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.
Green Dragon No. 11, Summer 2002