Essay on the Irish Potato Famine


New Statesman. A review of The Great Hunger by Cecil Woodham-Smith (1962)

When British forces entered the so-called ‘convalescent camp’ at Belsen in 1945, they found a scene of indescribable horror; the wasted bodies of 50,000 human beings who had died from starvation and disease. Kramer, ‘the beast of Belsen’, and his assistants were hanged for this atrocious crime. Only a century before, all Ireland was a Belsen. Nearly two million Irish people died of starvation and fever within five years; another million fled, carrying disease to Liverpool and the New World.

The story can be told in general terms, presenting the famine as a natural catastrophe like an earthquake. The population of Ireland had greatly increased in the preceding years — why, no one knows. Most of the people depended almost exclusively on the potato. In 1845 potato blight arrived, apparently from America. It was a fungus that rotted first the plants and then the potatos in the clamps. A run of wet summers helped the spread of the blight. The potato harvest failed four years running. The Irish peasants had no reserves to fall back on. Many of their landlords were harsh; some almost as impoverished as their peasants — though it is not recorded that any landlord died of starvation. It all happened because it had to happen.

This is how historians usually treat the past. We explain, and with that our duty is finished. The dead are dead. They have become so many figures in a notebook. But they were once human beings, and other human beings sent them to their death. The blight was ‘natural’; the failure of the potato crop was ‘natural’. After that, men played a part. There was food available to save the Irish people from starvation. It was denied them. Nor did Ireland stand alone. Ireland was at that time part of the United Kingdom, the wealthiest country in the world. The British Government had insisted on undertaking reponsibility for Ireland. When crisis arose, they ran away from it. The men in Whitehall were usually of humane disposition and the bearers of honoured names: Lord John Russell; Sir Charles Wood, later first Viscount Halifax; Sir Charles Trevelyan. These men, too, were in a sense victims. They were gripped by the most horrible, and perhaps the most universal, of human maladies: the belief that principles and doctrines are more important than lives. They imagined that rules, invented by economists, were as ‘natural’ as the potato blight. Trevelyan, who did most to determine events, always wanted to leave Ireland to ‘the operation of natural causes’. He refused to recognize that only the gigantic operation of an artificial cause — the exertion of British power — prevented the Irish people from adopting the natural remedy and eating the food which was available for them. Like most members of the comfortable classes of all times, he regarded the police and the law courts as natural phenomena.

Mrs Woodham-Smith in her nost admirable and thorough book writes: ‘The 1840s must not be judged by the standards of today.’ Of course she is right, even though she goes on to judge, and to condemn, the British Government. Russell, Wood and Trevelyan were highly conscientious men, and their consciences never reproached them. Nor are the standards of today much to rely on. The British rulers of the 1840s were no worse than those who later sent millions of men to their deaths in two world wars; no worse than those who now plan to blow all mankind to pieces for the sake of some principle or other. But they were also no better. Though they killed only two million Irish people, this was not for want of trying. Jowett once said:

I have always felt a certain horror of political economists since I heard one of them say that the famine in Ireland would not kill more than a million people, and that would scarcely be enough to do much good.

The successors of these economists are the same in spirit. They preach the virtue of a little healthy unemployment, and do not rely on the whip of starvation only because it has been taken from their hands. If the particular crime committed in Ireland a century ago could not happen now, it is not because present-day statesmen are an improvement on their predecessors. It is because the common conscience of mankind no longer allows statesmen to live up to their principles.

Here was the peculiar tragedy of the Irish famine. The common conscience failed to work, or at least did not work effectively. It is easy to understand how Trevelyan and the rest thought that they were doing their duty. They were handling human beings as ciphers on a bit of paper. They looked up the answers in a textbook of economics without ever once setting eyes on the living skeletons of the Irish people. They invented a distinction between those who were starving because of potato blight and those starving from normal distress. They excused the Irish for being hit with the blight once. They condemned them for persisting in planting potatoes after blight appeared — as though the Irish could do anything else. Most of all, these enlightened men feared the whole social structure would topple down if men and women were once given food which they could not pay for.

Not all Englishmen were enlightened in this way. This was already the England of good works, the England which emancipated the slaves and ended child labour, the England that repealed the Corn Laws and brought sanitation to the towns. The public conscience was in many ways more sensitive, quicker to respond, than it is now. It responded over Ireland, though not enough. The British Government did much when it was in the hands of Sir Robert Peel. They contributed the stupendous sum of 8 million [pounds] to meet the first disaster of 1845, set up relief organizations and provided public works on a scale never attempted before. Peel’s fall from office in 1846 was an additional disaster for Ireland. He was never one to confess impotence, and he might have been powerful enough to override even the principle of Sir Charles Trevelyan.

Official and private individuals in Ireland did all that men could do. Doctors died of fever. Administrators drove themselves to death and often provided relief out of their own pockets. Trevelyan complained that his Commissariat officers could ‘bear anything but the ceaseless misery of the children’. The British Relief Association raised large sums, including 2,000 [pounds] from Queen Victoria. The Society of Friends had a record of spotless honour, as it often does, when men are suffering. Quakers contributed money, ran their own system of relief, sacrificed their lives. All these efforts touched only the edge of the famine. Everything combined against the Irish people. Ignorance played a large part. Even capable Irish administrators did not grasp that there were no harbours on the west coast which could discharge the cargoes of food. No enterprising newspaper correspondent described the horrors in Ireland for the English press as Russell was to describe the lesser horrors in the Crimea nine years later. Nearly all Englishmen regarded Ireland as an inferior version of England, inhabited by lazier and less efficient people. The Irish administrators themselves were bewildered that the problems of Ireland could not be somehow solved by the well-tried methods of the poor rate, boards of guardians and the workhouse test. In many districts there was no one to pay the poor rate or to sit on the board of guardians: most of the Irish would have regarded an English workhouse as a haven of luxury.

The ignorance was often wilful. Men make out that a problem does not exist when they do not know how to solve it. So it has been in all English dealings with Ireland. Again, the famine went on so long. English people, and even the British Government, were ready to do something for one hard season. They were exasperated out of their pity when the blight appeared year after year. How were they to understand that the blight, hitherto unknown, would settle permanently in the soil and flourish every wet summer? It was easy to slip into the belief that the blight was the fault of the Irish themselves. They were a feckless people; the blight was worse in Ireland than in England; the self-righteous conclusion was obvious. English antagonism was not turned only against the Irish poor. Though the landlords are often supposed to have represented a common Anglo-Irish interest, Englishmen and their Government were as hostile to Irish landlords as to Irish peasants. At the height of the famine the full system of the English poor law was extended to Ireland. This was quite as much to make life unpleasant for the landlords as to benefit the starving. The Irish landlords were ‘very much like slave holders with white slaves…they had done nothing but sit down and howl for English money.’ Lord John Russell doubted whether ‘taken as a whole the exertions of property for the relief of distress have been what they ought to have been.’ The starving tenants could not pay their rent. Yet landlords were told to relieve them out of their rents which they could not pay. Some landlords were still prosperous. A few contributed honourably. Most did their duty by keeping up a sumptuous estate, which is what landlords are for.

The Irish people were driven off their land. They were starved, degraded, treated worse than animals. They lamented, they suffered, they died. Yet they made hardly an attempt at resistance. This is perhaps the most dreadful part of the story — a people allowing themselves to be murdered. Mrs Woodham-Smith suggests that the Irish were physically too weak to resist, that famine only gave a final push to their perpetual course of misery and want. Surely it was more than that. Centuries of English tyranny had destroyed Irish will and Irish confidence. O’Connell told the House of Commons in his last speech: ‘Ireland is in your hands, in your power. If you do not save her, she cannot save herself’. The few political leaders in Ireland themselves accepted the econonmic doctrines of their conquerers. They demanded Repeal of the Union, not a reform of the landed system, and Repeal was the cause which brought Smith O’Brien to the widow McCormack’s cabbage patch in his attempt at rebellion in 1848. This provided a farcical note at the end of the tragic story.

Yet not quite the end, which was more farcical still. The English governing class ran true to form. They had killed two million Irish people. They abused the Irish for disliking this. Lord John Russell said in 1848:

We have subscribed, worked, visited, clothed, for the Irish, millions of money, years of debate, etc., etc., etc. The only return is rebellion and calumny.

Lastly, as a gesture of forgiveness no doubt by the British Government for the crimes which they had committed in Ireland, royalty was trundled out. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert visited Ireland. They were recieved everywhere with great enthusiasm.

The famine did not end in Ireland. It was repeated year after year, sometimes in milder form. Natural causes did their work. The Society of Friends alone saw the condition of Ireland in its true light. In 1849 they refused to act any longer as a relief agency. Only the Government, they wrote, ‘could carry out the measures necessary in many districts to save the lievs of the people’. ‘The condition of our country has not improved in spite of the great exertions made by charitable bodies.’ It could not be improved until the land system of Ireland was reformed, which was a matter for legislation, not philanthropy. The British Government ignored the Quakers’ advice. Nothing was done for Ireland until an embittered and more resolute generation of Irishmen acted for themselves.

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