HC Deb 02 April 1897 vol 48 cc476-83

had given notice to move: — That as the provisions of the ordinary Poor Law have proved altogether inadequate to meet the exceptional distress which prevails in the Unions of Belmullet and Killala, in the northern division of Mayo, and as it is shown by the resolutions of the local representative bodies, and by the rapid and dangerous weekly increase in the extent and cost of outdoor relief in the Belmullet Union, that this distress is assuming alarming proportions, it is the duty of the Government to come to the immediate assistance of the people by providing special relief, He said there had been absolute and considerable failure on the part of the officials of the Local Government Board of Ireland in giving the Chief Secretary full and accurate representations on the true state of affairs in certain portions of the west of Ireland. He would ask the right hon. Gentleman, did he know what was going on at the present time in the wrest of Ireland? The right hon. Gentleman had consistently denied the existence of distress in the west of Ireland, though that distress was acute and dangerous; and, if the Local Government Board did not take the necessary steps to meet it, the consequences might be terrible. The potato crop had failed, and the people were not simply on the verge of starvation, they were already starving. As the potato crop failed, the supply of Indian meal must increase. On the 22nd February, in answer to a question, the right hon. Gentleman said:— We have no reason to anticipate general distress of a nature requiring the exceptional expedient of relief works, and it is expected that any eases of distress which may arise can be dealt with under the Poor Law system. On the 9th February, the right hon. Gentleman said:— The Report of the Commissioner of the Loral Government Board has been received, and I have also had the advantage of a personal interview with him on the subject. The result is to confirm the conclusion already arrived at, that there is no reason at present to anticipate that opening of relief works will become necessary in any part of the Union. Both the present Chief Secretary and the Leader of the House had become familiar with the parish priest of Belmullet, Father Hewson, and they know that he would not lend himself to extravagant statement. He said:— The traders of Belmullet would be in a position to prove that the distress exists, inasmuch as from the end of November up In the present, time the consumption of Indian meal in the districts which they supply has increased eighteen-fold beyond the normal consumption in other years. He had received replies from a number of the chief merchants of Belmullet whom the right hon. Gentleman had also met. Mr. John Murphy stated that while from 1st November 1895 to March 25th 1896, he only sold 30 bags of Indian meal, in the corresponding period of 1890–97 he sold 1,150 bags. Mr. James O'Donoghue, last year only sold four tons of Indian meal, while this year he sold 40 tons. Mr. John Lennahan declared that the quantity of Indian meal he had sold during three months was fifteen times greater than in the corresponding period of the previous year. When the right hon. Gentleman went over there he met with a splendid reception from the people there, simply because they expected something from him which they never received. [Laughter.] It was all very well for right hon. Gentlemen to come down to their poor western districts, and in the light of great receptions to make promises, and when they came back to this House, basking in the full sunshine of their past popularity, to forget the promises they made. They could think of Crete or Armenia; they forgot those things conveniently when they left Ireland. But there was one awkward fact in the situation, that while they forgot their promises Irishmen did not. Mr. James Mills, Chairman of the Belmullet Board of Guardians, in the three months from November 1895, sold 40 bags, and these last three months 300 bags. He passed away from these proofs of the failure of the potato crop to point to another fact which they would not escape from. He answered him on 25th January: I may point out that there are at the present time fewer inmates in the Belmullet workhouse than was the ease last month, and considerably fewer than at the corresponding period of the previous year. The right hon. Gentleman knew very well in making that statement the reason why; he knew that the west of Ireland peasant would starve and die on his little plot before he would enter the workhouse. But the right hon. Gentle was cautiously careful he would not say ingeniously careful to avoid giving to the House the statistics of outdoor relief. He would give the official figures relating to outdoor relief for seven weeks in the Belmullet Union. On January 30th last, 71 persons received outdoor relief at a cost of £4. 6s. 10d. against 37 at a cost of £2. 5s. 6d in the corresponding period of last year. On February 27th, 275 persons were relieved at a cost of £11. 18s. 9d. against 58 at a cost of £3. 11s. 6d. in the same week of last year. On March 6th, 372 were relieved at a cost, of £14. 11s. 7d. On March 13th, 530 were relieved at a cost of £18. 2s. 9d. against only 55 relieved in the same week last year. On March 20th, 662 were relieved at a cost of £23. 18s. 10d. against only 51 at a cost of £3. 8s. 1d. in the same week last year. The figures showed that last year the two unions were in a normal condition. But this year the potato crop had failed, and unless the Government came to the rescue of these poor people they must starve and die.


thought that the attack made by the hon. Member on the Local Government Board was not justified. It was inaccurate to say that the Local Government Board had not kept him closely and carefully informed of the condition of things in this part of the west of Ireland. He had been in constant communication with the Board, and had received reports again and again. Every fortnight he was supplied with elaborate reports as to what was going on in these seaboard unions. He had never denied that there was distress in those unions or in other unions in the west of Ireland, but he had said that the condition of things there was not such as, in his opinion, to call for the exceptional remedy of relief works. He was not prepared to deny that the distress at Belmullet was very considerable, and perhaps during the next few months was likely to increase. Distress in the west of Ireland was generally of a sporadic kind, and existed only in certain black spots. Relief works were expensive and elaborate machinery for dealing with the difficulty. Since 1880 relief works had been started live times, and they were not a desirable method of dealing with distress if it were possible to deal with it in another way. Undoubtedly they had a demoralising side; and what he felt was, that if this remedy were resorted to, the result would be that whenever a season rather less good than usual occurred, the people would always expect relief works, and would not make provision in a good for a bad season. ["Hear, hear!"] Having regard to the fact that the distress was of a sporadic character, and to the strong objections which might be urged against the adoption of this particular remedy, the Government had resolved, so far as possible, to rely upon the operations of the Poor Law. Of course he foresaw at a comparatively early period that it might be necessary to relax the conditions of out-door relief in the unions to which the hon. Member had referred, and as a matter of fact they had been done. ["Hear, hear!"] He was still of opinion that it would not be necessary to establish relief works in this district. If they did, the cry for relief works for other unions when the potato crop was not so copious as usual would become almost irresistible. The hon. Member had accused him of making a promise to the people of Belmullet which he had not fulfilled. He made no promise at all, except that he would carefully consider the representations which were made to him. ["Hear, hear!"] While he freely admitted there was distress in Belmullet, he thought it was not impossible that the representations made to him by the boards of guardians and other bodies had been undoubtedly influenced by a natural desire on the part of the people in that part to have a railway constructed for them at the Government's expense. He had not seen his way to undertake to say that a railway should be constructed, but the Government were making preparations for the establishment of a steamer service between Belmullet and Achill, which would involve the construction of piers and approaches. He hoped this work would be shortly commenced, and, so far as it went, it would contribute to the relief of the existing distress. ["Hear, hear!"] Of course the condition of affairs in this and other unions would continue to be carefully watched. ["Hear, hear!"]


was quite sure that as far as he was personally concerned the right hon. Gentlemen was carefully watching the conditions of these unions, and he was equally satisfied that he would be totally unable to provide a remedy. The only remedy he could see was for the right hon. Gentleman to send round the allied fleet to bombard the district.

MR. W. JOHNSTON (Belfast, S.)

Who is making a joke of Irish distress now?


said that by that means, and by the expenditure of a few thousand pounds worth of powder, they would be able to get rid of the entire inhabitants of these districts, who could thus be removed off the face of the earth. England had fired the price of more shells into Crete than would relieve the entire distress in the Belmullet Union. He was not himself acquainted with gunnery practice, but he had seen it stated in the newspapers that every time one of these big ships fired a broadside, it cost about £600, of which Ireland had to pay one-tenth. It was perfectly true the right hon. Gentleman had established, or was thinking of establishing, not a railway which would give the people the work of navvying, but a line of steamers from Achill to Belmullet. Between the poorest place on the Irish seaboard and a still more impoverished island in the Atlantic there was to be a service of steamers. It would be as valuable as a telephone service between Purgatory and a still warmer quarter. [Laughter.] What the people of Belmullet had to ship to Achill but black potatoes, or the people of Achill to ship to Belmullet but the same commodity, was more than he could understand. All this time the right hon. Gentleman talked of Poor Law relief, but if Ireland had the proportion of relief for her rates that rich England received under the Hating Act, if she had the value of the shells hurled at Crete, then there would be plenty of Irish money for the relief of these miserable unions in the west of Ireland. Under the English Rating Act, relief was given to rich Durham and prosperous Yorkshire, but there was none for the unfortunate people of Acill. The sum Ireland did get, £160,000, was tied up, or impounded, to be spent he understood in the salaries of a Board of Agriculture in Dublin. ["Hear, hear!"] There were boards enough in Dublin Castle, and wooden heads enough to supply a forest. [Laughter.] So far as he understood, the people of Belmullet were to "see the British fleet at anchor," not in the shape of war ships, but as represented by a service of steamers, and they would get such gratification as they could out of watching the smoke trail as the vessels came and went. [Laughter] He sympathised with the right hon. Gentleman, because he must know what was the remedy for this case, but could not apply it. He was not even in the Cabinet. The voice of the right hon. Gentleman might be lifted up with eloquence, but he had no more power to make it felt by the Cabinet when he spoke for Ireland than he had himself, and not so much, for he could talk as often as the Speaker called upon him, but the right hon. Gentleman was obliged to hold his tongue according to orders. What was the remedy? They were not allowed to use their own money; they could not get Bills through the House though they appealed with "bated breath and whispering humbleness" to this Minister and that Minister. When they asked for a small part of their own money to relieve their own people, they read in the papers comments on the audacity of attempts to get another pull at the pockets of John Bull. All they wanted was to be allowed to manage their own little affairs, and expend their own money on relieving distress when their own people when in dire distress through the blight upon their crops. But this was not allowed, and short of killing a Local Government Board Inspector he did not see what the people of Belmullet could do. [Laughter.] Something in that direction might call up a sudden blaze of attention to Belmullet. Why had Crete received so much attention by shells and otherwise? Simply because the Cretans rose up and killed somebody. [Cries of "Oh; oh!" and laughter.] It was his sore experience that one whiff of grapeshot had more eloquence than a thousand speakers like Demosthenes. There was a laugh from hon. Gentlemen opposite when allusions were made to Indian meal, and it might have been thought this was due to callousness or heartlessness, but he believed they were only indifferent from sheer ignorance. One hon. Gentleman cheered when the rise in the sale of Indian meal was mentioned, and perhaps thought it was good for British trade, but he forgot that these people had not the money to pay for it. These people had to pay their rent whether their potatoes were black or white. If there were a native Administration in Ireland—he would not say even a Parliament, but a local Board of Directors in sympathy with the people—they would not be setting their sums in proportion, or talking to them about logic, philosophy, or mathematics, but would find some means of bringing relief to the homes of these unfortunate people.

MR. J. P. FARRELL (Cavan, W.)

said this district was one of the poorest in Ireland. The area was 120 square miles, and it was one vast mass of rain-sodden bog. The valuation of the 180,000 acres was only £10,818, or. 1s.2½d. an acre. There were 14,338 people in that area, and it was calculated that, out of this, 500 families, representing 1,500 individuals, were in a state bordering on starvation. He asserted that the Government had given the people of the district to understand that a railway connection would be made between Belmullet and the West-port Line to Achill at Mulranny Station. That promise had been made by the First Lord of the Treasury and his brother, the present Chief Secretary for Ireland. He wondered had the Chief Secretary received an expert report on the question of running this steamer to Achill. The depth of water at many places in Blacksod Bay was very little, and quite unable to enable a deep-draught steamer to run. Therefore, the Government proposed to run a flat-bottomed steamer, which would be a most dangerous experiment, for there was no part of Ireland subject to more severe storms than this place.


claimed to move "That the question be now put."

Question put, "That the Question be now put."

The House divided:—Ayes, 155; Noes, 37.—(Division List, No. 161.)

Main Question put accordingly, and agreed to.

Supply considered in Committee.

(In the Committee.)

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