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Potato Famine - Feeding Desperate People

Potato Famine - Feeding Desperate People Government Ethics Famous Historical Events Social Studies Tragedies and Triumphs Visual Arts World History Civil Rights

With very little food—and no money to buy provisions—starving Irish families looked to the government for help during the years of "The Great Hunger." 

In the spring of 1846, Indian Corn became available in Cork.  The Illustrated London News (from the 4th of April, 1846) describes the scene:

On Saturday last, the Government Sales of Indian Corn and Meal commenced in Cork.

Immediately on the depots being opened, the crowds of poor persons who gathered round them were so turbulently inclined as to require the immediate interference of the police, who remained there throughout the day.

Among the poor, who were of the humblest description, and needing charitable relief, the sales were but scanty . . .

. . . Our artist at Cork [noted as Mr. Mahoney] has sketched the crowd immediately on the opening of the store.

How did the Irish people get "Indian Corn?" Who supplied it? Was anyone, in particular, responsible for it?

From most accounts, it appears that the sitting British Prime Minister—Robert Peel—was involved with getting supplies of Indian Corn to substitute for the loss of potatoes during "The Great Hunger." Here's how it came about:

Ireland was under English rule at the time of the famine and the parliament was in London.

When the potato blight ruined the first potato crop in 1845, Sir Robert Peel was the prime minister. He knew that most Irish people would have nothing to eat.

In 1846, he shipped some Indian corn to Ireland and arranged for it to be sold in different parts of the country for a cheap price. This helped some families, however the poorest people had no money to buy it.

The corn was also difficult to get to some of the most remote places where the famine was worst and where the roads were bad. Another problem was that people had to cook the corn, however they often did not know how to cook it as they had never eaten it before. (See the article, entitled "Government Reaction," at "Ask about Ireland.")

It was not an easy thing for Peel to proceed with importing "Indian Corn" from America, however.

At the time, a law impacting Ireland—called "The Corn Law"—prohibited importing foreign food to feed the Irish people. The purpose of the law, when it was first enacted, was to protect local farmers who otherwise would have had to compete with more cheaply priced food imported from other countries.

That Corn Law, however well-intentioned and however helpful in non-famine times, was extremely unhelpful when the potato crops failed. A key provision of Tory governmental policies, the law posed a major challenge for Peel—who was, himself, a Tory—as he tried to address the needs of hungry Irish people.

Peel was in a lose/lose position (and his actions, in importing "Indian Corn," would cost him the next election):

In Westminster, the seat of government, Peel's opponents accused him of using the blight as a ploy to get rid of the Corn Law. Some even accused him of making up the blight or at least of exaggerating its likely effects.

The repeal of the Corn Law was to cost him and the Tory party the next election, in July 1846.

In November 1845, £105,000 worth of Maize was imported from the USA and £46,000 from Britain. This was enough food to feed a million people for a month, although there were few people actually starving in 1845.

A law from 1838 meant that aid could only be given out in Workhouses organised by local boards called Poor Law Unions. However, Peel felt that the workhouses did not have sufficient capacity to do this effectively, so he set up a temporary Relief Commission to organise relief.

The Commission organised the distribution of food at cost price (although some people still had to pawn clothes and furniture to buy it). At first, many Irish people disliked accepting this charity, but in the end many accepted. He also set up (locally funded) work schemes which, at their peak, employed around 140,000 people.

These measures sustained 700,000 people and, although the salaries they paid were very low, were the main reason that there were very few deaths in 1845. The measures stayed in this form until the unseating of the Tory government in July 1846. (See “Peel's Relief Programme to July 1846,” an article written by Wesley Johnston for “The Ireland Story.”)

As a result of the difficulty in using Indian Corn, as a substitute for the failed potato crop, the Irish people developed a nickname for this hard substance. They called it “Peel’s Brimstone.”

Why was it so hard for the Irish to prepare sweetcorn? 

Most people in Ireland had never seen corn before and they did not know how to cook it properly. They ground it up to make a type of yellow, gritty porridge, or stirabout. Often this was not cooked for long enough and made people sick. It became known as ‘Peel’s Brimstone.’ (See The Great Famine, by Feargal Brougham and Caroline Farrell, at page 12.)

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Author: Carole D. Bos, J.D. 5124stories and lessons created

Original Release: Dec 09, 2016

Updated Last Revision: Dec 09, 2016


Media Credits

Image, and quoted passage, from "Indian Corn in Cork," an article from the April 4, 1846 edition of The Illustrated London News.  Online via Vassar College.

 

PD

 

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