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Ireland’s political life during the Famine: Election, constitutionalism and revolution

Par Anne-Catherine De Bouvier : Maître de conférences - Université de Caen Basse-Normandie
Publié par Clifford Armion le 07/03/2015

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This article aims at exploring the available means of political response in Ireland to the issue of the Famine. What comes first to mind is the case of the representative function, democratic, or approximately so, by the standards of the day; i. e., parliamentary activity. Compiling the records of all individual Irish MPs in Parliament over the period is a tempting intellectual task but clearly beyond the scope of this paper; instead, I approach electoral activity during the period, since elections provide the opportunity of assessment of past contributions, and of confrontation. In the specific context of the Famine, theoretically at least, Irish MPs at Westminster were instrumental in bringing about a better knowledge of what was going on – and indeed some did so in quite a sustained, articulate, and often humane manner. Conversely, elections are moments in a country’s life when voters can take their representatives to account; and clearly, there was much to account for.
*I thank Fabrice Bensimon for permission to publish this article, which is based on the paper I delivered at the conference on the Great Famine in Ireland he organised at the Centre Culturel Irlandais, Paris, on 12th December 2014.


For the purpose of the present study, I decided to leave out by-elections, which do not fall into the same pattern ((By-elections occur upon the death, incapacitation, resignation, or appointment of an MP. At a time when political life was not firmly structured along party lines, and still retained many characteristics of traditional authority (as defined by Max Weber in Economy and Society), such elections retained a highly personal character. Much depended on the past incumbent’s ability to transfer his legitimacy to a candidate; successors seem to have been more widely returned than challengers.)), and focus on the general election of 1847, and to a lesser extent on the 1852 general election ((The comparison is rendered more difficult by the Representation of the people (Ireland) Act of 1850, which modified franchise across the country. The franchise was shifted onto occupancy rather than property, and was based on the Poor Law valuation (undertaken in 1847). Those who were eligible to the franchise were thus occupiers of land of a rateable value of £12 in counties, and of houses of a rateable value of £8 in boroughs, which increased the electorate from 45,000 voters to 163,546.)).

The 1847 general election brought about the return of 31 Repeal candidates at the lowest computation, and 36 at the highest ((In the absence of official party affiliation, and given the changeability of such party identification as there was, figures can vary. The first estimate, and more generally the results presented and studied in this paper, are based on Brian Walker (ed.), Parliamentary Election Results in Ireland, 1801-1822, A New History of Ireland, Ancillary Publications, vol. IV, Dublin: Royal Irish Academy, 1978. The figure of 36 Repeal MPs is the consensual one.)), and of 2 Confederation candidates, while 20 Repeal candidates had been returned in 1841. Out of Ireland’s 105 MPs at Westminster, that meant a significant increase in the Irish representation in the House of Commons. Out of the 656 MPs in the House, even 36 were insignificant in themselves – though they did matter for a government without a majority. However, they did represent a challenge; that it was thus perceived by Britain’s political class, and the British public, is largely evidenced; let us simply remember the drop in public contributions in answer to the Second “Queen’s Letter” issued in October 1847, and the allegations of ingratitude.

Arguing that the 1847 general election was disappointing in the perspective of the Famine is stating the obvious: at the level of the United Kingdom, there was no change in the majority, and no change in the approach to the question. Nor can it be said that Irish MPs, as a bulk, were successful in forwarding such information as could have effected a change. Indeed, if the endorsement of Repeal entailed an element of blame on the Union at large, and on the British political class, it did not carry a prospect of quick change; hence, disappointment, which could either turn into resignation and hopelessness, or be directed into a more radical channel.

1. Contested elections

Ireland’s electoral organization differed from Britain’s in several ways. First, the Union of 1801 had brought about significant changes in the electoral map, the boroughs bearing the brunt of the cut in the total number of MPs; borough reform had been taken a step further in 1832, through the Representation of the People (Ireland) Act. In 1847, there were thus 34 boroughs, returning 1 member each, except for the 7 largest ones, which returned 2 members each; there was a more even household franchise. Many could thus be classified as open boroughs, i.e. where electoral competition was possible. The smallest-single member borough was Dungannon (196 electors), the largest Carrickfergus (1326); among the two-member boroughs, Dublin City had over 12,000 electors, while both Cork and Belfast had over 4,000, in other words much more than the largest county.

However, the Irish Election Laws Amendment Act of 1829 had drastically reduced the number of voters in the counties ((10 Geo 4, c. 8. The county vote was little modified by the Representation of the People (Ireland) Act of 1832.)). This law, voted as a security following the granting of Catholic Emancipation, had raised the county franchise, from 40s to £10 freeholders.

During our period, elections were not systematically contested across the UK, for several reasons. First, nineteenth-century democracy had inherited a robust pattern of traditional authority: long and firmly established families could count on the quasi-automatic support of a number of voters, many of them their dependants in one form or another, for themselves or their chosen candidates. Secondly, the fairly narrow electoral basis of the process, together with its publicity, was a check to the challenge of such a pattern where it existed, had the voters been so minded. Third, because running as a candidate had a cost. And eventually, the notion of political parties, and of party identification (“affiliation” is largely anachronistic) was forming itself, but was not as imperative and structuring as it is today.

When attempting to check party support in terms of votes in Parliament during the first three decades of the nineteenth century, one finds a sizeable proportion of MPs systematically supporting the ministry of the day. This weak party identification may partly explain something puzzling to 21st century students: that Lord John Russell remained the unchallenged Prime Minister of a minority government while the United Kingdom was experiencing a fairly agitated period, involving not only the Irish Famine, but also the Chartist agitation of the year 1848, in the context of the European revolutions.

Jacqueline Hill and Brian Walker have demonstrated that the Famine had somehow not been an issue of the 1847 general election in Ireland, surprising or shocking as it may sound ((J. Hill, “The 1847 general election in Dublin city”, in A. Blackstock and E. Magennis (eds), Politics and Political Culture in Britain and Ireland, 1750–1850: essays in tribute to Peter Jupp, Belfast, Ulster Historical Foundation, 2007, pp. 41-64.
B. M. Walker, “Politicians, elections and catastrophe: the general election of 1847”, Irish Political Studies 22.1 (2007), pp. 1-34.))
. This can also be established if we take the figures of contested elections, if we agree that the ratio of contested elections can be an indicator of the intensity of political response. I decided to review three general elections: 1841, 1847, 1852, pre-Famine, famine and post-Famine; I isolated counties and boroughs. Globally, out of 32 counties, only 10 elections were contested in 1841, and 10 in 1847; borough electoral returns show that, out of 34 boroughs, only 11 were contested in 1841, and 17 in 1847. One could have expected the Famine to have made way for new voices, or challenging voices, but it does not seem to have been the case – at least, not in 1847.

However, those results should be qualified: in the 1852 general election, the number of contested elections rose to 22 in the counties, and 22 in the boroughs; in the two types of constituencies, therefore, the majority of elections were contested after the Famine, indicating a perhaps belated but rising level of parliamentary response.

How can we interpret at that stage? We can follow the interpretation provided by Brian Walker: the Irish parliamentary class as a whole was not aware of the situation, and in particular, was not aware of the small amount of seeds which had been planted in the spring of 1847; indeed, the general election took place during the first two weeks of August. An alternative explanation would hinge on the psychological: in the summer of “Black 47”, the country’s elites were, like almost everybody else, in a state of shock, and may have obviated that by simply not responding to it. As to the outgoing candidates, they were just back from the latest parliamentary session – and season – in London, where they had debated the whole imperial affairs with their peers, been to the theatre, and read The Times. Leaving psychology and behaviourism aside to tread on safer grounds, what were the ideological alternatives available – at least those which could have appeared as an answer to the crisis? Clearly there were none, or at least none, which would not imply a wide departure from the dominant policy and ideologies of the day, a wide departure requiring either optimism, or revolutionary thought. The Famine did not release political imagination, at least not in 1847, when it rather seems to have triggered a form of conservatism, in the sense of sticking to old recipes.

This may be confirmed by the increase in borough contests, rising from below 1/3 in 1841 to just one half in 1847: electoral activity had frozen in the rural constituencies (below 1/3), but thawed in the more urban ones. I am not trying to suggest that there was no distress in urban areas; just that, politically, they were less close to the land; and that those who flocked to the towns were those who had survived. A case in point is Dublin University, so far returning comfortably two Tory candidates, against the occasional Whig challenger, which saw a confrontation between 4 candidates (only one being a Whig, polling far behind).

2. The stasis of constitutionalism?

So, taken as a whole, Ireland’s parliamentary class did not show much zest during the 1847 general election, and not much zest towards alternative parliamentary solution-finding in particular. The formation of the Irish Party at the Rotunda meeting, convened by Daniel O’Connell on 14 January 1847, did not live up to the expectations raised, and soon divisions reappeared, together with an absence of a clear and articulate alternative to the official policy pursued in London. It can be argued that the rise in Repeal or Irish Party candidates and returned MPs has more to do with the wave of sympathy which had followed O’Connell’s death in January than with political affiliation, not to mention common practical legislative objectives. However, as mentioned earlier, the immediate post-Famine election (or late-Famine, according to periodization) clearly displays more para-electoral activity. So that if we take the ratio of contested elections as an indicator of response to the crisis, there was clearly a response then. If we pursue this hypothesis, we can put forward several explanations. First, by then, the political class had had time for adjustment, and had taken stock: the results of the 1851 census were known, for instance, and the country was recovering, which allowed more time for political thinking, as minds were no longer burdened with vital, day-to-day matters. Then, there had been “accelerators”: the paltry crop of the late summer of 1847, Trevelyan’s announcement that the crisis was over in February 1848, and two pieces of legislation in 1849: the Encumbered Estates Act, and the Rate-in-Aid. The former must have come as a brutal remainder to many among the landowning class that their position as the ruling elite of the country had nothing to do with the right of long standing, but a lot to do with results, and economic results to begin with, and was thus conditional; not even Britain guaranteed it as intangible. As to the latter, it clearly made the Famine, not a local problem, nor an issue of imperial solidarity, but an Irish problem to be remedied by Irish cash, if not by Irish solutions, as the latter belong to a nationalist agenda.

There is a potential difficulty for French students and researchers (or non-Irish and non-British): somehow, we tend to construe that there should have been an “Irish party” at Westminster. But this is forgetting two things: first, that all Irish representatives need not have shared the same view of the crisis. Second, this idea brushes too quickly aside the fundamental difficulty of parliamentary representation: an MP is elected locally, but once in Parliament, his role is to consider the affairs of the country as a whole ((This is theoretical as, still today, many MPs consider that their function consists (at least partly) in deriving as much advantage as possible for their constituencies, and are largely expected to do so by their constituents.)).

True, Irish MPs were certainly in a much better place to forward relevant information to Westminster, and could have scrutinized or amended better legislation dealing specifically with conditions in Ireland, and relief. In not doing so, they reacted, not according to their local basis, but according to class. I argue that many MPs shared class interest and prejudices: many being landowners, had no interest in the prevalence of cheap food; and all were intent on keeping the rates low. Some can have been afraid of their “surplus tenants” in the previous years, most of whom they did not know, and may even have shared in a providentialist interpretation. Sociologically, many may have felt remote from people with whom, in addition, they shared neither faith nor, still frequently, language. I would also argue that, if we consider the attitude of Britain’s political class, social racism should be added to, or seen as a component of, a form of ethnic racism.

There are of course, limits to quantitative analysis. First, it should be taken much further, with a detailed study of the renewal rate of MPs, for instance; and conversely, with a study of the electoral fortunes of out-going candidates. Second, this approach tends to obscure local variations. Thus, over the period considered, county Armagh was dominated by members of two well-established families, Verner and Caulfield, the one Tory and the other Whig, who were each returned steadily unopposed. Cork City elections were contested throughout, but with 3 candidates in the 1847 election, instead of the usual 4; in Dublin City, it was 2 candidates instead of 4. By 1841, co. Cork was a well-established pro-catholic, then pro-Repeal stronghold; the number of Repeal candidates had perhaps more to do with electoral opportunity than with vivid constitutional debates. In such strongholds, electoral rebukes did happen; thus, co. Galway, which had been represented by two Whig MPs since 1835, returned a Tory in 1847, in addition to the outgoing repeal candidate.

How to analyze the call for Repeal? In the 1847 election, if we take the lowest computation, 14 Repeal candidates were returned in counties, and 17 in boroughs, i.e. a little less than one third; if we take the higher computation (36), the result is slightly higher than one third. The Repeal affiliation may be dismissed as “mere” theoretical debate. It may also be considered as a sign of distrust, or as a form of conditional participation in Britain’s political life. The issue was perhaps not even that clear in 1847. Indeed, Daniel O’Connell, the initiator of the Repeal movement in the early 1840s, had certainly contributed to blurring the issue, by stopping the “Monster Meeting” campaign of 1843, and by renewing his alliance with the Whigs when Russell’s government was formed in June 1846. True enough, no constitutional Repeal of the Union could be obtained without support, or at any rate consent, from a majority at Westminster, and could not be obtained by Irish MPs by themselves. However, the building of such an alliance meant the indefinite postponement of the nationalist agenda, clipped the potential of criticism against government policy, and fostered submissiveness on the part of MPs. Indeed, it is to be noted that the Repeal MPs did not try to capitalize on their success, though they had a political card to play, as Russell’s minority government depended on the steady support of all the groups it was supported by. O’Connell had died in May 1847, and the weak leadership of his son John did not help clarify the content of the cry for Repeal in the context of the Famine ((I thank Peter Gray for having observed that John O’Connell was bent on securing increased Irish Catholic presence in all Irish institutions, and therefore coveted government patronage, which is hardly compatible with criticism.)). The movement was not bolstered by its electoral breakthrough in 1847, and was wiped out by 1852, during which election candidates reverted en masse to the standard Whig/Tory identification.

3. Frustration and revolution

Young Ireland, a group of dedicated nationalists, had been at work before the Famine, and had decided to join O’Connell’s Repeal Association. They had tactical motivations in doing so: O’Connell was then a popular hero and a mover of crowds, with a nationwide and popular audience they could not hope to achieve by themselves. They also had some fascination for the Repeal association as a formidable instrument of crowd gathering and crowd discipline, for the “sobering effect” of the Association. This how Sir Charles Gavan Duffy retrospectively and negatively defines the beliefs of Thomas Davis, the founder of the movement; he argues that Davis raged against the dominant ideology of the day, defined as

Modern Anglicanism i.e. Utilitarianism, the creed of Russell and Peel, as well as of the radicals – this thing, call it Yankeeism or Englishism, which measures prosperity by exchangeable value, measures duty by gain, and limits desires to clothes, food, and respectability; this damned thing has come into Ireland under the Whigs, and is equally the favourite of the “Peel” Tories ((Sir Charles Gavan Duffy, Young Ireland: a Fragment of Irish History 1840-45, Dublin, 1884 edition, quoted in D. George Boyce, Nationalism in Ireland, first edition 1982, this edition London and New York, Routledge, 1991.)).

What Young Ireland opposed is as clear as it is sweeping, and could be summed up as “Anglo-Saxon materialism”, largely though not exclusively embodied and typified by the Whigs; this was the Carlylean trend in the movement’s ideology. What they stood for can be more difficult to grasp. To cut a long story extremely short, they believed in the Irish nationhood as a spiritual principle, having nothing to do with race, descent, long establishment in the country, or creed, but based on heroic – almost chivalrous – values, somehow connected with the historical spirit of the place.

Logically enough, their relation with pragmatic, Whig-supporting O’Connell was often uneasy. In July 1846, they left the Association, and established the Irish Confederation on 13 January 1847. On what positive platform proved more difficult to articulate than their opposition, be it to Russell or O’Connell. All shared a form of cultural nationalism, based on a vision of the nation and of history largely inspired by French historians such as Jules Michelet or Augustin Thierry. All were appalled by the Famine, and highly critical of the government’s handling of the issue, especially after June 1846. They agreed on a vision for the future: an independent country, with a different socio-economic organization reflecting a different ethos – though what form that was to take remained hazy and undefined.

As Ireland emerged from the terrible winter of 1846-47, when the mortality figures could no longer be ignored, and official policy was firmly geared towards the end of exceptional measures and a take-over by the Poor Law, James Fintan Lalor launched an appeal “To the landowners of Ireland” in The Nation ((“A New Nation: proposal for an agricultural association between the landowners and occupiers”, in The Nation, 24 April 1847. James Fintan Lalor was the son of a Catholic middleman farmer in Queen’s County; he evolved towards the idea of peasant ownership of the land, achieved through revolutionary means, although it is clear from the following extracts that he had not yet reached this articulate conclusion at the time he wrote this letter to The Nation.)). This article contains expressions of bitter disappointment with the Irish party:

[…] we recognise nothing Irish in this party except its name; nothing can entitle it to command or call round in the hearts or hopes of this people; or raise it to any higher position than that of a mere club and a petty club, formed by a class for the sole object of saving its own little interests from injury, at any cost to the country. Whether for its professed or its private objects, shelter as an Irish party or as a landowners’ club, it is equally and utterly inefficient, and can do nothing for the salvation of the country or for yours. It excludes the people. It embraces no great public principles, passions, purpose, or policy ((Ibid.)).

The Irish party is thus indicted as being both politically and socially irrelevant. However, as Lalor points out, the famine has disrupted the ordinary functioning of society, and perhaps even destroyed its very foundations:

When society fails to perform its duty and fulfil its office of providing for its people, it must take another and more effective form, or it must cease to exist. When its members begin to die out under destitution – when they begin to perish in thousands under famine and the effects of famine – when they begin to desert and fly from the land in hundreds of thousands under the force and fear of deadly famine – then it is time to see that it is God’s will that society should stand dissolved and assume another shape and action; and he works his will by human hands and natural agencies. This case has arisen even now in Ireland, and the effect has already followed in part. Society stands dissolved ((Ibid.)).

It shall be noted that, far from seeing mass emigration as a prospect of improvement, Lalor analyses it as proof of a combination of natural disaster and political shortcomings. Here, I will argue that there existed a nationalist providentialism, in which the Famine was indeed a God-sent event, though for different purposes than those usually encompassed by mainstream, or orthodox providentialism. This apocalyptic vision extends to the contemplation of possible consequences:

What men were unable to do, they set about doing; what they were able to do, they left and are leaving undone. For something else is wanting, and requires to be provided, besides food for today or tomorrow – else a revolution is at hand. A  revolution of the worst type and character – not such as when a nation breaks up under armed violence, to reunite and rise on structure as strong as before; but such as when it falls in pieces, rotting to final and faetid ruin ((Ibid.)).

The potato blight is both a fact and a a metaphor, or a representation of the state of society. However, for Lalor, this can yet be averted, provided the landed classes actively perform their traditional role:

The power of framing a new order of arrangement is in your hands, my lords and gentlemen, if you choose to exercise it. The work of reconstruction belongs of right to you, if you have the wisdom and the will to do it. It is in emergencies and occasions like the present, rather than in ordinary and settled times, that a national aristocracy is required; and if they be not worthy of such occasions, they are worthless altogether. It is a time like this that tries and tests the worth of a class, as it tests the worth of individual men. Not to time should the task be committed, nor to chance; not to the government of England, which is incompetent to the case; not the parliament of  England where you are made a mark for pelting at; nor to the desperate remedies of men whom you have, yourselves, made desperate. Ireland demands from you now something more than her present dole of daily food – a mode and system of procuring full food for herself ((Ibid.)).

Lalor challenged Ireland’s traditional elite on several scores: he reminded them of the historical justification for their function of status, and reminded them of the historical system of reciprocity, which bound them to those under their domination and care, while emphasizing the scorn and suspicion with which they were largely viewed by their supposed English peers – bringing them back to their territorial basis as well as to their original legitimacy. Should they rise to the challenge, a new, more solid and happier dispensation of society would emerge:

Adopt this process; create what has never existed yet in Ireland, an active an affluent husbandry, a secure and independent agricultural peasantry, able to accumulate as well as to produce – do this, and you raise a happy and thriving community, a solid social economy, a prosperous people, an effective nation. Create the husbandman, and you create the mechanic, the artisan, the manufacturer, the merchant. Thus you will work on the ordinance of God, in the order and with the powers of nature ((Ibid.)).

However, Lalor does not explain the exact nature of the reform of the land tenure he calls for, nor does he suggest any practical course of action towards the consummation of this God-decreed dispensation. With characteristic mingling of ideological opposites – or with typical Young Ireland idiosyncrasy – his call for a potentially socialistic major agrarian reform is mingled with an appeal to individual or “heroic” responsibility, and to collective aristocratic duty.

For all the despair and vibrancy of this appeal, the confederates did not necessarily share the same ideas on what should be done right then, and on how to achieve the “Ireland of their dreams” ((This expression is freely borrowed from E. de Valera’s St Patrick’s Day speech in 1943.)), while the times called for very immediate solutions. The Confederation was thus divided between the moderates, who were reluctant to violent action, and the more radical elements, who viewed land reform as an absolute and immediate imperative, to be achieved through a brutal severing of the connection with Britain. The issue of physical force proved to the Confederation the same stumbling block as it had proved for the Repeal association. They also stumbled over those very tactical considerations they loathed: ultimately, the Confederation came to the decision to put up only very few candidates for the 1847 election, in order not to split the challenging vote which Repeal was bound to attract, though in a form they did not approve of. Their final rift was materialized by the 1848 rising, typically and paradoxically led by William Smith O’Brien, an MP, who had long tried to act as a mediator between Young and Old Ireland.


There had been much talk in Britain – and some talk in Ireland as well – that the “blessings of the Union” would homogenize the two countries; by which it is to be understood, that Ireland would sooner or later fall into line with the existing practices in Britain, economic, social, and political.

In that perspective, the behaviour of Ireland’s parliamentary class taken as a whole could be interpreted a token of assimilation, in which O’Connellite Repealers could be seen as a satellite group of the Whigs, much like the British radicals were: sharing a common platform, but having a distinct agenda of political reform.

However, once again, reforms for Ireland contributed to creating the opposite effect. The Rate-in-Aid had firmly and perhaps finally placed Ireland outside the pale of imperial solidarity. All earlier reforms of the Irish Poor Law had confirmed the variance in practice. The 1829 electoral reform had actually widened the gap between the people, the voters, and their elected representatives, while in Britain the 1832 Reform Act had engaged the country in the opposite direction. This was but slightly corrected, and late, in 1850.

The facts of the Famine taxed the political imagination of the UK’s ruling elites, while it widened the gap between the two countries, given a growing weariness, sometimes amounting to downright hostility, on the part of British public opinion. The emerging theories of race were to articulate and strengthen prejudice and misinterpretation.

Ireland’s ruling elites can be said to have failed to rise to the challenge ((This refers and applies strictly to their political solution-finding task as MPs, not to private acts of charity.)); but could they? It is probably difficult to fully reconstruct the interpretative chaos into which they, as well, were plunged. What was not wiped out during the post-Famine decades was the tension between the two possible courses of action open to nationalists of various shades: constitutional nationalism on the one hand, and revolutionary action on the other hand. What was firmly added was the prevalence of the land issue.     

Cette ressource est issue d'une communication donnée lors d'une journée d'étude sur le programme de l'agrégation, organisée à l'Université de Caen le 23 janvier 2015. Organisation : Penny Starfield, avec la collaboration de Christophe Gillissen, Armelle Parey, Mickael Popelard et Andrew Ives.


Pour citer cette ressource :

Anne-Catherine De Bouvier, "Ireland’s political life during the Famine: Election, constitutionalism and revolution", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), mars 2015. Consulté le 24/05/2024. URL: https://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/civilisation/domaine-britannique/irlande-et-ecosse/ireland-s-political-life-during-the-famine-election-constitutionalism-and-revolution