Diet, Politics and Disaster: The Great Irish Famine. Part 2

Averted Births and Longevity of Survivors

The calculated number of averted births during the famine would have been expected given the degree of reported deprivation at the time. The longterm consequences for people born in abject poverty has been addressed comprehensively by Barker (1992). Barker’s Programming Hypothesis embodies the idea that certain serious adult diseases, including coronary heart disease, stroke and diabetes originate in impaired development during foetal life and infancy. Evidence for the theory includes the high prevalence of these diseases in geographical areas where infant mortality had been high (infant mortality of course, being a proxy for an impoverished environment and poor maternal nutrition). If the theory holds for conditions in early twentieth-century England how does it fare for mid-nineteenth century Ireland ravaged by famine and disease, when infant mortality must have been very high indeed? A test of the programming hypothesis would have required the examination of death certificates at the turn of the century, comparing the incidence of serious disease in regions where famine infant mortality was highest with the incidence in less affected regions. Even had such data been available, the accuracy of death certification would have been poor.
An alternative approach was to determine longevity among survivors born during the Famine as a semi-quantitative proxy measure of life-threatening disease incidence. Median-age-of-death graphs were constructed (Mausner & Kramer, 1985) from the official decennial census data for Ireland from 1851 to 1901.
For purposes of comparison to those born and who survived the Famine years of 1846-1851, those born in the succeeding five year period, 1851-56. within the same county, were selected. This restrictive comparison in time and place was essential (a) because of Mokyr’s data on the great county variability of excess mortality, and (b) because of the regional – and age-sensitive nature of emigration during and particularly after the Famine. Median-age-of-death graphs were constructed for twelve counties and for each of the four provinces (see Table 3 ). The data may only be used for intra-county comparisons and have no absolute value, chiefly because of the emigration factor. Eastern counties, for instance, have greater ‘longevity’ values than western counties, probably reflecting greater rates of emigration than the latter. What the data demonstrates clearly though is a markedly greater longevity associated with famine than with post famine child survivors, except for one of the counties examined, Wexford, as well as the province of Ulster, where no difference was found.
The result is the opposite of what one might have expected if the programming hypothesis were true and that longevity was an accurate reflection of later disease incidence. So, what was the explanation? Perhaps those born during the famine and the environment of malnutrition and disease, survived it to become fitter and longer-living then those born afterwards? Do the figures reflect the effects of immunity conferred naturally by the infectious disease epidemics of the period? A more likely explanation lies in looking at the experience of the Dutch Famine that occurred exactly 100 years later, and particularly on famine-related changes in the pattern of fertility.
Towards the end of World War II the German Occupation Forces in Holland cut off the food supplies coming into the country in retaliation for a strike by Dutch Railway workers. As a result, a large part of the Netherlands suffered a severe famine for nine months from September 1944 to May 1945. The Dutch Famine cannot be compared to the Irish Famine either in terms of duration, severity or the long term social disruption that ensued. Nearly all of the excess mortality was ascribed to literal starvation whereas Irish deaths were in the main fever-related.
A common finding in nutrition which was reinforced by the Dutch experience was that fertility varied closely with caloric intake at the time of conception in the peri-famine period. Fertility rates among humans depend firstly on the proportion of fecundable women in the population, secondly on their opportunities for mating, but most importantly, on social mores expressed in individual decisions about birth control and family size. A large, indeterminate factor contributing to infecundity, in the Irish case at least, must have been the preoccupation with the scramble for food and survival, and fear of death. Reproduction, under these circumstances, would be expected to be of low priority.
In the extreme famine situation the physiological preconditions assume greater importance in fertility. Data collected during two world wars from concentration camps and blockaded cities demonstrate that starvation induced amenorrhea, anovular menstrual cycles, reduced ovarian function to menopausal levels and loss of libido. The male contribution to fecundity may also be affected by oligospermia, low sperm counts, impotence, as well as loss of libido. Stein and her colleagues (1985) then combined this relationship between fertility and nutrition with the idea that social class is a determinant of nutrition through its influence on dietary habits and access to food. Indeed, what they showed was that social class was a most powerful predictor of changes in fertility during the Dutch famine. Infertility was by no means confined to families in the lower social classes. All classes suffered a sharp decline in births, but the decline was steepest among the lower classes. Therefore, the median-age-of-death data for the Irish Famine survivors suggests a famine-related reversal of the normal course of events whereby a greater proportion of births was attributable to the higher social classes, the subsequent survival and greater longevity of this class being again related to better access to resources of food, money, housing, and education. This phenomenon, as portrayed by the data, occurred neither in Wexford, possibly because of all counties Wexford was least affected by the Famine (Kissane,1995), nor in the province of Ulster as a whole, possibly because of greater industrialisation as well as the fact that oatmeal was an important part of the diet there. As with the Dutch post-famine experience, fertility rates rebounded after the famine, particularly in those counties most affected (O Gráda, 1993).

Famine and Food Entitlements

The law stands between food availability and food entitlement. Starvation deaths can reflect legality with a vengeance. (Amartya Sen)
It might seem obvious that famine stems from shortfalls in the supply of food. However, a generalised food shortage is not a necessary condition of mass starvation. Arguing from modern famine experience Amartya Sen (1981) contended that mass starvation arises not from food shortage but from people’s inability to purchase what food is available. Food entitlements as he calls it, refers to those resources which determine a households command over food. In Ireland of the 1840’s entitlements derived mainly either from direct food production or from the hire of one’s labour. As we have seen, direct food production was out of the question due to the potato blight, and the hire of one’s labour when work was available was generally in vain because wages failed to meet the rise in food prices. Those without food lacked the funds, and the authorities lacked the will to transfer the food to them through political means, relying instead on market forces.
The argument based on food entitlements, of course, assumes that food, though hoarded for speculative purposes, was available in sufficient amount. But was it? O Gráda (1993) has calculated that it would have required about three million acres of grain annually to make up the shortfall in production of potatoes. Acreage to this extent was never grown, so to the extent that Sen has described, famine in Ireland was not a case of lack of entitlements, there simply was not enough food to go around.
But would a prohibition of food leaving the country have helped? The question of exportation of food at the height of the famine is one particularly surrounded by myth and misunderstanding. The myth has been readily exposed by O Gráda (1994) who showed that Ireland became a net importer of grain during the famine. The misunderstanding arises from the idea that it was the authorities who were exporting food. It was, of course, private concerns among whom must have been Catholic farmers and merchants seeking the best price for their produce abroad. To have placed an embargo on the exportation of food,which some have suggested would have saved many lives, would merely have curtailed production in the following seasons, unless it were purchased by the government at a market price for redistribution. Nevertheless, the lack of generosity displayed by Irish landlords and farmers as well as the rest of the United Kingdom guaranteed the disastrous outcome.
However, one test of the application of Sen's thesis to the Irish Famine is that if starvation is the outcome purely of an entitlement shift, then losses and gains among sectors of society must even out. However, few benefited from the Famine, neither the landlords (many of whom were bankrupted as highlighted by the Encumbered Estates Act of 1848), nor the landless (many of whom perished or emigrated). Larger landholdings which resulted from land clearances and forced evictions had little effect on overall prosperity when weighed against the overwhelming loss of half the population to death and emigration. Amongst those who gained, however, must be counted the countries who accepted the emigrants: Great Britain, Canada, Australia, but most of all the United States, who gained ‘ready-made’ adults without the usual expense of educating and looking after the welfare of young dependents. Children impose an expense on a country, and at least some of the prosperity associated with these emerging countries in the late nineteenth and early twentieth-centuries must be interpreted in this light.
Neither the modern Ireland nor Great Britain, however, can look back and say that any benefit accrued from the famine experience. Britain, on the one hand, benefited from the ready availability of Irish immigrant labour, particularly for the construction industry, health and education. Antipathy towards Britain, on the other, derived in some degree at least from the Famine experience, cost Britain dearly during the subsequent century and beyond, the most obvious example being the denial of active support of the Free State Government during the Second World War.
In the initial phase of the famine the prompt response of the British Prime Minister Robert Peel, as well as aid provided by charities such as the British Association was appreciated by many in Ireland, including the influential nationalist newspaper, The Nation. This was in stark contrast to the callous attitude of the subsequent government of Lord John Russell, guided as it was by a philosophical mixture of Providentialism and market-driven economics. It is not unreasonable to suggest that if anything like the famine had occurred in the ‘mainland’ part of the United Kingdom the government would have easily overcome its theoretical scruples, and come to the rescue of the starving. The amount given towards relief, mostly in the form of loans, was in stark contrast to that devoted to other projects at that period, including £20M to compensate slave plantation owners in the West Indies following emancipation and £70M to fund an ill-advised adventure in the Crimea.

Publications Used in this Review:

Barker, D.J.P.(1992). Fetal and Infant Origins of Adult Diseases. London: British Medical Journal.
Bourke, A. (1993). ‘ The Visitation of God’? The potato and the great Irish famine [J. Hill and C. Ó Gráda, editors]. Dublin: The Lilliput Press.
Campbell, S. J.(1994). The Great Irish Famine. Words and Images from the Famine Museum, Strokestown Park, County Roscommon. Roscommon: The Famine Museum.
Edwards, R.D. & Williams, T.D.(1956). [editors] The Great Famine: Studies in Irish History. Dublin: Brown & Nolan.
Kissane, N.(1995). The Irish Famine. A Documentary History. Dublin: National Library of Ireland.
Mausner, J.S. & Kramer, S.(1985). Epidemiology - An Introductory Text. Philadelphia: W.B.Saunders.
Mokyr, J.(1985). Why Ireland Starved: A Quantitative and Analytical History of the Irish Economy, 1800-50. London: Allen & Unwin.
Morash, C.(1995). Writing The Irish Famine. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
O Gráda, C.(1993). Ireland Before and After the Famine. Explorations in economic history, 1800-1925. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
O Gráda, C.(1994). Ireland: a New Economic History 1780-1939. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Pacey, A. & Payne, P. (1985). [editors] Agricultural Development and Nutrition. London: Hutchinson.
Póirtéir, C.(1995). [Editor] The Great Irish Famine.The Thomas Davis Lecture series. Dublin: Radio Telefís Éireann/ Mercier Press.
Sen, A. (1981). Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlements & Deprivation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Stein, Z., Susser, M., Saenger, G., & Marolla, F. (1975). Famine and Human Development. The Dutch Hunger Winter of 1944-1945. New York: Oxford University Press.
Vaughan. W.E. (1989). [editor] A New History of Ireland. V: Ireland Under the Union, I: 1801-1870. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Woodham-Smith, C. (1962). The Great Hunger. London: Hamilton.

©: Joseph McPartlin, Department of Clinical Medicine, Sir Patrick Duns Trinity College Laboratory, Central Pathology, St James Hospital, Dublin 8, Ireland.
We are grateful to Dr. McPartlin and to the Nutrition Society for giving us their permission to reprint this Plenary Invited Lecture which was delivered by Dr. McPartlin during the Summer Meeting of the Nutrition Society at the University of Ulster, Coleraine in June 1996, and subsequently published in the Proceedings of the Nutrition Society (1997), 56, 211-223.

Diet, Politics and Disaster: The Great Irish Famine. Part 1

Published in The Green Dragon No 7, Summer 1998