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Relief works, Inverin Hill, County Galway c. 1890. From the collection of Sean Sexton.

How the British government responded to the Great Hunger in Ireland

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Relief works, Inverin Hill, County Galway c. 1890. From the collection of Sean Sexton.

In January 1847, The Nation magazine published a poem entitled “The Stricken Land.” It was a searing indictment of the policies of the British Government in the wake of the second failure of the Irish potato crop a few months earlier. It was written by a young woman, Jane Elgee, who was drawn from the Protestant Ascendancy, but who became a member of a group of radical nationalists known collectively as “Young Ireland.” She wrote using the pen-name “Speranza.” 


Weary men, what reap ye?
Golden corn for the stranger.
What sow ye?
Human corpses that wait for the avenger.
Fainting forms, hunger-stricken, what see you in the offing?
Stately ships to bear our food away, amid the stranger's scoffing.
They guard our masters' granaries from the thin hands of the poor.
Pale mothers, wherefore weeping?
Would to God that we were dead
Our children swoon before us, and we cannot give them bread ... We are wretches, famished, scorned, human tools to build your pride,
But God will yet take vengeance for the souls for whom Christ died.
Now is your hour of pleasure
bask ye in the world's caress;
But our whitening bones against ye will rise as witnesses,
From the cabins and the ditches, in their charred, uncoffin'd masses,
For the Angel of the Trumpet will know them as he passes.
A ghastly, spectral army, before the great God we'll stand,
And arraign ye as our murderers, the spoilers of our land.

 

 

These words, even from the eloquent pen of Speranza (mother of Oscar Wilde), did not do justice to the desolation and horror of the period of devastation remembered as “the Great Hunger.” Like other famines, the Irish Famine was not solely the consequence of food shortages, but resulted from political decisions that made the suffering of the poor secondary to economic greed, political ambition and ideological prejudice. In 1997, the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, belatedly acknowledged that the all-powerful British government had “stood by” while the Irish people starved in the years after 1845.

As a consequence of the Act of Union of 1800, by the 1840s England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales were governed by a single parliament based in Westminster in London. Despite Ireland accounting for almost half of the population within the United Kingdom, she sent only 105 members (from a total of over 600) to the London-based parliament, and they tended to be divided along political lines – belonging to the Tory (Conservative), Whig or Repeal Parties. In 1841, Sir Robert Peel, leader of the Conservatives, had won a massive electoral victory. One of his main political adversaries was Daniel O’Connell, leader of the Irish Repeal Party, who aimed to overturn the Act of Union by legal and constitutional means. In 1845, when a mysterious and previously unknown blight destroyed approximately forty percent of the Irish potato crop, a repeal of the Union appeared no closer to being achieved. Moreover, O’Connell, weakened by age and illness, was no longer the political force that he had been.  As the potato crop failed repeatedly, the Irish poor became increasingly dependent on policies made in London to save their lives.

In the first year of shortages, nobody died of Famine in Ireland. The lack of excess mortality was attributed to the quick and comprehensive response by the Conservative government of Sir Robert Peel. At the same time, however, from the outset relief policies were combined with attempts to bring about social change in Ireland, including ending the dependence of the poor on the potato, and getting rid of landowners who were judged to be unenterprising. Overall, potato cultivation and dependence were regarded as perpetuating the perceived backwardness of the Irish economy and its people. In the words of Sir Randolph Routh, who had overall responsibility for the relief operations:

“The little industry called for to rear the potato, and its prolific growth, lead the people to indolence and all kinds of vice, which habitual labour and a higher order of food would prevent. I think it very probable that we may derive much advantage from this present calamity. ”

Overall, therefore, the policies introduced in the first year of shortages reflected the government’s longer-term aspirations for Ireland. Peel also used the potato failure to repeal the Corn Laws, which had kept the price of grain products artificially high. However, Peel himself became a political casualty of the Famine as many landowners in his party abhorred his action in repealing the Corn Laws. As a consequence, a minority Whig government headed by Lord John Russell assumed power in the summer of 1846, just as news of the reappearance of the blight was emerging. The fact that the disease appeared earlier in the harvest season than in the previous year had ominous implications for the potato crop.

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