Ireland and the British Government in the 19th Century.

Something I've been having a think about. I have listed all sources at the end.

The Act of Union of 1800 created a United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Since the seventeenth century Ireland had seen turbulent times and by the nineteenth century Ireland was proving to be a thorn in the side of British politics. Widespread poverty and hunger in Ireland caused by recurring failures of the potato crop, the staple diet of the poor, every few years, combined with the death blow to the Irish textile trade caused by the cheapness of British factory produced cloth was to force many Irishmen to leave their homes. The Americas, The Army and England, where Irishmen were to find employment as cheap labour became their destination.

“Each successive failure of the potato crop in Ireland - an event which recurred frequently throughout the first half of the nineteenth century - brought fresh waves of Irish immigrants into the industrial north of England.”

In the first half of the nineteenth century over population was causing concern in government. The first census was organised in 1801 in an effort to monitor population growth and density amongst other issues.

“From 10,500,000 in 1801, the year of the first census, it [the population of Britain] had grown to nearly 12,000,000 ten years later… …by 1851 there would be nearly 21,000,000.”

If Gregg’s figures are accurate they show that the population of Britain doubled in a period of only fifty years. Gregg also points out that although the death rate was no where near as high as in previous centuries, as the birth rate also fell after 1810 “…It clearly cannot account for the rapidity of the population increase.” There is a valid argument that migration was therefore the cause of the rapid population growth, indeed enormous numbers of Irish immigrants flooded into England and the industrial areas of Clydeside, however other sources show that migration in the opposite direction was taking place on almost the same scale particularly from Scotland but also from England as British people looked to the new world for a new life between 1800-1850.

It seems more logical that the population increase was mainly due to the growth of urbanisation. Population growth always increases in urban areas more so than elsewhere. The Irish, however, did make a convenient scapegoat and in contemporary eyes, particularly during the regency period Irish immigration was seen as a major problem. The popular perception of the Irish was a rather racist and stereotypical view that the Irish were in some way of lower status than Englishmen of the same class. So strong in fact was this anti-Irish sentiment that the most prominent statesman of the age, His Grace the Duke of Wellington, felt the need to deny the fact that he was an Irishman on many occasions and severed his Irish connections early in his career.

Public order also became an issue which the early nineteenth century government had to deal with. The Irish immigrants for the most part lived in squalid conditions, as a result of low wages and poverty. By 1830 most substantial towns in England had an ‘Irish Quarter’ and the bawdy drinking dens and gin shops which were becoming a concern for nineteenth century moral crusaders were haunted by the Irish. Again the stigma which was attached to the Irish has caused them to be described in various derogatory terms in many contemporary sources. Policing was to become an issue but it is wrong to accuse the Irish, who were certainly not solely responsible for all crime in Britain but bore more than their share of blame.

Policing in Ireland itself however was to become a problem, the legacy of which has survived well into the twenty-first century. The 1800’s saw a series of Irish rebellions, prompted by an ill-fated invasion of Ireland by the French in 1796 as M.W. Flinn explains.

“An attempted invasion of Ireland by the French… …though a failure, revealed the danger to which the country was exposed, and encouraged the Irish to break out in rebellion against their British rulers.”

In Ireland the establishment of the Royal Irish Constabulary had been necessary as far back as 1787. London was not to have the Metropolitan Police Force until 1829, almost half a century later. Repeated rioting and uprisings in Ireland throughout the nineteenth century were to pressure a government already dealing with an emerging class struggle at home. The Peterloo massacre of 1819 and the attacks of the luddites at home combined with the expense of the Napoleonic Wars (1799-1815) and an embarrassing debacle of a campaign in the already lost American colonies, demonstrate the turmoil which the British Government faced in the early nineteenth century.

The British Government’s popularity in Ireland had always been poor. The vast majority of the Irish were Roman Catholic and resented Britain, a Protestant power, ruling Ireland despite the fact that the early nineteenth century British Government’s policy towards Catholics was very liberal compared to previous eras. The Irish managed to secure catholic emancipation in 1829. There were further uprisings, increased political instability and eventually the segregation of Northern Ireland which alienated a section of it’s populace. The Irish issue was becoming a mess.
Sectarian violence had been a part of Irish life since the battle of the Boyne in 1690 and the British authorities were struggling to keep the peace.

The Duke of Wellington had become prime-minister on the 8th of January 1828 following the resignation of Frederick Robinson, the Viscount Goderich, under the understanding that catholic emancipation in Ireland was not to be on the parliamentary agenda .

“ ‘Arthur’ he [the King] declared, ‘the cabinet is defunct.’ Wellington was invited to form a government on the clear understanding that Catholic emancipation should be no part of his programme.”

Wellington was warned by Robert Peel, the great police reformer, that Catholic emancipation was “bound to cause trouble.” The pressure brought to bear proved too great, however and in March 1829, Wellington’s hand was forced.

Catholic emancipation was no long term solution to Ireland’s inherent problems which remained hampered by issues of land tenure and the “excessive dependence on a single crop - the soon-to-be blighted potato.” Ireland’s Agricultural problems had been a heavily influential factor in Wellington’s Tory Government relaxing the corn laws a year earlier (1828) and ultimately forcing Robert Peels later Tory Government (1841-1846) to repeal them completely in 1846 an act he had pledged not to do when Elected Prime-Minister. This was to split the Tory party and began the origins of today’s Conservative Party.

The Corn Laws became significant in 1815. After the Napoleonic wars, faced with agricultural depression, Parliament used the Corn Laws to prevent prices from falling.

“The Corn Law of 1815 prevented the import of wheat unless the price of British grain rose to £4 a quarter (2.91 hl/8 bushels).”

To some degree, the Corn Laws were a success. They certainly helped the Government to protect British farming from foreign competition and to stabilise prices. As they were receiving a reasonable price, farmers were able to continue to introduce improvements to agricultural methods. Unfortunately, the Corn Laws pushed the price of bread too high, causing widespread distress to the poor particularly in Ireland where the poor were generally poorer than in England.

To draw a kind of conclusion to subject, Irelands problems were Agricultural issues, (based on Land tenureship and the price of bread,) Religious divides and sectarian issues which no government since the troubles began has ever been able to control, These factors were compounded by poverty causing rising crime which made it’s way to industrialised England along with the immigrants who were trying to escape it. The attitude and sentiments of the contemporary English authorities were not in favour of the Irish and in many cases it could be argued that the immigrants were not given a fair crack-of-the-whip or the opportunity to attain respectability as they were restrained in their low social position by poor wages. Although these problems were rooted much earlier than the nineteenth century the British Governments actions between 1800 and 1850 were not enough to eradicate them and although poverty has been greatly reduced the religious and political repercussions survive to this day.


Niall Ferguson, Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World, (London, 2003)
M.W. Flinn, An Economic and Social History of Britain since 1700, (London, 1963)
Pauline Gregg, A Social and Economic History of Britain 1760-1960, (London, 1960)
Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Revolution: 1789-1848, (London, 1962)
Richard Holmes, Wellington, (London, 2003)
Richard Holmes, Redcoat: The British Soldier in the Age of Horse and Musket, (London,2001)
K. Theodore Hoppen, Ireland Since 1800: Conflict and Conformity, (Harlow, 1989)
Frank E. Huggett, Britain as seen by Punch, (London, 1978)
Christine Kinealy, A Death-Dealing Famine: The Great Hunger in Ireland, (London, 1997)
Magnus Magnusson, Scotland; The Story of a Nation, (London, 2000)
Cormac O’Grada, Ireland Before and After the Famine: Explorations in economic history, 1800-1925, (Manchester, 1988)
I did now. good site. Thankyou.
For a minute I thought I was back in school in Dublin, my teacher must have read the same books.............:))
It is perhaps unfortunate rather than deliberate that you chose not to refer to the stream of rebellions in this period. In addition to the very well publicised 1798 affair, there was also Robert Emmet's 1803 rebellion, the Young Ireland uprising of 1848 and the Fenian uprising of 1867 and its fall-out over the following twenty years. The picture of an embattled land beset by every economic problem known to man is given more depth, colour and focus by the recognition of the constant, vital nationalist tradition which flourished, withered and flourished with monotonous regularity. Ironically it was only once the IRB established a US safe base, that inevitability began to creep in to the discussions of success. The contrast with the late twentieth century, Sinn Fein and NORAID is very attractive to consider. In fact if I win the lottery that will be my Ph D topic!!

Good job Lairdy...nice to see you're back where you belong, on top of your historical game!
good point cuddles but I have chosen to deliberately overlook the rebellions in favour of an examination of British government Policy and social conditions.

One thing which everybody likes to talk about is the Potato Famine of 1848 which undoubtedly was a disaster in economic terms but most seem to overlook the fact that the potato crop failed quite frequnetly and indeed if one examines the number of times in which the crop failed over the nineteenth century one cannot help but ask the following questions.

A) Why was everything hanging on this one product? Cheap fodder for slaves in the americas? Only affordable foodstuff? We know that the Irish textile trade had failed due to industrialisation in England but what about other trades? The Irish Economy must have been in a pretty poor state.

B) The potato is a vegatable which needs hardly any encouragement to flourish - If one sticks a bag of spuds in a cupboard for a few weeks they start to grow on their own without even so muh as soil and water. What were the Irish farmers doing wrong? Climatic problems or incompetence? Any Agricultural experts able to help out with this one?


Book Reviewer
My late Father, a gardener who worked in Ireland in the '50s for a while after demob, said that the blight was encouraged by the 'lazy bed' method used. basically, cut a spud up so there's a couple of eyes and skin (cut them into 3 or 4 usually), cut a piece of turf loose, slide spud bit under, press down turf, and wait...

Apart from a bit of weeding, it's a simple process, but probably not conducive to controlling bugs, mould, etc, on said 'taters. It does produce a very heavy crop of nutritious, fairly high-protein, spuds - but as with any monoculture, any infestation would spread rapidly, and be very debilitating.
Now that is interesting.
We Irish still complain everytime a shirt factory closes in Donegal (not sure if there's any left now) in favour of the Far East. And our farmers are still lazy as fcuk too.

There's the tenant farmer and succession law arguments to be made too, but that's a whole other issue. I think when it comes right down to it, large catholic families of ten kids or more is going to encourage famines anywhere. More people combined with the same amount of or less food means someone's going to go hungry.
The problem with the last potato blight, as I have had it explained to me by an agronomist - which is the posh word for a bloke who goes out with my mate claire BTW - was that it struck the potatoes at a stage which prevented them reproducing. The seed potatoes were then eaten out of desperation and bada-boom, bada-bing a crop failure became a famine...

The way in which different landlords and local governments handled the famine is quite interesting. Some of the old Irish ascendancy landlords went bankrupt trying to keep their tenants alive. Others let them die and even accelerated the process by evicting them so that any other form of sustenance, e.g. dairy products, pigs or chickens could not be processed. Or they seized these as payment for rents not payed but at valuations so scandalously low that they raised questions in Dublin and Westminster.

Critically of course this was a time when a laisser-faire social policy was in force and so the government of the day simply expected nature to run its course. Curiously the Church of Ireland came out of the famine with a lot of kudos, for providing sustenance even to Catholics. Revisionist historians are now pointing out that the price of sustenance was often conversion to the protestant religion!!
Should have mentioned that, as Cuddles pointed out, many landlords went to extremes to provide for those who coukdn't provide for themselves; including ''Famine roads'' where the gentry hired men and paid them a wage to build roads quite literally to nowhere so they could buy themselves food.

That could be an urban myth, but it would be a strange urban myth to be floating around in Ireland. Given the way Irish history was taught to me anyhow.
Well, I might be of help on the famine.

The famine was caused directly by the failure of the potato crop in 1845 and 1846. The crop failed, due to widespread spread of Phyrophtora, the potato bight. the bight is a fungus, that attacks the leaves and stems of infected plants, and is transmitted through contaminated tubers. The plant stinks to high heaven as it dies, resulting in the smell reported in all accounts of the famine. If you want to imagine the countryside, you much think of rotting vegatables, and a completly bare landscape: Not one tree, bush, or wood and little cottages scattered where ever the eye landed.

The summers of 1845 - 1846 were unusually damp and warm: Ideal conditions for the potato bight, whose spread and growth is more rapid. As a result, the crop failed across the country. Previously, the failures were local, and communities were able to draw of the resources of neighbouring areas: Sending children of stay with relatives, getting food back, that sort of thing.

However, the great famine was universal: Every area that had widespread poverty, and no alternative to the potato, suffered famine. Look at the map of the congested districts boards, and you'll a close correlation with the worst hit areas.

But why the potato so important? It's one of the worlds best food crops, and like wet soils, which is an asset in Ireland. Aside from that, it will pretty much grow anywhere. In the economic conditions of 1780-1840 it allowed a family to be supported on a minimum of ground, leaving the rest to the small holding to be used for cash crops o pay the rent.

The Lazy bed, or cultivation ridge goes back to the bronze age, and is still in use in third world economies. During the C19 a wide range of crops were grown on lazy beds. It was ideally suited to potatoes. In fact, its still used on industrial scale. In areas were the soil cover was thin, it maximised output by effectively doubling the soil dept. On water logged areas, it improved drainage: Also, it was labour intensive, Ireland in the 1830's had a large population of labourers and a very low education base, thanks to the Penal Laws. Using a labour intensive agriculture made more sense than carrying a team of oxen and a plough. On the stony land in he west, the plough was unknown and the spade and lazy bed ruled.

Potatoes in lazy bed made the surge in Irish population possible. In 1741 Irish population was about 3 million, 1785, 4 million, 1844, population was 8.2 million.

Most of the small holdings also had a pig for rearing and some crop land. However, these were cash crops, used only to pay the rent. With the act of union, many of the Irish aristocracy left for London, and left a agent to run their estates. The agent was often given a % of the income, and was on a fixed contract: The pressure on the small farmers became intense, and rents increased every year.

I know of a local family, who were due to be evicted. They had a small forge, and some land. The week the bailiffs were to arrive, they put the anvil in the forge, and kept the fire burning. The day they were to be evicted, they put the hot anvil on the floor and burnt papers on it to blacken it again. The first bailiff in the door went down to pick it up, and was badly burnt. None of the others would touch it. That family kept their place. They still have the anvil. This happened in a area with good land, to a comparatively well off family. There were many families that couldn't pay, and were evicted, becoming travellers and landless labourers.

I don't think many people here realise how dependant vast majority of the poor were on the potato; Arthur Young on his travel constantly notes this: For eleven months of the year, the diet was a 3kg of potatoes, and one months of oats, or barley bread.

During the famine, the food crop failed. The cash crop was used to buy food. The estate agents (though there were some that tried to help, as indeed many landlords did) most demanded the rent and when it wasn't forthcoming, evicted the families and created large ranch farms for beef cattle. Another little factor: If a tenant's hold was below £4, and failed to pay their rates, then the land lord was liable. After 3 famine years, many landlords were also near destitution, increasing pressure on the tenants.

Given the bald choice of starving in Ireland or leaving, many left. By 1890 the population was 4.7 million.

Few notes on original post:

“In Ireland the establishment of the Royal Irish Constabulary had been necessary as far back as 1787. London was not to have the Metropolitan Police Force until 1829,”

The precursor of the RIC was the peace preservation force established under the Peace Preservation Act of 1814, which empowered the Lord Lieutenant to send a chief magistrate and a specially appointed body of armed men to any part of the country 'proclaimed' to be in a state of disturbance. This act was past by Robert Peel, Chief Secretary in Ireland between 1812-18, and the body of armed men were often returned soldiers.

In 1822 the Constabulary Act was passed by Peel, and a new force called the Constabulary Police was formed. This Act for the first time allowed for the systematic establishment of an organised police force on a national basis, and led eventually to the RIC.

Cuddles, "price of sustenance was often conversion to the protestant religion!! "

Often, a family would convert to get the soup from protestant evangalists, and would register their new religion by dropping the Irish 'O' or 'Mac' from their name. When later many returned to the catholic faith, they didn't take the o,or mac with them. Hence 'Leary' and 'O'Leary' Carthy and McCarthy, O'Brien and Brien, Sullivan and O'Sullivan etc. So if you really want to put down irishman whose name has dropped the O or Mac... call them a souper. I promise it'll hurt, and if you've to explain it, even more so.
Famine Projects:

Indeed they existed: There is a 3 mile long stone wall on top of the galtees, for no reason whatsoever.

However, many other projects were stated that had an excellent reason: Fishing piers, roadworks, drainage schemes, etc.

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