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The Irish famine was an unnatural disaster

The Great Irish Famine had enormous repercussions on world history. It established the Irish-Americans as one of the great power blocks of the world because of the numbers who emigrated from Ireland during and after the catastrophe. It was the Irish-American factor which proved to be the decisive force in the peace process which has led directly to the present cordial state of Anglo-Irish relationships symbolised by the Queen’s highly successful visit to Ireland last year.

The path to that visit could be said to have opened when Tony Blair began his policy of rapprochement with militant republicans by apologising for the Famine shortly after taking office in 1997.

There was much to apologise for. No doubt the youthful Blair, holidaying with his grandmother in the famine-stricken county of Donegal, would have imbibed famine folklore along with the Guinness he remembered so fondly. But there was nothing about the famine to remember fondly, except perhaps the disinterested efforts of the Quakers to stem its effects.

Famine and near starvation were no strangers to Ireland during the century which proceeded the outbreak of the “Great Hunger” itself following the coming of the potato blight in 1845.

As Earl Grey, a member of Peel’s Conservative cabinet, declared, Ireland was a disgrace, the great blot on the British Empire. The coming of the Whigs to power a few months after Grey’s utterance, made the blot deeper and wider.

When the Whigs took power, under the premiership of Lord John Russell, party discipline had been ravaged by the ferocious parliamentary war over the dismantling of the Corn Laws and there were far bigger beasts than Russell sitting around the Cabinet table – Palmerston, for example. Moreover, Ireland had been ravaged also by successive conquests and by the effects of the Act of Union, which obliterated the Irish parliament and, on paper, made Ireland a part of the United Kingdom exactly as were Scotland and Wales.

Following the closure of the Irish parliament an exodus of both capital and talent took place from Ireland, accentuating the trend towards absenteeism among the landlords, who spent their rents from Ireland in London and Paris, not on improving their estates. If the tenants improved their holdings their rents went up. “Middlemen” who leased land from the landlords rented it out in plots of ever-decreasing size and ever-increasing rent.

American observers described the lot of Irish peasants as being worse than that of American slaves. The reality was that there were nearly three million Irish peasants living in mud cabins, utterly dependent upon the potato, who were encouraged to depart or to die as expeditiously as possible when the blight struck. It is
not known how many did die. Modern scholarship suggests it may have been two million, with another million emigrating in floating “coffin ships” wherein fever took a death toll which, it was remarked, would have allowed a person to walk dry shod across the Atlantic.

The strange, disturbed figure of Charles Trevelyan, assistant secretary of the Treasury and in effect the head of the British civil service, devised a relief policy which imposed such stringent tests on destitution and relied heavily on road works – paid for by task work – which could not be carried out for much of the year because of
bad weather conditions.

With the failure of the potato crop there came widespread evictions. Starving men, women and children, the baby in arms and the aged, were turned out to face the elements in whatever rags they possessed.

“Natural causes” was how Trevelyan described the outcome of this solution to overpopulation. A better and more accurate description would have been genocide.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir Charles Wood, swallowed the “natural causes” formula whole and Palmerston and a group of other powerful fellow Cabinet members who, like himself, had vast estates in Ireland closed their eyes to the shutting of food depots and the export of food all through the famine. With the aid of a powerful segment of the Church of England, which was enraged by Catholic Emancipation and by an increase in the grant to the major Irish seminary of St Patrick’s, Maynooth, a successful PR campaign was mounted against spending money on Irish relief.

“Irish property must pay for Irish poverty” became the watchword. The promulgation of the belief that Divine Providence had sent the famine was another. The greatest single motor force behind the campaign was the Times, which apart from explicitly welcoming the famine looked forward to the time when “a Celt will soon be as rare on the banks of the Shannon as the red man on the banks of Manhattan”.

Although anti-Irish prejudice was a stock-in-trade of some jingoistic politicians and polemicists of the period, the British public were not on the whole anti-Irish, nor, let it be said, was Queen Victoria, who was shamelessly paraded throughout Ireland on a route which prevented her from seeing a single famine victim. She received a rapturous reception, the reportage of which helped to obscure the realities of the Irish situation. But Trevelyan was anti-Irish and anti-Celt. He had quarrelled with Peel some three wears before the famine because he set forth his views on Ireland and the Irish situation in a lengthy letter in the Morning Chronicle. This missive, run in two parts, purported to describe what he had discovered during a six-week tour of Ireland: “Imminent rebellion, widespread hatred of England, a conspiracy by the Catholic clergy to control Ireland by controlling Daniel O’Connell and his Catholic Association, a determination to shed the blood of up to a million Irish in order to bring about an end to British rule.”

The note struck by Trevelyan would have found an echo in the bosom of the late Joseph Goebbels. More importantly, it found an echo in the heart of Sir Charles Wood, who gave Trevelyan virtual tsardom over Irish relief.

It was the era of laissez-faire or non-interference with the market. The theories of Adam Smith and those who thought like him – Jeremy Bentham and Thomas Malthus, to name but a few members of the influential London Political Club from whence political economists dispensed their doctrines throughout the Empire – were music to the ears of a pharisaical Whigs in government.

The million deaths that Trevelyan professed to have heard talked about, with many more added, was one result. Another was a long step in the direction of the goal which Palmerston and other Cabinet members who held gigantic Irish estates secretly sought – notably Clanrickard, Lansdowne and Mounteagle – the replacement of the potato growing peasant on their lands by cattle and “high farming”.

Clanrickard, Palmerston and Lansdowne all furthered the depletion of the numbers on their estates by shipping their tenants off to the new world in leaky coffin ships. From these, emaciated men and women emerged, often in a state of near nakedness and suffering from fever, into the snows of Canada and the slums of New York.
Emigration continued after the famine ended in 1851. By the time that the two states of Ireland were set up, following the signing of the Treaty and the Anglo-Irish War, it would not be untrue to say of Ireland that the Protestant north contained the industrialised portion of the Island and the Catholic south Guinness Brewery and a large farm. It would not be until 1973, when Ireland was admitted to the then EEC, that the Republic began the process of ceasing to be a supplier of cheap food to England and utilising the multinationals to diversify away from agriculture and into other industries such as chemicals and electronics.

Ironically, as this is written greed and recklessness on a scale which even Trevelyan could hardly have foreseen have once more cost Ireland her sovereignty. She is currently dependent not on the crumbs from the rich man’s table in Whitehall but those that fall from Brussels and the IMF…

The Famine Plot: England’s Role in Ireland’s Greatest Tragedy by Tim Pat Coogan is published by Palgrave Macmillan