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1.The Definition of Terminology


Donnelly points out an interesting fact about the Famine historiography, which he found out to be the lack of interest, up to a certain time, in the subject. He says that although historical writing on pre-famine Ireland commenced in the 1960s, “writing about the great famine itself lagged badly behind. For decades, in fact, professional historians carried on the important task of revising our understanding of the Irish past without paying much heed to the most cataclysmic event in the modern history of the country” (11). Since the time of the Famine, most historians have used the term famine; however, at a certain point, there came time for a more critical evaluation of the Famine, and for looking for the right term which would best describe and suit the reality of what happened. When Cecil Woodham-Smith published The Great Hunger: Ireland, 1845-1849 in 1962, it became the most read book on Irish history, and as Donnelly points out, it stirred up “ungoverned passion” amongst numerous reviewers and prompted the historian F.S.L. Lyons to protest:

Ugly words were used in many reviews – ‘race murder’ and ‘genocide’, for example – to describe the British government’s attitude to the Irish peasantry at the time of the famine, and Sir Charles Trevelyan’s handling of the situation was compared by some excited writers to Hitler’s ‘final solution’ for the Jewish problem. This response to Mrs Woodham-Smith’s work was not confined to Irish reviewers, nor even to imaginative authors like Mr Frank O’Connor, but cropped up repeatedly in English periodicals also, occasionally in articles by reputable historians. (qtd. in Donnelly 14)

As Donnelly speculates, one of these reputable historians was A.J.P. Taylor, a scholar specializing in modern German history, who likened the Ireland of the late 1840s to Belsen, an infamous Nazi concentration camp (15). More recently, Jim Gallagher has argued that by definition, the “Irish Famine” was not a famine. According to him, the dictionary definition of “famine” is that “there is no food available,” but as he points out, there was food available, and it was being exported with the approval of the British Government. He claims that the term “famine” was a deliberate propaganda term. In his opinion, the proper term which should be used is hunger, starvation or, as some more recently refer to the catastrophe, “genocide”. Ellis supports this notion because according to him the word gorta, from Irish an Gorta Mor - the Great Famine, can imply deliberate starvation. This chapter will attempt to argue which of the terms famine, hunger and starvation best fits what happened, leaving the term genocide to be discussed later in the thesis.

Webster’s defines these terms in the following way: famine as “an extreme scarcity of food” (448); hunger as “a craving or urgent need for food or a specific nutrient” (587); starvation as “the state of being starved” and starve as “to suffer extreme hunger” or “to kill with hunger” (1151). According to Longman these terms are defined as follows: famine is “a situation in which a large number of people have little or no food for a long time and many people die” (496); hunger is “lack of food, especially for a long period of time, that can cause illness or death” (701); starvation is “suffering or death caused by lack of food” and starve is “to suffer or die because you do not have enough to eat, or to make someone else do this” (1402).

The term famine would be acceptable if the whole of Ireland and its population had been affected by a severe shortage of food, but this was not the case. It only fits the definition in Longman, which specifies that famine is when a large number of people have little or no food for a long time and many people die. This definition is, however, flawed in one important respect: the group of people who suffered from the lack of food consisted mainly of poor Irish Catholic labourers and cottiers. As Ó Gráda explains, “Karl Marx was almost right to claim that the Irish Famine killed ‘poor devils only’, many who were not abjectly poor and starving died of famine-related diseases” (15). In Webster’s famine is defined as an extreme scarcity of food, meaning all food, not just an extreme scarcity of a single crop, the potato, which was a staple crop in the diet of the poor. The term famine is therefore unsuitable for the reason of the scarcity of food being limited to a specific group, the poor, who died amidst the land of plenty when food was being exported. Although the word hunger, especially when it is intensified by an adjective such as great, appears to be more suitable than famine, it lacks certain semes found in the word starvation. Starvation is defined as “extreme hunger,” so it expresses the severity of the suffering better, and furthermore, it contains the aspect of a prolonged suffering, thereby having a certain duration, which in Ireland’s case was almost seven years. Finally, the most important element in its meaning, as specified by the above mentioned definitions, is the fact that it can be used to describe the elimination of people by denying them food as was the case in Ireland in the 1840s. It can be concluded then that the term starvation reflects the event better than famine or hunger. However, as the term ‘famine’ has become so extensively used with reference to what happened in 1845-52, for practical reasons, this thesis will refer to it as the Famine as well.


2.The Stages in the Conquest of Ireland


The historical perspective of the Famine is important because it demonstrates that over time, the English had created consistent patterns in dealing with Ireland, which subsequently led to policies of systematic oppression resulting in the enactment of penal laws, an ultimate instrument of persecution in Ireland. In this chapter, the conquest of Ireland will be presented not by historians who tend to glorify conquest, but rather by those who retell it as a history of oppressed people who gradually lost their land, culture, social structures and finally their identity and language. Therefore, it draws on the accounts of Irish history such as Irish Nationality by Alice Stopford Green or T. A. Jackson’s Ireland Her Own. Ireland in the 12th century was comprised of a number of chiefdoms and lands controlled by the church, and this Irish disunity was one of the key preconditions of the Norman conquest. The other precondition was the incessant immigration and conquest by the Danes, who had established footholds for further invasions. “The sea-kings had created in Dublin an open gateway into Ireland,…, that commanded the country and that the country could never again close from within” (Green 78). After the Normans had pacified and took control of England, they set their eyes on yet another country which they believed would be an easy prey, Ireland. The Norman barons who led the invasion of Ireland in 1169 were seasoned warriors, but as Green explains, “they owed no small part of their military successes in Ireland to a policy of craft. If the Irish fought hard to defend the lands they held in civil tenure, the churches had no great strength, and the seizing of a church estate led to no immediate rising out of the country” (97). Once they controlled the land belonging to the church, Green explains, it became easier to expand and slowly extend their power base. Henry II followed his barons to Ireland in 1171 to take their oath of fealty and among those who swore the oath were “half-a-dozen Irish chiefs” and thus, according to King Henry, this submission indicated that the “Irish knew themselves conquered; and that the chief renounced the tribal system, and handed over the land to the king, so that he as supreme lord of all the soil could allot it to his barons, and demand in return the feudal services common in Normandy or in England” (Green 99).

It is evident that from the very first moments, the conquerors revealed what policies they intended to implement as far as the Irish were concerned, and furthermore, even the colonists who came to reap the benefits of the conquest eventually ceased to support the crown because the policy adopted by the rulers of England was “to exploit Ireland for the benefit of the crown and the metropolis, not for the welfare of any class whatever of the inhabitants; the colonists were to be a mere garrison to conquer and hold the land for the king” (107). This policy proved to be a failure thou, for the colonists refused to “collect Irish wealth for London” (107). As Green further points out, in order to survive in their acquired estates, the settlers had to come “to terms with their Irish neighbours. To them the way of wealth lay not in slaughter but in traffic, not in destroying riches but in sharing them. The colonists compromised with “the Irish enemy.” They took to Irish dress and language” (107). Green explains that they were considered just as dangerous as the native Irish: “They were not counted “of English birth”; lands were resumed from them, office forbidden them. In every successive generation new men of pure English blood were to be sent over to serve the king’s purpose and keep in check the Ireland-born” (108).

The Normans were gradually assimilated through intermarriages in the dominant Irish environment and the newcomers blended in, as Jackson notices, and “brought up by Irish nurses, with none but Irish or part-Irish playmates, speaking nothing but Irish except on rare occasions, these heirs thought in Irish, and became ‘more Irish than the Irish themselves.’” Jackson points out that initially, they only tolerated but later on embraced the Brehon law. “Save for their titles they had become Irish clan chiefs” (40). As Jackson points out, England responded to this development by issuing the Statute of Kilkenny, which was concocted to stop the Gaelicising of the English in Ireland. Although its implementation was problematic and it had little effect on the ‘degenerate English’ in Ireland, it was a clear indication of the English contempt for everything Irish (41). According to the Statute, there were supposed to be no “intermarriages with the Irish”, “adopting Irish names, dress, customs or speech”, “harbouring Irish minstrels”, and “admitting Irish priests to benefices, or to monastic establishments was forbidden”. Some of the statutes were specifically economic, demanding that “permitting Irish tenants to hold by Gaelic tenures, or permitting Irish Septs to graze their cattle on estates granted by the Crown incurred forfeiture” (Jackson 40-41). Although some parts of the Statute are quite anti-Irish, even racist, it is believed that its purpose was more or less defensive in character and exposed the relative failing of the English policy of conquest, and as Jackson points out, every successive generation of conquerors became part of the dominant Irish environment, constantly blunting the English designs to subdue the Irish. Till the time of the Tudors, the Irish were the dominant force at home (42).

The English interest in Ireland in the Later Middle Ages, as Jackson continues, remained marginal due to their involvement in the Hundred Years War and dynastic struggles during the Wars of the Roses; however, this status quo was to be changed by Henry VII, who wanted to eliminate the causes of dynastic quarrelling and his objective “consisted in destroying the separate military powers of the great feudal lords and absorbing all their sovereignties into that of the King as sole sovereign and Lord” (Jackson 43). After he had succeeded in England, the same objective was later achieved by successive rulers in Ireland. As Jackson describes, the policy was following:

The Chief was first flattered with titles, honours and a subsidy into becoming an agency of anglicisation. If he fell in with the plan he was made straightway, by a legal “magic”, the owner of all the clan territory; and his clansmen, if they submitted, became his tenants, either for life, on lease, or at will. If he accepted the title but did not introduce English-feudal tenure he was attained as a traitor, his lands were confiscated and the English-feudal tenures were imposed on the clans by force. (48)

According to Green, using this policy of exterminating everything Irish, the Tudors systematically eradicated the Irish civilization and those who did not submit were executed, forced into exile or assassinated and in Green’s account, “all the great leaders, Anglo-Irish and Irish, had disappeared, the people had been half exterminated, alien and hostile planters set in their place, tribal tenure obliterated, every trace of Irish law swept clean from the Irish statute-book” (137). The suffering of the Irish was intensified by the loss of their culture. As O’Brien and O’Brien explain, one of the greatest achievements of Irish culture was its vernacular literature, which had thrived for three hundred years. Irish poets “retained to the very end their quasi-magical function; their praise was essential to legitimate rule and their satire was dreaded as a material threat. The Elizabethans, more perceptive than later critics, feared them as witches and hanged them as fomenters of treason” (48). Among the slaughtered were also historians, whose “books and genealogies burned, so that no man might know his own grandfather” (Green 131). The objective of the English was to root out all that was Irish and plant the new order which was explicitly English in all aspects of life. As Jackson reports, the Irish did not absorb these changes peacefully and the end of the rule of Elizabeth I was marked by incessant “rebellions” against the English rule and the atrocities further escalated when the Irish received military assistance from Spain and the Pope (48). This, according to Jackson, gave “the English commanders an excuse for ferocity to the limit of extermination. In order to force the rebels to surrender, cattle were impounded, and the standing-crops were destroyed systematically….The result was a famine of appalling intensity” (48-49). This is an account of the English policy of extermination penned by the English poet Edmund Spenser in his View of the State of Ireland:

Ere one year and a half they [the rebels] were brought to such wretchedness as that any stony heart would have rued the same. Out of every corner of the woods and glens they came creeping forth upon their hands, for their legs could not bear them; they looked like anatomies of death; they spoke like ghosts crying out of their graves; they did eat the dead carrions, happy where they could find them: yea, and one another soon after, insomuch as the very carcasses they spared not to scrape out of their graves; and if they found a plot of water-cresses or shamrocks, there they flocked as to a feast for a time, yet were not able long to continue there withal; that in short space there were none almost left, and a most populous and plentiful country suddenly left void of man and beast. (qtd. in Jackson 49)

O’Brien and O’Brien observe that since Spenser was one of the settlers, he blamed the Irish for the horrors he had seen, saying that the Irish “died of famine which they themselves had wrought” and after his house at Kilcoleman had been burned down, O’Brien and O’Brien quote him contemplating a final solution of the Irish question: “How then? Should the Irish have been quite rooted out? That were too bloody a course: and yet their continual rebellious deeds deserve little better” (54). To the English, as O’Brien and O’Brien elaborate, Ireland became a testing ground for later conquests. They believe that “Spenser and his friends genuinely conceived themselves to be engaged on a mission of civilization, and they felt their own landed acquisitions to be a legitimate reward for their part in this mission.” These beliefs had far reaching consequences: “The conquest of Ireland provided the psychological basis, as well as a part of the material basis and training, for the colonization of a great part of the world” (55). Furthermore, O’Brien and O’Brien conclude that the rebellions culminated in large confiscations of estates and the elimination of high-ranking Irish nobles, which consequently created an antagonistic conflict where the differences in nationality were further enhanced by religious beliefs: Catholic Irish became to be ruled by Protestant English. However, As O’Brien and O’Brien continue, the Irish believed that “the English were heretics, their power was illegitimate, rebellion against them lawful, their enemies were the friends of Ireland and of the Faith” (61). This presented an ongoing problem for the English, who resorted to the uprooting of the “rebellious” Irish and the settling of the “vacated” land by loyal English and Scottish Protestants in Ulster (Jackson 51). Although Jackson believes that “this plantation differed from its predecessors in that the crown’s greed for revenue was subordinated to its imperialist need for a reliable garrison of planted colonists who would hold the Irish nation in check” (52), but O’Brien and O’Brien point out that “the ‘undertakers’ responsible for most of the Ulster plantation were supposed to have the natives completely removed from their lands; in practice they accepted Irish tenants, because it paid them better to do so” (62). The economic and social condition of the Irish declined rapidly and they speculate that “this depressed condition increased, as it usually does, the contempt felt by the conqueror for the conquered, and the contempt in turn justified severity, which was felt to be brought on the conquered by their own inadequacies” (62).

The next blow, which came in 1649, was in retaliation for the rebellion in 1641 and the expedition to Ireland was led by Cromwell himself. According to O’Brien and O’Brien, “Cromwell and his comrades therefore felt fully justified in treating the Irish rebels with the greatest ruthlessness, and such ruthlessness could also meet a political need: to clear out the rebels and put English ex-soldiers in their stead” (68). For Ireland the worst aspect of his policies was his anti-Catholicism and his efficiency. “By 1653 the Cromwellian forces had subjugated all of Ireland” (69). What followed was a complete removal of Irish Catholic landholding east of the Shannon and in O’Brien and O’Brien’s opinion “the most important effect of the transplantation was not a movement of population, but a great change in the ownership of land and in the distribution of political power” and while it is estimated that in 1641 Catholics owned three-fifths of the land, by 1665 it was just one-fifth, mostly in Connaught (69). They add that the establishment of a system which put Protestants of English or Scottish birth in political and economic control over the Gaelic-speaking Catholic peasantry was called the Protestant Ascendancy and it lasted well into the 19th century (69). According to Green, Cromwell’s campaign in Ireland was a “war of extermination: it ended, in fact, in the death of little less than half the population” (164) and in her opinion left the following impression in Irish national conscience:

The memory of the black curse of Cromwell lives among the people. He remains in Ireland as the great exemplar of inhuman cruelties, standing amid these scenes of woe with praises to God for such manifest evidence of His inspiration. The speculators got their lands, outcast women and children lay on the wayside devoured by wolves and birds of prey. By order of parliament (1653) over 20,000 destitute men, women, and children from twelve years were sold into the service of English planters in Virginia and the Carolinas. Slave-dealers were let loose over the country, and the Bristol merchants did good business. (164)

Ireland became in fact a colony of England with all the consequences. The majority of the population of Ireland did not benefit from any improvements in the economy, as O’Brien and O’Brien point out, and they quote that “six-sevenths of the population, according to Sir William Petty’s calculation, continued to live at subsistence level growing their own food – mainly, by now, the potato – and weaving their own cloth” (70). Ireland was not allowed to pose economic threat to English competitors, which involved “destroying deliberately trade and manufacturers that had already arisen and were competing successfully with English rivals” (Jackson 94). Politically, the Irish were subdued, but they still presented a threat to the ruling class, so the English felt it necessary to exclude the Irish from their legal system by creating the Penal Laws. O’Brien and O’Brien state that:

Under these laws, Irish Catholics could not sit in parliament, or vote in parliamentary elections; they were excluded from the bar, the bench, the university, the navy, and all public bodies; they were forbidden to possess arms, or a horse worth more than five pounds. No Catholic could keep a school, or send his children to be educated abroad. The ownership of land was the subject of a whole complex branch of the penal code, as a result of which almost all the remaining land still owned by Catholics passed into protestant hands. (77)

It can be concluded then that Irish Catholics were reduced to the status of labourers with no political or economic rights in their own country. Jonathan Swift described how the Penal Laws affected Ireland in his “Short View of the Present State of Ireland” in the following way:

Ever increasing rent is squeezed out of the very blood, and vitals, and clothes, and dwellings of the tenants, who live worse than English beggars. The families of farmers who pay great rents are living in filth and nastiness upon buttermilk and potatoes, without a shoe or a stocking to their feet, or a house so convenient as an English hog sty to receive them. These may, indeed, be comfortable sights to an English spectator who comes for a short time to learn the language, and returns back to his own country, whither he finds all our wealth transmitted. (89)



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