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The Famine

Last-modified: 10 May 98

Frequently Asked Questions on soc.culture.irish with answers. Send corrections, suggestions, additions, and other feedback to The FAQ maintainer.

Contents of Part 6

  1. Why is it important?
  2. Why is it controversial?
  3. What happened?
  4. Why did so many people die?
  5. Was the Famine genocide?
  6. Any references?
  7. Where can I find other points of view?

1) Why is it important?

More Irish died in the Famine of 1845 to 1849 than in any war before or since. The best estimates (based on census data from 1841 and 1851, as well as other figures) are that around one million people died, or one out of every nine inhabitants. About one and a half million emigrated in the decade after 1845 (the peak was in 1851, when a quarter of a million people left the island). The population continued to decline in Ireland through emigration until well into the second half of this century (it nearly halved between 1840 and 1910). Many say that the west of the country never recovered.

The Famine hit one of the richest kingdoms of western Europe in a time of peace. There have been food shortages since and even starvation, but western Europe has not seen a large scale famine since.

2) Why is it controversial?

Most of the controversy is over the question of blame. Those who look for a simple answer usually settle on one of two targets: the British government of the time or the Irish themselves. The government is accused of genocide and even of instigating an "Irish holocaust". The Irish are accused of marrying too early and having too many children, making a Malthusian catastrophe inevitable.

However the Famine is too complicated to allow a simple apportionment of blame. There were a number of social and political forces at work, not to mention the seed of the calamity, the potato blight that robbed people of their food.

3) What happened?

The potato crop failed two years in a row, 1845 and 1846. There was a partial harvest in 1847 but there were failures again in 1848 and 1849. The cause of the failures was potato blight (phytophthora infestans) a fungus that attacked potatoes, making them rotten and inedible.

There was hardship after the blight struck in 1845 but the true famine did not come until the following year. More potatoes than ever were planted that spring because people did not expect the blight to strike again. It did. During the winter of 1846 the worst started to happen. People died of starvation in their houses (or what passed for houses), in the fields, on the roads. Dysentery and typhus became epidemic. Each took their toll, especially among the very young and the old. Cholera hit in 1849 and killed many of the survivors. More people died of disease than of starvation.

The hardest hit were the landless labourers who rented small plots of land to feed themselves and their families. When their own crops failed, they had to buy food with money they did not have. The price of a hundredweight (112 lb or 50 kg) of potatoes in Dublin more than doubled in eight months (from around 16d in September 1845 to 3 shillings in April 1846, rising to more than 6 shillings by October). Wages did not keep pace. Some landlords treated their tenants well, but most did not. Evictions were not uncommon and tenants who were evicted were left without means to support themselves.

The poor did not just accept their fate. There were food riots and an upsurge in activity among secret societies. These were dealt with as a threat to law and order by the usual method, repression with violence if necessary. There was an epidemic in crime as people stole to survive.

The prime minister, Peel, had £100 000 worth of Indian corn imported from America for food relief in November 1845. This was food not unfamiliar to the Irish, but it was unpopular. A programme of public works was started in March 1846 to employ the neediest. The works were to be paid for locally. The harbour at Dun Laoghaire (then Kingstown) is a good example of the type of scheme that was approved: it did not benefit any particular private interest but was supposed to be of social value. Unfortunately most of the schemes were of little value to anyone and, although three quarters of a million were employed on them by March 1847, they were paid a wage (about 12d a day) too low to feed a family.

A traditional policy of Peel's party, the Tories, was support for the Corn Laws, which restricted imports of grain. The failure of the potato crop in Ireland helped convince Peel that this protectionist policy was wrong. He moved to have them repealed. In this he was successful. The Laws were repealed in June 1846 but Peel lost power immediately afterwards, having alienated a large portion of his own party. The next prime minister was Russell, leading a Whig minority government.

In March 1847 the government abandoned public works and started a new scheme. Soup kitchens were opened, paid for by charity, local rates and government aid. By July three million people were being fed a day. It was probably the most successful (in terms of lives saved) that was tried, but it was abandoned in September.

Instead, the Irish Poor Law System was supposed to cater for the destitute. This System had been established in 1838 as an extension of the English system in Ireland. The harsh conditions in Poor Law houses were supposed to encourage self-reliance, thrift and hard work. 200 000 were housed in July 1849 and "outdoor relief" was given to a further 800 000. The system had been built to house 100 000 and before the famine it rarely housed more than 40 000. As a solution to the plight of the famine-stricken, it was not only woefully inadequate; it was horrific. The infamous "Gregory clause" denied even this much relief to anyone who owned more than a quarter of an acre of land.

The blight struck again in 1850, but not to the same extent. Hundreds of thousands of smallholdings had disappeared with the people who lived on them. Many of the marginal plots that had been in use were never cultivated again.

4) Why did so many people die?

Ireland was uniquely vulnerable to a failure of the potato crop in the 1840s. Potatoes had been imported to Ireland in the late sixteenth century (they were brought to Europe from the Spanish empire in America). By the nineteenth century, varieties adapted to the Irish climate were developed and they became a staple, particularly for the poor, who often lived off little else.

An adult male would eat 12 to 14 pounds (5 to 6 kg) a day. If the amount seems large, it must be remembered that growing potatoes was back-breaking work. Fields were dug with a spade; planting and fertilisation were done by hand. An acre (about 0.4 hectare) could support four people, about twice as many as the equivalent area of grain. With a supplement of milk or buttermilk a diet like this did not lack any essential nutrients.

The population of Ireland was growing at around 1.6% a year in the early nineteenth century (a rate that would cause it to double every 44 years). This was one of the highest rates in Europe. The rate fell drastically in the fifteen years before the Famine to something like 0.6%. Population growth was highest in the West, where small plots of intensively cultivated potatoes were the most common. The population of Ireland reached its peak just before the Famine.

Although the Irish poor may have been relatively healthy (there was a notable lack of scurvy), they were still appallingly poor. It was common for labourers to hunger in the late summer before harvest. In 1841 there were more than a million of them. Housing and clothing were poor: mud huts and rags were the norm for the majority. Men lived to an average around 37 years of age, (actually not a short lifespan by European standards of the time). But most importantly, the Irish economy was ailing since the end of the Napoleonic wars and the poor were getting poorer.

The Industrial Revolution never reached Ireland in the nineteenth century (with the exception of eastern parts of Ulster). Irish cottage industries could not compete against the new mills of England. There was little opportunity for employment outside of agriculture and agriculture did not pay well.

The potato blight was misunderstood or not understood at all. People could see that it thrived in damp weather, but the scientific committee of inquiry set up by Peel considered it a type of wet rot. A fungicide for blight was not discovered until 1882, when it was found that spraying a solution of "bluestone" (copper sulphate) prevented the disease from taking hold. At the time of the famine there was nothing a farmer could do.

Medical science could do no better. There was no cure for the common relapsing fevers, never mind typhus and cholera, especially when these struck people already weak from hunger.

It would have taken massive government intervention to feed everyone during the famine, probably more than any government of the time was capable of. As it happened, the efforts of the government were wholly inadequate, even by the standards of the time. The Treasury spent £8 million, mostly in the form of loans that were never repaid. This amounts to around two to three percent of government spending during the period, or 0.3% of GNP. It was easy for critics at the time to find more money spent on other things, including £20 million to "compensate" slave owners in the West Indies when their slaves were freed.

5) Was the Famine genocide?

No. "Genocide" is defined in the Shorter Oxford as " the (attempted) deliberate and systematic extermination of an ethnic or national group".

British policy was anything but deliberate and systematic. The government did not prevent extra food from being imported (indeed the repeal of the Corn Laws had the opposite effect). The government did not force exports to continue: Irish farmers chose to export their produce. Of course, armed guards were used to protect such private property.

Imports to Ireland rose and exports fell dramatically as a result of a famine (see the table below, from Ó Gráda's book).


	Grain exports and imports 1844-48 (in thousands of tons)

			Exports	Imports	Net Export
			------- ------- ----------
		1844	424	30	+394
		1845	513	28	+485
		1846	284	197	+87
		1847	146	889	-743
		1848	314	439	-125


Quakers and other charitable societies were not prevented from feeding the poor. On the contrary, private charities were expected to provide most of the relief, as they had in 1822 and 1831, when subsistence crises had threatened to turn into famine. One of the charities, the "British Association", raised over £450 000 in Britain, including £2000 from Queen Victoria, not the five pounds of legend. (Around one sixth of the money raised was used to relieve famine in Scotland.)

(There is real doubt whether enough food was produced in Ireland during the Famine to feed everyone [even assuming perfect distribution]. A rough calculation shows that three million extra acres of grain would have been needed to make up the shortfall of potatoes. Theoretically, there was enough acreage of grain to feed everyone if shared equally, but this assumes, for example, that none of the grain would be needed to feed the animals that would transport it.)

However, there is no doubt that the governments of the day bear much of the blame for the number of deaths. There were ideological reasons for refusing to intervene, but these had little to do with anti-Irish animus (though that certainly existed, as a look at some of the Punch cartoons at the time proves) and much to with laissez-faire carried to its logical extreme.

The Whigs were strong believers in free trade and small government. Adam Smith, the greatest economist of the last century had written "the free exercise [of trade] is not only the best palliative of the inconveniences of a dearth, but the best preventative of that calamity". In a mixture of fatalism and complacency, they trusted the free market to supply food to the needy, or at least the most efficient distribution of what food was available. Notoriously, Trevelyan, Assistant Secretary to the Treasury and most responsible for British relief policy, believed that the Famine was ordained by God as a Malthusian measure to control population growth.

Russell's government can be justly accused of callousness, miserliness, negligence, ignorance, slowness, fickleness, complacency and fatalism. Unlike genocide, this does not amount to murder.

6) Any references?

This part of the FAQ is mostly based on two books. The first is a slim volume, a fairly impartial summary of recent work on the subject. It's very strong on the economics but does not neglect the social and political aspects.

Title:		The Great Irish Famine
Author:		Cormac Ó Gráda
Publisher:	MacMillan
ISBN:		0-333-39883-1
The second is Roy Foster's book Modern Ireland (see part 6 of the FAQ for publishing details) which contains a chapter on the Famine.

Another book (recommended by Patrick Denny <denny@GFZ-Potsdam.DE> in this newsgroup) with a more contemporary slant is

Title:		The Great Irish Famine
Author:		Canon John O'Rourke
Publisher:	(Abridged reprint) Veritas Publications
ISBN:		1 85390 130 X   (Hardback 1 85390 049 4)

Cecil Woodham-Smith's book remains one of the most comprehensive accounts available, though later research casts doubt on some of her conclusions.

Title:		The Great Hunger
Author:		Cecil Woodham-Smith
Publisher:	Penguin
ISBN:		0 14 014515 X

7) Where can I find other points of view?

There are various pages on the web which contend that the Famine was genocide. Two that are frequently mentioned on soc.culture.irish are http://avery.med.virginia.edu/~eas5e/Irish/Hughues.html and http://wwwvms.utexas.edu/~jdana/iphunger.html.

An organisation called the Irish Famine/Genocide Committee has a web site at http://www.ifgc.org/.

Gareth Davis has written a paper about the causes of the Famine and the lessons that can be drawn from it. A draft is available at http://members.tripod.com/~gdavis2/fam.txt

Various links (including some primary sources) relating to the Famine can be found at http://avery.med.virginia.edu/~eas5e/Irish/biblio.html and at http://www.pilot.infi.net/~cksmith/famine/PotatCom.html

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