Queen Victoria, remembered as the Famine Queen, contributed to relief.

Irish Famine sparked international fundraising


Queen Victoria, remembered as the Famine Queen, contributed to relief.

The first international fundraising activities for the Irish Famine began in 1845, following the initial appearance of the potato blight, and picked up in the wake of the second, and far more devastating, failure of the potato crop in 1846. Outside intervention was short-lived, however, and by 1848, most of the donations had dried up. Sadly, the Famine was far from over, with more people dying in 1849 than in ‘Black ’47.’

The first place to send money to Ireland was Calcutta in India. The fundraising effort was initiated in 1845 by British citizens who believed that their actions would show the Irish people the benefits of being part of the British Empire. Over forty percent of the British army serving in India were Irish-born and they gave generously.  Donations came from wealthy Hindus and a number of Indian princes, but also from those who were less well off, including sepoys in the army, and from many low-skilled and low-paid Indian servants. Within a few months, the Calcutta Committee had raised £14,000 for the relief of the Irish poor.

Just as relief efforts were getting underway in India, a committee was established in Boston in the United States. In America, perhaps inevitably, Famine relief became tied up with demands for Irish political independence, with the committee being formed at the initiative of the local Repeal Association (followers of Daniel O’Connell). Predictably, the food shortages were cited as the most recent example of British misrule and of the failure of the British Empire. At a meeting in early December 1845, at which $750 was raised for the Irish poor, one speaker claimed that, due to “the fatal connection of Ireland with England, the rich grain harvests of the former country are carried off to pay an absentee government and absentee landlords.”

A number of fundraising committees were established in both Ireland and Britain. One of the most successful and well-respected was the Central Relief Committee of the Society of Friends, which was established in Dublin in November 1846, at the suggestion of Joseph Bewley (a tea and coffee merchant). Though the Irish Quakers were small in number (c. 3,000), they were very successful in raising money outside Ireland. These funds played an important role in providing relief, particularly through the establishment of soup kitchens. By the end of 1847, when their funds dried up, the Quakers had distributed approximately £200,000 worth of relief throughout Ireland.

An even larger relief organization was the British Relief Association. It was formed in January 1847 by Lionel de Rothschild, a Jewish banker in London. Again, its fundraising activities were international, with donations being received from locations as diverse as Venezuela, Australia, South Africa, Mexico, Russia and Italy. In total, over 15,000 individual contributions were sent to the Association, and approximately £400,000 was raised. This money was entrusted to a Polish Count, Paul de Strzelecki, a renowned scientist and explorer. He traveled to Counties Mayo and Sligo in 1847, where he established schools at which free food was given to the local children.

Unfortunately, the involvement of relief organizations has been tainted by the memory of proselytism or, as it is known in Ireland, souperism, that is, giving relief to the Catholic poor in return for their conversion to Protestantism. Proselytism was not new in Ireland, but its use during this period of suffering seems particularly reprehensible. However, although it is generally associated with the main Protestant churches in Ireland (the Anglican and the Presbyterian) in reality it was only practiced by a minority of evangelicals, who genuinely believed that they were saving souls, not merely lives, by their actions. By the end of 1848 the number of “Bible schools” had grown to 28, despite “priestly opposition.”

In popular memory, Queen Victoria is remembered as “The Famine Queen” for allegedly only giving £5 to help the starving Irish. In reality, she donated £2,000 to the British Relief Association in January 1847. This made the Queen the largest single donor to Famine relief. She also published two letters, appealing to Protestants in England to send money to Ireland. Her involvement was widely criticized at the time, notably by the influential newspaper the London Times, which argued that giving money to Ireland would have the same effect as throwing money into an Irish bog.

Another head of state to send money to Ireland was the Sultan of Turkey. He had an Irish doctor but he was also trying to create an alliance with the British government. He initially offered £10,000 but the British Consul in Istanbul told him that it would offend royal protocol to send more money than the British Queen. As a result of this diplomatic intervention, Sultan Abdulmecid reduced his donation to £1,000.

Support for the Irish poor also came from the head of the Roman Catholic Church in Rome, Pope Pius IX. The involvement of a Pope in the secular affairs of another country was unusual. Nonetheless, at the beginning of 1847, Pope Pius donated 1,000 Roman crowns from his own pocket to Famine relief. In March 1847, he took the unprecedented step of issuing a papal encyclical to the international Catholic community, appealing for support for the victims of the Famine, both through prayer and financial contributions. As a result, large sums of money were raised by Catholic congregations throughout the world. Most of this aid was put in the hands of Archbishop Murray in Dublin.

Other high profile donors included the tsar of Russia (Alexander II) and the President of the United States, James Polk. The latter, who donated $50, was criticized for the smallness of his donation. Arthur Guinness, the Dublin brewing magnate, also made some modest contributions.

Inevitably, a large portion of relief came from the United States, not only from the Irish Catholic community, but from a wide variety of groups, including Jews, Baptists, Methodists and Shakers. At the beginning of 1847, the American Vice President, George Dallas, convened a mass meeting in Washington to raise money for Ireland. He urged that every American state should follow suit. The Washington meeting was attended by many senators, notably the young Abraham Lincoln.

During the meeting, letters were read from Ireland, including one from the women of Dunmanway in County Cork. It was addressed to the Ladies of America. It said: “Oh that our American sisters could see the labourers on our roads, able-bodied men, scarcely clad, famishing with hunger, with despair in their once cheerful faces, staggering at their work ... Oh that they could see the dead father, mother or child, lying coffinless, and hear the screams of the survivors around them, caused not by sorrow, but by the agony of hunger.” 

Remarkably, even though America was at war with Mexico, Congress gave permission for two navy vessels to be used to take supplies, on behalf of the Boston Relief Committee, to Ireland and to Scotland, where the potato had also failed. The resolution authorizing the use of the ships by private individuals, even to this day, remains unique in the history of Congress.

On 17 March 1847, foodstuffs were loaded onto the Jamestown. It left Boston for Cork a week later, taking only 15 days and 3 hours to complete the transatlantic journey. All of the crew were volunteers. The captain, Robert Forbes, caustically commented that as the food supplies had taken only 15 days to cross the Atlantic, they should not take a further 15 days to reach the Irish poor. His comment was apt. The labyrinth of bureaucracy attached to the “public works” meant that it took between 6 and 8 weeks for the works to be operative – far too long for a people who were starving.

Forbes declared himself to be impressed with the women of Cork – because “they shake hands like a man.” Although he was feted, he shied away from publicity and, significantly, refused an invitation from the authorities to travel to Dublin to receive an honor from the British government. This fantastic endeavor on behalf of the Irish poor was only diminished by the fact that on the return journey, a man was lost overboard – and he was the only Irish-born member of the crew.

These examples represent only a small portion of the assistance that was given to Ireland during the years of the Great Hunger. Contributions came from people who were themselves poor, politically marginalized, and had nothing to gain through their interventions.

Throughout 1847, subscriptions to Ireland came from some of the poorest and most invisible groups in society. This included former slaves in the Caribbean, who had only achieved full freedom in 1838, when slavery was finally ended in the British Empire (Daniel O’Connell played a role in that). The British government had given the slave-owners £22 million pounds compensation for ending slavery; the slaves received nothing. Donations to Ireland included ones from Jamaica, Barbados, St. Kitts and other small islands.

Donations were also sent from slave churches in some of the southern states of America. Children in a pauper orphanage in New York raised $2 for the Irish poor.  Inmates in Sing Sing Prison, also in New York, sent money, as did convicts on board a prison ship at Woolwich in London. The latter lived in brutal and inhuman conditions, and all of them were dead only twelve months later from ship fever.

A number of Native Americans, including the Choctaw Indians, also sent money to the Irish poor. The Choctaws had themselves suffered great tragedy, having been displaced from their homelands and forced to move to Oklahoma in the 1830s – the infamous Trail of Tears. They sent $174 to Ireland. Although the amounts that these poor and dispossessed people sent to Ireland were relatively small, in real terms they represented an enormous sacrifice on behalf of the donors.

Towards the end of 1847, the British government announced that the Famine was over. It wasn’t. In 1848, over one million people were still dependent on relief for survival. Moreover, evictions, emigration and deaths were still rising, with proportionately more people dying in 1849 than in Black ’47. Unfortunately though, most of the private fund raising efforts had come to an end by 1848 and the Irish poor were again dependent on Irish landlords and the British government for relief.

To obtain a copy of Irish America's special commerative issue on the Famine, call (212) 725 2993 x150.