England’s Irish Famine

In two parts

Part 2

The Main Consequences of the Famine

The consequences of the Irish Famine, if we regard those that concern the history of England alone, may be put under seven heads, each of which will be seen to be of the very first moment. These are:

(1) As a secondary consequence of the Famine the Irish race as a whole increased very largely throughout the nineteenth century and was parent to, and connected with, a very large belt of population semi‑Irish in descent and under Irish influence.

(2) Native Ireland— that is, the Irish race in its own land— was so maimed that men discuss to this day whether it can be restored to its original place in these islands.

(3) In various ways the Famine gravely affected directly and indirectly the relations between this country and others, notably America.

(4) A further indirect effect of the Irish Famine was the giving of full scope to the Irish political genius, which is of the highest order: it has everywhere been used against England since the Famine.

(5) Yet another effect was the gradual accumulation in the New World of reserves from which renewed Irish effort could be supported.

(6) Again, the Famine founded and established a small but active Catholic colony in Britain, which now constitutes the bulk of the Catholic body in England, Wales, and Scotland.

(7) It was as an ultimate consequence of the Irish Famine that the English Parliamentary system was reduced from the vigorous organ of government it had been in the mid‑nineteenth century to what we have before us to‑day.

I will deal with these points briefly in detail.

(1) The Expansion of the Irish Race.

The evictions consequent upon the Famine spread the Irish race throughout the English‑speaking world. Great numbers of them had passed to the various Catholic countries during the eighteenth century, as a consequence of the breach of the Treaty of Limerick. But those numbers were small compared with the total of the Irish people, and they were drawn largely from the educated classes, who were refused the right to follow professions or even, till lately, to own land in their own country. Their absence weakened the Irish nation, but did not cause it to expand abroad as a coherent body; they were merged in the Catholic nations where they could make a career. Hence the great Irish military names all over Europe (the head of the O’Neills, the family with the longest and proudest lineage in Western Europe, is now a Portuguese and bears a Portuguese title, but with the ancient name). But after the Famine all this changed.

The Irish in the new British colonies, notably in Australia, had a corporate life, accumulated wealth, and rapidly grew to be of increasing importance. The same is true of Canada. But the largest emigration of all was to the United States, and the Irish body there, in spite of a good deal of leakage natural during the pioneer days from the sparse settlement of the country, and natural later through the way in which the Irish lived as labourers in the large towns, became a very large coherent organization.

Here again an exact numerical estimate is difficult; the Irish element in a family may be introduced by only one ancestor, male or female, and yet influence the religion and culture and political traditions of most of the descendants. One method of estimating is to take the Catholic English‑speaking population in the Dominions and the United States, but this gives no just estimate, for two reasons. First, there are today considerable elements, German, Polish, and Italian, which are of Catholic origin but not Irish. Secondly, the practising Catholic body in any generally Catholic culture is never more than a fraction: it may be a very large fraction, but it is often a minority, and it is never co‑extensive with that culture. We continually find men and women in America who have never heard Mass in their lives, but who have preserved judgments upon England and Europe which show the Irish effect working in their family traditions. If the total expansion be set at twelve millions we are setting it very much too low; if (as is often done) we put it at twenty millions we may be putting it somewhat too high; but the latter estimate is much nearer the truth than the former.

Now, such an Irish body would never have arisen within the limits of Ireland. There arc neither the resources nor the area for it.

(2) The Maiming of Native Ireland.

As a result, direct and indirect, of the Famine native Ireland within the island which was the home of the Irish people was maimed, and, as was once thought, even mortally so. The native Irish language, which had normally been diminishing somewhat under alien government, was given what might have been its death‑blow, and what at any rate confined it as a matter of daily use to a very small fraction of the people. We are to‑day the witness of an experiment to revive it on the result of which it is too early to attempt any conclusion. Equally important with, or perhaps more important than, this form of loss in national power was the new proportion of native to alien in religion and in the culture that springs from religion. Seven‑eighths of those in Ireland were of the Catholic culture in religion before the Famine; the proportion to‑day is more like two‑thirds. So striking has been this reduction of the vital factors making for Irish survival in Ireland that the English mind, naturally concentrated upon the neighbouring country and less concerned with remote effects beyond the ocean, was persuaded that the Irish effort at survival, so long and with such difficulty maintained, had broken down with the latter part of the nineteenth century, and would never be revived. It was a grievous error.

(3) The Political Effect upon England’s Status Abroad.

The effect of the Famine and its consequences upon the moral status of England abroad and upon the relations of England with foreign countries has two aspects, one making for the advantage of this country and one against it.

What made against England in this respect was the shock civilization as a whole received upon hearing that a whole province of Christendom had been, as it were, exterminated. That such a thing as the Irish Famine could take place at all under modern conditions and under the government of a highly advanced European nation produced an enduring effect. But as against this the increasing power and prosperity of England for the whole long lifetime after the Famine has gone very far to counteract this impression. In the colonies, but far more in the United States, the large Irish body has, of course, acted as an anti‑English influence.

In the colonies of England ’s second Empire, that which was developed during the later nineteenth century, the Irish antagonism to England has been of less serious effect; it has helped to increase by reaction the feeling of attachment to the Mother Country which is strong in the other English‑speaking elements of those territories. But in the United States, where there was already a strong tradition of hostility to England in the mass of the people and in the general political tradition of the whole nation, the Irish, with their talent for political organization, their intensity of effort, and their ubiquity, counted for more in spiritual effect than in numbers. There was a time when, of all the immigration from beyond the Atlantic, Irish immigration had the greatest effect. This has been somewhat diminished by the arrival of so many other European elements to mix with what had been originally, apart from the Negro population and a small original Dutch element, mainly British in origin.

What the Famine and its effects have set up as a permanent factor in the relations between England and the United States is the fixing of an idea which the citizens of the United States have never been slow to accept— that England is tyrannical, and on that account odious to the American temper. It is the last accusation which anyone familiar with the internal spirit of the English would admit, but, acting upon a culture increasingly alien to England, the memories of the Irish Famine, the way in which it was met (or rather not met), the evictions, and all the rest, have had permanent effect across the Atlantic.

(4) The Irish Political Genius.

The Irish people have shown in modern times — that is, since the seventeenth century — a very remarkable talent for political organization. Within their own country it was exercised with skill under a great handicap, but its chances were destroyed when the last organized army failed at the end of the seventeenth century and when the Treaty of Limerick, which had been wrested from the Dutch and English commanders, was broken by Parliament. Those who would have naturally led in the political combinations within Ireland itself either became exiles in order to have a career, or went over to the religion and culture of the occupying power. The emigrant Irish, though drawn almost entirely from the poorer parts of the community, showed, the moment they were under free conditions, this talent for political organization to which I allude. Its effect has greatly increased, and gives them more weight than even their considerable numbers would command.

(5) Economic Effects.

The Famine and consequent emigration to Great Britain and the United States and the Dominions gradually built tip for the first time since the confiscations under Oliver Cromwell an economic reserve for the Irish people maintaining their own religion and culture. They were to be found in all the liberal professions, the army and the 0law, medicine and the rest, in larger proportions during the second generation, and still larger during the third, than was proportionate to the numbers of their community. But this has not been true, upon the whole, of commerce. There are many and considerable names of Irish descent in the roll of moderate and great fortunes, American, colonial, and even English and Scottish, but not in proportion to the success which the same blood and traditions have obtained in the professions. The total effect, however, has been to give, whether from professional earnings or commercial profits, a large and, upon the whole, increasing economic reserve to the Irish race; which reserve can be and has been used in their political efforts, in the maintenance of the struggle in their own country, and in the various forms of propaganda by which funds are raised. The field within which the economic force works is limited, its total amount is small compared with the great economic forces of our time, but it is everywhere present, permanent, and active; and the contrast should be made, not so much between it and the very much greater economic forces outside, but rather between it and the original condition in which the native Irish had, one may say, no economic reserve at all.

(6) The Catholic Culture in the English‑speaking World.

The main factor in producing any culture is religion. The English culture had become the most united in the world through the unity of its religion. The one thing alien to that unity was the Catholic body. The anomaly of its presence, while Catholicism survived in considerable force throughout the seventeenth century, was strongly felt and led to the most violent movements of the time and finally to the virtual extinction of Catholicism in Britain.

The English culture overseas was in the same position before the Irish Famine. In what were originally the English Colonies of the North American seaboard and was now the United States the one Catholic exception of Maryland was culturally eliminated after the destruction of religious toleration under William III. The American population, which rose against England in the eighteenth century, was a population almost homogeneously Protestant.

But after the Famine all this changed. The change came not only in the English‑speaking world beyond the seas, but within Great Britain itself. The Catholic body in England since the Irish Famine has grown to be a coherent and appreciable force. Numerically it is not very large— perhaps one‑seventeenth or one‑sixteenth of the total population of Great Britain— and it is debated whether it is increasing or not; probably the proportion of Catholics to the rest of the population in Britain is as stationary as it is small. But its existence is appreciable and it has its effect, whereas before the period of the Famine it was wholly negligible. It received the accession of very considerable native English personalities, especially in the first years after the action of John Henry Newman and, immediately afterwards, of Edward Manning, the two great English cardinals of the nineteenth century. But the backbone of it is Irish.

To exaggerate the effect of this Catholic body in Great Britain, small and mainly Irish, would be a very grave error; to treat it as negligible would be a graver error, for it has struck deep roots and has powerfully affected English thought.

(7) The Effect of the Famine on English Internal Politics.

The effect of the Irish Famine on the internal politics of England is, so far as the history of England is concerned, the most important of all. It is twofold.

(a) The Famine put an end to the Irish revolutionary example, and thereby negatively increased the aristocratic forces of order in this country.

(b) The Irish Famine at long range, with its inheritance of antagonism to England, produced a political effect within England itself, transformed for the worse, and in great part destroyed in effective value, the House of Commons, which had been the heart of the English aristocratic system for over two hundred years.

First, then, as to the effect of the Irish Famine on English revolutionary feeling. It put an end to a certain motive force which was making for revolutionary, egalitarian, and what are sometimes loosely called ‘democratic’ ideas, a force which, had it increased, would have weakened the united aristocratic spirit whereby the power of England was being built up. Until the middle of the century the great mass meetings of the Irish inspired similar movements upon this side of the sea. The coming together of popular forces in this fashion, which we may regard as hardly native to the English temperament (and have become to‑day alien to it), did have an effect more than a lifetime ago upon the discontented masses of the English poor during the earlier period of strain from 18I5 to 1848. And it was after the effect of the Famine had been felt that this spirit, for which the bad names are ‘subversive’ or ‘mob’ and the good names ‘love of freedom’, ‘equality’, and the rest, disappeared. In its absence aristocratic organization, with its result in unity and order, had the field to itself. The Chartist movement, which had Irish elements in it, was the chief example of revolutionary feeling. It was so different from anything which Englishmen now feel native that it is almost forgotten, yet in its day it was of considerable effect. In the early days of the reign of Queen Victoria a powerful agitation arose (clear in the leaders, though confused in their followers) for the granting of a certain “People’s Charter”, of which the long‑famous “Six Points” were manhood suffrage, abolition of the property qualification for Members of Parliament, payment of members, equal electoral districts, the secret ballot, and lastly that without which the rest would have been worth nothing (and even with it the whole was worth very little), annual Parliaments. In the year 1842 a monster petition was presented to Parliament which Parliament refused to hear: it occasioned great alarm in the governing class, especially in London, and the moment was memorable for a speech by Macaulay in which that great historian and typical patriot prophesied general anarchy and loot as inevitably following the enfranchisement of the working classes.

Then came the Famine; and when Chartism made yet another attempt at mass action (in 1848) the thing was a pitiful failure, and the revolutionary spirit, having lost its Irish leaven, was dead.

Secondly, there was the effect of the Irish Famine upon the English Parliamentary system. What form the traditions left by the Famine would have had but for the extension of the suffrage by the English Parliament we cannot say. At any rate, with the suffrage increased, and with the advent of the secret ballot, the opportunity for a united Irish party at Westminster, demanding political freedom for Ireland, had come. The genius of the Irish for political organization at once appeared. When a disciplined body of nationalist Irish representatives had been formed and was permanently established in the Imperial Parliament it somewhat rapidly destroyed the ancient character of that institution. This happened in two distinct ways. In the first place, by holding the balance between the two traditional English parties, which bad been loosely organized and which only vaguely represented varying tendencies in the English governing class, a third, Irish, party found itself able to direct that play of majorities which tradition had made sacred at Westminster. As a result the party system, which had been an elastic thing, full of the aristocratic spirit, became infected with a mechanical discipline. Individual voting, which had been independent, speaking and debate which had used argument and persuasion, both became negligible; discussions lost their vitality, and at last the independent Member of Parliament came to be regarded as a sort of grotesque exception.

This alone might have destroyed the ancient character of the House of Commons, but the second effect produced by the Irish Party went far deeper. That party invented a tactic of deliberate obstruction, with the object of rendering all Parliamentary government impossible unless its demand for national independence were granted. To do this was to strike at the heart of the Parliamentary system. That system was compelled to defend itself, and could only do so by making new rules for its debates; in the place of the old freedom of discussion and the old full thrashing out of arguments there was substituted a limitation of time, the closure; and with these came the inevitable tendency— not only in men occupying Government places, but still more in their permanent officials— to take advantage of the absence of real debate, so that the great mass even of the most important points were never really discussed at all. On the rare occasions when real issues were partially discussed they were no longer voted upon with freedom but as by machinery.

Under such conditions Parliament necessarily lost its old meaning. The House of Commons could still at moments voice an overwhelming public feeling on some simple point. A general election could still (though rarely) indicate the trend of public opinion. But as a political organ life has gone out of the House of Commons. The institution, as a seat of government, is dead. Its death lies at the door of the Irish: of the Irish as they became after the Great Famine had done its work upon the Irish soul.

The book, A Shorter History of England, by Hilaire Belloc, from which the above has been reprinted, was published in 1934. The original publishers, George Harrap, were taken over quite a few years ago and every attempt to trace the current copyright holders has drawn a blank.

Part 1

Published in Green Dragon No. 11, Summer 2002