England’s Irish Famine

In two parts

Part 1

Extract from the Introduction
Up to the final destruction of kingly power in 1688 I have described in their place the principal personalities engaged, because so long as England was personally governed the character and acts of the King, of his advisers, of those who withstood him, are of paramount importance; or, at any rate, of equal importance with the large tendencies of each period. But once England had become aristocratic and therefore impersonal, after the fall of the ancient kingship of the English, the personal characters, talents, and actions of individual statesmen and even of commanders fall into a secondary position. Thence forward, after the destruction of the monarchy, it is a class which governs, not persons. To explain cause and effect in the England of I700-1900 one has largely to forget personality, and rather to consider the general forces.

My readers will find a strong example of this in the emphasis laid, towards the end of this book, upon the Great Irish Famine. In what may be called our official histories this Irish Famine appears when it appears at all but as a minor episode.

Professor Trevelyan’s History of England is perhaps the best example of a modem official text‑book. It gives the Famine less than a page and a half out of 703 pages. Green’s Short History is the official text-book of earlier date. It gives the Famine three‑quarters of a page out of 1027 and does not mention it in the index. The volume on The Reign of Queen Victoria, in Longmans’ Political History, another modern standard text‑book covers 508 pages. It gives less than four to the Famine. The reader will find in what follows my reasons for thinking the Famine of first‑class importance, not only as a tragedy, but, what is more pertinent to history, as a cause, not yet exhausted, even of increasing effect: a determining cause in the fortunes of Modern England.

From Chapter XIII: The Ascent of England
Summary of the Reorganisation

It was the middle of the century which saw the achievement of reorganisation, the necessity of which the governing class had recognized in such timely fashion, not too late, during the first strain after the defeat of Napoleon in 18I5. It was not the end of the task, which had to continue, of course, indefinitely so long as industrial capitalism developed a task still actively pursued by the society in which we livea combination of loss of well‑distributed property with order, and the regimentation of a proletariat which was becoming more and more identical with the bulk of the nation. But though the task was to continue indefinitely, it was these years, between the Reform Bill of 1832 and 1848-50, that the first and decisive step in reorganisation was taken and that English society began to be transformed to suit the industrial town which was now its typical element, the industrial methods of product, their consequences in a vastly increased foreign trade, and all the rest of it. A whole group of changes, some of them accidental but most of them planned and all of them guided, corresponded to that phase of reorganisation.

Thus, Negro slavery had been abolished in the West Indian dependencies, at the vast expense of twenty million pounds, the slave-owners being compensated at a rate which has been exaggeratedly estimated at double the value of their human goods, but was at any rate at least 50 per cent. above the price they would have fetched for a ‘willing seller’. It was a very good example of the way in which the principles of the French Revolution, spreading throughout the modem world, could be adopted in practice and without shock after sufficient delay by the English governing class: for France, the originator of this idea, and the country in which the first declaration of the independence of the Negro had been enthusiastically made, was fifteen years behind England in the practical application of the theory.

It was also the period when communications were advanced in every fashion, when the first railways were built there were 6000 miles of them before it was over when trans‑oceanic steam traffic was founded on a large scale, and a matter of great importance and falling really into the same category when for the first time a general use of the modern post‑office began. Penny postage in 1840 was a revolutionary step, and there began with it the modern rise in the number of letters In twenty years that number had multiplied by thirteen, in twenty more by twenty‑six.

One may say that by the end of this period the middle of the century, that is the rapids had been shot, the phase of danger was over; and it is above all essential, if we are to understand modern England, to observe that, though the whole thing was done by the governing class which continued to be the director of the nation for the better part of another lifetime, and has not yet abdicated, yet the things that were done were not done by that class against popular demand. Even the most unpopular pieces of capitalist oppression were accepted, and the general run of change either roused no protest or was upon the whole approved. For what was at work was not only a particular social class which governed, but the aristocratic temper of the whole of the English people: that is, their attachment to government by a ruling class. Clarendon, who knew his fellow‑Englishmen well, had most pregnantly said two hundred years before that the English love to leave great affairs to be managed by a few. Hence the sentence already quoted, “Patriotism the Religion of the English”. It was in a society already wholly united, not only by the aristocratic spirit but also by the power of patriotism, that the modem industrial state was remodelled and set upon its foundations.

The thing was accomplished in its main lines by the middle of the century. Reorganization was to continue steadily, of course, and without halt for the next half‑century and on into our own time. As industrial capitalism turns from competition to monopoly and from monopoly to the Servile State, the wider grows the field over which the enregimentation of the proletariat and the authority of capitalist bureaucracy spreads.

But that other sharply contrasted peasant society of Ireland was to remain a permanent and increasing challenge to industrialized England; and the challenge was to gain an added strength through tragedy. For, at the moment when England by the repeal of the Corn Laws marked the victory of the machine and of the manufacturing town, the Irish Famine came.

Belloc: Chapter XIV : The Great Irish Famine
Nature and Magnitude of the Event
The Irish Famine was a thing of such importance in the history of the world that it should be called the central mark of the English nineteenth century, wherein it forms a turning-point.

In the history of English expansion, in particular of the nation’s astonishing advance through the nineteenth century, the Irish Famine was the visible and invisible cause, negative and positive, of so many things that it may justly be called the capital event of the Victorian era. Its consequences are by no means exhausted; the more grave and lasting of them are increasing, and will continue to increase.

How is it that such an accident, attaching, apparently, to only one comer of Christendom, and that among the poorest and the most neglected, should have proved of such consequence? This will be seen in a moment, but we must begin with a recognition of its great meaning before following its story; for to regard it as an isolated event, a local one, or, still worse, to treat it (as most contemporaries did in England) as a mere relief from pressure, is not only to misunderstand it altogether, but to misunderstand the immediate past of England, her present and, for that matter, her future.

The Failure of Repeal

When the Famine fell upon her Ireland was in a state of the highest political activity, and this was expressed in the person and through the eloquence of Daniel O‑Connell. That activity took the form of a demand for the repeal of the Union.

Daniel O’Connell, having obtained Catholic Emancipation, proceeded to use the organized national forces of Ireland which he had aroused, and to make them support him in his demand for the repeal of the Act of Union. But that rapidly increasing and intensely patriotic population of Ireland was duped. When the Irish had obtained Catholic Emancipation Daniel O’Connell had foolishly accepted as part of the bargain the Parliamentary disenfranchisement of most in that minority among the Catholic Irish which had possessed the vote before 1829.

What the effect was on Ireland is best understood when we note that the numbers possessed of the vote fell from 200,000 to 26,000.

An extension of the suffrage would have tamed or lessened political excitement in Ireland; so violent and sudden a diminution of it left everything to agitation and mass action.

It was the disenfranchisement of that large minority in Ireland, hitherto possessed of the vote, which led to the monster meetings and the consequent anxiety of the English Government.

Daniel O’Connell had behind him the mass of the population; his Repeal Association was formed on the Catholic Association which had obtained Catholic Emancipation from the reluctant Protestant Government by a threat of violence. Now once more there came the great meetings in the Irish towns, and the threat to make a coalition of such into one monster demonstration. All the machinery was set going for obtaining from England a concession which could only be obtained by the threat of civil war.

But Daniel O’Connell was himself opposed now, as he had been opposed in the first movement, to so much as the risk of bloodshed. He suffered therefore the fate which all suffer who, desiring the end, do not desire the means. There was fixed for Sunday, October 8, 1843, a meeting at Clontarf, outside Dublin, to which perhaps a quarter of a million people would have come. The English Government forbade the meeting by a proclamation which appeared on all the walls. But it would have had little effect save for O’Connell’s own action: he advised his people not to come, and not to threaten violence. They obeyed; but the consequence was that O’Connell lost the leadership of the Irish people; he was no longer “the Liberator”. A much more important consequence was that English aristocratic opinion, much of which had been in favour of Catholic Emancipation but all of which was opposed to the repeal of the Union, regarded the affair as a trial of strength which had ended in a conclusive victory. It was taken for granted that in future nothing need be done to conciliate Irish opinion and that force would suffice with the result that for a full lifetime that doctrine prevailed.

It was accepted with the greater certainty because following immediately upon the failure of the movement for repeal came the bleeding (as it seemed) of Ireland herself to death by the enormous catastrophe of the Great Famine.

The Famine Itself. In the year 1845 one of the most prominent English politicians heard that the potatoes in the Isle of Wight were failing, suffering from a new disease. He seems to have remembered a little later that the potato was the main nutriment to which the dispossessed Irish that is, the vast majority of the Catholic population of Ireland were reduced.

In the autumn of that year it was known that the potato blight had appeared in Wexford, and there was already a certain anxiety in England with regard to the future of affairs across St George’s Channel. In the two next years, 1846 and 1847, the failure of the potato crop through disease became almost universal, and as the period proceeded things went from insufficiency to grave want, from grave want to actual famine, and deaths by starvation began.

Things came to a head in the year 1848, and though they got better afterwards, it was not until 1851 that the potato crop was normal again. In the interval this failure of what had been the main sustenance of the fearfully impoverished Catholic Irish peasantry had destroyed by famine, directly and indirectly, about one and a quarter millions of the Irish people.

It is important to observe that in cases of this kind exact estimates are impossible; general estimates must, in the nature of the case, differ widely. The figures I here give are those of the statistician Mulhall, who may justly be regarded as a standard authority. Even if there were no violent political passions engaged the mere fact that it is impossible to distinguish between various degrees of breakdown in the human body through under‑feeding renders exactitude impossible. It has even been argued that the total number of deaths from famine was only half a million. Perhaps if we mean by deaths from famine complete collapse and the end of life from receiving no nourishment whatsoever, until the man, woman, or child dies after many days of such agony, that minimum figure might be literally true. Even so it is probably an underestimate. But it is futile to read history in such fashion. The large number of one and a quarter millions which is generally admitted includes deaths which can be traced to the insufficiency of food, accompanied often enough by disease. If we were to add later those who died because their constitutions were wrecked through the famine we should, of course, have a far higher number.

Following upon the death of so many myriads by starvation there came wholesale eviction among the remainder. The landlord class, known to the Irish as “the garrison”, unable to receive their rents and therefore to pay the interest on their debts to the City of London, began to clear the land of people with the object of stocking it in some more profitable fashion. Within three years of the Famine one‑quarter of the population had been turned out of doors; and the process was to continue until it had directly and indirectly affected three‑quarters.

Partly from the effect of the Famine and the fear of its renewal, but more as a consequence of these evictions, the Irish people began to leave their country wholesale. They were the poorest of the poor, their constitutions already ruined by the calamity they had suffered; they poured across the Atlantic in vessels the profits of whose passage fell to the rising shipping of England, and it is worthy of remark that of those human cargoes 17 per cent. died before reaching America. The numbers that perished within the island of sheer starvation, or as a consequence of extreme insufficiency of nourishment, having been a million and a quarter (out of a total population of eight millions), the number who were stricken by disease and ruined in health by the scarcity being indefinitely larger, wholesale forced emigration being added to the rest, Ireland appeared to be bleeding to death. From that fatal year of 1848 to our own day, during the space of a very long lifetime, the vital forces of the country and its numbers declined; at first rapidly, and then, as exhaustion did its work, more slowly, until at least half the people had gone. Those of the Catholic peasantry who were left behind largely represented the least able and the most impoverished.

It must be clearly understood that the Irish Famine was not due to a lack of food. It was due to that impoverishment of the Irish race which had fallen upon them when their land was taken from them by force in the seventeenth century. There was plenty of food in Ireland; there was even export of food during the Famine itself: the failure of the potato crop destroyed only the food of the poorest, and had money been provided by a sufficient loan, or better still by a direct levy upon the whole resources of Great Britain, to furnish a minimum of purchasing power, the Irish could have been fed until the crisis was past.

Partly from false economic theory, partly from the errors inherent to all Governments which have no experience of the governed, more from an indifference to the fate of Ireland, more still from religious animosity, in some degree from an obscure feeling that the weakening of Ireland would always be the strengthening of England, the tragedy was allowed to go its way.

As an example of the spirit at work let it be noted that no relief was afforded to any family which cultivated as much as half an acre of land. There were thousands upon thousands who, merely to obtain food, were forced to give up their little farms. It was made a principle that such grossly insufficient relief funds as were raised should be raised upon Irish land and not made as a grant from the Imperial Treasury. Nor was the administration of these funds left in the hands of the Irish it was given to commissioners appointed from England, working in the spirit of the new English Poor Law. The name best remembered as the author of such a policy is that of Lord John Russell, later Lord Russell, who happened to be the politician of the time. But the spirit in which he acted was not peculiar to himself: The Times, which is a fair representative of opinion among the governing class, envisaged a future in which “a Catholic Celt would be as rare on the banks of the Liffey as a Redman on the eastern seaboard of America.”

Before the first year of the Famine was over a quarter of the existing Irish population had disappeared: the greater part by death, the remainder by flight across the waters to Great Britain or to the United States. In the upshot the population fell in mere numbers let alone in vitality and every form of national force to one-half its original number.

There had been eight million souls in Ireland as against sixteen million in England there were, a lifetime later, some four million in Ireland as against over forty million in England. From an Ireland mainly Catholic, being in mere numerical weight half England, there remained an Ireland with a much larger anti‑Catholic minority in proportion to the whole which had fallen to be only one-tenth of England.

Part 2

Green Dragon No. 11, Summer 2002