The following is an extract from “The Famine Plot: England's Role in Ireland's Greatest Tragedy,” from Ireland'’s best-known historian, Tim Pat Coogan. His recent work gives a fresh and comprehensive account of one of the darkest chapters in world history, arguing that Britain was in large part responsible for the extent of the national tragedy, and in fact engineered the food shortage in one of the earliest cases of ethnic cleansing. So strong was anti-Irish sentiment in the mainland that the English parliament referred to the famine as "God's lesson."
Chapter 3: “A Million Deaths of No Use”
“In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”
—United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, Article 2
The land of Ireland was dangerously overburdened by the weight of human stock. What was needed to avert an inevitable disaster was a humane system of assisted emigration in combination with a sustained effort at reforming the land system, developing fisheries, and building Irish infrastructure such as roads, bridges, harbors, and canals. The facts of the situation were well known in London. Throughout the nineteenth century there had been a series of inquiries into conditions in Ireland in which the facts had been clearly set forth.
Mention has already been made of the select Committee on Ireland of the House of Commons before which Daniel O’Connell and Bishop Doyle gave evidence. This issued not one but three comprehensive reports in 1830. There were also separate governmental inquiries into topics such as “Irish distress,” and of course there was a constant flow of information on the state of the country from Dublin Castle to Whitehall, the seat of British administration.
A comprehensive report on “scarcity in Ireland” was laid before both houses of parliament as the effects of the blight began to be felt, detailing the many occasions that relief had had to be administered between 1822 and 1839. The various counties mentioned, Cork, Kerry, Galway, Mayo, Sligo, and many others, would all become places of horror during the Famine. On the very eve of the Famine itself the prestigious Devon Commission sat gathering evidence on the failings of the Irish land system. The public hearings were attended by knowledgeable people from all over the country, and anyone reading their findings can have been left in no doubt as to what the problems of Ireland were and how they should be addressed.
However, Ireland instead went on the back burner for most of the pre-Famine decade. With the growth of English industrialization sizeable areas of urban poverty were created as people flooded into the towns. The traditional dispensers of poor relief, the aristocracy, found their pockets increasingly under pressure. Social welfare, or poor relief as it was known at the time, became the topic du jour.
Throughout the 1830s, there was a major theoretical debate among political economists, but this involved Ireland only in a peripheral and ultimately extremely harmful fashion. The major focus of controversy centered on how the English poor should be dealt with. Once a solution to English welfare problems had been decided on, attention then turned to Ireland, where a variation of the English system of welfare was applied. The finding that was decided on was irrelevant to the land situation and, when the Famine did strike, the introduction of what was known as the Poor Law to Ireland helped to worsen the horrors of famine. England had had a social welfare system since Elizabethan times, but Ireland had none and the plan imposed on Ireland had no roots in history and was largely irrelevant to Ireland’s needs.
The English debate discussed not merely how or whether to assist the poor but laissez-faire, the prevailing doctrine of non-interference with trade. The debate was influenced by widespread Victorian attitudes that poverty was a self-inflicted wound, incurred through bad habits.
Political economists debated earnestly on the morality of aiding the poor because of the consequent risk of stultifying initiative and self-help among the lower orders. The real problem of course was cost, but the protagonists couched their arguments in moralistic terms. More and more as the debate progressed, one finds that the authorities cited by protagonists tended to lace their arguments with a dose of providentialism.
Providence, the divine will, was declared to have a large bearing on the subject, as it generally does when the rich debate the poor, or the strong con- front the weak. it was the era in which in America the indigenous Americans were going down before a similar doctrine: manifest destiny.
A central figure in the debate was a classical economist. Nassau William Senior, the first professor of political economy at Oxford University, preached, among other things, that it was not the duty of the state to alleviate poverty that came about through the fault of the individual.
English poor law owed a great deal to his theories and, during the Famine, Whig apologists would see to it that the idea of Irish culpability for Irish poverty would become widespread among the British public. “lazy beds” was used as a term of derision to indicate that the Irish even brought their laziness to bear on their potato cultivation. Nassau Senior criticized Irish landlords for neglecting “the duty for the performance of which Providence created [them,] the keeping down population.”
A Royal Commission, of which Nassau Senior was a member, issued a report in 1834, which became the new Poor Law Act of 1834. He was a confidant of the prime minister’s and cabinet members and through his writings in such journals as The Edinburgh Review became one of the most influential voices raised in the great debate concerning how Irish poverty should be tackled. In England, Nassau Senior is remembered as being a very pleasant man who became a lifelong friend of, among others, Alexis de Tocqueville.
"The Famine Plot: England's Role in Ireland's Greatest Tragedy" by Tim Pat Coogan is available from Barnes & Noble.