was investigating the problem and had mentioned it in a book called The Industrial Resources of Ireland. Kane would provide local knowledge and between them, Peel hoped, they would come up with a “dispassionate judgement”.

The Commission quickly found the problem was worse than reported. They estimated half the crop was destroyed. Their mission became finding a method of preventing sound potatoes from rotting. But ignorance of Irish conditions proved the Commission’s undoing.

The traditional Irish method of storing potatoes was to keep them in a simple pit where tubers could be partially protected from frost and rain. The Commissioners advised farmers to dry the potatoes in the sun and then put them in a trench covered in turf. They gave complicated instructions on sifting packing stuff using unslacked lime, burnt turf and dry sawdust. There was a laundry list of tools required and hints on how to make bread from the starchy material. 70,000 copies were printed and farmers were told if they did not understand instructions they should ask their landlord or clergyman.

The Commission produced “four monster reports” to the Peel Government in three weeks. Hopes the starchy material would provide sustenance were dashed as was the possibility of separating the good and bad bits of slightly blighted spuds. It didn’t matter what people did, the potatoes melted into a slimy decaying mess.

Senior landowners warned Dublin Castle the problem was getting out of hand. Lord Clare told the Irish Under-Secretary he “would not answer for the consequences” if a famine occurred. With the year’s crop destroyed “how were they to survive to August 1846?” Clare asked. One person suggested the 12,000 police and army horse supply of corn be cut while the Duke of Norfolk said the Irish “should learn to consume curry powder” which nourished India.

On 28 October 1845, Dublin Corporation called for a committee to advise the Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland Lord Heytesbury on measures “to avoid calamity”. The committee led by Daniel O’Connell proposed corn exports be stopped and the ports thrown open for free import of food, rice and Indian corn. Ireland also needed food stores and public works. O’Connell suggested a tax on landlords to pay for it.

Heytesbury was unimpressed and said the evidence was not yet in. “It was impossible to form an accurate opinion…until digging was complete,” he said. The plans needed to be “maturely weighed”. The Freeman’s Journal condemned Heytesbury. They summarised his message as “let them starve”.

If Heytesbury was an archetypal colonial fool, Peel was not. He knew crop failure meant the Irish must be fed on grain, so he decided to repeal the Corn Laws. He also knew this was political suicide. The Duke of Buckingham resigned from cabinet three years earlier rather than tolerate a modification to the laws. Now Peel was staring down a remedy that involved the abolition of duties on all “articles of subsistence.”

This was bad for Peel, but it was worse for Ireland. In England, publicity for the fate of the Irish was drowned by the domestic impact of the laws. Farmers would lose out if duties on imported grain were lifted. Opponents of abolition denied there was a problem in Ireland and said the change was unnecessary. The Tory Mayor of Liverpool refused to call a meeting for the relief of Irish distress calling it “the invention of agitators”. To express the opinion the blight existed, set the speaker out as a dangerous radical.

The abolition question split Peel’s protectionist Conservative Party. There was an overwhelming majority in Cabinet against him but Peel refused to resign. Playfair produced his final report on 15 November. It said late rainy weather made the problem worse than before. But the Cabinet was unmoved. On 5 December Peel resigned. After “ten famous days” opposition leader Lord John Russell told Queen Victoria he too found it impossible to form a government.

The poisoned chalice was handed back to Peel to carry out Corn Law reform against his own party’s wishes. Ireland’s fate lay in his hands but they were tied behind his back. As 1846 began, power in Ireland passed to increasingly powerful Treasurer Charles Trevelyan. Trevelyan had little sympathy for the Irish whom he felt did not help themselves enough. He undermined Peel’s relief plans of Indian corn. The Irish gave up hope on English assistance and prayed for a good harvest in 1846. The second failure did all the damage. The British had charity fatigue second time round and Trevelyan shut down the relief operation.

Peel got his Corn Law repeals through at personal cost. On 26 June 1846 the Whigs and Protectionist Tories combined to bring him down. He was defeated by 73 votes and resigned three days later. As an observer said the vote “had as much to do with Ireland as Kamschatka”. But with Lord John Russell in power supported by Trevelyan, any hope Britain would intervene in the calamity disappeared. Britain practised genocide by omission, and sowed the seeds of Ireland’s 20th century rebellions.

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