The Cover




The Roles & Attitudes of Irish Protestants During the Potato Famine

Seán Stitt.




Around the 150th anniversary of the potato famine in Ireland in 1995, volumes of academic and populist sources have discussed, commented and analysed the calamity - however, some features of the event have attracted little or no attention. The most extensively-published author on the 'Great Famine' in 19th century Ireland is Christine Kinealy. In 2002, she remarked: 'The role of the various churches in Ireland throughout the famine, especially (the main) Protestant churches, has been largely untold.' 1 This paper is an attempt to fill that gap. Specifically, it aims to address the roles and attitudes of those Protestant groups and churches which endeavoured to manipulate the Famine for religious agendas. The author acknowledges that famine relief by most Protestants, both individually and collectively, was given in the spirit of humanity and benevolence. However, as far as the author is aware, this is the first paper dedicated solely to addressing the activities and beliefs of those Protestant organisations which sought to exploit the deaths and suffering of millions in Ireland in order to destroy the religious beliefs and practices of the indigenous Irish population (Catholicism) and to promote their own version of faith (Protestantism).

 'We shall be equally blamed for keeping the Irish alive or letting them die and we have only to select between the Economists or the Philanthropists - which do you prefer?'

Lord Clarendon - August 1847 - House of Commons



In June 1845, some countries in the European mainland became concerned at the emergence of a potato blight which killed off entire crops. Two months later, this disease had appeared in England and, already, there was widespread and deep concern that the Irish potato crop, upon which millions were exclusively dependent, would be infected. Within a month, there were reports that the crop along the east coast of Ireland had been reduced to a black, inedible pulp, with County Antrim being badly hit. This was at the tail-end of the summer and the majority of the crop survived. That was to be the last time a healthy potato crop grew in the country until 1850. Millions would die of starvation and famine-related illnesses and millions more would flee their native land to escape starvation, despite the fact that Ireland, in those years, produced enough foodstuffs to feed the entire population a number of times over, the vast majority of which was exported to satisfy the culinary desires of more affluent Britain and beyond. The extent of death wrought by the Famine is evidenced in table I 2 :

 Table I: Irish Mortality 1842-1850

 Year % of the Population Deaths Each Year



















Many Protestants regarded the potato failure as 'punishment for the prevalence of popery' and was 'the main motivation to rescue the people from the darkness of popery and priestcraft and to bring them to the pure light of the gospel' 3 . The Northern Whig in January 1847 referred to the famine as 'the present favourable crisis' which provided an opportunity 'for conveying the light of the Gospels to the darkened minds of the Roman Catholic peasantry' 4 . One evangelical group likened Irish Catholics to the people of Israel who underwent a famine because 'they lacked the knowledge of God - they were superstitious and idolatrous … (the same) consequent wickedness of Ireland, are the cause of its misfortunes' 5 . In a petition to the English PM Lord John Russell, they pressed for the withholding of relief which, they opined, would 'support the existence of popery' and would encourage degradation, misery and vice. Rather than provide food, clothing and shelter, every cabin in Ireland should be provided with 'the word of God'.

Gray 6 explains that the more important concept of 'Christian economics' was a greater influence on the attitudes and actions by Irish Protestants during the Great Hunger. This belief regarded the predominant laissez-faire / free market philosophy as God's 'natural economic laws' which were necessary in order to impose moral discipline. The hunger was a heavenly opportunity to impose upon the Catholics an agenda of strict moral adherence. This view perceived the potato blight as a direct warning from the deity to avoid all actions which might in any way interfere with the functioning of his own laws. Irish Protestants - as well as many British commentators - encouraged the view that the Irish Catholics were guilty by locating 'the blame for the state of Irish society squarely on the moral failings of Irish men of all classes'. The Irish sulked in the unintelligent margins of the rest of British Calvinist society and the mass starvation was perceived as divine judgement - and thus it was beyond the analysis of mere mortal economic rationale. Such a mode of thought was referred to at the time as 'providentialism', the doctrine that human affairs are regulated by divine agency for human good. It remains that such ideological positions on the mass hunger were justified and magnified by the popular attitude among Protestants that the potato disease had been delivered by God for an identifiable agenda 7


Such ideology enabled, and indeed encouraged Christian economists to marry theories of political economy with religious dogma. However, it was not an equal marriage for Irish Protestants who tended to prefer explanations focusing on God reeking revenge on Catholics for their moral failings - in particular, those who rebelled against the strict rules of the Sabbath - those 'not having honoured the Lord with our substance as we ought' 8 Indeed, the leading newspaper of Ulster Presbyterians at the time, the Banner of Ulster, carried a letter from a clergyman which sought to explain the potato famine in terms of 'challenges given and accepted at farming dinners, respecting the produce of the land, have caused the failure of the potato'. Gray 9 underlined this attitude by explaining that many Presbyterians viewed the catastrophe in terms of 'divine vengeance' visited upon not only the Catholics of Ireland - but also upon English politicians who were guilty of 'sins', including the endowment of the Maynooth Catholic clergy seminary and the plans to introduce non-denominational universities, or 'Godless Colleges', as Catholic clergy called them. Kinealy 10 recounts that the career of Robert Peel was cut short by many Irish Protestants MPs who never forgave him for his support for Catholic Emancipation in 1829 and his relatively minor and solely pragmatic endowment of Maynooth College. 'One school of opinion believed that God was displaying his wrath for the granting of Catholic Emancipation' said Kinealy 11 while pointing out that similar heavenly theories abounded among the Catholic population as well: 'God was extracting a penance for the Irish people accepting money from the British government to finance Maynooth College'. Thomas O'Neill 12 agreed with this observation: 'A number (of Protestants) blamed the government grant to the Catholic college at Maynooth for rousing the divine anger' (while pointing out that some Irish people blamed the fairies of Downpatrick for filching the potatoes). Evangelical Protestant Edward Nangle was more specific and certain of his facts: 'It is done, and in that very year, that very month, the land is smitten, the earth is blighted, famine begins, and is followed by plague, pestilence and blood' 13 . William Carleton, a leading member of the Protestant community in Connaught, in 1847 epitomised this God-sent explanation for the famine: 'We feel that the people must die off … and it is not the first landlord I have heard say as much. This is a blessed famine, God be praised.' (Bold emphasis my own )14


Such sentiments prevailed among Irish Protestants, not only in terms of the causes of the hunger but also relating to famine relief. For example, the leading Protestant newspaper in the northern part of the country, the Northern Whig, attacked the distribution of relief in the worst-hit areas. In the epicentre of the famine, Skibbereen, the editor criticised local landlords for promoting public works so that, '… the sum voted will be advanced by the government and never repaid and so, jobbery and knavery meet and scheme and luxuriate, making a benefit of the starving dead' 15 .. It was little surprise that the Belfast Poor Law Union, dominated by Protestants, was regarded by the Poor Law Commissioners has having one of the most efficient in the country - by which they meant 'frugal and disciplinarian' 16 ..


The House of Commons introduced the Rate-in-Aid Bill in 1849 which set about increasing the levels of financial assistance and support that Poor Law Unions were obliged to provide to the needy and transferring the bill for famine relief from the British to the Irish taxpayer. The editor of the Northern Whig continuously attacked the introduction of the Bill and issued a blatant warning that it would not be permitted to operate in the north-east of the country. The vehement opposition among northern Protestants to the Bill was polluted with sectarian rhetoric. Reducing the debate to national politics and sectarian interests, the Bill was presented as an 'anti-Union scheme', diluting the relationship between Britain and Ireland 17 .. The Bill was seen as challenging the sanctity of the Union itself. The trauma generated by the potato blight was manipulated to present a scenario of north-east versus the rest of Ireland in which 'Antrim, Armagh and Down' (the three richest and most Protestant counties in Ireland) '[were] to be made the preserves of the paupers of Connaught to graze on'. The result was that, in 1851, Ulster had the highest arrears of the four provinces - 16 per cent; compared to Leinster at four per cent; Munster nine per cent; and Connaught nine per cent 18 .. However, in terms of mortality during the tragedy, the town of Belfast suffered as much as the rest of Ireland and indeed, more than others, as table II shows . The obvious implication of these sentiments was that the communities devastated by the hunger in the rest of Ireland simply did not deserve to be helped.



Table II - Mortality in 1847 as a percentage of 1841 population.










5.5 19

 Edgar offered a competing meaning to God's intention by arguing that the starvation was an opportunity given by the almighty to Protestants so that they could 'win the hearts of Catholics by kindness, a theory which initially attracted some favour among Presbyterian clergy in 1847. Indeed, another clergyman. Robert Morgan. introduced a novel variation of Edgar's theme by inquiring: 'Have we not reason to fear that God is visiting us with this as a punishment for our neglect; we did not send the gospel to them.' 20 Edgar reacted to this suggestion by outlining the opportunities which God has sent to Protestants. Many Catholics, he argued, were 'disgusted with their priests' and were very much appreciative of the 'benevolence' of Protestants. This led them to become interested in 'the faith from which such generous practice flows'. However, Miller 21 has remarked that: 'The extent to which this interpretation of providence's intent by leaders of the [Presbyterian] Assembly was accepted throughout Ulster Presbyterianism is certainly open to question'. It appears that the cause of charity to the victims of starvation in Ireland 'lagged far behind what its advocates thought was demanded by the times'.


Indeed, the reality of such an approach in practice meant that 'Irish Catholics were unashamedly pushed into converting to Protestantism in return for bowls of soup' 22, a practice governed by the Temporary Relief Act 1847. In many recorded cases, only those who attended Protestant church services were given food. Elsewhere, Kinealy 23 referred to this evangelical practice as 'souperism' or 'proselytism' - providing food in return for converting the Protestantism. This approach intensified when the government refused to provide any more relief in 1847. This stoppage was, according to the Freeman Journal at the time, 'a signal for a general attack upon the consciences of the poor', a practice which it described as 'nefarious un-Christian wickedness' 24. In Cavan, Lord Farnham and in Down, Earl Roden, a prominent Orangeman, provided material benefits - including an acre or two of land on which they could grow food - but only to 'converts'. Major concern arose when these 'aggressive' practices spread to Counties Cork, Dublin, Kerry, Limerick, Mayo and Sligo, as it was claimed that they heaped insult and degradation onto the misery of the famine, targeting as it did, people who were at their utmost vulnerability - children and the very poorest were the most popular targets. This obnoxious practice was not constrained within the shores of Ireland. As the Famine began to bite harder, many Irish families emigrated to Scotland where some amongst the Protestant establishment, who perceived an opportunity to thwart the spread of the 'Catholic threat', opened soup kitchens to the swelling throng of starving Irish. A hot meal would be provided, and maybe some second hand clothing, upon the 'simple' act of renouncing their faith. Desperate and famished, many felt that they had little choice but to 'take the soup' 25.

 There was a noted proselytising centre at Achill Island in County Mayo where the afore-mentioned Revd. Edward Nangle, a Dublin-born Anglican minister and his family and small group of like-minded evangelicals, bought land and set up a 'Protestant colony', with a church, schools, employment, medical support and a printing press - this latter was important to allow the missions to disseminate their views and beliefs to the wider community 26. The parish priest on Achill at the time, Father Michael Gallagher, claimed that the famine '… compelled … the greater number of the population to send their children to Nangle's proselytising, villainous schools … they are dying of hunger and rather than die, they have submitted to his impious tenets'. Gallagher explained that 'as soon as Lumpers (potatoes of an inferior quality) make their appearance', the 'souper' Catholics would turn their backs on them and return to the true flock. The parish priest for Ballinakill in Clifden reported:

'It cannot be wondered if a starving people be perverted in shoals, especially as they (the proselytisers) go from cabin to cabin and when they find the inmates naked and starved to death, they proffer food, money and raiment, on the express condition of becoming members of their conventicler.' 27


Some Catholics, in a desperate attempt to save the lives of their starving children, accepted this preferential treatment by converting to an alien faith and became known as 'Croghan Soupers' - named after a landed aristocracy in Roscommon. In some cases, soupers were protected by British soldiers from their co-religionists. Even today, such a label raises hackles, although the actual numbers of families 'converted' appear quite minimal. But then, a great deal of bitterness existed at this association of famine relief and saving lives with proselytising campaigns which, although it was carried out well before the potato blight, radically increased and became very widespread during it. The granting of Catholic Emancipation in 1829 injected urgency into the push for Protestant expansionism and the next year, the less-than-subtly-named Protestant Colonisation Society was set up, heralding the revitalisation of the proselytising campaign 28

. As the famine spread, a large number of these organisations began operating throughout the country - the Exeter Society, the Orphan Association and the Belfast Society for the Relief of Distress in Connaught. Dudley Edwards et al 29

explain that provision of basic food in the form of soup became a 'strong inducement to adults to attend bible-reading classes or to send their children to local Protestant schools'. A particularly nasty strategy was employed by some groups like the Church Missionary Societies in Holywood and Down who offered meat soup on Fridays 'to starving people whose resistance might be worn thin by hunger', given the belief among Catholics that it was sinful to eat meat on Fridays. 'Many were so uncharitable as to conclude that it was the food, and not the Bible, that the children love, and that as soon as they were deprived of one, they would reject the other', a surprised John Brannigan explained 30

. (Brannigan was paraded all around Ireland as a success of the proselytising crusade, as he was a convert from Catholicism to Presbyterianism.) He argued that the proof lay in the fact that children forced into the workhouse 'are not happy in that place of confinement' - because they have no Bibles there or catechism, other than the Catholic version. At least one proselytiser was convinced of the morality of the crusade. Brannigan argued that Catholic children should be kept out of the workhouse - because they are deprived there of any religious instruction and be 'trained up in degrading subjugation to the priest'. Instead, they should be sent to 'Bible schools' - where, he claimed, one hundredweight of corn would be sufficient to feed 32 of them - for a week 31

. However, Brannigan's argument that poor Catholic children attended these schools because of their love of the Bible was, not surprisingly, challenged when the provision of free food was aborted in August 1848. 'The consequence was an immediate reduction in the attendance at the schools' 32

. For example, in December 1847, 1,000 children attended twelve of his schools. When the number of schools increased to 28 by the end of 1848, the number of pupils had only gone up to 1,120.


But this crusade was not restricted solely to 'souperism'; local Protestants possessed a lot in influence in the provision of money, in securing better distribution of food, in the allocation of contracts for relief-work, in providing people with land or labour on their own estates and these power games were exploited to the maximum in starving districts. Some Catholics - although all of the literature suggests that the numbers appear to have been minimal and, where it did happen, it was usually temporary - 'turned' or 'jumped' in gratitude for such favours and 'ate the hairy bacon' or 'taken the soup'. By 1851, this evangelical campaign had triumphantly announced that 35,000 Catholics had converted, with 5,000 alone in Tuam, and 40 parishes showing a rise in the numbers of Protestants 33

. It claimed:

'Within four years of the commencement of the work, an impression has been made which has far exceeded the most sanguine expectations of the founders … aroused the attention of the empire, and wrung from the Romish hierarchy the unwilling admission that their power in Ireland is fast approaching destruction.' 34


Many crusading groups did not even attempt to conceal their proselytising agenda. In January 1847, 'The Fund for the Temporal Relief of the Suffering Poor of Ireland through the Instrumentality of the Clergy of the Established Church' was set up to provide money for food for famine victims. In addition, it publicly acknowledged its role in providing spiritual succour 'in order that advantage may be taken of these providential circumstances' 35. 'A wide and effectual door is thus thrown open to our brethren in the hitherto benighted parts of Ireland.' In spite of much opposition to their bread-for souls crusade, the Temporal Fund claimed that 'every door is thrown open to us'. The Catholic Belfast Vindicator attacked these 'tithe-fed hunters who thrown the poison of their bigotry into the fountains of public charity … the clergy would grasp at and withhold until the victim pledged his immortal soul for a morsel of bread' 36.


There are examples 37 of such 'turncoats' who might have been educated actually being converted to proselytising among their co-religionists themselves. Starving families seeking food and work were assessed according to their attendance at Protestant services, schools and other crusading events which were overtly designed to 'enforce denial of the main tenets of Catholicism and active insults to statues of the Blessed Virgin'. In addition, many landlords appear to have been heavily influenced by the crusaders and enlisted by them for what can only be described as a perfidious agenda. There were many complaints during the famine that proselytising Protestant clergy - for example, Richard Blundell in Castlerea, Co. Mayo - exploited his influence over local landlords '… in removing poor Catholics from their holdings … It is well understood that if they go to Church, that they will not be disturbed' 38. 'Birds Nest' schools and homes were set up, paid for by the Church Mission Society, to provide for the famine's waifs and strays. Their task was clear and unabashed - bringing up the children of starving Catholics in the Protestant religion. Indeed, at these schools, the main lesson taught was the study of the Scriptures and food was only provided after five or six hours of lecturing by a 'Bible master or mistress'. The money used to buy Bibles and to pay the wages of the 'teachers' was taken directly from the budget for famine relief 39.


Whatever the circumstances or consequences, soupers were scorned, excluded, boycotted and even, in a few cases, physically attacked and the proselytising among the starving caused a great deal of bad blood between Catholics and Protestants and damaged, sometimes fatally, the good, objective famine relief carried out by many local Protestant groups. The whole experience was described by one priest as 'changing bad Catholics into good Hypocrites' 40. A Quaker, Alfred Webb, suggested after the famine that the campaign had sown ready-to-germinate seeds of bitterness and division that would last a long time and 'Protestants, not altogether excluding the Society (of Friends) sacrificed much of the influence for good that they would have had if they had been satisfied to leave the belief of the people alone' 41. Thus the starvation of the poor was exploited to unleash a Protestant crusade. The potato famine presented a channel for preaching the Protestant faith, 'to rescue the people from the darkness of popery and bring them into the pure light of the gospel' 42. Of course, this would pacify rebellious Catholics and render them more receptive to 'political integration'.


It is very difficult to ascertain from the literature - or indeed, from historical records - just what the extent of such proselytising was and how it compared to the more humane approaches taken by many Protestants who offered food and other sustenance to the starving - without attempting to colonise their souls as the price for survival. The closest we can come to such an estimate lies in the statement by Kinealy 43:

Although such activity was less widespread and less successful than was popularly believed, and was condemned by the majority of Quaker, Protestant and Presbyterian clergy, the fact that it did at all left a legacy of distrust and bitterness against Famine relief.


Kerr 44 points out, that most of the world's great religions actually accept that they have a moral imperative to propagate the belief that they are endowed with a divine lesson of eternal salvation and they impart this message through 'proselytising' and 'conversion', albeit in a highly sensitive manner - that is, on the one hand, there is the religion with its glorious mission and, on the other hand, the other church which believes the former to be immorally 'poaching' in a satanic way. And the conversion attempts are not only related to religious beliefs; they have, according to Kerr, 'social and political aspects':


· Socially - the targets of the crusade are tempted into an alien culture, experiencing neighbours turning their backs to them and being marginalised from their own community and its culture, traditions and way of life.


· Politically - the targets for the crusade are then assimilated and absorbed into the converting religion's political ideologies, giving rise to alarm among the other church. Given the great political schisms and the close association with religion in Ireland since the 11th century, this would have been politically monumental. Kerr explains: 'In turn, this would make the people peaceful and more open to political integration' 45.


Thus the modus operandi usually involves the employment of preferential treatment in order to entice the targets to convert to their beliefs and so, the conformity to the powerful religion usually involves upwards mobility - in the case of millions of Irish Catholics during the disaster, the means to escape death by starvation. An inherent phenomenon is that converting to an alien religion based solely on 'material advantages' - or in this case, food to live - is highly problematic because it adorns itself with the mantles of bribery and this is exacerbated if the community has strong ties and spirit. Kerr concludes: 'All these elements came together in the 19th century in Ireland and, particularly, in the closing years of the Famine.' 46 However, this was far from the first time that such 'bribery' was practiced in the pursuit of religious crusades. It was a widespread practice during the colonisation of many African countries for religious crusaders to offer food, clothing, shelter - as well as baubles - to black African villagers in return for their conversion to Christianity. The main proselytisers at this time belonged to the Catholic Church, followed closely by the non-conforming churches of many European nations.


The theme of Edgar's perception of the potato famine was that it was less about God punishing the native-born Catholics and more to do with an act of heavenly providence to Protestants to enhance their religious credentials by encouraging them to give charity to the victims of the tragedy and thereby to seek their conversion to the 'true and only faith'. This sentiment was epitomised in an 1849 report by the Presbyterian Assembly which read: 'Our Mission field for re-claiming captives from the Man of Sin lies in the counties Tyrone, Donegal, Sligo, Mayo, Roscommon, Galway, Kerry …' 47. The Protestant Watchman on May 12th 1848 explained the agenda for Protestant relief:

 'Six million of the people of Ireland are chained to a system that excludes, and is found to exclude, them from the true knowledge of the true God … You must endeavour to bring the knowledge of God to every cabin in Ireland. To do this, you must use your endeavours to have the word of God taught and preached in every village in Ireland; and when you this honour God by honouring His word, you may expect redemption in Ireland.' 48

 On March 27th 1847, at the apex of the Great Famine, a group calling itself the Dublin Parochial Association was established, consisting of Established Church clergy men with the aim of relieving the impact of the potato famine in Dublin city. The vehicle for the relief was the Protestant clergy but, according to its own statements, its aim was one of 'equalising the distribution of charity through the City', without religious distinction. To what extent this organisation succeeded in this agenda is highly questionable, according to information gathered by O'Grada 49. In June 1847, it received a grant of £100 from the national Club in London and in November, the Association reported that it had spent £126-8s-6d on 2,253 individuals, of which only 511 were 'Romanists' - this in a city where 80% of the population was Catholic and where the needy were even more likely to be of that faith. 'Such a bias is hardly reassuring.' 50 O'Grada stated that: 'In practice, the Dublin Parochial Association seems to have been a Protestant charity run mainly for Protestants.' The religious bias was so marked and barely hidden that some of Dublin's poorest parishes never even joined the Association. This bias in famine relief was perceived and acknowledged at the time by Daniel O'Connell 51 who attacked the appointment of the Duke of Manchester (the owner of 12,000 acres in County Armagh) to the Irish Relief Association in 1846 on the basis that this would render the group dominated by 'ultra-Protestantism'.


Elsewhere, this overt religious bigotry by many influential Protestants had serious implications for many facets of the famine relief mechanisms and delivery. In 1846, new rules governing the formation of relief committees - the Labour Rate Act - specified that the lieutenant of each county was to make sure that both a Catholic and a Protestant clergyman served on the bodies. However, there were a large number of complaints that priests and even bishops were being deliberately excluded from the groups. For example, in Fermoy in County Cork, just a few miles from Skibbereen, where Catholics made up over 95% of the population, Catholic curates were specifically excluded from the local famine relief committee. Lord Monteagle of Limerick said at the time: 'Without them, and here they are labouring like tigers for us, working day and night, we could not move a stroke' 52. Even though the curates were far more familiar and conversant with the circumstances of the community, particularly their own congregation, even though they were well-situated to evaluate the urgency of the needs of different households, even though they were, mainly, of a younger generation than the other committee members, still they were forbidden from membership of the famine relief committee by the local Protestant power-brokers. When the provision of soup kitchens to feed the starving was implemented in 1847, 'district committees' were appointed to oversee and manage the service. However, once again, Catholics were excluded from serving on the new bodies by the Protestant-dominated local authorities. It was reported 53 that Dr John Cantwell, the Bishop of Meath and the local Catholic clergy in the townland of Mullingar were only allowed membership of their district committee after they had directly appealed to the Under-Secretary. When the Earl of Lucan, as Lord Lieutenant of Mayo, was taken to court for illegally excluding Catholic clergy from relief committees, he argued that he believed that it was his right to do so and he was found not guilty on the grounds that no malice could be proved 54.


Kinealy & MacAtasney 55 commented that a significant omission from the debate on the Great Famine has been an academic analysis of: (a) the impact of the Famine in Ulster and; (b) famine relief there. Although historical studies have, predominately, argued that Belfast, along with Dublin and Cork cities, were largely unaffected by the worst excesses of the potato failure, Kinealy & MacAtasney 56 point out that more contemporary evidence suggests that this was not the case. For example, in early 1847, soup kitchens in Belfast were feeding 3,000 people every day. Despite less than objective comments such as, 'there is no evidence that the Famine played any part in the history of Belfast' (DUP Councillor Sammy Wilson in February 1997, 57, there is, when actively looked for, 'vast amounts of historical records available' on widespread suffering in Belfast and the rest of Ulster. In July 1847, the Belfast Orange Lodge bemoaned that the Famine had 'thinned out our local population and removed many of our local brethren' 58. In the same year, the Society of Friends visited eastern Down - now the most prosperous area of Northern Ireland - and commented, 'It would be impossible to find more distressing cases, short of the horrors of Skibbereen' 59. Throughout the entire famine, however, the impact was, generally speaking, less severe in some districts of Ulster than the rest of the country. Nonetheless, even this fact was described in religious rationale. According to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in July 1847:

'We are grateful to Almighty God while we humbly regard it as an illustration of the industry and general comfort promoted by our beloved Church that, in Ulster, where our principles are most widely disseminated, the visitation has appeared in a much less aggravated form than in those provinces in which the Romish system still, unhappily, maintains its degrading and paralyzing ascendancy.' 60


Kinealy & MacAtasney 61 have pointed to the prevailing myth that only the Catholic majority were affected by the Great Hunger. Of course, data shows that Catholics did, indeed, make up the vast majority of those who died from starvation and related illness, and emigrated to escape from death. However, the authors indicate that the Protestant community, including those who lived in Ulster, suffered a great deal from the effects of the potato blight and subsequent poverty. Protestants regarded themselves as a 'plebeian aristocracy', socially superior to their Catholics counterparts, even though they experienced similar levels of deprivation. Consequently, when the potato famine surfaced upon Belfast, there followed, for many, an immoveable reluctance to acknowledge the problem and its impact upon Ulster. In April 1846, a leading Catholic newspaper pointed to this reluctance of the Protestant ascendancy to apply for the little support there was for famine relief because 'it is a disgrace to the province and [yet] wonder that persons will not be content to linger, sigh and die in silence, sooner than sully the credit of Ulster'.


The emergence of the potato crop disease in 1845 was perceived by Protestants in the north-east of the country as a 'troubling development that called for solutions' 62. In November that year, a meeting took place of Belfast's 'principal inhabitants' - an exclusively Protestant gathering - and it called for the suspension of food duties and for an end to distillation from grain for a single year, the outwardly stated purpose being to preserve food supplies. However, this was perceived at the time as less an attempt to provide additional food for the starving and more an anti-liquor, temperance measure promoted by leading Presbyterians. In the December 30th edition of the Banner of Ulster, the journal of Belfast Presbyterians, the potato famine attracted a brief, slanted, back-page mention and was presented as a 'a conjuncture that had brought justly deserved ruin to avaricious speculators in railway stock' 63. The issue of black slavery in the United States appears to have attracted greater public comments than the situation in Ireland at that time. Some minor, localised measures were adopted - for example, a relief committee was established in early-1846 in the district of Ballymacarrett in east Belfast, a multiply-deprived Catholic enclave. However subsequent developments were to prove that such measures and concerns were based on the expectation that the potato failure was a one-year phenomenon and that normal supplies would re-commence that summer.


Of course, this proved not to be the case as that crop in that year was also destroyed by blight. Such a development was to have serious implications for the role and attitudes of Irish Protestants towards the starving communities. For example, in the late summer in 1846, a meeting of Belfast Presbyterians, organised to discuss matters of higher education, noted concern among some members over the 'alarming indications of God's judgement … especially in the almost total failure of the potato crop' 64. The action taken by the brethren at the meeting was to encourage prayer; no further, more corporeal, measures were deemed necessary - other than a 'bazaar of needlework' organised by a middle-class women's club. Kinealy 65 reports that one John Edgar in 1847 managed to collect £15,000 from wealthy Ulster Protestants and used it to set up industrial schools in, what he called 'wild Connaught'. However, when an outbreak of typhus surfaced in Belfast that year which was 'rapidly extending itself to the middle classes', Edgar's cohorts on the relief committee refused to provide any more funds for the starving, preferring to keep the money for typhus victims 66.


The west of the country was associated mainly with the proselytising campaigns, given that they were overwhelmingly Catholic and given that the Famine impacted more so in this province than the rest of Ireland. However, Kinealy 67 points out that those Catholics who lived in Ulster were also targeted for conversion through famine relief. Particularly in the town of Belfast, Catholicism was coupled with deprivation and rebellion, thereby infusing greater urgency and importance into the need for evangelising among the Protestant middle-class. Consequently, groups called the Belfast Religious Tract Society and the Belfast Town Mission were established to offer soup and bread to the needy, provided that they partook in religious activities like Bible reading and hymn singing. Generally, this crusade to colonise the souls of Catholics through the channel of famine relief fed into existing friction between Catholics and Protestants and, with the help of the 1848 uprising and the 1849 sectarian riot at Dolly's Brae, polarisation deepened and widened. The fact that, during these clashes, the fatalities were overwhelmingly Catholics, the famine was seen as God's revenge on an idolatrous and superstitious faith. Therefore proselytism and sectarianism proved to be mutually reinforcing.


After 'Black '47', the policy of 'imperial responsibility' for the provision of relief was jettisoned in favour of the alternative policy of shifting the increased tax burden onto Ireland itself. Later, in 1849, by way of sidestepping additional taxes imposed by Westminster for famine relief, Protestant politicians 'depicted themselves of having ridden the Famine with ease'. Also, when a new tax system was introduced which obliged the more prosperous east of the country to subsidise the poorer west, the Protestant taxpayers in the north east reacted, not by challenging this British government move, but by 'attacking the poor in the west of the country for making such an imposition necessary. Evidence of this sentiment was found in abundance, particularly in the statement by Joseph Napier MP in the House of Commons (1 March 1849) to the effect that the northern taxpayers would be forced 'to keep up an army of beggars fed out of the industry of Ulster'. Kinealy and MacAtasney 68 explain that such sentiments were due, in large, to perceived religious and economic superiority of the Protestant north east over the Catholic remainder of the country. In February that year, the Protestant Belfast Newsletter advised: 'The sturdy men of the north will now be compelled to feed the starving masses in whom bad landlordism, disloyal teaching, a false religion and an inherent laziness have combined the share of canker of their country'. These attitudes continued even when the hunger became too widespread and serious to wish away. In the aforementioned Protestant stronghold of Ballymacarrett in east Belfast, Famine victims asserted that they would have preferred 'a cheap loaf, only if it came through a Protestant channel' 69.


There was a widespread belief among many of the proselytising Protestants that the Famine had ripple effects which internationalised the phenomenon - i.e. Catholicism was able to expand its influence beyond the shores of Ireland. At the Sixth Annual Conference of the British Organisation in 1853, the aforementioned Belfast man John Edgar addressed the gathering on the topic of 'Ireland's Mission Field', another proselytising lecture on the dangers of 'increasing swarms of illiterate, profligate Irish Romanists' who were 'defiling and oppressing' large swathes of 'the great New World of the West, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee and other towns of Scotland' 70. One of the main consequences of this 'plague' was an increase in crime throughout urban Britain. As a result of such concerns, an organisation was set up to:

'bring reforming influence to bear on the increased masses of Roman heathens … We have no serpents in our land but our Romish population, like fiery flying serpents, are spreading over the face of our lands. Here are the headquarters of infection from which goes forth disease more fatal than cholera or plague. Here the reckless spirits are trained who destroy the peace of England, Scotland and America; our Maynooth produces more priests than Ireland needs and thus the public funds of Britain are employed in training agents for ill, ringleaders in rebellion and riot in lands across the sea' 71.


One of the worst and most enduring legacies of the Famine was the bitterness sowed by the Protestant proselytising missions. Converting to a different faith takes place for a range of contributory factors, the most crucial one being, in a model scenario, personal / moral choice. However, history tells us that, during the Famine, the hope of being able to put food into the starving and dying mouths of one's children was the deciding factor for the vast majority of Irish Catholics seeking aid and indeed, for many, the only factor. This hope could only be realised via converting to the Protestant faith. This tag of souperism survived in the Irish psyche, a shadow which poisoned some of the genuine relief efforts of those Protestant clergy at the time who worked tirelessly to feed the starving without any attempt to 'win' converts. This experience contaminated relations between the main churches, reinforced and widened sectarian cleavages and cast a spectre over Irish society for a long time after the famine disappeared. For example, Kerr 72 tells us that the concern for the faith of their congregations was the core factor behind continuing Catholic mistrust of state-provided education because of its proselytising role during the famine.


Aspirations of using the famine to convert Ireland to the reformed faiths dissipated when the potato started to recover in the early-1850s and, as conditions began to emerge from despair and darkness, the war commenced for the souls of the Irish people between the re-invigorated Catholic Church and the 'virtually defunct mission'. Kinealy 73 concludes: 'The Catholic Church … won'. The 1861 census showed that proselytism had failed to make any in-roads. The observations made during the height of the souping campaign and the proselytising crusade that the relatively few converted people would return to the fold once their survival was out of immediate danger proved true. The pernicious actions of the crusaders wove a spectre which would haunt the sterling efforts of the many multi-denominational relief committees and those Protestant groups, particularly of the Society of Friends, all of whom worked in harmony with each other. As a result, in the collective memory of the Irish for many years to come, any charity from private sources would be viewed with the cynicism born out of the experience of the cold sectarianism which polluted much of the famine relief in Ireland. But, it has to be said, although the 'soup' failed to save the souls of the starving in Catholic Ireland during the famine, it, undoubtedly, saved many lives.


Generally, An Ghorta Mhór polarised even more the divisions between the Catholic Church and the two main Protestant Churches, a denominational cleavage which was also duplicated along political lines. One hundred and fifty years after the start of the Famine in 1995, major commemoration events took place across Ireland and indeed, the world and these memorials provided an opportunity for some of the Protestant Churches to face up to many of the painful features of their role and attitudes during the tragedy. For example, the Church of Ireland Gazette in 1995 admitted that, in addition to the mass suffering and death caused directly by the British government and the overwhelmingly Protestant landlord:

'The Church of Ireland itself is the third major recipient of severe criticism in traditional assessments of the Famine. Souperism may have been practiced by other Protestants too but it was the established church which was most active in the proselytising campaigns which rewarded starving converts with soup and other means of sustenance … No attempt should be made to minimise their pernicious effects, particularly the lasting suspicion of Protestant good faith they bred in the Roman Catholic population.' 74


   © Sean Stitt MMV







1. C. Kinealy, The Great Irish Famine: Impact, Ideology & Rebellion (Palgrave 2002), p. 149.


2. C. Kinealy, This Great Calamity: The Irish Famine 1845-1852 (Gill & MacMillan 1994), p. 14.


3. D.A Kerr, A Nation of Beggars: Priests, People & Politics in Famine Ireland 1846-1852 (Clarendon Press 1994), p.207.


4. C. Kinealy, A Death-Dealing Famine: The Great Hunger in Ireland (Pluto 1997), p. 107.


5. Kinealy, The Great Irish Famine: Impact, Ideology & Rebellion, p. 160.


6. P. Gray, The Irish Famine (Harry Inc. 1995), pp. 91-92.


7. P. Gray, 'The Triumph of Dogma: The Ideology of Famine Relief', Feature vol. 3, no. 2 (1995), p. 3.


8. D. Miller, 'Irish Presbyterians in the Great Famine', Historical Studies XXVI (1999), p. 174.


9. Gray, The Triumph of Dogma: The ideology of Famine Relief, p. 3.


10. Kinealy, This Great Calamity: The Irish Famine 1845-1852, p. 22.


11. Kinealy, Ibid., p. 33.


12. R. Dudley-Edwards & T. Desmond Williams, The Great Famine: Studies in Irish History 1845-1852 (Lilliput 1994), p. 210.


13. Kinealy, The Great Irish Famine: Impact, Ideology & Rebellion, p. 160.


14. C. O'Grada, Black '47 & Beyond: The Great Irish Famine in History, Economy & Memory (Princeton UP 1999), p. 126.


15. Kinealy, This Great Calamity: The Irish Famine 1845-1852, p. 104.


16. Kinealy, Ibid., p. 128.


17. Kinealy, Ibid., p. 259.


18. Kinealy, Ibid., p. 260.


19. Kinealy, Ibid., p. 171.


20. Gray, A Nation of Beggars: Priests, People & Politics in Famine Ireland 1846-1852, p. 175.


21. D. Miller, 'Presbyterianism & the 'Modernisation' in Ulster', Past & Present, no. 80 (1978), pp. 66-90.


22. C. Kinealy & G. MacAtasney, The Hidden Famine: Hunger, Poverty & Sectarianism in Belfast 1840-1850 (Pluto 2000).


23. Kinealy, This Great Calamity: The Irish Famine 1845-1852, p. 142.


24. Kinealy, The Great Irish Famine: Impact, Ideology & Rebellion, pp. 161-162.


25. J.M. Bradley, Celtic-Minded: Essays on Religion, Politics, Society, Identity & Football (Argyll 2004), p. 103.

 26. Kerr, A Nation of Beggars: Priests, People & Politics in Famine Ireland 1846-1852, pp. 207-208.


27. Kerr, Ibid., p. 208.


28. Kinealy, The Great Irish Famine: Impact, Ideology & Rebellion, p. 157.


29. Dudley-Edwards et al, The Great Famine: Studies in Irish History 1845-1852, pp. 410-412.


30. Kinealy, The Great Irish Famine: Impact, Ideology & Rebellion, p. 164.


31. Kinealy, Ibid., p. 164.


32. Kinealy & MacAtasney, The Hidden Famine: Hunger, Poverty & Sectarianism in Belfast 1840-1850, p. 131.


33. Kerr, A Nation of Beggars: Priests, People & Politics in Famine Ireland 1846-1852, p. 211.


34. Kerr, Ibid., p. 211.


35. Kinealy, The Great Irish Famine: Impact, Ideology & Rebellion, pp. 131-134.


36. Kinealy, Ibid., p. 134.


37. Dudley-Edwards et al, The Great Famine: Studies in Irish History 1845-1852, p. 410.


38. Kerr, A Nation of Beggars: Priests, People & Politics in Famine Ireland 1846-1852, p. 208.


39. Kinealy, The Great Famine: Impact, Ideology & Rebellion, pp. 160-162.


40. Kerr, A Nation of Beggars: Priests, People & Politics in Famine Ireland 1846-1852, p. 208.


41. Kerr, Ibid., p. 214.


42. Kerr, Ibid., p. 208.


43. C. Kinealy, 'Potatoes, Providence & Philanthropy: The Role of Private Charity During the Great Famine', in The Meaning of the Famine, ed. P. O'Sullivan, vol. 6, The Irish World Wide: History, Heritage, Identity, (Leicester University Press 1997), p. 144.


44. Kerr, A Nation of Beggars: Priests, People & Politics in famine Ireland 1846-1852, pp. 207-207.


45. Kerr, Ibid., p. 207.


46. Kerr, Ibid., p. 207.


47. Miller, Presbyterianism & the 'Modernisation' in Ulster, p. 69.


48. Kinealy, A Death-Dealing Famine: The Great Hunger in Ireland, p. 134.


49. O'Grada, Black '47 & Beyond: The Great Irish famine in History, Economics & Memory, pp. 185-186.


50. O'Grada, Ibid., p. 186.


51. G. MacAtasney, Challenging an Orthodoxy: The Famine in Lurgan (unpublished PhD. Thesis, Queens University Belfast 1995). P. 40.


52. Dudley-Edwards et al, The Great Famine: Studies in Irish History 1845-1852, p. 151.


53. Dudley-Edwards et al, Ibid., p. 239.


54. Kinealy, The Great Irish Famine: Impact, Ideology & Rebellion, p. 151.


55. Kinealy & MacAtasney, The Hidden Famine: Hunger, Poverty & Sectarianism in Belfast 1840-1850, p. 1.


56. Kinealy & MacAtasney, Ibid., p. 6.


57. Kinealy & MacAtasney, Ibid., p. 2.


58. Kinealy & MacAtasney, Ibid., p. 1.


59. Kinealy & MacAtasney, Ibid., p. 6.


60. Kinealy & MacAtasney, Ibid., p. 125.


61. Kinealy & MacAtasney, Ibid.


62. Miller, Presbyterianism & the 'Modernisation' in Ulster, p. 69.


63. Miller, Ibid.


64. Miller, Ibid., p. 70.


65. Kinealy, The Great Irish Famine: Impact, Ideology & Rebellion, pp. 163-164.


66. Miller, Presbyterianism & the 'Modernisation' in Ulster, p. 70.


67. Kinealy & MacAtasney, The Hidden Famine: Hunger, Poverty & Sectarianism in Belfast 1840-1850, pp. 136-137.


68. Kinealy & MacAtasney, Ibid., pp. 11-12.


69. Kinealy, The Great Irish Famine: Impact, Ideology & Rebellion, p. 165.


70. Kinealy, Ibid., p. 168.


71. Kinealy, Ibid., p. 168.


72. Kerr, A Nation of Beggars: Priests, people & Politics in famine Ireland 1846-1852, p. 214.


73. Kinealy, The Great Irish Famine: Impact, Ideology & Rebellion, p. 161.


74. Kinealy, Ibid., pp. 26-27.

© Sean Stitt MMV

Dr. Seán Stitt - Sen. Lecturer in Community Studies, Dept. of Health & Social Studies, University of Bolton.

PhD. (1989) Queens University Belfast on poverty and poor relief.


Three books on poverty

Journal articles on poverty, poor relief, homelessness, food and nutrition, domestic violence.

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