Excerpted from The Irish Famine

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(Excerpted from The Irish Famine by Jim Donnelly)


Background: In 1845, Ireland is basically a colony of England—most Irish people are poor Catholics who rent and farm land owned by wealthy Englishmen. The land they own is poor, and so it is suitably mainly only for farming potatoes. All Irish farmers grow the same species of potato—a monoculture crop—and so when a fungus attacks that potato, the entire crop (and source of food for the poor farmers) is destroyed. No other crops are affected, but wealthy British farmers export grain to England while Irish farmers starve. When the Irish farmers' food source disappears, their ability to pay rent disappears. Many poor Irish people are evicted from their homes. Many starve. Many are forced to leave their homes and go to America. Roughly a million people die during the famine, and a million more emigrate from Ireland, most to America. Ireland's population decreases by 20-25%.

The Irish catastrophe

The Great Famine in Ireland began as a natural catastrophe of extraordinary magnitude, but its effects were severely worsened by the actions and inactions of the Whig government, headed by Lord John Russell in the crucial years from 1846 to 1852. The Irish famine was proportionally more destructive of human life than the famines of modern times.

Altogether, about a million people in Ireland are reliably estimated to have died of starvation and epidemic disease between 1846 and 1851, and some two million emigrated in a period of a little more than a decade (1845-55). Comparison with other modern and contemporary famines establishes beyond any doubt that the Irish famine of the late 1840s, which killed nearly one-eighth of the entire population, was proportionally much more destructive of human life than the vast majority of famines in modern times.

In most famines in the contemporary world, only a small fraction of the population of a given country or region is exposed to the dangers of death from starvation or infectious diseases, and then typically for only one or two seasons. But in the Irish famine of the late 1840s, successive blasts of potato blight - or to give it its proper name, the fungus Phytophthora infestans - robbed more than one-third of the population of their usual means of subsistence for four or five years in a row.

Ideological resistance

Though it had a rich history of agrarian violence, the country was at peace. In addition, its system of communications (roads and canals) had vastly improved in the previous half-century, the Victorian state had a substantial and growing bureaucracy (it generated an army of 12,000 officials in Ireland for a short time in 1847), and Ireland lay at the doorstep of what was then the world's wealthiest nation. Why, then, was it not better able to deal with the problems caused by the failure of its potato crop? Because prevailing ideologies militated against heavy and sustained relief.

In answering this question, it is instructive to contrast the role of ideology in the general response to famines today with the part played by ideology in response to the Great Famine in Ireland. Today, wealthier countries and international organisations provide disaster assistance (though, alas, often not nearly enough) as a matter of humanitarian conviction and perceived self-interest. But in Britain in the late 1840s, prevailing ideologies among the political élite and the middle classes strongly militated against heavy and sustained relief.

Political inertia

Before examining this issue of ideology in the 1840s and 1850s, however, we should review what the British government might have done to mitigate the natural catastrophe arising from repeated ravages of potato blight.

First, the government might have prohibited the export of grain from Ireland, especially during the winter of 1846-47 and early in the following spring, when there was little food in the country and before large supplies of foreign grain began to arrive. Once there was sufficient food in the country (imported Indian corn or maize), from perhaps the beginning of 1848, the government could have taken steps to ensure that this imported food was distributed to those in greatest need.

Second, the government could have continued its so-called soup-kitchen scheme for a much longer time. It was in effect for only about six months, from March to September 1847. As many as three million people were fed daily at the peak of this scheme in July 1847. The scheme was remarkably inexpensive and effective. It should not have been dismantled after only six months and in spite of the enormous harvest deficiency of 1847.

Third, the wages that the government paid on its vast but short-lived public works in the winter of 1846-47 needed to be much higher if those toiling on the public works were going to be able to afford the greatly inflated price of food.

Fourth, the poor-law system of providing relief, either within workhouses or outside them, a system that served as virtually the only form of public assistance from the autumn of 1847 onwards, needed to be much less restrictive. All sorts of obstacles were placed in the way, or allowed to stand in the way, of generous relief to those in need of food. This was done in a horribly misguided effort to keep expenses down and to promote greater self-reliance and self-exertion among the Irish poor.

Fifth, the government might have done something to restrain the ruthless mass eviction of families from their homes, as landlords sought to rid their estates of pauperized farmers and labourers. Altogether, perhaps as many as 500,000 people were evicted in the years from 1846 to 1854. The government might also have provided free passages and other assistance in support of emigration to North America - for those whose personal means made this kind of escape impossible.

Last, and above all, the British government should have been willing to treat the famine crisis in Ireland as an imperial responsibility and to bear the costs of relief after the summer of 1847. Instead, in an atmosphere of rising 'famine fatigue' in Britain, Ireland at that point and for the remainder of the famine was thrown back essentially on its own woefully inadequate resources.

Doctrines of inaction

What, then, were the ideologies that held the British political élite and the middle classes in their grip, and largely determined the decisions not to adopt the possible relief measures outlined above? There were three in particular-the economic doctrines of laissez-faire, the Protestant evangelical belief in divine Providence, and the deep-dyed ethnic prejudice against the Catholic Irish to which historians have recently given the name of 'moralism'.

The idea of feeding a large proportion of the Irish population violated the Whig's cherished notions. Laissez-faire, the reigning economic orthodoxy of the day, held that there should be as little government interference with the economy as possible. Under this doctrine, stopping the export of Irish grain was an unacceptable policy alternative, and it was therefore firmly rejected in London, though there were some British relief officials in Ireland who gave contrary advice. The influence of the doctrine of laissez-faire may also be seen in two other decisions. The first was the decision to terminate the soup-kitchen scheme in September 1847 after only six months of operation. The idea of feeding directly a large proportion of the Irish population violated all of the Whigs' cherished notions of how government and society should function. The other decision was the refusal of the government to undertake any large scheme of assisted emigration. The Irish viceroy actually proposed in this fashion to sweep the western province of Connacht clean of as many as 400,000 pauper smallholders too poor to emigrate on their own. But the majority of Whig cabinet ministers saw little need to spend public money accelerating a process that was already going on 'privately' at a great rate.

An act of Providence?

Recent historians of the famine, while not neglecting the baleful role of the doctrine of laissez-faire, have been inclined to stress the potent parts played by two other ideologies of the time: those of 'providentialism' and 'moralism'. There was a very widespread belief among members of the British upper and middle classes that the famine was a divine judgment-an act of Providence-against the kind of Irish agrarian regime that was believed to have given rise to the famine. The Irish system of agriculture was perceived in Britain to be riddled with inefficiency and abuse. According to British policy-makers at the time, the workings of divine Providence were disclosed in the unfettered operations of the market economy, and therefore it was positively evil to interfere with its proper functioning.

Finally, we come to 'moralism'-the notion that the fundamental defects from which the Irish suffered were moral rather than financial. Educated Britons of this era saw serious defects in the Irish 'national character'-disorder or violence, filth, laziness, and worst of all, a lack of self-reliance. This amounted to a kind of racial or cultural stereotyping. The Irish had to be taught to stand on their own feet and to unlearn their dependence on government.
Famine fatigue

This set of ethnic prejudices, which have now been abundantly documented, had the general effect of prompting British ministers, civil servants, and politicians to view and to treat the Catholic Irish as something less than fully human. Such prejudices encouraged the spread of 'famine fatigue' in Britain at an early stage, and they dulled or even extinguished the active sympathies that might have sustained political will - the will to combat the gross oppression of mass evictions, to alleviate the immense suffering associated with reliance on the poor-law system, and to grapple with the moral indefensibility of mass death in the midst of an absolute sufficiency of food.

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