I would like to thank my supervisor Stephen Paul Hardy, Ph.D. for his help and for
suggesting an inspiring subject which has changed my perception of Britain’s past.
Table of Contents
1. The Definition of Terminology 9
2. The Stages in the Conquest of Ireland 13
3. Economic Doctrines and Policies Before and During the Famine 23
4. Anti-Irish Sentiment 34
5. The Suffering during the Famine 44
Works Cited 64
Every nation has in its history a one defining milestone, a historical watershed, which steers the people of the nation in an entirely new direction for generations to come. In Ireland’s case, it seems to be the period which is most frequently called the Great Irish Famine of 1845 to 1852. The aim of the thesis is to examine this watershed period in Irish history; however, the Famine itself and its consequences cannot be dealt with without being closely connected to the context of Irish-British relations, so specific attention will be paid to the development of governmental and economic policies England, and later on Britain, had implemented in Ireland prior to 1845, as well as the outcome of the event resulting in an estimated one million, or perhaps more, deaths, and at least two million emigrees among the ethnic Irish population. First, the thesis will focus on the conquest of Ireland by England and the development of English and British political and economic policies forcibly introduced in Ireland prior to 1845, which paved the way for the British government’s response to and dealing with the crisis. My research has shown that prior to the Famine of 1845-1852 the English had implemented such harsh laws which, in effect, made the Irish, especially the Irish Catholics, political and economic “nonentities” in their own country and their status was reduced to that of slaves or worse. According to Jim Gallagher, when Irish Catholic peasants entered the 19th century, they were confined to the poorest land, most could not own land, be employed or educated, and they were living in dire poverty disconnected from the ruling minority.
The thesis will attempt to answer the question whether the English and British during the conquest of Ireland developed an attitude towards the Irish which could be classified as that of racial superiority of the English and British over the “inferior” Irish and whether this feeling of superiority was further enhanced by differences in religious beliefs. During the Famine the British Government created conditions which resulted in death by starvation, massive evictions, forced emigration, and public works, where the work performed in relation to the pay or sustenance received meant de facto extermination through labour for many. That was exactly the outcome which had been “foreseen” and deemed necessary to “revitalise” the Irish agriculture. According to the Oxford Companion to Irish History, “there was the belief that the collapse of the potato economy provided an opportunity for agricultural reorganization through the consolidation of smallholdings and the removal of surplus population.” As it also points out, “for many, indeed, the Famine, in line with the prevalent evangelical theology of the day, was seen as the workings of divine providence, acting to correct the ills within Irish society” (228).
Furthermore, the thesis will focus on examining the leading political and economic ideologies and influences of the day. Despite the fact that it was the blight which caused the failure of potato crop in Ireland and most of Europe, Ireland was the only Western European country where misery and hunger reached gigantic proportions while at the same time enormous amounts of food were exported from Ireland. As many historians point out today, there is a problem in using the term “famine” for the catastrophe which occurred in Ireland between 1845 and 1852. The reason lies in the huge export of all sorts of commodities produced in Ireland at the time. As Woodham-Smith quotes from the writings of an Irish revolutionary called John Mitchel, “during all the famine years, Ireland was actually producing sufficient food, wool and flax, to feed and clothe not nine but eighteen millions of people” (70). Ellis poses a question whether the Great Hunger of 1845-1852 was caused by deliberate colonial mismanagement, and furthermore, he asks why Ireland lost a quarter of its population due to deliberate starvation, when at the same time it produced a triple the amount of food needed to feed it. Ellis argues that the deliberate policy of famine was adopted as far back in early 1600s in the form of transplantation schemes.
Similarly, one of the main points of the thesis will be the examination of ruling ideologies such as laissez-faire or Malthusianism as well as a close look at the opinions and mindsets of the leading government officials and policy makers of the day. The teachings and theories of Malthus, who claimed that population, when unchecked, should in the worst case scenario be reduced in number by famine and, if necessary, by a famine of gigantic proportions, were very popular in the 19th century and they shaped the minds of contemporary political notables. It will be used to illustrate the mindset of British politicians who mismanaged the famine crises and used Malthus’ teachings as a blueprint for the dealing with the Famine of 1845-1852. In addition to that, the comments about the Famine made by the government officials in charge, economists, historians or influential newspapers of the day clearly indicate racism on their part and the approval of the outcome of the Famine, which devastated the country and depending on the source caused between three to five million people to die or emigrate.
The last focal point will be the comparison of arguments for and against classifying the Irish Famine as genocide. I will attempt to argue and prove that according to internationally recognized standards the British government’s policies and (in)actions amounted to genocide. I will argue that the abovementioned deeds constitute an act of genocide and therefore I will submit them to a test with Article II of the Genocide Convention. To support my arguments in this final part of the thesis, I will use Fein’s definition of genocide, as well as a set of conditions for detecting and identifying it. I will try to explain why is it so difficult to gain wide acceptance for the fact that a leading “democratic” and “capitalist” power such as Britain could commit genocide. To support the arguments, the thesis will draw on primary and secondary sources, namely books on the Famine such as the extensive study done by Cecil Woodham-Smith in her work The Great Hunger: Ireland 1845-149, which was published in the 1960s and till the late 1980s it was the only extensive work on the topic of the Famine. Of the more recent studies, the thesis will cite from This Great Calamity by Christine Kinealy and James S. Donnelly’s The Great Irish Potato Famine. Furthermore, books on Irish history such as Ireland:A History by Robert Kee and T.A. Jackson’s nonconformist work Ireland Her Own will provide sources for the wider context of Irish-British relations, or Kirby A. Miller’s monumental work Immigrants and Exiles, which deals specifically with emigration.