Why Famine came to Ireland


Never did human faces tell a sadder tale … these people lacked only a black skin and wooly hair to complete their likeness to the plantation negro. The open, uneducated mouth – the long gaunt arm – the badly formed foot and ankle – the shuffling gait … all reminded me of the plantation, and my own cruelly abused people.

In such circumstances, the miraculous potato, first brought to Cork by Walter Raleigh, made continued existence possible, because its astonishing yield, even in stony ground, enabled a farmer to feed his family, though the land he worked was hardly bigger than a postage stamp. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, therefore, the mere Irish had come to rely almost solely on the potato, which had even brought about a population increase, making Ireland – with 8.5 million people – the most populous country in Europe.

But the circumstances of this population were perilous. Though a great landlord might own as much as 60,000 acres, an Irish peasant owned an acre or two if he was lucky, nothing at all if he was unlucky – in which case he worked his landlord’s fields as a serf. The yield from these fields never reached him or his family: it was virtually all exported by his landlord for cash. As the landlords grew ever more prosperous, they and their cousins in England began to put out the story that the Irish were born to their condition by nature. Their poverty was the result of their own laziness. Thanks to Catholic superstition, their minds were hopelessly clouded. It was a scientific fact that the Irish were naturally inferior, and there was nothing that could be done about it really. In 1845, just before the first famine struck, a young American visitor recorded in her diary this encounter in the West of Ireland:

The poor peasants, men, women, and children were gathering seaweed, loading their horses, asses and backs with it, to manure their wretched little patches of potatoes sown among the rocks. “Three hundred and sixty-two days a year we have the potato,” said a young man to me bitterly.... “Because the landlord sees we can live and work hard on them, he grinds us down in our ways and he despises us because we are ignorant and ragged.”

In the first year of the blight, the poorest people sold whatever they had – overcoats, fishing gear, the family cow – to buy grain. When the blight returned in 1846, they had nothing left to sell. They stole turnips when they could and ate weeds. Many fishermen had already pawned their tackle and nets; others, weakened by hunger, could no longer row. People began to comb beaches and rocks for shellfish, seaweed, and moss, till every beach in the West of Ireland was stripped bare. And with potatoes scarce, food prices began to soar. As the Quaker William Forster wrote:

When there before, I had seen cows at almost every cabin and there were besides many sheep and pigs in the village. But now all sheep were gone; all the cows, all the poultry killed; not one pig left; the very dogs which had barked at me before had disappeared; no potatoes, no oats, workmen unpaid; patient, quiet look of despair.

In July 1846, Britain’s Conservative government fell and was replaced by that of the Liberal Party. The new Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, who was put in charge of famine relief, was Charles Trevelyan, a man whose faith in unregulated capitalism was absolute and who believed passionately that government must never interfere with the hidden hand of the market. If the Irish were starving, said Trevelyan, it must be their own fault; and God himself had sent the potato blight for the “moral and political improvement” of the Irish people. They must take control of their own lives and stop abusing British charity.

Thus was the stage set for Black ’47, the worst year of the Great Hunger, which produced a potato crop of only 2 million tons, as opposed to the 15 million tons that had been produced in 1844, the year before the blight. The Irish obliged Charles Trevelyan’s ideals for them by dying in droves, whole villages becoming ghost towns overnight. Serious riots broke out at ports, where hungry people could not bear the sight of abundant Irish grain and meat being loaded on ships for export. Her majesty’s government, which refused to commit the sin of interfering with the market, had no scruples about protecting the market’s many export ships with the full force of British firepower.

As tenant farmers began to default on the rents they owed their landlords, who were also the food exporters, more and more families became homeless, evicted from their tiny hovels by landlords who wanted the land for more efficient farming and were only waiting for the excuse to evict. Private charities, such as Quaker soup kitchens, were overwhelmed; and bands of walking skeletons began to roam the countryside. People died in ditches, green foam issuing from their mouths because they had tried in their last moments to eat grass. As the death toll mounted, corpses were thrown into huge pits; many were never buried at all. Some of the walking skeletons reached the government workhouses, hellholes where even small children could be deprived of food and placed in solitary confinement for such lack of sobriety as playing a game or owning a toy. It is a judgement on this form of British charity that many preferred to die rather than endure it. Still, Benjamin Jowett, later Master of Balliol College, Oxford, remembered one political economist telling him that “he feared the famine of 1848 would not kill more than a million people and that would scarcely be enough to do much good.” That incredible quotation must be placed against this indelible picture left us by a concerned Quaker: