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"I have always felt a certain horror of political economists, since I heard one of them say that he feared that the famine of 1848 in Ireland would not kill more than one million people, and that would scarcely be enough to do much good." Benjamin Jowett, Master of Balliol. The economist was Nassau Senior, an adviser to the British government.
After the Cromwellian war, the population of Ireland had been reduced by 30%, to 1.2 million people. Within 100 years, and in spite of a major famine which killed over a quarter of a million Irish in 1741-1742, it had doubled.
By the 1841 census, the population had further doubled and almost doubled again, to 8.2 million, a figure regarded by many as an underestimate. By the time the potato blight and subsequent famine struck, the population was probably well over 9 million.
By the 1851 census, the population had dropped to 6.5 million. What happened to those 1.7+ million people? The dead were often left lying in the field, ditches and cabins, uncounted, and mortality figures have to be extrapolated from ships' passenger lists, by subtracting the hundreds of thousands who fled Ireland from the difference between the two census figures, or estimated from reported deaths in Irish workhouses.
(The current population of our island is about 5.5 million, having recovered from a low of 4.3 million in the 1950's.)
So why did it happen? How could it happen, right in the backyard of the most powerful, prosperous empire the world had ever known? And who was to blame? The British? The Penal Laws? The landlords? Free Market idealogy? Trevelyan, Wood and Russell? Racism? Snobbery and hatred of the Irish? Religion? Punch magazine? The (London) Times? The potato? The potato blight? The middlemen? Politics? Bureaucracy? Cold hearts?
And was it genocide?
"The Irishman is destitute, so is the Scotchman, and so is the Englishman....there is nothing...so exceptional in the condition which they (the Irish) look on as the pit of utter despair....Why is that so terrible in Ireland which in England does not create perplexity and hardly moves compassion?"
"Sermon for Ireland", The London Times, 1846.
(No-one starved in England, and very few in Scotland. 100,000 starved in Ireland and 900,000 died of disease, and millions fled the country they loved.)
"If dealers were to confine themselves to...fair profits, the scarcity would be aggravated to a fearful degree".
Assistant Secretary of the British Treasury, Charles Edward Trevelyan, 1846, justifying profiteering while he kept government food depots closed. Trevelyan was the single most influential individual during the famine, functioning as a virtual dictator of famine relief (or lack of relief).
The limited food in the depots was intended to be SOLD at market prices PLUS 5% to the pauperised, starving Irish, not distributed free, but Trevelyan was afraid government entry into food distribution might upset his precious "free" markets.
"We attach the highest public importance to the strict observance of our pledge not to send orders (for food) abroad, which would come into competition with our merchants and upset all their calculations".
In 1846 food shortages were widespread across Europe, and many governments entered the markets to buy food for their people. So by the time (September) Trevelyan eventually gave permission for more food to be bought there was little to be had. Worse, the 1846 US corn crop would not be fit to move until December 1846, by which time US rivers would be ice-bound, and winter Atlantic gales raging.
None of this was apparently foreseen by Trevelyan, one of the greatest of the Victorian civil servants, with legendary powers of organisation and administration. Whether these multiple oversights were due to incompetence or whether Trevelyan was deliberately stalling, gambling with the lives of the Irish poor, in the hope of not to have to buy more food is a matter for debate. The result in any case was widespread starvation.
"I ventured ...to ascertain the condition of the inhabitants, and altho' a man not easily moved, I confess myself unmanned by the intensity and extent of the suffering I witnessed, more especially among the women and little children, crowds of whom were to be seen scattered over the turnip fields like a flock of famishing crows, devouring the raw turnips, mothers half naked, shivering in the snow and sleet, uttering exclamations of despair while their children were screaming with hunger. I am a match for anything else I may meet with here, but this I cannot stand."
Captain Wynne, Inspecting Officer of the Board of Works, West Clare District, in a letter to Trevelyan, Christmas Eve 1846.
"In the first (hovel), six famished and ghastly skeletons, to all appearances dead, were huddled in a corner on some filthy straw....I approached with horror, and found by a low moaning they were alive - they were in fever, four children, a woman and what had once been a man......in another house, the dispensary doctor found seven wretches lying....under the same cloak. One had been dead many hours, but the others were unable to move either themselves or the corpse......a mother, herself in a fever, was seen to drag out the corpse of her child, perfectly naked, and leave it half covered with stones.......The same morning the police opened a house .....which was observed shut for many days, and two frozen corpses were found, lying upon the mud floor, half devoured by rats."
Letter to The Times, from Nicholas Cummins, a Cork magistrate, published Christmas Eve 1846.
"This is a real famine, in which thousands and thousands of people are likely to die."
Trevelyan (January 1847), finally admitting what others had been telling him for months, and warning him about for over a year.
"If the Irish once find out there are any circumstances in which they can get free government grants...we shall have a system of mendicancy such as the world never saw."
Trevelyan, still refusing any meaningful government aid for this "real famine", January 1847.
"...aid is useless as a means of sustaining the economically indigent. All it achieves is to reinforce the indigence. It doesn't solve problems but compounds them." Free Market idealogue and Unionist journalist, Kevin Myers , October 2001, writing on famine in Africa.
"It was like a judgement.....they weren't contributing anything, weren't adding anything....they were just standing around scratching themselves".
Educated, articulate Irish CEO in the IT industry, commenting on the Irish famine in August 2001, and proving hard-hearted ignorance is not limited to the nineteenth century or Unionist journalists.
Eviction during the famine was a virtual death sentence. The eviction described below took place at Baltinglass, County Galway. The homes of 300 people, who had their rent money available, and who were not in arrears, were demolished in order to turn the land over to grazing. The people slept in the ruins that night. Next day, they were driven out. Neighbours were forbidden, on pain of their own eviction, to take them in. They dug "scalps" - holes in the ground, covered with sticks and turves, or burrowed into ditches, but were driven even from these. The landlord's name was Gerrard.
"Undoubtedly it was the landlord's right to do as he pleased.....the tenants must be taught by the strong arm of the law that they had no power to oppose or resist.....property would be valueless and capital would no longer be invested....if it were not acknowledged that it was the landlord's undoubted, indefeasible and most sacred right to deal with his property as he list".
Lord Brougham, Free Market supporter, in the British House of Lords, March 1846.
4,000 families were evicted in 1846,
6,000 families were evicted in 1847,
9,500 families were evicted in 1848,
16,500 families were evicted in 1849,
20,000 families were evicted in 1850 and
13,000 families were evicted in 1851.
There were probably an average of 5 people in each family. Tens of thousands more families "voluntarily" left their homes, either through assisted emigration or by being promised a place in a workhouse.
Based on "The Great Hunger" by Cecil Woodham-Smith and "Famine 150 - Commemorative Lecture Series".
TO BE CONTINUED
The Irish Famine is over, but famine continues to stalk the world. See the following Irish Aid agencies.....
See also The Red Cross and The Hunger Site
Photo (by Reuters/Aziz Haidari) is from the Afghanistan/Pakistan border.