British Policies During the Great Famine
Introduction Pre-famine Peel and the Corn Laws Russell Policies Consequences Bibliography All Things Irish (or other links)
famine of feeling famine of words famine of the space of fields of beauty of days of any past or present famine famine of everything under that starvation what chance is there for high crosses for our brief poetry. -Desmond Egan, Famine
"With all its pain and disorder, the past has constructed us in the actual and literal ways of generation and inheritance." Now with "factual assistance...that past has the power to do something more: it can construct and strengthen our understanding and our sympathy in the present" (Cambell 7).
Former President of Ireland
Why is history important? Is it because learned people say it is? No. History shapes the way people interact with each other, both on a personal and an international level. The multiple viewpoints surrounding every historically important event give rise to discord in the international arena. Take England and Ireland, for example. Different interpretations of the Great Famine are seen as degrading to Ireland and England alike and can inflame both sides. In 1997, the 150th anniversary of 'Black 47,' there was a rash of literature, a Boston Memorial, as well as a few memorials in Canada. Many critics of the British government during the 1800's argue that British politicians committed genocide. Professor Boyle a professor of International Law states, "Clearly, during the years 1845 to 1850, the British government pursued a policy of mass starvation in Ireland with intent to destroy in substantial part the national, ethnical, and racial group known as the Irish People..." Just recently, Prime Minister Tony Blair apologized for the British government's negligence toward the Irish poor during the famine. The potency of the famine's legacy is such that his apology might also have been an effort to bolster a troubled peace argument between Catholic and Protestant forces in Northern Ireland. Was Blair's statement correct? Did the British government fail to act and therefore commit indirect genocide? Or did they deliberately kill over a million people? Were the Irish to blame for their own misery? Or perhaps the famine was a tragedy that could have, and should have been perverted, but like so many things in politics, the bureaucracy did not have the mind set to, nor could they mobilize the proper relief measures.
Pre-famine Ireland was shaped by a variety of factors. First the Act of Union of 1800 changed the political face of Ireland. Before the Act of Union, Ireland had its own Parliament in Dublin and was therefore, somewhat autonomous. After the Act of Union was passed on January 1, 1801, Ireland "lost her own parliament and was formally integrated into the United Kingdom" (Cannily 24). Now Ireland was governed by ministers and administrators that were both far away and often unaware of the real conditions in Ireland (A 1). Another consequence of the Act of Union was Ireland became "absorbed into a free trade zone in which, having a less well-developed economy, she was inevitably at a disadvantage" (Cannily 25). This disadvantage became apparent when the British Corn laws of 1815, designed to help British merchants and consumers by protecting them against cheap foreign corn, went into effect. These laws inadvertently caused more dependence on the potato because instead of demanding higher wages for their work in cultivating corn, Irish workers "demanded more from the ubiquitous potato" (Cannily 33). Laborers and small farmers had to sell the corn and other crops they grew in order to pay the rent. Because much of the corn went to England before and during the famine, some people claim that England's policies were "marked by acts and omissions... that today would be deemed genocide..."Although the British government was ineffective during the famine, they did not have the intent to kill between one to two million people. Also other factors, such as the nature of the potato crop and the landlord system helped to contribute to the devastation endured during the famine.
The potato blight was caused by a fungus
infestans which attacked the stalks
and tubes of the potato plant. The fungus thrives in humid conditions, so
Ireland's wet climate helped it to spread quickly. The fungus was so devastating
because so many people relied on it for their main source of nutrition.
The potato is an extremely nutrious food and it also produces very high
yields. Because of the potato's ability to grow almost anywhere, it gradually
replaced corn as the stable food and was able to support a population bomb
at the end of the eighteenth century. Also before 1845, the potato crop
had rarely failed in two consecutive years making it the ideal food for
a large population of peasants (Cannily 32). Before the blight hit, three
million small farmers and laborers lived at subsistence level with a good
crop. These people were nicknamed, somewhat disparagingly, the 'potato people'
Pre-famine Ireland operated on a system of landholding that most politicians, including Irish Nationalists, believed needed to be done away with in order to modernize the Irish economy. The landed gentry rented out their property to 'middlemen' for very long periods. In turn, these middlemen divided the property and lent the smaller plots out to farmers. Initially this was seen as a way to make more rent, but small farmers, having nothing else to give to their children, further sub-divided the land until the plots were so small the rent could hardly be squeezed from them (Kinealy 34). As observed by Hall in Ireland, the peasant "can live...if his crop does not fail; and he can pay his rent, if his pig, fed like himself out of his garden, does not die" (Kissane 16). Many landlords lived in lavish conditions in London and were therefore nicknamed the 'absentee landlords.' Usually they had no contact with their tenants and seemed to care more about the middleman's payment then their tenants' welfare. The landlord system helped to cause the famine because "the land was not exploited to its full potential, with a proportionate loss to those involved at various levels, that is the landlords themselves, the tenant farmers and the farm labourers" (Kissane 1). The reputation reputation absentee landlords attained in Britain also helped to convince an already suspicious British public that Irish poverty was a result of Irish irresponsibility (Morash 61).
Peel and the Corn Laws
Sir Robert Peel was Prime Minister and head of the Conservative party, the Tories, at the beginning of the famine. Peel believed that much of the suffering in Ireland was caused by a poor economic policies. In his memoirs Sir Robert Peel wrote, "The remedy is the removal of all impediments to the import of all kinds of human food - that is, the total and absolute repeal forever of all duties on all articles of subsistence" (Kissane 28). The 'impediments' Peel spoke of were the Corn Laws of 1815. The Corn Laws, instated after the Napoleonic Wars, were designed to protect agriculture by placing high tariffs on imported foodstuffs. The recently enfranchised middle and industrial classes did not like the poor laws because they felt the Corn Laws favored the upper class. Interestingly, the chairman of the 1813 Select Committee, a group that argued agriculture should have a minimum price of 105 shillings per quarter, was an Irish landlord, Sir Henry Parnell. Parnell, along with many of his colleges "feared that the return of peace would devastate Irish agriculture and with it the Irish economy" (The Corn Laws and Their Repeal 1815 - 1846). Perhaps because the Corn Laws encouraged Irish agriculture, Irish industrial development lagged far behind that of Britain.
The first accounts of the blight reached Peel in August of 1845, but the full extent of the damage was not reported until October. Peel knew that the food shortage would not occur till around the spring. In November of 1845, he established a Relief Commission to administer relief. He also arranged, without the sanction of his cabinet, to have 100,000 pounds worth of Indian corn imported from the United States (Kissane 32). Although this did some good, the scale of the famine was incredibly vast. Peel "believed that to provide relief for the numbers likely to need it would necessitate importing cheap corn, which could be done economically only if import duties were lifted" (Kissane 27). Peel reasoned that the only way to relieve the hunger in Ireland was to increase the supply of food. However, throughout the famine the problem was not so much a lack of supply, but a lack of demand. Much of the population could not buy the food that was available. The importation of corn after the repeal of the Corn Laws did help to keep prices steadier because the government sold the corn below market value. Because Peel was unwilling to take other measures such as passing out free food and stopping the exportation of food (There is evidence that during much of the famine imports were greater than exports. However, halting exportation from the most destitute places might have saved lives.), some critics believe he used the famine as an excuse to repeal the Corn Laws. In his article "The Corn Laws and Their Repeal 1815 1846 (link above), David Eastwood explains that there were many other factors influencing Peel's decision.
Under Peel and the Tories Ireland had been hungry, but she had not starved. Under the Conservatives and Prime Minister Lord John Russell, the Irish poor really suffered. In July of 1846 only one forth of the normal crop was saved. In June of the same year, Lord John Russell became Prime Minister of a minority Whig government. The Whigs believed in the policies of laissez faire economics and therefore, were "committed to free trade and were opposed to interfering with normal commerce, either by importing cheap foodstuffs or, as was the done in previous crises, by preventing the export of food" (Kissane 45). Under normal circumstances, such policies would be appropriate, but during the famine they only led to disaster.
The most important policy the Conservatives passed during Russell's time in office was the Poor Law Amendment Act of June 1847. At the height of the famine, this act placed all the responsibility of providing for the Irish poor on the landlords and subsequently the small farmers of Ireland. The Poor laws were an extension of the English poor laws. Under the Poor laws, taxes were levied in order to finance workhouses. The workhouses were often harsh and involved intensive labor for meager wages. They were designed to instill and encourage a sense of self-reliance in the poor. The workhouses were could hold up to 100,000 people, but because they were unpopular only about 40,000 lived inside their walls before the famine. As of January 1847, only two years into the famine, the number of people in the workhouses exceeded 100,000 (Kissane 89).
When the burden of supporting the poor fell on the purses of the landlords, many landlords passed their burden onto their tenants. Many of the small farmers were starving, so there was no way they could pay the higher rent that the landlords demanded. As a result, many evictions occurred and even more people were forced to turn to the workhouses. The Poor Law Amendment Act created auxiliary workhouses and a system of outdoor relief, but even those measures were aimed to instruct the Irish poor on how to behave (Kissane 83). Outdoor relief was only given to those that could prove they were destitute and many times people had to work in the workhouses for a period of time before they could collect outdoor relief.
Finally the Poor Law Amendment Act created
the hated 'Gregory cause.' The Gregory clause prohibited people who owned
more than a quarter of an acre from collecting any type of relief. Landholders
who owned just over a quarter of an acre, but who were still starving were
forced, either to give up their land, or starve (link). Throughout the enactment of the Act, British
public opinion supported the measures. Many people felt the landlords were
responsible for the famine and therefore should be made to pay the price
(Morash 61). Even after the collapse of the Poor Law system the British were unwilling to give money to the Irish.
As James Donnelly states in his article "'Irish Property must pay for
Irish Poverty': British Public Opinion and the Great Famine", "there
was no widespread disposition to reassume any substantial share of the costs
of relieving the mass destitution associated with the famine" (Morash
From 1846 to 1851 almost a million people died and even more emigrated because of the famine. Out of a population of eight million before the famine, almost one and a half million people emigrated. Many of those who emigrated, climbed abroad ships that were so unsafe they were commonly referred to as 'coffin ships.' Many more died en route to America and Canada. The poor had to fit in the spaces they could find and many ships were overcrowded and rampant with disease. It is estimated that some 100,000 people died en route to North America (Kinealy 2). The famine left a legacy of emigration that continued until recently. As many as seventy million people worldwide can claim Irish decent (Irish Diaspora). This means that not only did the famine effect Ireland, it also shaped the face of many nations.
Cambell, Stephen J. The Great Irish Famine. Ireland: The Famine Museum, 1994.
Egan, Desmond. Famine. Ireland: Goldsmith, 1997.
Kinealy, Christine. A Death-Dealing Famine: The Great Hunger in Ireland. London:
Pluto Press, 1997.
Kissane, Noel. The Irish Famine. Dublin: The National Library of Ireland, 1995.
Morash, Chris and Hayes, Richard ed. 'Fearful Realities' New Perspectives on the Famine.
Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1996.
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