February 18, 1846

The State of Famine and Disease in Ireland

Mr. O'CONNELL then rose and said -- I rise, Sir, to give notice that on Monday the 23rd of February I shall move for a committee of the whole house to consider the state of Ireland with a view to devise means to relive the distress of the Irish people. That is the motion which I have to submit to the house, and I respectfully demand the acquiescence of the house in that motion. I certainly do not introduce the subject from any party motives, or for any party objects. (Hear, hear.) I would not give utterance to one partisan feeling or expression nor do I expect any party opposition. (Hear, hear). I am thoroughly convinced that many gentlemen present, who differ from me on political subjects in reference to Ireland, are as sincerely anxious as I am to relieve the distress in that country; so that this house will come fairly to the consideration of this subject, free from any of those feelings which are calculated to diminish or disfigure its advocacy. (Hear, hear). That there is the prospect of a calamitous season before Ireland is a fact which is altogether indisputable. The extent of that calamity has been disputed. For a time it was supposed that there was a prospect of our avoiding the misery we were threatened with, but I believe that all hope has now vanished; and before I sit down I shall be able to show the house that the calamity is more imminent and pressing and likely to be more awful than the house is aware. In order, however, to understand the fearful extent of the threatened calamity, it is right that the house should be reminded of the situation of Ireland previous to this visitation. The calamity with which Ireland is now threatened is not owing to any default of the people, it is not owing to any sterility of the soil, it is not even owing to any want of the abundance of the harvest. It is owing to a dispensation of Providence, which man cannot control. Our duty is to submit to the will of an All-disposing power and to perform the part of charitable Christians by endeavoring to mitigate the evils as they arise. But in order to appreciate the extent of the distress, and enable us to devise means for its relief, it is, as I have said, obviously necessary that the house should distinctly understand the previous state of Ireland. I am sorry in the performance of my duty to be obliged to state as a fact that the population of Ireland, instead of augmenting, as some have supposed, has actually been falling and wasting away -- that the people have been suffering misery and distress unequalled by any other people in Europe -- that the rural population and especially the agricultural labourers are as has been stated in a report to the house, almost always on the verge of famine. I propose not to call upon the house to give credit to any assertions of mine which are not corroborated by indisputable documents -- I mean to show from documents of the most unquestionable character the truth of the facts which I have stated respecting the increasing misery of the Irish people. The first document to which I shall refer is the abstract of the population returns of 1821, 1831, and 1841, the accuracy of the facts are beyond doubt. From these returns it appears that the population of Ireland between 1821 and 1831 increased about a million, whereas between 1831 and 1841 they increased only about half a million. (Hear, hear). It has been attempted to account for this by emigration; but this is most unsatisfactory, for those who attempt to account for the decrease in that way give us no account of the emigration between 1821 and 1831 but confine themselves to statements of the emigration between 1831 and 1841, thus leaving out an essential ingredient in the calculation, for there is no reason to suppose that there was less emigration between 1821 and 1831 than between 1831 and 1841. With this fact staring you in the face, then, that in the course of 10 years the population has gone back half a million it will not be disputed that there is something wrong in the condition of that country. I remember that the late Sir Foxwell Buxton used to make a great impression on the house by showing how the black population decreased during slavery. This is not exactly the same case here, but the facts which I have mentioned certainly come within the same principle. (Hear, hear). I consider that nothing but distress can account for the falling off the population to which I have referred. The next public document to which I shall refer is the report of the Poor Law Commission in 1835. That commission was named by this house to inquire into the destitute state of Ireland, preliminary to the introduction of a poor law, and they reported that there were 2,300,000 of the agricultural population who were constantly in a state approaching destitution, and that for several weeks in the year they were entirely compelled to live off the charity of their neighbors. The last population returns furnish me with another argument. These returns shows that 46 percent of the rural population live in habitations of a single room, and that there are frequently several entire families living in the same room. They also show that 36 per cent of the civic population live in single rooms, and that frequently two or three families reside in the same room. Does this not present a fearful picture of destitution? (Hear, hear.) But the most important of all the reports to which I have to refer is the report of Lord Devon's commission. This commission consisted of Lord Devon and four other persons of rank and fortune, and perhaps a better commission was never formed by an Government. It is impossible to imagine that they could be deceived, and I believe that they performed their task more laboriously. They state that from the evidence they collected on oath, and from their own observations, they found that the agricultural population of Ireland suffered great privation and hardships; that they were badly housed, badly fed, badly clothed, and badly paid for their labour; that in many districts the only food of the people was potatoes, and their only drink water; that their cabins scarcely protected them against the weather; that a blanket was a rare luxury to them; that their pigs and their manure constituted their only property; and that altogether they endured more suffering than the people of any other country in Europe. This is the report of Lord Devon's committee. This is not the assertion of any agitator or demagogue, but the distinct and emphatic assertion of men who were beyond the possibility of suspicion, and beyond the possibility of being deceived.