The Potato Famine
This was a pivotal moment in Irelandís history. The Irish Potato Famine was a humanitarian disaster set against a context of colonial neglect. It ravished a nation and dispersed its population throughout the world. Those who survived the Coffin Ships (and thousands didnít, perishing in unimaginable conditions and tossed overboard by ship captains), would become the Irish Diaspora. Their presence would be felt on Americaís East Coast; in Britainís industrial cities, Glasgow , Liverpool and Birmingham ; or in Australia, where the British governmentís policy of transportation would set Irish convicts at work in Botany Bay or Port MacQuarie. Many chose to break the law in search of food, seeing little difference in hungering in the field or in chains. For those left behind, hunger and disease was unavoidable.
But the contentious nature of Anglo-Irish politics inflects the Potato Famine with an enduring sense of bitterness at Britainís ineffective Whiggish administration. While Lord John Russellís administration clung stubbornly to free market, laissez faire ideology as a means of resolving the crisis, the Irish starved, clawing at the dirt in barren fields for something to eat. Holding Britain wholly to account for the famine Ė or more to the point, complicit in Ďmanufacturingí it†Ė may be disingenuous, but there was a woeful response to the crisis. The laissez faire zeitgeist was one aspect, certainly, but there were also the prejudices of divine providence and moralism, which fermented among anti-Irish feeling in England.
The belief that Irelandís woes were a direct action of God, punishment for perceived immorality and laziness amongst the Irish people, was just part of a framework of prejudices that did nothing for the relief effort, and spoke volumes for the sort of morality that Protestant Britain endorsed in such times. There was an abundance of hardline religious reformers who regarded the famine as blessing.
Ireland, swallowed by Britain in the 1801 Act Of Union, was different in many respects. For a start, almost everyone was poor. Irelandís economy was largely agrarian, her infrastructure was yet to be revolutionised by contemporary civil engineering. This was a country in desperate poverty. Irelandís majority Catholic population were among the poorest in the Western world. Infant mortality was high. The average life expectancy for men was 40 years Ė in present day Zimbabwe, it is 45.
By 1835, around half of Irelandís rural population lived in clachans. This communal way of life saw up to a dozen people share a living space with their livestock, often sleeping on straw covered floors. Landowners charged rack-rent on their properties. There was no incentive for the Irish tenant to improve their property. This was two tier society where the Catholic population lived as tenants-at-will to largely Protestant landowners. Despite Catholic Emancipation being brokered in 1829, this was a society whose Catholic population lived as second class citizens. With at least sixteen food shortages before 1845, the country had received enough portents of famine. For a nation whose peasant population subsisted almost solely on potatoes, crop failure equated to starvation.
In September of 1845, as Irelandís underclass had endured the hunger of the summer months, the countryís potato harvest turned black and rotted in the ground. The cool, moist Irish climate that so suited the potato was also the perfect breeding ground for late blight (Phytophthora infestans), an airborne fungal disease that rots the potato plantís tubers and leaves. The disease was thought to have arrived from North America, its spores carried on cargo ships docked on Irelandís West Coast. It silently spread across South-West Ireland. The wind helped disperse it across the country.
Sir Robert Peel ís Tory government predicted that over half the crop would have rotted. A relief commission comprising of prominent landowners, clergy, magistrates and senior figures in Irish society was set up in Dublin . The commission had some success in redistributing enough food for Dublin, but in rural Ireland it was a different story. Irelandís south-west was the area worst affected. Peel ordered two clandestine shipments of Indian meal from America. This was to be one of his last acts of Tory paternalism as his government was split after the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846, and act which made him deeply unpopular in England. But the shipment of corn was little use in Ireland. It needed to be milled twice; Ireland didnít have the facilities to process it. ĎPeelís Brimstoneí, as it became known, was certainly hated, accused of causing stomach complaint and inadequate sustenance. By the following summer, the supply was exhausted. An estimated four million would go hungry.
Irelandís fate was largely placed under the charge of Charles Edward Trevelyan, a 38-year-old civil servant, Assistant Secretary Of The British Treasury. Peelís government was now replaced by the Whigs under Russell, and the latterís leadership made Peel look devoutly interventionist in comparison. The situation amongst Irish peasantry was worsening. Though starving, Irish farmers sold livestock, crops and whatever they could to avoid eviction. The threat of eviction become all the more acute. While it is perhaps untrue that Ireland had enough food to survive had they not exported crops during the famine, it was all the more maddening for people who couldnít bear their children to see barley, beef and oats leaving Irish shores at Waterford and Limerick , heading towards England. There may not have been enough to feed the entire population but that food was desperately needed at home.
Gombeen men surrounded vulnerable families like vultures, offering food and clothes at punitively high rates of interest. These men, predominantly Irish and Catholic, meant that the exploitation of Irelandís peasant class was not an ecumenical pastime. Evictions accompanied the hunger and poverty. Disease was not far behind.
1847 saw the outbreak of black fever, and with the Irish living communally, there was little chance of containing it. 1847 became known as Black í47 as skeletal families begged by Irelandís roadsides, dying from exposure and fever. Disease on the island was taken onboard the Coffin Ships. Huddled together to protect each other from the night cold, the emigrants soon fell to the lice-spread fever. There was no respite. Trevelyan was a resolute Whig. He did not budge one iota on the governmentís stance of no intervention. Soup kitchens opened briefly, but they didnít last; they didnít fit in with the Trevelyanís ethos. Trevelyan did work tirelessly, but his doomed notion that the free market would come to Irelandís salvation existed in the same absurd, moral quagmire that harboured the idea that the famine was a blessing, a solution to overpopulation and an opportunity to resurrect Ireland as a nation in the same capitalist mold as England.
Trevelyanís practical efforts were involved the foundation of food commissions. Locally arranged, these were responsible for arranging the food for their own parish. But in South-west Ireland, there was little or no food. There was certainly no money. Villages were deserted as people were evicted from their tenant holdings. Such was Trevelyanís single-mindedness that Ireland should save itself, he sent back shipments of Indian meal. He rebuked Coastguard Inspector Sir James Dombrain for handing out food. But Dombrain had witnessed Trevelyanís failed policy first hand; Trevelyan set foot on Ireland only once, in 1846, when he visited Dublin. It was argued that he remained in England to stay detached from the issue, to afford him a dispassionate view from which to coordinate policy. How could the food commissions work when nobody had any money? Even landlords were struggling to pay rent, and once they struggled their tenants would suffer doubly so. Once families were evicted, no-one arrived to replace them.
Evictions emptied villages and, in 1847, that the migration gathered pace. That year, around 700,000 toiled in workhouses, while half-a-million were evicted. Regarding the latter, it was common for the father to be jailed, while the rest of the family was kicked off the land. Despite there being little or no blight in 1847, the harvest delivered only a quarter of its yield. Even in the absence of the disease, the countryís agriculture could not recover in time. On mainland Britain, Irish immigrants were finding their welcome was less than warm. On 21st June, Liverpool was under a deportation order: any homeless Irishmen was to be deported. The city had received up to 300,000 people. The slums, already overcrowded, could not cope.
In the run up to the famine, Ireland had largely been at peace, save for the odd outbreak of rural violence. 1847 tested this to the limit. There was a situation where there was food, but no money to buy it. Violence began to spread, and in 1848 the blight returned.
Britain, itself, was in the grip of economic woe. The Treason Felony Act 1847 was introduced; transportation and/or fourteen years to life was the punishment for anyone guilty of crimes against the state. One of the first, and the most prominent Irishmen to be transported was the author of militant newspaper ĎThe United Irishmaní, John Mitchel . A renowned critic of the 1801 Act Of Union, his writings saw him being transported to the Caribbean. The famine was a watershed in Irish culture and history; it was also a compelling rallying point for Irish Nationalism and the home rule movement. An Gorta Mor, ĎThe Great Hungerí, however, had a number of legacies, and perhaps the least of which was radical Irish politics.
The culmination of ineffective colonial rule, compounded by a cultural superiority complex from the British government, the famineís legacy is perhaps most strongly felt amongst the Irish diaspora in Britain, America and beyond. Allegations that the famine was engineered as some sort of de facto programme of genocide carry a certain degree of weight Ė there was certainly a culture of malice at play. This can be surmised by a public opinion that was occasionally abhorrent (typified by Punch Magazineís satirical cartoons dehumanising the Irish, depicting them as work-shy apes), and the ethos of moralism, as espoused by Protestant reformers and, indeed, Trevelyan himself.
But the cultural bigotry was diluted by a the naivety among Britainís ruling elite. A nation devoid of leadership, Ireland needed a strong, helping hand. That market principals could have hoisted Ireland from hunger was fanciful, and the Poor Laws only exacerbated the situation. This was evident in British towns themselves. The notion that work was source of redemption and salvation, the Protestant work ethic, was very much a product of Victorian Britain. The reaction to the famine was an extension of this. It inherited the centuries old suspicion and distaste for the Irish. It was a legacy of Cromwellian times, when Catholic property was forfeited to English Protestants. Those days created a cultural legacy of serfdom, one which lead to a dependance on the potato, of tenant farmers and a lifetime of peasantry. Social disrepair among rural Ireland created an environment where disaster took root, presided over by a government that wouldnít help.
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