The Great Hunger: Ireland 1845-9

250px-Charles_Edward_TrevelyanHow equipped are our governments to deal with emergencies? Supposing a worldwide epidemic, which many scientists forecast, or even a tornado, were to strike, would there be an effective support system with adequate funds to spring immediately into action? Do we want this to happen? Have we learnt anything from the past?

Cecil Woodham-Smith wrote a book in 1962 called The Great Hunger which implicitly asks these question. She had shown how slow the British Government was to learn from the mistakes made in the Irish famine in her book The Reason Why (1953), which details how administrative failure and ignorant leadership were able to destroy the British Army in the Crimea in the 1850s without the Russians having much to do with it. In The Great Hunger Woodham-Smith shows how doctrinaire adherence to laissez faire economic theory, ignorance of conditions in Ireland, hatred of the Irish and unchecked colonialism applied to what was officially part of Britain led to the deaths of more than four million men, women and children in Ireland, and the emigration of two or three million more, many of whom died on their journey, in the period 1845-49. (A note about figures: everything is ambiguous, none more so than statistics. A census of Ireland in the nineteenth century was impossible. Many districts could not be reached because of inadequate roads. The poor were often not counted. During the famine records could not be kept because of administrative breakdown. It is not known accurately what the population of Ireland was at the time of the famine, nor is it known how many died. Stick to official estimates if you want to downplay the tragedy, double those figures if you want to exaggerate it).

It started with bad weather, unseasonably damp and humid, the perfect conditions for the newly arrived potato blight to spread. A simple crop to grow, in Ireland the potato had become the staple food of the nation and was at the mercy of the weather: there had been regular ‘shortages’ for many years, during which the people went without. Now in 1846 the fungus phytophthora infestans, hitherto unknown in Europe, completely destroyed the Irish potato crop. The bulk of Ireland’s conservatively estimated 8 million people (possibly as high as 12-14 million as the western counties were never adumbrated effectively) had no food of any kind. This was just the beginning.

The whole of Europe was affected by an economic recess; food supplies were short across the continent and none available to help Ireland in her hour of need. Following starvation came fever, typhus and others. There was no effective way of dealing with widespread sickness in Ireland, and thousands and then millions died untreated and in some cases unburied. The humid summer was followed by one of the coldest winters on record, and people who had had to sell their clothes to feed their children died of exposure. Complete poverty meant that the Irish had no funds to buy seed for the following spring, widespread lack of education meant they had no knowledge of other crops or efficient cropping methods. In 1847 the weather was good and the crop of potatoes healthy, but only a tiny fraction of what it needed to be to feed the people. Then in 1848 the blight returned, destroying the entire crop for that year.

Ironically, Ireland is a fertile country. During the famine, farm produce which might have fed most of the starving was leaving Ireland for England in a steady stream. As Woodham-Smith explains, this anomaly had its roots in the system of land tenure, which goes back to Elizabethan times. Elizabeth I, Cromwell and many other British leaders followed a policy of dispossessing Irish nobility and awarding their lands to their own followers. Ireland was a plundered country, with no thought taken to integrate it with the rest of the nation or build its economy. Over the centuries the estates were broken down to smaller lots, but the revenues from them were spent in England by absentee landlords. Many of these became impoverished but remained improvident. Soon the only way to attract investment for produce was to sell competitively in foreign markets, hoping to squeeze income for establishments in Britain from the proceeds. Nobody worried about the Irish. They grew the food and sold it to pay their rents. They ate potatoes and lived in hovels. Nobody asked about crop failure.

The key figure in the way the Irish famine was dealt with in Britain was Charles Trevelyan, permanent head of Treasury. Others were Charles Wood, Chancellor of the Exchequer and Lord John Russell, Prime Minister. These men could be said to be responsible for what has been described emotively as genocide in Ireland. Of course they did not create the problem, which had existed for centuries and was a condition of England’s conquest of Ireland: it was a powder keg awaiting someone to throw a match.

Trevelyan’s contribution was to ignore the problem. Though there was a food shortage throughout Europe in the mid 40s, no planning or forecasts were made for the fragile economy of Ireland. Though the system of poor relief had been shown over many years to be underresourced and impossible to operate, reliance was made on it in the crisis. Throughout the famine Trevelyan was reluctant to send aid to Ireland because that would prohibit market forces from operating and be destructive for the economy (a doctrine of laissez faire Trevelyan rigidly adhered to, as did the government of which he was a part). The fact there was no market, and no economy after 1846, was ignored, along with the stream of reports which detailed the breakdowns in every system of administration in the country. If there was a problem in Ireland, Trevelyan thought, it was the fault of the Irish people, and it was up to them to fix it. The fact that Britain governed Ireland was effectively ignored in the process. Trevelyan was a true bureaucrat, and dealt with many problems merely by calling for further reports on them.

Through convoluted reasoning Trevelyan thought the people responsible for the mass of starving Irish were the landlords, who refused to fund relief funds. He caused rates to be levied, which the bankrupt landlords couldn’t pay, and their response was to clear the land, evicting tenants by police and military aid and demolishing their dwellings. The starving were thus forced on the parish and the poorhouses, which were also bankrupt and unable to cope with millions of new applicants for assistance. The British government did provide some slight assistance for poor relief, but as they thought that too was the responsibility of the landlords, they eventually withdrew it. The problem passed from hand to hand, and people died.

Perhaps this is one way tragedies happen. People who don’t know what to do do nothing, and ask, What problem? There’s no problem!

One of the saddest stories in Woodham-Smith’s book is that of the nationalists, the Repeal Association, the Young Ireland party and the revolutionary group lead by Fintan Lalor. With the passing of the great Daniel O’Connell the nationalist movement in Ireland was in the hands of leaders who knew less about the condition of the Irish than the British did. Breathing fiery rhetoric about driving the despoiling English from the land, they strove to organise forces of rebellion from starving men who only gathered in dozens, and mainly for food. But the British, which meant effectively Trevelyan, used this so-called rebellion as a further reason for withholding aid.

Woodham-Smith’s book has been criticised as simplifying the problem, and as anti-British. The same complaints have been made against her masterpiece The Reason Why. The Great Hunger tries to be objective. Woodham-Smith uses statistics a lot, refrains from judgmental remarks, quotes from a wide range of existing sources. But she does have a prejudice, against the entropy in large organisations and the tragedies they inflict. She says emigration to Australia was negligible (over one million came to Australia from Ireland), that this was because of the expense of the passage (there were several systems of assisted passage) and that there was no network of Irish to welcome them if they did arrive (there were many earlier Irish migrants, not to mention the convicts) so her information on Australia is deficient. Otherwise her uses of source material is impressive.

Inappropriate administrative procedures, rigid adherence to beliefs inapplicable to the situation encountered, racial prejudice, refusal to see problems arising or deal with them when they arrive – these methods kill as effectively as the gas chamber. Malthusian economists even forecast the deaths of millions of Irish people and saw it as a reasonable solution to the problem of overpopulation.

Today the world’s population is approaching seven billion. Crises involving millions of people are more likely to happen now than they were in 1845 in Ireland. Have the responses we are likely to make learnt from the past?

©2009 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.

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