This book goes on and on like the terrible times it describes, and then it just stops, as they did—a long drum roll of a book, with little or no relief, no trumpets. Mrs. Woodham-Smith, with her special gifts, might have done more—something for literature and perhaps even more for historiography—had she approached her material indirectly, as she has before, getting at its meaning through the characters of the principal actors, but then, of course, she would not have written the book she has, the best general history of the Irish famines.

Mrs. Woodham-Smith speaks of a British Army officer’s daughter who was astonished to find that, while in England no girl could ramble in the woods and fields alone, she could roam the mountains of Mayo without fear of molestation, even though at this time Irishmen who had taken part in the rebellion of 1798 were being hanged by the English on Ballina bridge. According to Mrs. Woodham-Smith there is an historical explanation for Irish dignity, hospitality and easy good manners: “Three times, at least, the native aristocracy was conquered and dispossessed; many fled from Ireland to exile in France or Spain, but many others remained, to be forced down by poverty and penal legislation to the economic level of the peasantry.”

Be that as it may, Ireland, after the Union, with its absentee landlords and their blood-sucking agents, its manufacture almost legislated out of existence, its agriculture also crippled by law, and with its spectre of an established church, was in bad shape and sinking fast. Only the potato could sustain people so poor in land as the peasants of Ireland had become—large families down to a half an acre. When the potato failed, there was misery and there was death, but these were things the Irish were able to live with and even benefit by. They were good soldiers abroad, and at home, although the standard of living there was the lowest in Europe, they were good subjects and a bit more, if the British officer’s daughter was right.

By 1845, though, all that stood between the poor Irish and disaster was the potato. When the blight hit it that year the Government was not alarmed, not at first, taking refuge in hopes that the potato would yet right itself. But the Duke of Norfolk suggested that in place of the potato the Irish should learn to consume curry powder “on which, mixed with water,” Mrs. Woodham-Smith says, “he appeared to believe the population of India was nourished.” Daniel O’Connell called for the immediate stoppage of the export of corn and provisions and for the prohibition of distilling and brewing from grain, but these proposals and others were coldly received by the Government.

The Government was Sir Charles Wood, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Charles Edward Trevelyan, his righthand man who became the director and dictator of Irish relief, and the policy of the Government was to help the victims of the famine but not to encourage them to look to the Government for help and not to disturb the ordinary course of “trade.” In both of these objectives the Government was, to say the least, successful.

To replace the potato crop, valued at £3,500,000, Indian corn valued at £100,000 was imported from America, but steel mills to grind the corn properly were lacking in Ireland, and to be palatable and digestible it would have to be run through ordinary millstones twice. “I cannot believe this will be necessary,” Trevelyan wrote to Commissary General Routh. “Dependence on charity is not to be made an agreeable mode of life.” Much to the surprise of the Admiralty, the corn could not be unloaded at its destination on the west coast of Ireland. “It is annoying,” Routh wrote to Deputy Commissary General Hewetson, “that all these harbors are so insignificant. It shows Providence never intended Ireland to be a great nation.” And when, at last, the corn was stored in depots, the orders were that it was not to be given away or sold cheaply, lest trade suffer. To open the depots, Routh wrote to a captain of the Royal Navy who had appealed on behalf of the starving inhabitants of Newport, County Mayo, “would obviously be extremely prejudicial to owners of grain, inasmuch as at present extraordinary prices can be realized.” Nevertheless, representatives of the Government in Ireland, when confronted by the starving, often gave ground and fed them with food reserved for servants of the Crown or opened stores not to be opened without penalty.

In London, Trevelyan was firm, showering his lieutenants with letters to make them more like himself. Trevelyan worked weekdays and Sundays alike, sometimes until 3 A.M. He drove himself and he drove his staff—preparing to deal with the famine that had already overwhelmed the Irish. He received letters from all over the world, and answered them personally. He kept an eye out for trade—unloaded a supply of aged and unwanted biscuit on Roscommon, on the usual cost-plus basis, but decided to hold on to some Navy-surplus clothing until, presumably, the price was right. Baring Brothers, the international bankers, having worked with him on one deal, suggested that he’d be happier doing business with a reliable corn-factor and referred him to one. When meal was selling for 50s, the reliable corn-factor was authorised to pay 40s. Not too much business was done. The harvest was bad all over Europe in 1846, and the French and the Prussians seemed to be buying up everything. How about getting some yams from the Caribbean and trying to grow them in Ireland?


By now thousands were starving, and Relief Inspector Douglas hoped that Catholic priests were making it clear to their flock that the famine was the will of God. “It is hard upon the poor people that they should be deprived of knowing that they are suffering from an affliction of God’s providence,” he wrote.

There was violence everywhere but nowhere organized rebellion until 1848, if the Young Irelanders could be called organized. The right moment had passed, or there hadn’t been any right moment. Anthony Trollope who spent the famine years in Ireland as a postal inspector, and who was well disposed to the Irish, wrote to his mother on the Continent:

I get letters from England, asking me whether I am not afraid to have my wife and children in this country, whereas all I hear or see of Irish rows is in the columns of the Times newspaper…the people have not the remotest notion of attempting to improve their worldly condition by making the difference between the employer and the employed less marked. Revolution here means a row. Some like a row, having little or nothing to lose. These are revolutionists, and call for pikes. Others are anti-revolutionists, having something to lose and dreading a row. These condemn the pikes, and demand more soldiers and police. There is no notion of anything beyond this;—no conception of any theory such as that of Louis Blanc. My own idea is that there is no ground to fear any general rising either in England or Ireland. I think there is too much intelligence in England for any large body of men to look for any sudden improvement; and not enough intelligence in Ireland for any body of men at all to conceive the possibility of social improvement.

In 1849, even the Quakers gave up, saying only the Government could possibly carry out the measures necessary to save the people. The Quakers now declined to act as distributors of the Government’s meagre bounty. So the “operation of natural causes”—genocide—was to be Ireland’s fate.

It was believed, however, that a visit from the Queen would act as a tonic to trade, which was almost at a standstill in Dublin, and even worse in the country. The visit was opposed by Lord Fitzwilliam. “Galway, Connemara and Castlebar. That would have been my tour for her instead of Cork and Dublin, where she will have nothing but falsehoods.”

The Queen came over in August 1849, and scored a success with the Irish people that she wasn’t able to equal in later visits, in happier times. In response to the wishes of the inhabitants of Cove, she permitted them to change the name of the place to Queenstown. In Dublin she wore a dress of green poplin embroidered with gold shamrocks, and then she wore a dress of pink poplin figured with gold shamrocks. She was cheered by the Catholic students of Maynooth. At the Duke of Leinster’s estate she was amused by the jigs danced by the tenantry and struck by the thick blue coats the men wore, with the short breeches and blue stockings, and by the way one dancer wore his hat tilted over one ear. And everywhere she went, with or without Prince Albert and the four royal children, she was on time.

During the years of famine, enlightened landowners like Lord Monteagle and Lord Clarendon, members of the Catholic and Protestant clergy, and others, most notably the Quakers, did what they could, but it was little indeed. Roughly 2 1/2 million people departed from Ireland during the famine of the 1840s, a million by emigration, the rest by death from hunger and diseases brought on by hunger. It had to happen there, and it could not have happened otherwise—with the potato and the population what they were in Ireland, and with the Government what it was in England. Trevelyan, who later straightened out the civil service and then presided over another famine, in India, described himself as “belonging to the class of Reformed Cornish Celts, who by long habits of intercourse with the Anglo-Saxons have learned at last to be practical men.” He became Sir Gregory Hardlines in The Three Clerks, and was described by Trollope as “something of a Civil Service Pharisee, and wore on his forehead a broad phylactery, stamped with the mark of Crown property.”


The Great Hunger is a valuable book. Probably a subject so large, complex and dark was not to be played with, and so it is only here and there—as in the chapter describing Queen Victoria’s visitation—that Mrs. Woodham-Smith sounds like the author of The Reason Why.

This Issue

June 1, 1963