How a concern about interfering in markets and trade may have contributed to over one million deaths during the 19th century Great Famine in Ireland.
In this episode you’ll learn:
- Why there was no illegal immigration in the 19th century.
- What caused the Great Famine in Ireland.
- What is the laissez-faire political and economic philosophy.
- What were Irish workhouses.
Welcome to Money for the Rest of Us. This is a personal finance show. It’s on money, how it works, how to invest it, and how to live without worrying about it. I’m your host David Stein. Today is episode 179 and it is titled “Free Markets and the Great Famine”. I had planned on doing an episode on the economic impact of illegal immigration, but I got distracted. My ancestors came over in the 19th Century from the Netherlands, Germany, and Ireland and the question occurred to me, were they illegal immigrants?
No Green Cards
I did some searching and I found this quote from Mae Ngai. She’s a legal and political historian whose studies focus on immigration. It was an article from The Boston Globe and she writes, “People are shocked when I say before World War I, there were no green cards, no visas, no quotas, no passports, even. Really, you just showed up. And if you could walk without a limp, and you had $30 in your pocket, you walked right in.” There was no concept of illegal immigration when my ancestors came.
My Family Roots
However, about the time I was doing research, there was an article in The New York Times. It was called “The Lost Children of Tuam”. This is a parish and town in Ireland. I recognized it because one of my ancestors, Cecelia Nestor, who goes by Sarah, was born there in 1835.
The article was about the St. Mary’s Mother and Baby Home which housed, in the early 20th Century, 50 single mothers and about 125 children born out of wedlock. The article mentioned the building was opened in 1846 as a workhouse. I didn’t know what a workhouse was, so I read further. The article went on to say that the workhouse was opened in 1846 and almost immediately it began receiving victims of the Great Hunger, a famine so horrific that the moans of the dying, the Tuam Herald reported, were “as familiar to our ears as the striking of a clock”.
So, my ancestor, Sarah Nestor, was born in 1835, she emigrated to the US in 1850, and died in 1925 in Lewisburg Kentucky, just south of Maysville. She left Ireland in the midst of the Great Famine, the Great Hunger, and later married a gentleman named Patrick O’Loughlin in Cincinnati, OH in 1856. He was from western Ireland, in the county of Mayo, which was not a terribly advanced area. There were very few roads in Mayo county at that time, which caused a number of challenges I will discuss later.
The Great Famine
This Great Hunger, the Great Famine, was immensely devastating. Estimates are between 1 million and 2 million people died from starvation, digestive diseases, and infectious diseases related to this famine. The census in Ireland in 1841 showed 8.2 million citizens. In 1851, the official census indicated 6.6 million, a drop of over a million and a half. You had certainly had births during this time, but so many people were dying and leaving, fleeing, the country. By 1911, there were only 4.4 million individuals in Ireland.
The cause of the famine was a lack of diversity in the crops. The poor primarily depended on the potato for their daily sustenance. They planted a particularly large potato, necessarily very nutritious, but not the tastiest. It was called the lumper and that’s what most of those, particularly the poor, in Ireland would farm. They would plant it in what were called “lazy beds”, narrow ridges, four feet wide, by dropping the seed behind a spade; the poorest would actually plant these potatoes by hand.
Before the famine, there were, of course, intermittent crop losses, but they tended to be localized to one particular area of Ireland. But not the potato blight. This was a disease that they estimate originated in Taluca Valley, Mexico and then infected the potato crops in the United States. At that point, some of those potatoes, potentially diseased, were put in ships and taken over to feed passengers as they would go over to Europe. By 1844 this potato blight had hit Ireland completely, decimating the crops in 1845, 1846, and 1847. And this is the food that the peasants relied on.
Living An Already Difficult Life
The peasants in Ireland lived very difficult lives. They lived in mud cabins covered in straw and lacking windows; the ventilation only came from a single door or perhaps a hole in the roof where smoke escaped. If they had furniture, they might have had a bed, sometimes a chair, and, for the lucky few, a table. The occupants would usually sleep together in the clothes they wore during the day, often on an earthen floor for warmth.
One of the other challenges with Ireland is overpopulation. Between 1741, the date of the last big famine, and 1845, the population tripled in Ireland. For dowries, the men would divide up their acreage. So, with the increase in population and, by connection, marriages, Ireland was divided into smaller and smaller plots of land. On the eve of the famine, there were 135,000 plots less than an acre in size. Of the remaining 750,000 holdings in Ireland, half were less than 10 acres and a quarter between 10 and 20 acres.
Thus, you had smaller and smaller pieces of ground being planted with potatoes, which was the main sustenance, and then they got hit by the blight. Even in a good year the Irish struggled for three months of the year. They were hungry. Often the previous year’s potato supply ran out by March or mid-April and they were hungry until July. There’s a saying in Ireland that potatoes planted for Paddy, St. or Patrick’s Day on March 17th came up for Billy, or the feast of Williams of Orange on July 12th.
Much of the information for this episode came from a fascinating book by Tim Pat Coogan, a historian. The book is titled “The Famine Plot: England’s Role in Ireland’s Greatest Tragedy”. In the book–and I mentioned earlier that the county, Mayo, where Patrick O’Laughlin lived, had very few roads–Coogan writes, “Access to clusters of swarming mud cabins, meant negotiating reeking mounds of animal, vegetable and human waste girding the cabins”.
On a side note, despite the poverty the Irish had really strong physiques. Coogan points out that of Wellington’s army, the general during the Napoleonic wars, one third of those that participated came from Ireland.
Now the division of the land in Ireland was mostly between landlords; there were about ten thousand landlords in Ireland. Many, if not most, of these landlords were absentee landlords and were really leveraged up tremendously. Many of them lived in Dublin London and had agents that would take care of the estates and all of the peasants that lived in these huts on these estates. The peasants on the estates would pay rent to the landlord or his agent to be able to grow potatoes.
Ireland was mostly Catholic, but England was Protestant and there was some discrimination of those Catholic Irish, certainly by those that were Protestant. They were looked down upon. These were poor, poor people. Coogan writes, “The land of Ireland was dangerously overburdened by the weight of human stock. What was needed to avert an inevitable human disaster was a humane system of human emigration in combination with a sustained effort at reforming the land system, developing fisheries and building Irish infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, harbors and canals”.
These were very, very rural areas. You essentially had paupers, peasants, growing potatoes, hungry three months out of the year, and without good road infrastructure, whish was nothing like what was occurring in England where industrialization was taking hold. Sure, you had tremendous urban poverty in England and you had an aristocracy that was under a lot of pressure to help the poor in England, but you had capitalism taking hold and advancement taking place. But not in Ireland. Ireland was sort of put on the back burner; it was this backwater with very poor people.
Laissez-faire and the Free Market
The predominant economic philosophy at this time was something called Laissez-faire and it was a doctrine of non-interference with free trade. The overriding feeling was poverty was a self-inflicted wound. There was an ongoing debate, and it’s so similar to what we face today: Should we help the poor? Would that discourage their initiative and discourage them from helping themselves? Is this poverty a self-inflicted wound? And if not a self-inflicted wound, often it was thought, ‘Well, that was Providence, that was God’s will that those people should be poor’.
Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations, and that’s what the politicians were reading. He wrote in that book, “The natural effort of every individual to better his own condition, when suffered to extend itself with freedom and security, is so powerful, that it alone, and without any assistance, is not only capable of carrying on society to wealth and prosperity, but of surmounting a hundred impertinent obstructions with which the folly of human laws too often encumbers its operation”.
This is the idea that the free market will naturally take care of poverty. But what if there isn’t any infrastructure? What if there isn’t anyone making investments? What if it’s just absentee landlords collecting rent and living the high life in London or Dublin? Jeremy Bentham wrote, “Laissez-faire, in short, should be the general practice: every departure, unless required by some great good, is a certain evil”. We shouldn’t help the poor; that’s not a ‘great good’ that deserves a departure from letting the market forces take shape.
Thomas Malthus was also a writer about this time and in his book published in 1798 there was an essay called “An Essay on the Principle of Population”. He believed that as a nation’s food production improves, that helps the well-being of the populace. But it’s only temporary. Because, then you have population growth, which means that you have too many people and then that wealth that was created from the higher productivity dissipates and the standard of living doesn’t increase. Malthus wrote, “The land of Ireland is infinitely more peopled than in England; and to give a full effect to the natural resources of the country, a great part of the population should be swept from the soil”.
The idea was that this land was overpopulated and that meant that people would leave or they would die if we didn’t help them, and some thought that was Providence, just the way it should be. Irishman Edmund Burke wrote, “It is not by breaking the laws of commerce, which are the laws of nature and consequently the laws of God, that we are to place our hope of softening the divine displeasure to remove any calamity under which we suffer”. It’s God’s will; we shouldn’t alter the laws of commerce to help. That was the belief among some, but not all.
The Irish Poor Law – An Insufficient Solution
In 1833 a royal commission was set up to figure out how severe this problem of poverty in Ireland was. They interviewed 1500 people. They took three years and they determined that 2.5 million people in Ireland needed assistance for several months each year, as their potato harvest from the previous year ran out. They didn’t have any food.
In 1838 the Irish Poor Law was implemented and the country was divided into 130 administrative units called unions and in each would open up one or more workhouses. These were supposed to be self-sustaining. Again, think about the frame of reference that poverty is self-inflicted, that we should let the market take its course, that often it was God’s will or Providence.
So, these things were set up so that the landlords were taxed to support the work houses where the poor could go if they didn’t have any other resources. But, they were only set up to serve 100,000 people and the need was 2.5 million. Coogan writes, “It was laid down that life inside the workhouses be made as unpleasant as possible and the work provided to be as irksome as possible so as to encourage paupers to speedily quit the workhouse. The guiding philosophy of the poor law was that poverty was the fault of the individual and that people should be discouraged from entering workhouses, not encouraged to do so”.
But they were insufficient; there wasn’t enough work. A lot of the absentee landlords didn’t pay, didn’t contribute. So, those remaining resident landlords suffered or had to pay more of the burden. A lot of the workhouses went bankrupt.
A parish priest in Ballaghadereen wrote, “The awful scenes I have this day to communicate are heart rending. Two persons have died today from starvation. One of them declared a few hours before his death that he has not eaten a full meal for 12 days previously. I had over 200 persons at this my house today crying out for work or food. Their patience is great, considering their wants. Their appearance is frightful. If the Board of Works does not provide work…we will have to record in dozens the deaths of the people”.
Furthermore, the work houses became overcrowded. The one in Skibbereen, designed to accommodate 800 people, at its peak in March 1848 had 2500. The Limerick Chronicle wrote, “Money and credit are all gone, and starvation has literally set in among the paupers in the workhouse; the inmates have been set to bed on Thursday night without having eaten any dinner – the only remedy that the guardians could suggest to numb the sense of hunger”.
In the midst of this Ireland was actually exporting food grain and beef to the U.K., but the belief is Laissez-faire, don’t interfere. Sir Charles Trevelyan was the Assistant Secretary to the Treasury at the time and was effectively placed in charge of the Ireland relief effort. He wrote, “Do not encourage the idea of prohibiting exports. . . . perfect Free Trade is the right course”.
The economist Cormac Ograda estimates 430,000 tons of grain was exported just in 1846 to 1847. Concurrently, there was a shortfall of 20 million tons of potatoes due to crop failures. By 1800 the Irish economy was supplying British cities with 53% of its beef, 79% of its butter, and 86% of its pork. But these were the bigger estates. Most of the Irish population was just on small acreage, eating potatoes.
Further Attempts at Relief
The English government did provide some relief in the form of Indian corn or hominy grits. This was really, really hard corn and if it wasn’t treated right, it was indigestible. If you didn’t grind it up and just tried boiling it, it was so sharp that it could cause intestinal damage, especially in children. To really treat it, you had to grind it twice in order to get it into a fine powder so that the poor could digest it.
Here, again, is Trevelyan: “We must not aim at giving more than wholesome food. I cannot believe it would be necessary to grind the Indian corn twice… Dependence on charity is not to be made an agreeable mode of life”. ‘Can’t get too dependent’. ‘Can’t actually make the corn so you could digest it’. And then there is the whole question, how do you distribute this food relief?
I mentioned Mayo County had hardly any roads, so they decided to distribute it via ships, but there were hardly any harbors in western Ireland, even though the fishing could have been amazing. Sir Randolph Routh, who was the chair of the Irish Relief Commission, had this to say on the matter: “It is annoying that all these harbors are insignificant. It shows Providence never intended Ireland to be a great nation”. Because it didn’t have harbors. Because nobody invested in harbors.
And then, because the crops failed, the peasants couldn’t pay rent. And what did many of the landlords do? They evicted them. They sent them off and because the taxation of the landlords was based on how many houses they had, they would send peasants off and then they would tear and burn their houses down.
One group that did a great deal to help the poor was the Quakers. They opened up soup kitchens, but they found that to be a struggle. Coogan writes, “The business-oriented Quakers found it hard to adjust to a society in which most of the people who needed assistance had no knowledge of business and subsisted by growing their own food and on an economy based on barter rather than the cash register. There was no middle class; the clergy and the landlords were the leaders of society, and implementing change was hard. The Quakers did their best, an almost superhuman best at times. Apart from distributing food and clothing, they also attempted imaginative schemes to improve farming, fishing and general self-sufficiency”.
“The Multitude . . . Peacefully Thrown On Its Own Resources”
So, you had soup kitchens, you had these feeding operations, but by October 1847 Trevelyan said the time had come to “try what independent exertion will do”, that “the multitude was again gradually and peacefully thrown on its own resources, when new and abundant supplies of food become available, and the demand for labor was at its highest amount”.
In other words, Trevelyan cut off the supply of Indian corn; he shut down the soup kitchens, because now it was time for the market economy to take hold in order that people didn’t become too dependent.
Yet, the potato crop had failed in 1847. Sir Anthony Kennedy, a poor law inspector, witnessed the destruction of a thousand cabins in three months as the people were evicted. He wrote, “the wretched, helpless, homeless” wander the countryside, “scattering diseases, destitution, and dismay in all directions. The most awful cases of destitution and suffering ever seen. When the houses are torn down, people live in banks and ditches like animals, until starvation or weather drive them to the workhouses. Three cartloads who could not walk were brought in yesterday”. Workhouses were overcrowded and there was no food there either.
Of the situation, Pat Coogan writes, “Enough has been said about the role of the Irish landlords to make it clear that a proportion of the guilt, and a high one at that, has to be laid at their door”. The fact that they were evicting these Irishmen and families and children from their estate because they were behind in their rent because the crops had failed.
Coogan writes further, “But an even higher segment of blame has to be apportioned to the British government, which had both the power of initiative and the resources to greatly alleviate the suffering caused by the potato failure and did not do so”.
Why didn’t they help? They didn’t want to interfere with the market economy. They didn’t want to discourage initiative. If the poor were poor because of their own fault, it was a self-inflicted wound or was Providence, who are they to interfere? Besides this was Ireland’s problem and the landlords should be the ones taking care of it.
Trevelyan wrote, “The principle of the Poor Law as you well know is that rate after rate should be levied for the purpose of preserving life, until the landlord and farmer either enable the people to support themselves by honest industry, or dispose of their estates to those who can perform this indispensable duty”.
If the landlords can’t make it and can’t care for the poor, then they should give up their estates and basically let the people either leave or starve, so that more land would be freed up for cattle, which is more profitable, that could supply beef.
But here is one landlord, Colonel George Vaughan Jackson, he was in Mayo. He said, “No men are more ill-fated or greater victims than we resident proprietors, we are consumed by the hives of humans that exist on the properties of the absentees. On my right and my left are properties such as I allude to. I am overwhelmed and ruined by them. These proprietors will do nothing. All the burden of relief and employment falls on me”.
The absentee landlords were in Dublin and London, living the high life. They did not help the poor and they didn’t contribute to the workhouse. Instead they sent agents to try to collect rents and then they would evict those who couldn’t. That left those resident landlords having to shoulder most of the burden.
Lord Sligo, he had an estate and he was bringing in £7200 a year, but paying out £6000 a year, mostly on debts that he had inherited. He didn’t receive any rents from those that were on his estate for three years and managed to keep the work house in his area open for the destitute at his own expense, cutting his own expenses, including the unheard practice of not even keeping a carriage.
So, there were good people trying to help out. But, these landlords, those that stayed, were also under pressure. Lord Monteagle wrote October 8th, 1848, that he was under the necessity of “ejecting or being ejected” because of his debts.
Everybody was pointing fingers. The British government says that landlords hadn’t done enough. It was said that “they have done nothing but sit down and howl for English money”. And at some times there were cases where the Irish peasants rebelled and killed, in select cases killing the landlord. But the prime minister, Lord John Russell, wrote, “I am not ready to bring in any restrictive law without, at the same time, restraining the power of the landlord. It is quite true that landlords in England would not be shot like hares and partridges . . . But neither does a landlord in England turn out 50 persons at once and burn their houses overhead, giving them no provision for the future”.
In the Hands of Providence
Trevelyan, on July 19th, 1848, wrote, “The matter is awfully serious, but we are in the hands of Providence with no possibility of averting the catastrophe, if it is to happen we can only await the results”. It’s out of the British government’s hands. It’s the responsibility of the landlords, many of which weren’t even there and just let their agents take care of it and evict the people.
Coogan writes, “The objective sought and achieved at the end was an ending of overpopulation of Irish land, the introduction of efficient farming methods and an abundant supply of cheap agricultural products on the imperial power’s doorstep, rather than a drain on the exchequer”.
The British government, other than sending some of the Indian corn washed their hands of the situation, left the landlords to deal with it and in the end people died or they left. The landlords realized it was cheaper to send the people away on ships to Canada and the United States, than to support them at the workhouse.
So Charles Trevelyan wrote, “I do not know how farms are to be consolidated if small farmers do not emigrate. By acting for the purpose of keeping them at home, we should be defeating our own subject. We must not complain of what we really of want to obtain. If small farmers go, and then the landlords are induced to sell portions of their estates to persons who invest capital, we shall at last arrive at something like a satisfactory settlement of the country”.
“Unfortunate Creatures . . . Ejected Without Mercy”
So, the landlords sent the people off. Many sent them off in just awful, awful conditions. They didn’t provide them food for the journey and very little clothes. They would show up on the Canadian shores without any type of winter clothes. Many people died on the ships; they were called “coffin ships”, overcrowded and diseased.
Dr. Griscom, of Public Health Medicine, looking at a ship that arrived at Ellis Island wrote, “Emaciated half nude figures, many with petechial eruptions still disfiguring their faces, crouching in their berths. Some were just rising from their berths for the first time since leaving Liverpool, having been suffered to lie there all the voyage wallowing in their own filth”. That particular ship there were 115 cases of typhus.
The New York Tribune wrote, “It is really lamentable to see the vast number of unfortunate creatures that are almost daily cast on our shores, penniless and without physical energy to earn a day’s living. Yesterday, groups of these hapless beings were to be seen congregated about the [City Hall] Park and in Broadway, looking the very picture of despair, misery, disease, and want.
“On inquiry, we ascertained that they had arrived here by the ship of Sir Robert Peel, and that they had been, for the most part, tenants of the Marquis of Landsdowne, on his County Kerry estate–ejected without mercy by him, and shipped for America in this wholesale way.
“Among them were grey haired and aged men and women, who had spent the heyday of their life as tillers of their native soil, and now are sent to this country to find a grave. This is too bad–it is inhuman; and yet it is an act of indiscriminate and wholesale expatriation committed by the ‘liberal’ President of the council of her Majesty Queen Victoria ‘liberal’ ministry”.
It got to the point that New York wouldn’t take entry and that they would charge money, $10 per passenger, and if they didn’t have the money they’d send them to Canada. Boston levied $1200 on every aged or infirm persons.
Ships that had fever aboard were refused landing rights and that meant passengers who had suffered across the sea were often driven away and there were riots as they would try to break through and get on the land. But they were forcibly constrained to stay stay on the ship and then they would go to Canada. But then the Irish would come down and they would cross the border from Canada into the United States. And there was a lot, a lot of discrimination against the Irish. They had nothing. They were poor and sent here with nothing.
Building an American Life
Those were the conditions and the situation that my ancestors Patrick O’Laughlin and Sarah Nestor faced as they emigrated in the late 1840s or early or 1850s. My grandmother is Alice Walton. Her mother is Bridget Delia O’Laughlin and her father is John Walton. They, Bridget and John, were the daughter and son of these Irish immigrants that had been forced to flee. They were the first generation to come here. They met and got married in 1902. They had settled in Maysville, Kentucky. Mayslick, actually, just south of there.
In the November 2nd, 1902 Maysville Evening Bulletin there’s a wedding announcement. It says, “The groom [John Walton] is a member of Schroeder-Walton Harness Manufacturing Company and is one of the city’s upright and industrious young business men. His bride is a very pretty and most estimable young lady. Mr. and Mrs. Walton are popular in their circle and their many friends extend congratulations and sincere wishes for a happy wedded life. They left for a trip to Louisville”.
Fifty years later, the first generation gets married. Their parents had suffered tremendously in the Great Hunger. John Walton and Bridget Dalia, they had a tough life. They bought a dairy farm in Ohio in 1910, across the river from Maysville. The river froze. They couldn’t deliver the milk; it spoiled and they lost their business.
John worked at a distillery for a while in Frankfort Kentucky, leaving every week to go and then coming back on the weekends. He bought a tobacco farm, which didn’t do so well, and then moved this family of six kids to Cincinnati. Around 1918 he joined Procter and Gamble, where he worked for 25 years.
One of their first homes was a six-room house he bought. It was a row house. My Aunt Marge, my grandmother’s sister, wrote that it, “had no electric, no water, no furnace, dirt floor and basement, no stationery tubs, and outside John–a two holer. This was one of a row of houses, 10 in all. We were in the middle. You could put your ear to the wall and hear what your neighbors were fighting about. I saw mom do that a lot. That was some of her past time. Mother fought bedbugs for months and cat odors from the previous owners. My brother Alban hated that place”.
Sensitivity Looking Forward
That’s where my grandmother lived. And I’m just a couple generations, a few generations away from this Irish Hunger and famine, this forced emigration and poverty. And boy do I feel blessed.
And that’s the sensitivity I take when we discuss, in a few weeks, illegal immigration. where I saw similar poverty in Mexico and people coming here, most illegally, to find work. We’re going to look at the economic consequences of illegal immigration but that for now is Episode 179, a little longer episode than normal.