Page images



It has been seen that Father Mathew, in the belief that he was acting most wisely with a strongly-religious people, imparted as much as possible a sacred character to the pledge. This practice was the occasion of considerable controversy, even between members of his own Church; those who objected to it contending that, when the pledge was violated, after having been so taken, its violation inflicted the additional injury of degrading the person in his own esteem, by making him feel as if he had been guilty of perjury. On the other hand, it was urged that the more solemnly the pledge was administered, the more binding was it rendered, and that the introduction of the religious element was wise and beneficial. Of this latter opinion was the Vicar of Yardley, who thus expressed it in a letter to Father Mathew :

Vicarage, Yardley, Birmingham:
Nov. 27, 1845.

MY DEAR SIR,-I hear, with gratitude to God, of your doings in Ireland to promote total abstinence from all intoxicating drinks as a beverage. I rejoice in your abundant and successful labours, and wish you 'God's speed' with all my heart.

I find, and probably you do so too, that when true piety attends or follows the temperance pledge, there is stability, and there hope and almost confidence may be entertained: but that, when this is not the case, the fairest promises are often broken, and the brightest prospects blasted.

I admire, in your pledge, the acknowledgment of the need of Divine assistance, and, in your blessing, a prayer for grace and strength to keep the promise.

This is your rock of strength. Go on, my brother, and prosper, till Ireland and the whole earth be converted to your holy principle of temperance. I am glad that I have a spark of the temperance fire that glows in your heart; and may I have your prayers and your blessing, and you shall continue to have that of, my dear sir, your faithful but unworthy brother and fellow-labourer,

HENRY GWYTHER, Vicar of Yardley.


The Famine--Its Effects and Causes-Ireland before the Famine-The
Blights of 1845 and 1846-Father Mathew's Correspondence with the
Government-Timely appeal-The Famine setting in.

Too soon, alas! arose a state of things which, while materially influencing the Temperance movement, brought about a social revolution of the greatest magnitude, and the gravest results. The history of the

Irish Famine is yet to be written; and no event of modern times more requires an able and impartial pen than that terrible calamity, which filled the land with horrors for which a parallel can only be found in the pages of Boccaccio or De Foe-which counted its victims by

hundreds of thousands-which originated an emigration that has not yet exhausted the strength of its fatal current-which caused twentythree millions' worth of property to change hands, called into existence a new race of proprietors, and swept into poverty, banishment, and oblivion, many a once opulent family, and erased from the bead-roll of the Irish gentry many a proud and distinguished name. That history is yet to be written, and will be best written when time shall have brought with it a more impartial spirit and a cooler judgment than exist at this moment, while the memory is still too vivid and the sympathy too keen for a task so grave and so important. Fortunately for the writer of this biography, his duty compels him to treat that terrible event merely as an episode in the history of Father Mathew's career, and as a means of exhibiting, in a more striking manner, a character which the misfortunes of the country, and the sufferings of its people, developed into a still brighter and purer radiance.

To understand properly the condition of Ireland immediately preceding the famine, one has but to turn to the Report of the Devon Commission, which was appointed in December 1843, and prosecuted its enquiries in every part of the country during the subsequent year; and in its pages will be seen more than sufficient evidence to prove to what extent misery and wretchedness had prepared the way for the ravages of blight, starvation, and plague. A single passage, descriptive of the condition of the labouring class, will suffice for the present purpose :

A reference to the evidence of most of the witnesses will show that the agricultural labourer of Ireland continues to suffer the greatest privations and hardships; that he continues to depend upon casual and precarious employment for subsistence; that he is still badly housed, badly fed, badly clothed, and badly paid for his labour. Our personal experience and observation, during our inquiry, has afforded us a melancholy confirmation of these statements; and we cannot forbear expressing our strong sense of the patient endurance which the labouring classes have generally exhibited, under sufferings greater, we believe, than the people of any other country in Europe have to sustain.

Upon the ill-paid labour of his hands, and the produce of a patch of potato ground, which he rented at a high rate, or for which he mortgaged a considerable portion of his working days, the Irish labourer exclusively existed. This patch of ground was either let to him manured and planted, by the farmer, at an enormous rent; or, out of the proceeds of his own labour, he prepared and planted it himself. If the crop turned out abundant, everything went well with the poor labourer; it fed himself and his family, and it fed his pig and his poultry; it freed him from debt and liability, and it enabled him to purchase, in the nearest town or village, those necessaries which were required by his condition in life. But if the crop-the one and


231 only crop-failed him, then misery, and debt, and hunger, and sickness, were the lot of the Irish agricultural labourer.

The class above the labourer-namely, the small farmers, holding a few acres of land on a tenancy at will-were but little better off than those who were badly housed, badly fed, and badly clothed.' The great majority of this class had no capital other than their own labour, or that of a miserable dependent, to whom they let out a patch of ground in con-acre, for a potato garden; and having, as a rule, neither lease, nor security of any kind, to protect the fruits of their industry, the small farmers were generally satisfied with raising a scanty crop from the soil, and content with the poorest fare, and the meanest dwelling-the principal result of their hard toil being absorbed in the rent, which was too often exorbitant in amount. A large proportion of this class of small farmers held, not directly from the landlord of the estate, but under middlemen, who, having obtained long leases at easy rents, lived as gentlemen upon the toil of the wretched serfs whom they called their tenants, and among whom the land was cut up into small holdings.

The landlords of Ireland were then-just preceding the faminesuffering as well for the sins of their predecessors as from their own extravagance. As a rule, the landed property of Ireland was crushed under an accumulated load of debt and encumbrance; and many of the finest estates in the country were well-nigh ruined, and almost laid waste, by the destructive litigation and still more destructive management of the Court of Chancery.

Thus there was an embarrassed gentry, a harassed or discouraged tenantry, and a labouring population whose very existence depended upon the chances of the seasons, and the success or failure of a delicate and susceptible tuber. Manufacturing industry was limited to a few counties, and a few large towns in these; and commerce did not extend its beneficial influence beyond the sea-board, principally that facing the western shores of England. No country, in fact, could be worse prepared to meet the coming danger, or ride out the storm which so soon darkened the heavens. And when the storm broke forth in its fury, helplessly the poor ship laboured in the trough of the angry sea, no vigorous hand at the helm, and water entering at every yawning seam.

From 1817 to 1839, there had been repeated failures of the potato crop in Ireland, some partial, and some more general in their destruction; and each failure was attended with the invariable resultsfamine and pestilence. Those whom the hunger spared the typhus smote, and the red hue of the rural graveyard gave fatal evidence of the consequences of a potato blight.

In 1822 an abundant harvest was gathered in and stored; but the

potato rotted in the pits, on account of the wetness of the growing season, and it was not until an advanced period of the year that the unhappy people were conscious of the calamity that had befallen them. The most energetic efforts were made to mitigate the distress, which was felt in its worst form in the provinces of Munster and Connaught. Large subscriptions were raised, and local committees formed throughout Ireland; and the people of England, whose liveliest sympathy was excited by the sufferings of their Irish brethren, raised a sum of nearly 200,000l. for their relief. Of the 44,000l. then raised in Ireland, 41,000l. were subscribed in the distressed provinces of Munster and Connaught, and but 3,000l. in Ulster and Leinster, which had escaped the calamity. The entire amount, either voted by Parliament, for public works or other modes of relief, or raised by individual subscription, was somewhat over 600,0007.

In 1832 severe distress was felt in Galway, Mayo, and Donegal, from a partial failure of the potato the year before, the result of violent storms and heavy rains. In this instance, private benevolence, partly assisted by Government aid, was sufficient to meet the necessity; and a plentiful harvest soon obliterated the traces of local suffering. England contributed 74,4107. to the relief of Ireland on this occasion; and Ireland raised, by voluntary effort, the sum of 30,000l. The Government advanced 40,000l., which was partly expended in public works, and partly in the purchase and distribution of food.

On occasions subsequent to 1831, and previous to 1845, the potato partially failed, but not to any extent requiring notice.

The blight, which was the precursor, but not the actual cause, of the famine, first appeared in 1845, in the autumn of that year. It had appeared the previous year in North America, and again in 1845 and 1846-its second appearance being the most destructive to the plant. The disease manifested itself in Ireland in the late crop, the early crop having been comparatively untouched. Late in the autumn, it was found that the potato was rotting; and among the first to apprise the Government of the fact was Father Mathew, whose frequent journeys through all parts of the country rendered him thoroughly acquainted with its condition. Mr. Richard Pennefather, the then Under Secretary in Dublin Castle, gratefully thanked him for the information which he afforded, and the suggestions which he made. The announcement of this calamity excited considerable apprehension, and the Government appointed a Commission to inquire into and report upon the causes and extent of the disease. Dr. Playfair and Mr. Lindley specially reported, on the 15th of November 1845, on the present scarcity of the potato crop, and on the prospect of the approaching scarcity. They say:


We can come to no other conclusion than that one-half of the actual potato



crop of Ireland is either destroyed, or remains in a state unfit for the food of We moreover feel it our duty to apprise you, that we fear this to be a low



The Commissioners of Enquiry, in their Report, dated the 20th of January 1846, fully corroborate this statement:

It appears (they say), from undoubted authority, that of thirty-two counties, not one has escaped failure in the potato crop; of 130 Poor Law Unions, not one is exempt.

The poor-houses will, without doubt, be found a most important means of relief, and we consider it a most providential circumstance that such an extensive resource is available against a calamity more widely extended, and more serious in its nature, than any that has affected the Irish people since the year 1817.

In the end of November 1845, the ovens in the naval dockyards were set at work, making biscuit for storing, to be used in case of necessity; and in the following month the Government arranged with Messrs. Baring for a supply of Indian corn and meal, to the extent of 100,000l., to be shipped from the United States, and transmitted to Cork, there to be kept, as in a central depôt. The fact of this order having been given was kept secret from the trade as long as possible.

Father Mathew was met, in the course of his mission, by an officer of the Government, who obtained from him much valuable information, as the following extract from that official's letter will show:


Cork: Jan. 10, 1846.

I have passed through several counties, and travelled with some intelligent men, both landlords and farmers, and with Father Mathew from Clonmel; they estimate the loss by disease as one-third of the potato crop. Father Mathew, who has been travelling through the country for the last four months, said he hoped the majority of the people would yet be able to hold a sufficient number of good potatoes for seed; but it is impossible to judge, at present, how far they will turn out in the pits. Father Mathew, who is well acquainted with the country and the habits of the lower orders, gave me a good deal of interesting information, and among other things, touching the working of the Poor Law Unions. . . . The Father looked upon me as a gentleman travelling on his own affairs, seeking, at the same time, information as a stranger.

Commissary Hewetson was stationed in Cork, and was thenceforward in frequent communication with Father Mathew. Writing on the 24th of February 1846, he says:

[ocr errors]

Father Mathew has been with me to-day. I gave him your letter to read; of course he felt gratified by your remarks. He fully agrees with me, that the meal, once ground, with the light corn sifted, according to a sample I sent you, is the proper meal for the classes who need it.

Fortunately, the grain crop of 1845 was unusually abundant; and though a considerable proportion of the potato crop was destroyed, there still remained enough to last the people for some time. So that,

« PreviousContinue »