HC Deb 29 April 1822 vol 7 cc146-50
Sir E. O'Brien

said, that before the House proceeded to the important business of the day, he wished to point out to the gentlemen around him, the very dreadful and calamitous situation to which a great portion of his countrymen were reduce. There were at that moment thousands of persons in Ireland, who, in consequence of the failure of the late potatoe crop, were reduced to a single meal a day, and that meal generally consisted of oatmeal and water. It was well known that, generally speaking, the whole population of the South of Ireland lived, during a great portion of the year, upon potatoes; but, during the last year, the incessant rains which prevailed, had totally decayed and destroyed that vegetable in the ground. At the late assizes in his county, the distressed state of the people was taken into consideration, and a representation of that distress was made to the lord lieutenant. He had no doubt of the benevolent intentions of the noble lord who now filled the office of lord lieutenant, but it was impossible to extend relief to that poor and suffering country, without the interference and aid of parliament. It was a lamentable fact, that at that moment the counties of Cork, Kerry, Limerick, Mayo, and Roscommon, in fact, the whole provinces of Munster and Connaught, were in a state of actual starvation. If the counties of Lancaster, or Warwick, or Stafford, were suffering as Ireland now was, what, he would ask, would be the feelings of that House? What were the people of that unfortunate country to do? How were they, deprived as they were of money, of any resource, to relieve themselves from the difficulties under which they laboured? He well remembered the situation in which Ireland was placed in 1817. Great as the distresses of the country were at, that period, there was still a circulation of money, and a high price of corn, which afforded many openings of relief. But, what was the situation of the country now? There was scarcely a town lb the south of Ireland, in which hundreds of strong, able-bodied men, were not to be seen walking about without any means of getting employment. The question for the consideration of the House was—what had produced this state of things? One-third of the respectable people of the county of Clare had been reduced to absolute distress; they had neither money nor means to relieve themselves. He was aware that there was plenty of corn in the market; but, what did that do towards relief, when the distressed parties had no money to buy? It was true that the gentry of the county were, in many instances, ready to cooperate with the magistrates in affording relief; but how was it possible for a few individuals to afford permanent relief to 150,000 men? In making this statement, he did not appear before the House as a mendicant on the part of his country. All he asked was, that government would make advances to relieve the present distresses of unfortunate Ireland. For these advances the county rates could be pledged, and the money might be laid out in repairing roads, or in such other manner as might be best calculated to afford relief. It was well known to many of his friends, that thousands were at that moment dying from famine in Ireland. He was most anxious to make this statement at the earliest period, with a view to draw the attention of government to it; for unless relief was promptly afforded, the unfortunate population must suffer the last stage of misery. A short time ago, potatoes, the principal food of the peasantry, of Ireland, were sold at from one penny to three halfpence per stone; during this year they were sold at 6½d. per stone. And, while this general article of Irish consumption was so raised, oatmeal had also risen from 13l. to 15l. per ton. The hon. baronet, after pointing out with great feeling the other distresses under which the people of Ireland laboured, adverted to the fact of the poor people in Ireland being actually obliged to rob for their subsistence. He had himself been informed by the head police officer in his county, that if they were to commit all the persons who took provisions for their support, no gaol in the country could hold them; nay, farther, that the parties so arrested, if they could get their families around them, would think that they had made a happy exchange in getting into prison. The hon. baronet concluded by expressing a hope that parliament would take into its serious consideration the suffering state of Ireland.

Mr. Becher

corroborated the hon. baronet's statement, and expressed his fear that, in a very short time, even the scanty subsistence now on hand would be altogether expended.

Mr. Goulburn

expressed his surprise that the hon. baronet should have taken that premature opportunity of calling upon the House to enter into the consideration of the state of the peasantry in Ireland. He was the more surprised at this course, as the hon. baronet had been in daily communication with him upon the subject of this distress, and must have known that, if he had hitherto refrained from stating the views of the Irish government, it was not from any want of sympathy for the sufferers, nor from the slightest inclination to withhold whatever relief the government of Ireland could practically afford; but from a firm conviction, that the agitation of the subject would augment rather than alleviate the evils which the hon. baronet had so feelingly deplored. Supposing the distress to be as general in the south of Ireland as the hon. baronet had depicted it to be, and the condition of the resident gentry so reduced as to render them unable to mitigate the condition of their peasantry, to whom, the hon. baronet asked, but to the government, Could the people look up for relief? The Irish government were, however, first bound to consider to what extent they had the means of administering relief; and the House might form some estimate of the probable amount which would be required generally from the government, to meet the demands likely to be made upon them, if they once took upon themselves the responsibility of subsisting the people, from this single fact, that the amount of relief claimed from the hon. baronet's county alone was for 4.00,000l. The government could not, he thought, he considered much to blame, if they paused at the outset, and forbore from hastily admitting a precedent, which would encourage a liability for a repetition of those demands from various quarters of the country. The case he believed, was really this—that, in some parts there was a great deficiency in a particular crop, which constituted the chief subsistence of the peasantry of Ireland. But, though the potatoe crops had, in many places suffered, yet in others there was an abundant supply of corn; and at the very time when the scarcity had enhanced the price of potatoes in the most distressed market, the price of oatmeal continued lower than it generally was throughout the empire. The rise in the latter article was not for some time more than 2s. in the cwt., although he admitted the advance had increased to 12s. or 13s. during a part of the last week. In answer to the hon. baronet's inquiry, why the government had not sent down a commission to inquire into the extent of the distress, he had only to inform the House, what the hon. baronet previously knew, that Mr. Warburton, who came up to Dublin to communicate the opinions of the gentlemen of his county, was immediately charged by the lord lieutenant with a commission, to return and ascertain first, in a more detailed form, the degree of pressure which was apprehended; next, to what extent the gentlemen of the county could contribute to the relief of their peasantry; and that then it would remain for government to take into their consideration the measures of co-operation which they could administer. His letters from Dublin that day announced the return of Mr. Warburton, and that the lord lieutenant was then in a situation to decide how far government could afford any relief.

Sir E. O'Brien

disclaimed imputing the slightest neglect to the Irish government, but repeated that he thought parliament alone capable of meeting the evil. He had no intention of throwing his country men upon Great Britain as paupers; but only asked an advance upon the county rates to enable them to provide for themselves by their own industry.