The Irish Famine – An unnecessary tragedy?


One event that the Irish, and their global diaspora, were not celebrating yesterday, on the feast day of St Patrick, was the Irish Famine. One hundred and seventy years ago, Ireland was suffering from mass starvation, which had been caused primarily by successive blasts of a potato blight (the fungus, Phytophthora infestans). The resulting facts may not be totally accurate, but they are undeniable: on the doorstep of the world’s richest nation (at that time), about one million people died of starvation and epidemic disease; some two million fled to far-flung spots such as the Americas and Australia; nearly one-eighth of the entire population was killed. As Jim Donnelly has stated, the Irish Famine ‘was proportionally much more destructive of human life than the vast majority of famines in modern times’. (BBC Online)

While the Great Hunger began as a natural catastrophe of extraordinary magnitude (robbing more than a third of the population of its usual means of subsistence for four or five years in a row), the inaction and inefficiency of the ruling authorities exacerbated the perilous situation, which ultimately resulted in an artificial famine. Having just finished reading Robert Scally’s eminently scholarly and beautifully written The End of Hidden Ireland, it is clear that the catastrophic event now known as the Great Famine is a tragic tapestry of historical inequalities unique to nineteenth century Ireland: an antiquated land system with its resultant ‘rebellion’ and eviction; the agonising distress and mortality caused by the potato blight; and, ultimately, the Crowns’s preferred solution, forced repatriation to the extremities of the world.

My own interpretation of this sorry chapter in British history is a damning one: that the imperial system of government – ideologically guided by lassiez-faire market forces – reacted ineffectually, and arguably, callously to the plight of its closest imperial subjects. At the very least, the Whig government led by Lord John Russell did not respond adequately to the enormous initial food gap of 1846-7; it then compounded this inaction by failing to utilise Ireland’s own grain supplies as well as the large amounts of foreign grain (imported Indian corn or maize)that began to arrive after 1847. Unlike modern intergovernmental responses to famine, the political élite and the middle classes strongly militated against heavy and sustained relief. (BBC Online). The government’s soup-kitchen scheme should have been extended far beyond its six-month span. Another short-lived initiative of public works during the winter of 1846-7 failed to pay the necessary wages for the recipients to afford the exorbitant price of food at that time. On top of that, the poor-relief system placed so many restrictive obstacles in the way of peasants that the relief was ineffective. Again, it was ideologically guided by the belief that costs should be kept to a minimum and the Irish poor should be self-reliant and self-motivated. Robert Scally highlights the ruthlessness of Irish landowners in their policy of mass evictions – apparently supported, or at least ignored, by the British government – that was used to rid their estates of pauperized farmers and labourers.

And, the only way out? Forced emigration to lands so far away to be beyond the knowledge and imagination of the vast majority of Irish people. Scally’s book compares the transatlantic crossings to America to those of West African slaves to that same arena of exploitation. Undoubtedly, the east coast of the United States was a salvation of sorts for a large number of emigrants, but the loss of life, of family connections, of cultural identity was considerable. As Jim Donnelly implies, the British governing classes did not learn from the Irish experience of famine as Indians suffered equally from famines in 1876-9 and 1896-1902; tens of millions starved to death because the imperial government did not have the political will nor the moral aptitude to prevent it. (BBC Online)



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