Before 1800 the main tool of oppression of the Irish was the penal code, which, according to Edmund Burke, was “a machine of as wise and elaborate contrivance for the impoverishment and degradation of the people, and the debasement in them of human nature itself, as ever proceeded from the perverted ingenuity of man” (O’Brien and O’Brien 78). The penal code was devised in such a way as to maintain the separation of the two peoples of Ireland: the superior class of the ruling Anglo-Scottish Protestants and the Irish Catholics. It was based on an unequal treatment by the legal system, which was, as O’Brien and O’Brien believe, similar to apartheid used later in South Africa. As the defining criterion was religion, it was relatively easy to change allegiance and as the society became more modern, the religious aspect had been slowly disappearing, therefore “racist doctrines – including the doctrine of the natural inferiority of ‘the Celt’ … may have been in part a substitute for a religious fanaticism which had become obsolete” (79). Even before the Famine, as Kinealy points out, there was a strong antipathy towards the Irish immigrants and according to her, there was a “number of writers and social commentators who attempted to provide a racial dimension to this prejudice” (331). As she further demonstrates, in 1841, a prominent Victorian writer J.A. Froude described Irish emigrants as being “more like tribes of squalid apes than human being,” and she adds that later on “this theme was further developed by the middle-class journal, Punch, when, in 1862, it devoted an article to explaining the link between apes, negroes and Irish immigrants.” (331) The magazine concocted a parody on Darwin’s theory of evolution saying that:
a creature manifestly between the gorilla and the negro is to be met with in some of the lowest districts of London and Liverpool … It belongs in fact to a tribe of Irish savages … When conversing with its kind it talks a sort of gibberish. It is, moreover, a climbing animal, and may sometimes be seen ascending a ladder laden with a hod of bricks. (331)
Lengel confirms the presence of these ideas in British society; however, he claims that although a “minority of scientists and intellectuals, writing in journals such as the Medical Times, had long maintained a racial interpretation of Irish difference,” these ideas did not find support in Parliament or in the press. He explains that it was the experiences of the famine along with the reports in newspapers like the Times, which “served to popularise biological racism as it was applied to the Condition of Ireland Question. By the beginning of the 1850s explicitly or implicitly racial literature spread widely through the press and in bookshops, and was received with much acclaim.” Lengel further adds that many prominent historians, notably Lewis Perry Curtis, Jr., have reached a conclusion that “race was the defining element in nineteenth-century English perceptions of the Irish. The English, according to Curtis and others, looked with a self-conscious sense of Saxon superiority at what they considered to be a childlike and inferior but dangerous Celtic race.”
Besides the anti-Irish racism, as Donnelly points out, there were two further ideas which bolstered the contempt the British had for the Irish. He , as he claims, agrees with the idea of the historian Peter Gray, who argues that “‘the ideas of moralism’ (which located the source of Irish problems in the moral deficiencies of the Irish character), ‘supported by providentialism and a Manchester-school reading of classical economics, proved the most potent of British interpretations of the Irish famine.’” (31). Gray states that:
What these ideas led to was not a policy of deliberate genocide, but a dogmatic refusal to recognise that measures intended ‘to encourage industry, to do battle with sloth and despair, to awake a manly feeling of inward confidence and reliance on the justice of heaven’, were based on false premises, and in the Irish condition of the later 1840s amounted to a sentence of death on many thousands. (qtd. in Donnelly 31)
Although it is a valuable remark to explain the government policies, Gray is mistaken because he withdraws the Famine from the overall context of British-Irish relations, omitting the systematic destruction of Irish industry by British legislature and not taking into account the history of oppression and anti-Irish racism.
The British government was obliged to take action to alleviate the calamity which was taking place all over Ireland as it was its integral part from 1801, yet Kinealy observes that: “Although there was some support for more extensive state investment in public works, railways and for subsidised emigration schemes” (72). She rightly observes though that such propositions “were overshadowed by the more popular policies suggested by the political economists, including Lord Brougham, the economist Nassau Senior, and Charles Wood and Charles Trevelyan at the Treasury” (72). The policy of non-intervention demanded that “during a period of shortage or famine, it was the responsibility of a local area, aided by private charity, to alleviate the situation” (72). It was believed that from the short-term point of view, the government’s policy of non-intervention was harsh, but justified in the long run and as The Times cynically pointed out: “There are times when something like harshness is the greatest humanity” (72). The power of the media proved to be one of the decisive contributors in forming the public opinion of the day. As Kinealy notices, “The reports in The Times, the most influential newspaper of the day, had an impact on parliamentary and public opinion. In helping to shape the public perception of events in Ireland, this paper was ably supported by the satiric articles and caricatures that appeared in Punch magazine” (105). According to her findings though, “much of the information upon which these stories were based was supplied by Wood and Trevelyan who used the powerful medium of the press to their own political advantage” (105). According to Woodham-Smith, “English newspapers represented the Irish, not as helpless famine victims, but as cunning and bloodthirsty desperados” (99). As one of the examples, she mentions the magazine Punch, which repeatedly published cartoons “depicting the Irishman as a filthy, brutal creature, an assassin and a murderer, begging for money, under a pretence of buying food, to spend on weapons” (99). However, such depictions did not only come from magazines but also from the notables and elites of the period. The British historian Charles Kingsley, who accompanied the Queen on her visit to Ireland in 1848, wrote:
I am daunted by the human chimpanzees I saw along that 100 miles of horrible country. I don't believe they are our fault. I believe that there are not only many more of them than of old, but that they are happier, better and more comfortably fed and lodged under our rule than they ever were. But to see white chimpanzees is dreadful; if they were black, one would not feel it so much. (qtd. in P. Gallagher)
However, one of the most cynical statements comes from the political economist Nassau Senior, who wrote that concerning the famine, “he feared it would not kill more than a million people, which would scarcely be enough to eliminate the unemployment” (qtd in P. Gallagher).
At the beginning of the famine the British responded to the pleas coming from Ireland, but as the calamity continued, they blamed the Irish for bringing the famine onto themselves; furthermore, Woodham-Smith thinks that for the British the Famine “was a disturbing thought, and it was therefore a comfort to be able to believe that the Irish were not starving or, if some of them were, the depravity of the Irish was such that they deserved to starve” (99). In addition to that, as Kinealy points out, “there was a general belief that, where possible, people were still attempting to take advantage of the government,” and she demonstrates that using the correspondence between Jones and Trevelyan, when Jones warned Trevelyan that “everybody considers the government fair game to pluck from as much as they can” (103). She concludes that:
This theme was taken up in England by The Times which repeatedly drew a comparison between the ungrateful and feckless poor of Ireland and the ‘respectable’ poor of England, cautioning that: What is given to the Irish is so much filched from English distress … The English labourer pays taxes from which the Irish one is free – nay, he pays taxes by which the Irishman is enriched. (103-4)
According to Kinealy, newspapers systematically presented negative images of the Irish, such as in the example she quotes from a March 1847 issue of The Times, where the newspaper accuses the Irish of being indifferent to the proper burying of the dead:
The astounding apathy of the Irish themselves to the most horrible scenes under their eyes and capable of relief by the smallest exertion is something absolutely without a parallel in the history of civilised nations … the brutality of piratical tribes sinks to nothing compared with the absolute inertia of the Irish in the midst of the most horrifying scenes. (105)
Further on, Kinealy points out that in 1847, “when the distress was most severe, The Times argued against continuing financial support from Britain on the grounds that …whatever might be done now, would only increase the necessity, and hasten the occasion, for doing more hereafter” (240). After the sum of only £50,000 was approved, which was nothing compared to 4.5 million spent in 1846-47 on the public works alone, The Times described this money as ‘breaking the back’ of English benevolence (240). On 30 August 1847 The Times summed up the British unwillingness to help:
In no other country have men talked treason until they are hoarse, and then gone about begging for sympathy from their oppressors. In no other country have the people been so liberally and unthriftily helped by the nation they denounced and defied, and in none have they repeated more humble and piteous supplications to those whom they have previously repaid with monstrous ingratitude. As a matter of state economy, some relief will be given to Ireland, in case she needs it, but we warn her that such relief will not be carried to the extent, or dealt forth, after the measure of former years. (qtd. in Woodham-Smith 363)
As John O’Rourke observes, “England could find a hundred millions of money to spend in fighting for the Grand Turk; she could find twenty millions for the slave-owners of her colonies; she could find twenty millions more for the luxury of shooting King Theodore, but a sufficient sum could not be afforded to save the lives of five millions of her own subjects” (ch. 5).
By 1848 the British aims and designs for Ireland started to be obvious to the politically minded Irishmen and as Miller believes, the British government’s “niggardly relief measures, its failure to stem food exports or curb speculation, and its passage of the fateful Gregory clause not only corroborated preexisting suspicions but also seemed to form a pattern, not of mere indifference or incompetence but of systematic “extermination” and recolonization” (307). Paul Gallagher notes that Lord Clarendon, who was the British viceroy in Ireland at the time, confirmed the true nature of British policies in Ireland in a letter to Lord John Russell: “I don’t think there is another legislature in Europe [other than the British] that would coldly persist in this policy of extermination.” Miller believes that by 1848 the Times and other leading British journals had clearly provided enough evidence of the government’s intentions by openly endorsing “the idea that the Irish famine, if properly availed of, would prove a great blessing” and thus that it would become a “valuable opportunity for settling the vexed question of Irish misery and discontent” (307). As Miller observes:
The Times actually advocated the expulsion of impecunious Irish tenants and their replacement by “thrifty Scotch and scientific English farmers; men with means, men with modern ideas,” who would pay higher rents, pay them punctually, and not agitate or join secret societies. Viewing the mass evictions and emigrations which followed the enactment of the Gregory clause, the Times positively exulted, “In a few years more, a Celtic Irishman will be as rare in Connemara as is the Red Indian on the shores of Manhattan.” (307)
In October 1846 Trevelyan commented on the overpopulation of Ireland by saying that “being altogether beyond the power of man, the cure has been applied by the direct stroke of an all-wise Providence in a manner as unexpected and as unthought of as it is likely to be effectual”. Two years later after a million people had died, he wrote: “The matter is awfully serious, but we are in the hands of Providence, without a possibility of averting the catastrophe if it is to happen. We can only await the result” (Ranelagh 116-17). Sir Charles Wood, Trevelyan’s colleague at the Treasury, replied in a likewise manner to a complaining landlord: “I am not at all appalled by tenantry going. That seems to me a necessary part of the process…We must not complain of what we really want to obtain” (Ranelagh 117). Ranelagh believes that “imprisoned by their attitudes, these men could stand by, convinced that they should not interfere in the divine retribution of the famine on the unruly, rebellious, treacherous Irish” (117). As Trevelyan himself declared in 1846, “The great evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people” (qtd. in Ranelagh 117). Regarding the evictions, the Times hoped that “if this aim could only be accomplished, we shall also cease to witness the insane competition for land…, degrading men to the appetite and food of beasts and peopling the land with a race savage, reckless, and irreconcilable” (Donnelly 123). When Burgoyne, the Relief Commissioner, requested further financial assistance for Ireland, Trevelyan used this opportunity to disclose his future plans concerning Ireland in the Times in October 1847. He explained that limited financial assistance was necessary if the economy of Ireland was ever to be reformed, because “the change from an idle, barbarous isolated potato cultivation, to corn cultivation, which frees industry, and binds together employer and employee in mutually beneficial relations … requires capital and a new class of men” (Kinealy182). As Kinealy explains, “the letter was timed to be printed a few days before the second Queen’s Letter was published, appealing for subscriptions for Ireland. … impact on British public opinion appears to have been negligible.” Furthermore,Burgoyne’s letter initiated a backlash against Irish relief, in which the distress was blamed repeatedly on the population’s lack of “industry and enterprise” (186).
To conclude this chapter, Kinealy then points out that “the stereotyped image of the Irish in Britain, reinforced by the Famine experience, proved both powerful and enduring. It viewed Irish emigrants as poor and outcast, fleeing from poverty and starvation in their own country” (329). She adds that the British public opinion continued in perceiving the Irish in the aforementioned negative way well into the second half of the 19th century and that these negative perceptions were further augmented by articles and cartoons which repeatedly appeared in British newspapers and magazines (329). Although Ireland was supposed be to an integral part of the United Kingdom, the status of the Irish was relegated to the rank well below that of the British. Kinealy concludes that:
The Irish were generally regarded as inferior to their British counterparts. ‘Paddy’, and his female equivalent ‘Biddy’ were traditionally depicted as poor, dirty, stupid, lacking in both skills and social graces, having a high propensity to both alcohol and crime, Papist and extremely fertile – the latter two were believed to go together anyway. (329)