The Great Famine was the most traumatic experience in the history of the Irish people. Unlike previous famines it lasted seven years, 1845-52. During that period approximately one million people died of starvation and disease. Another million emigrated.
Statistics are a meagre way of computing the Famine, however. As Brian Keenan (former hostage in the Lebanon) has pointed out: “1847 was not simply a natural disaster. To call it such is an insult to our intelligence and an even greater one for the tens of thousands who departed this life in the most abominable agony.”
During the winter of 1846-7, the harshest in living memory, hunger tightened its grip on the Irish poor. The public works relief system collapsed. Much unnecessary suffering was caused by leaving the poor at the mercy of a small number of speculators in Indian meal. Early in 1847, bewilderment was succeeded by panic and a headlong flight to the New World got under way.
Of nearly 100,000 emigrants who embarked for Quebec in “Black ‘47”, over one-sixth died on board the “coffin ships”, in the hospital on Grosse Ile or elsewhere in Canada. President Mary Robinson recalled on Grosse Ile in 1994: “There is no single reason to explain the disaster of the Great Hunger and the Diaspora to which it contributed greatly. The potato failure was a natural disaster which affected other countries in Europe at the time. But in Ireland it took place in a political, economic and social framework that was oppressive and unjust.”
The record of the Quakers is one of the few bright pages in the horrifying story of the Famine. Their Dublin-based relief committee operated in Third World conditions. Rather than blaming the poor, they saw poverty as a structural problem. Of the £200,000 - some £11 million today - spent by their committee, only 2 per cent went on administration.
The Quakers spearheaded soup-kitchen relief. By showing what could be done, they galvanised the British state into feeding three million Irish people during the summer of 1847.
In the autumn that emergency aid was ended. Charles Trevelyan, the Treasury official primarily responsible for Famine relief, who administered relief with more logic than humanity, announced that the Famine was over. Westminster decreed that henceforth Irish property must pay for Irish poverty. The 1847 Poor Law Amendment Act led to mass evictions: clearances mushroomed under the spur of the Gregory Clause - no relief for holders of more than one-quarter acre. The measure designed to assist the famine-stricken, by holding the landlords responsible for their welfare, made it in the interests of the landlords to get rid of them.
Hunger hardens the human heart. The Great Famine sapped not only the vitality but the compassion of the Irish people.
The Famine story is one of misrule, misperception and mistake. English incomprehension of Ireland reached its tragic climax. The Whigs considered Ireland a diseased body in need of the harsh medicine of political economy. Trevelyan viewed the cataclysm as “the judgement of God on an indolent and unself-reliant people”. (The poor were better theologians: “Is ní hé Dia a cheap riamh an obair seo / Daoine bochta do chur le fuacht is le fán.”)* This providentialism, combined with the laissez-faire doctrines of non-intervention and reliance on market forces, turned a natural disaster – the repeated failure of the potato crop on which three million Irish people depended – into a national catastrophe.
* “It was not God who ever planned this business,
To expose poor people to cold and wandering”. (The Song of the Black Potatoes, verse 6).