Irish 'famines': acts of god, colonial mismanagement or genocide?

Peter Berresford Ellis asks whether the spate of 'famines' which afflicted Ireland during the 18th and 19th centuries were caused by acts of God, over- reliance on the potato, or were due to English colonial mismanagement

WHAT MOST British histories call 'The Irish Potato Famine' occurred during 1845-1848. There is usually no disagreement about the results. One million Irishmen, women and children died from malnutrition and attendant diseases while a further one and a half million fled the country, of which up to 400,000 are estimated to have died on what became known as the 'coffin ships'. The famine resulted in a decrease in the Irish population, a devastation so severe that even today it has not recovered its 1841 level.

Famine monument 1

Was this catastrophe merely because of a potato blight? Are we seriously being asked to believe that, in a country producing wheat, corn, dairy produce, with great herds of cattle, pigs, goats and poultry - enough food to feed three times its 1841 population - that a blight affecting only the potato crop could eliminate 25 per cent of the population in the space of three years?

The people of Ireland call the period An Ghorta Mhór - 'The Great Hunger'.

While we have had numerous studies on 'The Great Hunger', not one historian has so far, to my knowledge, has put it into its real context. It was James Connolly who first noticed that context but never had time to develop it as a theme. 'The Great Hunger' was no isolated incidence but part of a continuing theme through the 18th and 19th Centuries.

In fact, between 1722 and 1879 there were no less than twenty-nine 'famines' and the feature of each one of these great mortalities to the Irish nation was that the great estates of Ireland were producing and exporting to England sufficient produce to feed three times the Irish population.

We have to ask whether these events were acts of God, the stupidity of the majority of the Irish population in being solely dependent on the potato as a staple diet, or were they due to English colonial mismanagement or, indeed, was there some more sinister motive? The word gorta can imply a deliberate starvation.

John Mitchel, in his The Last Conquest of Ireland (perhaps), Dublin, 1861, was the first to argue the case for genocide. He wrote:

"A million and a half men, women and children were carefully and peacefully slain by the English Government. They died of hunger in the midst of abundance, which their own hands created…"

There can be no argument that genocide, the eradication of the Irish nation, was the official policy of the English conquests from the end of the 16th and through the 17th Century, through the implementation of the transplantation schemes.

An idea proposed by the English Viceroy, Sir Arthur Chichester, writing on 22 November 1601, to Lord Burghly. Elizabeth's chief adviser, was specific:

"I have often said, and written, it is Famine which must consume them; our swords and other endeavours work not that speedy effect which is expected for their overthrow."

It was during this period, these devastating conquests that the Irish became reliant on potatoes as a staple diet.

The potato found its way into Ireland in the 1590s. Two decades previously, it had been brought into Spain from the New World and by 1600 was regarded as a popular vegetable in many parts of Europe. As the English conquering armies fought back and fro across Ireland, driving people from the land, and, of course, with the notorious transplantation schemes first approved of by the Catholic Queen Mary Tudor, the Irish became a society on the run. There was no time to grow wheat and corn, to herd cattle, pigs and other livestock that could be captured, driven off or destroyed by the English.

The discovery of the potato was a godsend. It yielded more food per acre than other crops, was highly nutritious, and introduced security for the people. It grew underground and was thus hidden from the rampaging soldiers so that when they left the area, the people could return and dig it up. It was the perfect food for a country with an army of occupation, persecuting and despoiling the natives.

Famine monument 2

By the 18th Century over half of the Irish population was solely dependent on the potato. But the life saving tuber was also a means of destruction.

With the Williamite Conquest and the introduction of the Penal Laws, 95 per cent of Irish land was in the lands of the conquerors. The Penal Laws applied not only to Irish Catholics but also to all Irish Dissenting Protestants. Only Anglicans had rights in Ireland.

During the 18th Century, some 1,500 absentee landlords owned 3.25 million acres of Irish land, and they lived in London. A further 4.25 million acres of Irish land was in the lands of another 4,500 absentee landlords who chose Dublin as their home. It was after the 1801 Union of the colonial parliament with London, that Georgian Dublin was reduced from a 'capital' to a provincial city and these landlords made for London where, by the 1840s, 6,000 were living and their average income from their Irish estates was between £25,000 and £30,000 per year.

The Irish were reduced to a serf population, working on the great estates, usually for middlemen who managed the estates for the landlords. Initially, they let out to tenant farmers - these were usually Anglican farmers because Catholics and Dissenting Protestants could not take out leases on land.

It was not until 1771 that an Act was passed allowing Catholic Irish to lease up to 50 acres of unprofitable bogland, at a distance of not less than a mile from any major habitation, and for no more the 21 years. The condition was that they had to reclaim the land from the bog, if they did not they were immediately evicted without compensation.

Descriptions of what life was like in rural Ireland for the native Irish during the 18th Century are numerous. Arthur Young in 1776 is often quoted but as an English traveller he had no axe to grind in over emphasising conditions. He was describing a vicious medieval feudalism.

The landlord and his agent were feudal seigneurs. The people had to obey their every whim and order, otherwise they could be punished from merely a beating with a cane or horsewhip to being hanged on the spot. The landlords and agents could summon the wife or daughter of one of their workers to their beds and if refused could punish the worker physically, breaking their bones or worse.

Landlords, driving down roads, could have their servants push peasants' carts into ditches to make a passage for their coaches. Reading such accounts as Young's one is remind of the scenes of Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities (1859) as the Marquis of Evrémonde rides over the peasants in the streets in his carriage and summons a servant girl to his bed. This was the reality of life in Ireland.

The first significant 'famine' began in 1722. Blight attacked the potato crop. Rural workers could not afford to buy food from the landlords at the commercial prices and so began to starve to death. Bishop William Nicolson of Derry describes how a horse hauling a wagon dropped dead and fifty people fell on the carcass and began to eat the meat there and there. At the same time three wagons of rich farm produce, guarded by a dozen soldiers with sabres drawn passed by on their way to the docks enroute for England.

Deaths from the famines of 1722, 1726, 1728 and 1738 were measured in the tens of thousands. But in 1741 half a million people died from malnutrition and related disease.

That year of 1741 became known as Bliadhan an Áir - the Year of the Slaughter. The author of a pamphlet The Groans of Ireland, records:

"Want and misery is in every face, the rich unwilling to relieve the poor, the roads spread with dead and dying bodies. Many, the colour of the docks and nettles which they feed on…'

Other famines followed in 1765, 1770, 1774 and 1783. Again the deaths were counted in the tens of thousands and figures barely recorded. More famines followed in 1800, 1807 and 1822.

It was the same old story. As William Cobbett wrote in his Political Register, July, 1822:

"Money, it seems, is wanted in Ireland. Now people do not eat money. No, but the money will buy them something to eat. What? The food is there, then. Pray, observe this: and let the parties get out of the concern if they can. The food is there; but those who have it in their possession will not give it without money. And we know that the food is there; for since this famine has been declared in Parliament, thousands of quarters of corn have been imported every week from Ireland to England."

If people thought that Catholic emancipation and the likes of the right-wing, monarchy loving, Daniel O'Connell, would save them, the attitude was succinctly summed up by John O'Connell MP, the son of the so-called 'Liberator': "I thank God I live among a people who would rather die of hunger than defraud their landlords of rent!"

So yet another death-dealing 'famine' occurred in 1830 more or less lasting through to 1834 and then another in 1836 before the 'Great Hunger' of 1845-48.

It was the London Times of June 26, 1845, that pointed out:

They are suffering a real though artificial famine. Nature does her duty; the land is fruitful enough, nor can it be fairly said that man is wanting. The Irishman is disposed to work; in fact, man and nature together do produce abundantly. The island is full and overflowing with human food. But something ever intervenes between the hungry mouth and the ample banquet.'

That 'something' was the colonial landlord who used the army and also armed police to protect the ample produce from the starving people. Read through the newspapers of the time and you will find harrowing tales. A cold November in 1849, a starving woman was crossing one of the fields of Sir George Colthurst of Ardrum, Co Cork. She saw a single turnip overlooked on the soil and picked it up. She was spotted, arrested and brought before the magistrates at Blarney. Found guilty, she was fined twenty shillings. She had probably never seen so large a sum in her life. Unable to pay, she was transported to the penal colonies.

And between 1845 and 1853 alone records show that landlords evicted 87,123 families because they could not afford to pay their rents.

Even after this terrible devastation, the colonial landlords became ever more severe in their dealing with the rural workers. And, of course, the artificial 'famines' continued. The next one of significance was in 1879 but that was the spark that produced the Land War.

The Land War came in three phrases. Between 1879-82 it was an often violent struggle between the landlords and tenants. The 1886-91 period, known as the Plan of Campaign, was a struggle to secure reduction of rents to a more reasonable level, recognising the depression in world markets. Then came the 1891-1903 phrase that aimed to transfer the great feudal estates by allowing tenants to purchase the land through a series of Land Acts.

The 1903 Land Act allowed some nine million acres of Irish land to be sold to tenants between 1903 and 1920. But the English ruling class had to have its pound of flesh for the land was not only sold at artificially inflated prices but compensation had to be paid to the landowners.

Upon the majority of Ireland securing independence in 1922, a Treaty clause forced the Irish government to pay twice yearly for this at 1922 exchange levels of £5 million per year. In 1932 the Irish government of Eamon de Valéra refused to continue to pay. The United Kingdom retaliated with an economic war against the Irish state lasting six years. The land annuities dispute almost crippled the already weak Irish economy, suffering the effects of the world 1930s depression. It was resolved in 1937 when Dublin finally agreed to pay a capital sum of £10 million to London.

There is a sad irony in a country, having been invaded, having the conquerors steal the land by armed force, and when the people are finally able to get their independence, then having to pay compensation to their former conquerors for recovering the land that had been stolen from them.

Yet again, on a subject we think has been analysed to the point where nothing more need be said, we find that there are questions that have been ignored much less answered.

This article is the substance of a talk 'Starvation and Emigration: colonial landlordism in Ireland in the 18th and 19th centuries', which Peter Berresford Ellis gave at the Marx Memorial Library, London, November 22, 2004.

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