An etching of a family suffering poverty during the Famine.

You have probably never heard of the dashing Baron Jozsef Eotvos, unless you’re Hungarian, or you’ve been to Budapest, where you would have noticed there’s a big square named after him in the heart of the city and that in that square stands his statue, and in that country he’s still revered.

Ireland made him famous, interestingly enough. More precisely, what he wrote about Ireland after a particularly insightful visit there marked him out as a 19th century writer and social commentator of the first rank at the start of his long and accomplished career.

It was the Irish patriot Daniel O’Connell and his struggle for Irish Catholic emancipation that first inspired Eotvos to visit Ireland at the tender age of 24.

Young, aristocratic, educated and unusually idealistic, he was a romantic figure whose good character was complimented by his good looks, but he was no fool.  Eotvos understood that some nations prospered through the brutal exploitation of others and he was unafraid to say how or why.

Arriving in Ireland in 1837, 10 years before the Great Hunger, he must have cut an interesting dash. Byronically handsome, dressed to the nines with coiffed hair, a strong profile and an unusually sympathetic nature, he was adored by women and men.

To the impoverished and downtrodden native Irish of the period he must have looked like a visiting Martian. “Everywhere the people are in rags,” Eotvos wrote, “and wearing the traces of hunger and disease on their pale faces.”

This was 10 years before the mass starvation of the Great Hunger, and food security was already an observable national issue.  Eotvos was dazzled by the beauty of the Irish landscape, the valleys and mountain ranges, which stood in stark contrast to the “wretched huts” and small “plots squeezed between stone fences” where the natives were forced to live.

Cover of Poverty in Ireland 1837 by Baron Jozsef Eotvos.

Cover of Poverty in Ireland 1837 by Baron Jozsef Eotvos.

Wherever he went he saw abundance in the midst of great poverty. The exploitation and cruelty were so extreme that it produced great sadness in the people and anger in Eotvos.

It was dispossession that was at the root of their suffering, he observed. Even their diet represented a stripping away of their independence. Eotvos noticed the constant use of potatoes without any better class of food.

Milk, poultry, fish and so on were almost unknown to the poor. Even the kind of potato that the native Irish grew (called “lumper”) was itself of such a bad variety that in other nations it was only used as food for cattle. The Irish planted it because it grew abundantly on the poor soil they were forced to live on.

Potatoes don’t keep for a year. Sometimes they rot two months before the first potatoes of the new season are ready to be harvested. For those two months the natives often go hungry, Eotvos noted, with a prescience that sends a shiver down the spine.

When those months come the Irish get by through living on credit, effectively paying the English to live in their own country. “The Irish peasant does not know comfort,” Eotvos writes, “his home is a hut made of earth with glassless window openings and no chimney, while its poorly thatched roof cannot protect the residents from the challenges of the weather.”

No amount of hard work will ever be enough to pay what the landlord requires in rent, no freedom from debt will ever be attainable. Tenants’ debts keep growing year by year, as does their misery and resentment, and this dance ends with non-payer being evicted and sent out on the roads with his wife and children, with the begging left as their only hope of survival.

The Irish man who prospers will ultimately fare as badly as the pauper, Eotvos realizes, because as soon as he becomes profitable the landlord will raise his rent, until he ends up sharing a similar fate to the beggar.

Everywhere he wen, 10 years before the greatest calamity in Irish history, the play has been written and cast. Those who hold the power of life and death over others will use that power only for tyranny, Eotvos warned.

He saw it everywhere he looked in Ireland in 1837. Ten years later the darkest year in Irish history unfolded and this book reminds us how and why.

Phaeton, $14.08