HL Deb 19 April 1847 vol 91 cc935-40

I beg to present to your Lordships a petition from the relief committee of Clifden, in the county of Galway, representing the destitution of the farmers in that district with respect to the means of sowing the land, and praying that your Lordships would take such steps as may avert from that district the recurrence of a famine. I am aware that your Lordships have no power of complying with the prayer of the petition; but my laying it upon the Table of the House may be so far beneficial, that your Lordships will then have before you a faithful representation of the existing circumstances of a district which is, I fear, but a sample of many others similarly circumstanced in the west and south of Ireland—of that country for which you are now called upon to provide an extended poor law, and to apply the operation of principles which, according as they are sound or unsound, may either lay the foundation of great and lasting social improvement, or aggravate the evils by which it is retarded. I should have presented this petition to your Lordships before Easter; but having been detained in the west of Ireland by the duties which the present distressed state of the country demands at the hands of the landed proprietors, I did that which was most likely to be of use to the petitioners—I brought the case under the notice of Lord John Russell, through whom alone, as the head of the Government, any effectual steps could be taken to remedy a state of things threatening to the very existence of a large population. But although I am impressed with the belief that the noble Lord was most anxious to provide a remedy, I much apprehend that the steps he has taken may prove altogether unavailing even to mitigate the evil; and this is my reason for troubling your Lordships with the statement, as I am desirous of drawing the attention of noble Lords connected with the Government to the subject. His Lordship wrote to me a few days after my interview with him, to acquaint me that my wishes with respect to the district in question had been anticipated, as I should see by referring to a copy he enclosed to me of a letter addressed on the 31st of March from Mr. Trevelyan to the officer in command of Her Majesty's steamer Odin, having on board, from the British Relief Association, a cargo of various seeds, to be disposed of at certain specified prices, for ready money, at Galway, Clifden, Westport, and Belmullet. I should be glad to hear that the prices had been realized, as it would show satisfactorily that there did not exist that destitution in the district which the petition leads one to believe, and because, if the seed has been disposed of, not only will the requisite of sowing the land have been provided in the best manner, but some useful crops will have been introduced, the cultivation of which may more than compensate for the loss of the potato; but when I compare the price to be paid for the oats, the article most needed—20s. per barrel—and find that it rather exceeds the market price of the same article at the same date in the markets of the following Irish seaports; that at Cork oats were selling from 14s. to 21s.; at Waterford, from 18s. to 23s.; at Wexford, from 14s. to 18s.; and at Galway, from 18s. to 23s.; and that no sales are to be made except for ready money—I cannot but fear that the expedition of this cargo of seeds, however benevolently intended, is not likely to be attended with any beneficial results. Mr. Trevelyan, in writing the letter of instructions, appears to have already realized in imagination the prices at which these seeds were to be disposed of, and is very particular in his instructions upon the subject. He writes thus:— You will make no sales except for ready money; and you will keep the sums received by you in some secure place on board the steamer, and pay them immediately on your return to London to the treasurer of the Association. I do not believe, my Lords, that these sums of money, the price of the seeds, exist in the district of Clifden; the petition expressly notices the destitution of the farmers, and states that the landlords, however willing, have not the means of assisting their tenants. It is almost mockery of distress to offer, under such circumstances, to supply seeds for ready money at the market prices. The character of Mr. D'Arcy, the chairman of the Clifden relief committee, whose name is to the petition, is a guarantee for the truth of what it represents. My noble Friend opposite (the Marquess of Clanricarde) will, I am sure, bear me out in saying that this gentleman is deservedly respected as a resident proprietor of most active benevolence, and unwearied in his exertions to improve that district of country, where, in the town of Clifden, he has laid the foundation of the civilization and future prosperity of the county. To some of your Lordships it may appear strange that with a proprietor so active and well disposed, the district in which he resides should be so backward in improvement as to have been, as the petition represents, heretofore wholly dependent upon the potato crop; but such of your Lordships as are acquainted with Ireland, will better appreciate the difficulties arising from the prejudices, habits, and dispositions of the peasantry, that obstruct improvement, and especially their improvidence and want of self-reliance—dispositions which, I regret to say, have been not a little increased by the operation of the temporary relief measures, and by the mode in which they have been administered. I do not blame Her Majesty's Ministers for having proposed those measures; in proposing them they acted for the best, and with the almost unanimous concurrence of Parliament. They were only opposed by some of the landlords of Ireland, who, unfortunately, not being in the favour and confidence of the Government, were not heeded. Had their representations been attended to, the labour that has been wasted upon the roads of the country, the money that has been thus unprofitably squandered, would have been beneficially invested, and the fatal error avoided of withdrawing an agricultural population from works connected with agriculture, at a time when, more than ever, it was necessary to improve the resources of the soil, and to stimulate the activity of the husbandman; but the time was short, and the Temporary Relief Bill—the Labour-rate Act—of last Session was introduced at a period too late for due deliberation. By that Act, the Government practically undertook the relief of the distressed poor. The proprietors of the land, the ratepayers, and the guardians of the poor, were superseded in the duties which they could best have performed, by officers of the Army and civil engineers, acting under the sole authority of the Board of Works, rarely in concert with and generally in opposition to the wishes of the resident gentry; and both by the high rate of wages and the license given to idleness, the great body of the labouring class, to the number of 700,000, were withdrawn from the fields to work upon the highways. I am well aware that the Government sought and hoped by the introduction of a system of task-work to remedy the demoralisation which had resulted from the employment given under the late Government upon the public roads; and I was myself not without hope that good might thereby have been effected; but the circumstances were adverse, the price of provisions had become so exorbitant in consequence of the principles of political economy having been pushed too far, that it became necessary to increase the rates of wages; and as it was impossible during the short days of winter in frost and snow that a day's work could be performed, many had to be paid without the performance of the required task; and the result has been the total demoralisation of the labouring class, and their belief that whether they work or not the State will provide for them. The bad results of the Labour-rate Act led, I believe, to the early assembling of Parliament, and to the endeavour by the Temporary Relief Act of the present Session to throw the labour again upon the land. The responsibility has been cast upon the resident gentry, of administering under this Act the necessary supplies of food to those in want. That duty the gentry of Ireland are zealously engaged in performing; but, on the part of the labouring class, there is found an unwillingness to accept from the former the comparatively low rate of wages which it is in their power to offer, and for which they would require a return in work: hence the operations of farming have been retarded, and much of the land lies untitled for want of the hands necessary to cultivate it. For the ill success of the Labour-rate Act, the Government are not altogether to blame; but to the operation of that Act it is undoubtedly owing that the farms are in many places yet untilled. But errors were committed by the Government which might and ought to have been avoided, and which did mislead as to their intentions with respect to supplying seed and seed corn: these circumstances are noticed in the petition. On the 16th of October Sir Randolph Routh issued to the several relief committees the following circular:—

"Commissariat Relief Office, Dublin Castle, 16th October, 1846.

"Sir—Commissary-General Sir Randolph I. Routh has the satisfaction to state, that it is intended by Her Majesty's Government to place seed rye at the disposal of the Commissariat in Ireland—to be consigned to Dublin, and sold at cost price.

"The relief committees in Ireland are requested to supply immediately returns of the extent of land now prepared for rye crop, or which may be prepared in due time for this season; and the quantity of seed required, which will be forwarded to them, or to the nearest point accessible by water.

"If barley or bere should in any cases be preferred, it is requested that the applications be made specially for that seed.—I have the honour to be, Sir, your obedient servant,

"W. STANLEY, Secretary."

Though disapproving of the step thus taken by the Government, as tending, without any necessity, to interfere with the ordinary economy of the farmer, and to raise expectations of further aid in the sowing of the land, I yet felt that this seeming boon having been offered, it was right to send the required return of the proportion of land for which such seed might be supplied: the inquiry necessarily raised expectation, but the promised supply was never sent. About the same time were issued the rules, a copy of which I hold in my hand, under which the relief committees were required to register persons to be employed on the public works. Among those who required to be so employed were many who held small farms, and it was not deemed necessary or desirable to require that their seed corn as well as available food should be consumed. Under these rules the instructions to the relief committees were that—"None should be registered but such as shall appear to be in actual necessity of relief, having no other resource or means of acquiring subsistence." Among the applicants for relief were many who, though they held small farms, really stood in need of it; and it had been previously deemed desirable that they should reserve a sufficiency of corn for seed. Reflections, however, were made upon the Committees for recommending persons to be employed who, it was reported, had stacks of corn in their haggards. English gentlemen, readers of the Times or Daily News, were taught to believe that the landlords were thus endeavouring to secure their rents. Relief committees were therefore required strictly to interpret their instructions, that the few sheaves of corn which constitute the store for seed of the small farmer of three or four acres, had to be consumed as food before the occupier or any of his family could be employed. This, coupled with the promise of seed rye, seemed to imply that seed corn would likewise be supplied by the Government when the time should come, as it has done, for sowing it. I am far from thinking that the Government should be looked to in general for such aid; and I think no expectation of the kind should ever be raised; but in this case it was raised, and I think the Government have made themselves responsible for the state of things represented in the petition; and I therefore hope that if the officer in charge of the cargo of seed has not been able to dispose of it according to his published instructions, he may have had secret instructions to fall back upon, which may have enabled him, ere this, to advance on credit, or in some cases gratuitously, the seed indispensable for sowing the land. If not, I would earnestly impress upon the Government the duty of promptly interfering.

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