The history of Ireland and England has been tangled together for centuries. Since the beginning, the growth and grievances of these nations were arguably either shared or dealt with by one or the other. In the nineteenth century, one of the most telling examples of this was The Great Irish Famine. A time of starvation, disease, and emigration ravaged Ireland from the time period of 1845 to 1852. The losses of life–around one million–, the emigration–around two million–, and the total tragedy of the Great Irish Famine can be blamed on a few key elements during this time. Elements range from the occurrence of the blight on multiple potato harvests throughout this period, prejudice and racial hatred from the British, and the general policies that the British government held during this time–both economically and politically. Through the gathering of sources the key to the losses of life during this tragic period was bad government policies tied with British racial hatred.
Ireland, located to the west of its powerful neighbor England is divided up into four provinces; Ulster, Munster, Leinster, and Connacht. In present day, six of Ulster’s nine counties are a part of Northern Ireland under the United Kingdom. England in the 1800’s was at the beginning of building up its great empire, at one point deemed the largest known, and had Ireland as its first colony. Their relations ranged for centuries which results in some historians also calling Ireland both England’s first and last colony. Dating back to the seventeenth century, the British began to settle in the north of Ireland as if it was unoccupied land. Oliver Cromwell, a ruler in England has his own conquest–implementing colonisation and controlling all that he could. To the Irish, this time was brutal and disastrous and it left a lasting impact on the way Ireland continued life and handled itself politically, economically, and morally throughout the rest of history. In 1801, came the Act of Union where Ireland was to be directly joined to Britain to form the United Kingdom. At this time, it might have meant to be construed as a form of equality for the nations, but one might also easily argue that it only intensified the preexisting imperial control over Ireland. This union left Ireland under the control of England and unable to rule on their own. There are sources that say the union was almost completely involuntary, it was actually a full annexation of Ireland by the British government. The idea of profit and of interest was all that mattered in a time of imperial necessities.
The politics between the two nations at this time were troubling, so when suggestions of famine were on the horizon there were little to no possibilities of these issues to be resolved. The Great Irish Famine began with blight, a mysterious fungus called Phytophthora infestans. This fungus reached Ireland in August 1845 and began to directly affect the potato. The blight is how the argument of the Great Irish Famine being a natural occurrence starts. Fungus through means of something like the potato is able to spread rapidly in a natural way. Before the blight, the potato was very important in Ireland, probably more so than any other European country, due to its compliance with the Irish climate, it’s easy accessibility, and cheap cost. The potato made its debut in Ireland around 1590, a versatile crop originally from South America. Leading up to the famine, the potato was “the laborer’s stable and a crucial element in the agricultural system that had evolved since the mid-eighteenth century.”
During the time period that Ireland succumbed to the great famine, the British government was going through changes, shifts in leaders and in policies. In 1841, a couple years before the first failed harvest, Conservative Sir Robert Peel took office. Since the Act of Union in 1801, the following years of British government consisted of the administrations, primarily the Whigs, devoting their attention to Ireland. Previous to 1845, British politicians took little to no interest in doing things in favor of Ireland or generally with Ireland in mind at all–if they did it was towards England’s benefit. In terms of Peel, he made a number of attempts to reform the state of Ireland at this time. In 1846, he repealed the Corn Laws, which were the tariffs on imported grain and wheat. Yet this was not enough. Arguments lead toward Robert Peel using the state of Ireland as an excuse to repeal the act, something he needed to wait until he had power to do. In this, he was supported by Queen Victoria. Meanwhile, he was also creating a number of public works projects and soup kitchens, with the intentions to help the circumstances, but in result there was only anger that during a time of starvation the government was focusing on the wrong things. These acts were far from adequate. Following Peel, was Lord John Russell, a Whig. During the Peel administration, the Whigs were in opposition and had been quite eager to portray themselves as the party of justice for Ireland. Believing in laissez-faire or lack of government intervention, Russell has been criticized by historians for being unimaginative and narrow minded in his beliefs. Just as in the Whig administration’s beforehand, Russell’s aim was to bind the Irish to the Union and make the Irish landlords responsible for the relief they needed and the employment of their own poor people. Furthermore, in terms of his public works projects Russell explained that his aim “was to provide an incentive for Irish landlords to employ the poor themselves instead of relying on government loan.” For dealing with poverty, The Irish Poor Laws were enacted in 1838 by parliament. They were intended to address poverty and instability throughout Ireland just as the Poor Laws in England had also been enacted. In both Irish and English history this law served as an important step. According to an editorial from the The Times it was thought that such an act would compensate for horror created by the Great Irish Famine. It was believed that perhaps such laws could create an Ireland that more closely resembled England. The prevailing economic theory of free trade within these nations brought about an untold poverty for the agricultural producer, the mass of the population. Agricultural prices for goods fell to low world levels, Ireland was left with no alternative income due to lack of industrial production, a result of their limited power. From here was starvation, unemployment, and the poor houses brought to Ireland by the Whig government. Such sources go further to say that the “economic disease” from continuous outflow and investment abroad by the landlords was severely irritated by the Great Famine. Comments found throughout records reference specifically the ridiculous moves by the British government such as “they carried shiploads of corn from Cork to England or allowed it to be carried so that the landlord whom the government supported may have his dues. Hence started emigration from here to the U.S.A.” A comment of this kind led to the inference that the government was either incapable of understanding the consequences of such a thing, or alternatively, this was the result that they desired. The more radical of sources draws the conclusion that the British government was in need of a way to reduce the surplus of people. Already at this time began massive emigration and terrible losses of life due to starvation. This brings the Great Famine to the issue of British superiority or racial hatred of the Irish during this time period.
Prior to The Great Irish Famine, in the eighteenth century, ideas about the superiority of England over Ireland dominated the state of British government. Restrictions of Irish colonial commerce in the eighteenth century are seen regularly as evidence of England resolving the Ireland question. In keeping “poor Ireland poor,” English Parliament, like Grattan’s Parliament from 1782-1800, which there was an uprising against, and by restricting Irish trade–through both colonial and foreign relations–all wounded Irish pride. This allowed Ireland to be disrespected and dismissed by England again and again during this time as a dependent kingdom, a foreign entity, and anything else implying inequality.
After the arrival of the blight came the the bad harvests the next few years yet the extent of the catastrophe is the consequence of what one could call a “distinctly colonial matrix of forces regulated by a racializing discourse on the Irish.” It is important to recognize the Great Irish Famine as a colonial catastrophe. First, one must look at the way that the Irish were looked at through the British perspective. Historians have had studies resulting in the view that everything from brutalities of Cromwell to mismanagement of the Government response to the potato famine can be led up to an unchanging English belief in innate Irish inferiority. Throughout this time there was the proposition “Irish question” but through new literature of the potato famine the idea of English racism is much more dominant. There is a tendency, in fact, to generalize the policies of England for Ireland at this time that all point towards the English allowing to Irish to starve, sometimes even said to actively engineer it. Race was changing and shifting for the English in the nineteenth century but here it came into play here as a binary category, as did gender, which is problematic in itself. Nineteenth century writers of both England and Ireland were interpreting the Irish as more feminine and the English as more masculine, which at the time and arguably still to this day, pointed directly to superiority. Racial differences between the English and the Irish were supposed to be fewer and easier to overcome than those of England and Africa, where the English had extensive imperialism, although did not settle much, throughout this century too. But, despite this the Irish were seen as very different and very distinctly separate.
As a step beyond racial hatred is the idea that the Great Irish Famine was punishment because of a nation like Ireland’s “sin”. On the 24th of March 1847, Queen Victoria, who for obvious reasons had a large influence on her people, made a claim that the heavy judgment of the famine of God almighty was a chastisement, or punishment, for the iniquities of this land. When she made this statement, it was a day of public fasting and lots of prayer for all of the victims of the famine. In addition to this, the Anglican churches had distributed a prayer that spoke of offenses and transgressions by the Irish as causes of the famine. The idea that national sin was the prime cause was quickly spreading. Another example of the shifting of the view of the Irish racially and morally during this time is shown in sources where it is said that viewing Ireland “as a sick patient in need of a moral cure” was easily changed to “seeing Irish paupers as carriers of moral plague that might contaminate even the most stolid English workers…” in a short step.
The idea of “national sin” being enough justification for the death of millions soon became paralleled with Thomas Malthus’s narrative of depopulation and as a natural occurrence beyond the initial natural blight, typical Malthusian crisis of subsistence. He wrote of the population growing too large and that eventually there would be a decline in the ability to produce food. The blight and failing harvests just naturally led to this continual decline in population and death according to Malthusians. An excerpt of a book referencing the English census questions what is more natural than a desire to enumerate the population in order to get numbers on the mouths to feed and how many will work to feed.
As the population drastically declined through starvation, hunger-related diseases, and emigration, there are historians that argue there was relief from the British government in citing the issue of population and the surplus of people was “spared” from them having to take action on their own. According to the British press, The Times, had written that “a catholic Celt will be as rare on the banks of the Shannon as a Red Indian on the shores of Manhattan.” Such a remark shows no remorse and simple insensitivity for the tragedy that has occurred within their own empire and for the tragedies that have occurred in indigenous annihilation across the Atlantic. Such insensitivity can be seen again in The Times where an editorial meant to keep the spirits of the English up writes, “whatever be the case with Ireland, where natural calamity is always aggravated by the untowardness of man, in this country we need be under little fear of desolation, in our time at least.” This quote shows the perspective of life continuing in England in 1851 with no remorse or concern of an other. When this article does in fact talk about statistics, it tackles the numbers for marriages. The spring after the great Irish famine, there was a decline from 37,111 the year before to 35,197 which shows a decline in general prosperity for the people. But at a time after such tragedy, it is an interesting tactic for The Times to discuss marriage amongst all statistics. In terms of births there was an excess over births within the years following the Great Famine, this could be connected to the population increase because of immigration from Ireland to England.
The Census Act was first passed in 1800, and it is through this that the aftermath of the Great Irish Famine in the nineteenth century can be seen. The period of the 1800’s was one of bad harvests, food shortages, and war. In the Western less potato-dependent parts of Ulster the decline was small, as well as in the more urban areas where population growth had been moderate before the Famine. As for the provinces of Munster and Connacht, the results were different; they accounted for well over two-thirds of the excess deaths. Another large outcome of the famine and the population decline was the change in quality of life. Before the famine, somewhere around one-third of the population lived in what was called fourth-class living situations. Fourth-class was at the time the census commissioner’s definition for one room “mud-cabins.” After 1851 the proportion fell to one-tenth. This can be drawn to the conclusion that the majority of those who perished were those who were poorest and lacking in land ownership. The population decline from the Great Irish Famine continued as a lasting decline until the 1900’s. This was explained through the spur of the famine and then continual emigration. The number of male agricultural laborers was approximately 1.2 million in 1845 at the start and it went down to .9 million in 1851 and then further to .7 in 1861. The four years from the first failure in 1845 were traumatic and reduced the population by a quarter immediately; furthermore the population in the twentieth century was half of what it had been in the early half of the nineteenth century.
The shocking results of the Great Irish Famine represent this time of struggle and national issue. The losses of life from the time of the first failed harvest in 1845 into the 1900’s have been attributed to a number of things. Natural catastrophe of the failed potato crop and economics play a role in the devastation in Ireland but not as much as British racial hatred and failure of the British government to react appropriately during this time. Scholarly sources and historians provide the information leading to these two elements being key in the decline of population and key in the continuation of struggle within Ireland even after the main crop failures.
Edward Higgs, Making Sense of the Census (London: HMSO Books, 1989)
Kevin Kenny, Ireland and the British Empire (New York: Oxford University Press Inc., 2004)
Edward G. Lengel, The Irish Through British Eyes, (Westport: Praeger Publishers, 2002)
Christopher Morash, Writing the Irish Famine (New York: Oxford University Press Inc., 1995)
James H. Murphy, Abject Loyalty, (Washington D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2001)
Jack O’Brien, British Brutality in Ireland, foreward Paul O’Dwyer, (Dublin: The Mercier Press Limited, 1989)
Cormac Ó Gráda, The Great Irish Famine (The Macmillan Press Limited, 1989)
“London, Thursday, December 23, 1847.” Times [London, England] 23 Dec. 1847: 4. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 7 Apr. 2015
“London, Thursday, October 30, 1851.” Times [London, England] 30 Oct. 1851: 4. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 7 Apr. 2015.