The other Villiers in Ireland: famine, internment, rebellion

21 Jul 2015 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 21 Jul 2015

George Villiers, the 4th Earl of Clarendon
George Villiers, the 4th Earl of Clarendon

Theresa Villiers is not the first of her family to hold high office in Ireland. 

George William Frederick Villiers, the Fourth Earl of Clarendon was the brother of her great great grandfather Ernest Villiers who was appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in 1847.

At the best of times this was considered a poisoned chalice, one of those high offices best avoided. 1847 was one of the worst years imaginable.

Ireland was in chaos.  In 1845 and again in 1846 blight had all but destroyed the potato harvest, the staple diet of the vast majority of the population. A combination of official indifference, hostility towards the growing movement for repeal of the Act of Union - which was seen as “ingratitude” - and economic “laissez faire” policies combined to ensure that relief efforts had been entirely inadequate.

Emergency supplies of maize, shipped in from America, had proven insufficient and the starving had been reduced to eating nettles, picking raw turnips from the fields and scouring the sea shores for seaweed and molluscs. There were scarcely any pigs or poultry left in the country: those not eaten by their owners were stolen by scavengers.

Gangs of desperate men roamed the countryside looking for food. Landlords were evicting tenants who had no means to pay rent, and even plenty that did. Many were sleeping in ditches, or on improvised “scalps” built from the ruins of their homes that bailiffs had “tumbled” to make them uninhabitable. In turn secret societies were targeting some of the worst landlords and their bailiffs.

Economic migrants

Corpses were piling up on roadsides, many half eaten by rats and roaming dogs. Workhouses were under siege as the destitute desperate for food fought to gain entry, unaware that many inside the walls were also dying of famine.  There are even many accounts of people committing crimes in order to get prison food or else transportation to Australia to escape.

Hundreds of thousands were fleeing the country bringing typhus with them. Many took to the “coffin ships” for Canada and many more were arriving in Liverpool, Glasgow and South Wales - to the horror of the local populations, who resisted the influx of so many economic migrants. The authorities were trying to turn back some of the ships, but the numbers were overwhelming.

Hardly surprising then that George Villiers was not reaching for the champagne on being given this assignment. He wrote at the time:  “I go to Ireland without making myself the smallest illusion as to the more than probability of failure that awaits me.”

The Earl of Clarendon had a reputation for being charming, hard-working and tactful. He was also a liberal and tried to get the government to curb its austerity measures in Ireland and provide more aid.

There was no blight in 1847 but so few potatoes had been sown that more suffering was inevitable.

In October, when a government soup kitchen scheme was closed down he wrote to Prime Minister Lord John Russell: “There is one thing I must beg you to take into immediate and serious consideration which is whatever may be the anger of people in parliament or in England whatever may be the state of trade or credit, Ireland cannot be left to her own resources they are manifestly insufficient we are not to let the people die of starvation, we must not believe that rebellion is impossible.”


Lord John replied: “The state of Ireland for the next few months must be one of great suffering. Unhappily the agitation for Repeal (of the Act of Union) has contrived to destroy nearly all sympathy in this country.”

Clarendon was getting increasingly concerned at the emergence of a new radical movement, the Young Irelanders, who were openly inciting insurrection. He wrote again to Lord Russell. “A great social revolution is now going on, the accumulated evils of misgovernment and mismanagement are now coming to a crisis.”

Starved of funds he was unable to act. As winter arrived and bodies started to pile up on roadsides he wrote again to Russell: “Distress, discontent and hatred of English rule are increasing everywhere.”

Within a few weeks a campaign of assassination was underway with six landlords and another ten wealthy landowners the victims. Clarendon turned from compassion to oppression. He demanded special powers to ban the possession of arms except under licence from the police and penal clauses against men going about with blackened faces at night. When this was refused he threatened to resign writing: “How any government can think it expedient to leave 300,000 arms in possession of some of the most ferocious people on earth, at the commencement of a winter when there will be great poverty and little employment …”

He got his way and 15,000 extra troops were also drafted in: already there were more in Ireland than in India.

He started to clamp down on sedition, and took the Duke of Wellington’s advice on troop deployment. Meanwhile Thomas Francis Meagher, one of the leaders of the Young Irelanders called him “Her Majesty’s High Executioner General and General Butcher in Ireland.”

Clarendon, who contemporaries described as being “over-frightened” sent his children back to England, put Dublin, Cork Waterford and Drogheda under martial law and persuaded Westminster to suspend Habeas Corpus, allowing for internment without trial.

Clarendon had totally misread the situation. The killings were revenge attacks locally motivated. The starving masses were in no condition to revolt despite all the wild language of the revolutionaries.

Defeat in a cabbage patch 

This was put to the test that summer when the MP and Young Ireland leader William Smith O’Brien, a descendant of Brian Boru, the high king of Ireland toured the country trying to gather an army. In Tipperary 6,000 turned up, mostly unarmed, some with improvised pikes, but all but 500 melted away when they discovered he had not brought food with him.

After a week he was left with a force of 38 men of whom 18 had pikes and 20 guns with one charge of powder each. In addition around 80 men and women had agreed to throw stones.

The climax of the rebellion came in a cabbage patch outside a farmhouse near the village of Ballingarry occupied by police.  Smith O’Brien’s was trying to broker terms for the police to withdraw when some of the rebels threw stones at the windows. They in turn opened fire killing one rebel and causing the others to flee.

The 1848 “rebellion” had turned out to be no more than a scuffle but it was to have fateful consequences. Blight had struck again and Clarendon’s pleas for assistance were doomed. Lord Russell warned him: “The course of English benevolence is frozen by insult, calumny and rebellion.

Talking treason, begging for sympathy

An editorial in The Times newspaper added: “In no other country have men talked treason until they are hoarse and then gone about begging for sympathy from their oppressors.”

Ireland was to be abandoned to the doctrine of “operation of natural causes” whatever the cost.

Clarendon did not give up. He fought unsuccessfully with his colleagues in government, he despatched agricultural experts across Ireland to help improve farming techniques, and in 1849 he decided that the best way to improve relations and gain more sympathy for his cause was to invite Queen Victoria to Ireland. She came, and fell in love with the country. But the trip made no difference. She had prestige, but no political influence and corpses continued to litter the sides of the roads and laneways.

Ireland did not prove to be a political graveyard for Clarendon, despite his going on to incur the wrath of the Orange Order for his stance over the bloodshed at Dolly’s Brae, an early “contentious” Orange parade that resulted in the death of around 20 Catholic Ribbonmen.  

Some things, it would seem never change: alienating all parties in Ireland has never been an impediment to advancement at Westminster. Clarendon became Foreign Secretary, and was a key political figure in Whig and later Liberal circles until his sudden death in 1870. 

Join the Conversation...

We'd love to know your thoughts on this article.
Join us on Twitter and join the conversation today.

Join Our Newsletter

Get the latest edition of ScopeNI delivered to your inbox.