The Politics of The Great Irish Famine

British arrogance among the aristocracy contributed greatly to the Great Irish Famine of the mid-nineteenth century. This famine, which consisted of a mass potato blight throughout the Emerald Isle, was a catastrophe that brought great destruction both physically and politically to the region. It ultimately resulted in high death tolls, mass immigration to the United States and elsewhere, and increased tensions between the Irish and Great Britain. Relations continued to strain long after the initial potato blight because of political events that made the Irish unwillingly reliant on British Parliament, who in turn neglected the starving population on account of arrogance and an overwhelming sense of superiority.

Ireland had always had a rough history with England, later Great Britain. Towards the end of the eighteenth century, tensions had become so great they resulted in a notorious revolt in 1798. This particular rebellion was an uprising against British rule, lasting from May to September, with over ten years worth of events leading up to revolt. It was one of the most widespread rebellions, as eleven counties in Ulster, Leinster, and Connacht each participated and together lost a total of over 20-30,000 men and women.[1] The revolutionary movements of the Americans and the French in prior decades influenced this specific uprising, and “The United Irishmen” became a significant group inspired by the age of revolution.[2] For this rebellion, the British government had in fact been unfair with the Irish, as Parliament passed laws allowing Catholics with property to vote, but no Irishman could be an elected or appointed as a state official.[3] According to Irish Historian Christine Kinealy, “the 1798 rebellion was an uncomfortable illustration [for the British authorities] of the dangers posed when Catholics and Protestants combined against their authority.”[4] Rioting took place throughout the 1790’s and the country became increasingly angered by British oppression. Religious differences came into focus and religion would later play a major role in the British Government’s understanding of the Famine in the 1840’s. The United Irishmen issued parliamentary plans for reform as early as 1794. According to T.W. Moody and F.X. Martin, these plans suggested that “Ireland should be divided into 300 parliamentary constituencies equal in population, and that every man should have a vote.”[5] The United Irishmen looked to secure reform by looking forward to the abolition of tithe, a reduction in government expenditure, lower taxation, and the encouragement of trade and help for education.[6]

However, by 1798, fighting was widespread. British Prime Minister William Pitt understood that the outcome of rebellion based on nationalism, which involves emotional factors, was too unpredictable.[7] To respond to this, he had the Act of Union passed in 1800 and in 1801 Ireland became a part of the United Kingdom.[8] Ireland was granted a seat in parliament and this gave the country a chance to let her voice be heard.[9] However, this also forced Ireland to forfeit her Parliament to London. When the blight hit in August 1845, this forced Ireland to endure a great deal of hardships that could have been handled much better if they had still governed themselves, since their government might be more prepared for those kinds of situations.

The Famine itself left an immediate, devastating toll on the Irish people. Potatoes were the staple of both the Irish diet and the pre-Famine economy. Not only did they feed people, but also according to the Economist Kevin O’Rourke, they were fed to livestock and were used to keep the live sources of food alive.[10] The blight of 1845 destroyed a large portion of the potato crop, but in 1846 it was completely destroyed.[11] Consequently, very few potatoes were available for the planting season in 1847 (a year when blight was actually absent), however blight struck again as early as 1848.[12] Ireland had gone four years with practically no potatoes. This led the way for mass hunger and disease and took a massive toll on the population. Over one million Irish men, women and children died, and a further two million people fled, never to return.[13]

By 1847, any efforts by the government to relieve the crisis in Ireland had seemingly failed.[14] The winter of 1846 saw many food riots and hunger marches, which “increasingly gave way to despair, exhaustion and flight.”[15] The government did in fact introduce soup kitchens in ’47, however, did not help with medicine, clothing, fuel, shelter, or rent.[16] Disease spread heavily in the entire region in the form of bronchitis, diarrhea, influenza, measles and tuberculosis.[17] Ultimately, the Famine did not even kill solely by means of starvation. A deadly cholera epidemic broke out in 1848-49.[18] The causes for this were malnutrition, food deprivation and unsuitable food, which increased the vulnerability of infection while the people were eating relief food (such as food from the soup kitchens, which they were not accustomed to eating and may not have consisted of much nutrition to begin with).[19] People who were known to have the disease became outcasts in their towns or villages and loneliness (and fear) became common factors during the disaster. The fear of catching cholera made the Irish much less likely to help each other. Kinealy quotes Richard Delaney, who recalled:

When a person in any house got fever the people of the house would hide it from the neighbours [sic]. If the neighbours [sic] suspected there was any fever in the house, they used to steal up to the house at night time to put an onion on the window sill. They would split the onion in two. If the onion turned green they would know that there was fever in that particular house and they would avoid it.[20]

The people had become too weak to work. In some instances, animals would eat the flesh of humans while they were still alive.[21] However, given that the British media was paying little attention to the gravity of the situation, landlords were wasting no time collecting their money. If a tenant, even if too weak to work, could not product capital for his taxes, he was evicted. This behavior of the elite was a major source of discontent particularly in the year 1847. According to Christine Kinealy, roughly 3,500 families had been evicted from their homes by 1847 and this number was doubled by 1848, reaching over 6,000.[22] The Whig government in 1847 turned back to the Poor Law workhouses as the primary mode for famine relief, and it was heavily stressed by George Nicholls that this type of relief should not be expected in the future.[23] People sought refuge in workhouses throughout the nation, which became incredibly crowded. This ultimately contributed to many deaths, since disease was able to spread quickly in the overly cramped areas.[24]

Relief for the Famine was particularly complicated. According to David Nally, the British were afraid that if relief seemed attractive to the Irish (who again, they considered so low they were almost viewed as subhuman), “Irish laborers would abandon normal employment.”[25] Furthermore, if relief labor were productive, it would unfavorably affect the sanctity of private enterprise.[26] Nally writes that in a letter to Trevelyan, Edward Twisleton confirmed that relief tasks were deliberately designed to be “as repulsive as possible consistent with humanity.”[27]

And though there were many schemes by the government to aid the Irish, the most supported one was the Temporary Relief Act. According to Kinealy, after public works, this Act meant that the soup kitchens were the most generously supported of the government attempts at relief, spending £2,250,000. However, not all of the money agreed to go to relief was spent. The Irish Executive requested some go to medical relief, but the Treasury refused “on the grounds that to do so would only further the ‘unhealthy dependence’ of the Irish people on central government.”[28]

Clearly, causes of the Famine point beyond the natural causes of potato blights towards the British Government. It is argued by Patrick Hicks, an Irish-American, that the grand scheme of the way the British handled the situation was to be expected. The mannerisms, according to Hicks, were buried in history. In the 1800’s, Britain most certainly had a military and economic supremacy over the Irish.[29] However, arrogance and this overwhelming sense of superiority got to the heads of the elite and majority of the people that represented Britain. Hicks writes that the British assumed that “anyone with red hair was sexually deviant and they should not be trusted…[and that] drinking was a sign of moral decay and an inability to make sound decisions.”[30] He also writes that the Irish earned their hot-headed reputation after their land, language, and religion had been stripped from them when they became part of the United Kingdom.[31] The popular stereotype of the Irish (redheads that fight while constantly drunk) is a deliberate caricature promoted by the British to justify taking complete control of the island. Therefore, people would view the Irish as an uncivilized culture, in need of an organized force such as Parliament in London.

In British media, especially the popular newspaper Punch, the Irish were looked down upon so poorly that they were made out to be almost subhuman. Prior to the Famine, the Act of Union was justified by making them look like they needed to be civilized. Following the calamity, once notions of the Irish being a much lesser people than the standard European were made clear, caricatures of the Irish portrayed them as savages stealing food and the like became normal.[32] This kind of behavior by the British outside of the government certainly does not help Britain’s case in defending her ways in dealing with the Famine. Such media attention only draws to the fact that they were not helping them, but instead showing the world that they were right as to maintain their land.

According to Kinealy, “by 1841, Ireland accounted for almost one-third of the population of the United Kingdom.”[33] She mentions that the economies were different and those very differences were noticeable prior to the famine. This is because by the 1840’s Great Britain had well advanced into the Industrial Revolution and had begun to feel an economic impact from it, whereas Ireland was still relying heavily on agriculture.

Author of the Irish Famine Tim Pat Coogan writes that prior to the Great Famine, several smaller famines had occurred and ‘Irish distress’ was a consistent issue in London. According to Coogan, “The horrific poverty of the peasantry was well known but no action was taken.”[34] The British had considered the Irish incapable of handling their own problems and when the Great Famine struck in August 1845, they were reluctant to help much because they did not want them entirely dependent on Parliament. In fact, on the eve of the Famine, the British Lord Grey said: “Ireland is our disgrace. It is the reproach, the standing disgrace, of this country that Ireland remains in the condition she is. It is so regarded throughout the whole civilised [sic] world.”[35]

This however was completely untrue and great evidence for the arrogance of the British during this difficult time. In an 1847 article from The Times London, which reported regularly on the state of Ireland throughout the Famine with a rather condescending manner, writes about the American sentiments of the citizens of New Orleans. The news of the Famine particularly concerned Americans, especially given that many Americans were of Irish ancestry (and increasingly so as more and more Irish left their homeland for the pursuit of happiness). George Bancroft, the American Minister, wrote to Lord John Russell:

My Lord- The people of New Orleans, touched by the accounts of the distress from famine in Ireland, came together in a public meeting… and made a voluntary contribution of 15,000 dollars. From your Lordship’s position in the Government you best know where relief is most urgently demanded…[and] I am compelled to add, that the sympathy of the people of the United States with the sudden and overwhelming calamity which has befallen Ireland is earnest and universal…[36]

What is interesting about this article is that not only does it discuss the American’s willingness to help out of sheer sincerity and feelings towards so many distant relatives overseas, but Bancroft completely canceled out Lord Grey’s comment that the entire world looks down upon Ireland, proving that the comment itself is perhaps a slur rooted in ignorance.

Other than the economy, religion was another major issue at the time. Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom was head of the Church of England and was sovereign over the predominantly Catholic Ireland. According to Kinealy, “the criticism of the Catholic Church and the constitutional nationalists did not linger in the public consciousness…[and] the British government and Irish landlords, aided and abetted by Queen Victoria, were identified in the nationalist memory as the real villains of the Famine years.”[37] It’s a sad truth that economic imperatives triumphed any humanitarian concerns for the poor and famished during those harsh years regardless of the cost of life.[38] Kinealy further argues that contemporary politicians and political economists argued that this was part of the price for Ireland to pay for her economic regeneration.[39] All of this unnecessary harsh attitude towards suffering neighbors was because of the fact that they were of a slightly different faith.

God played a major role in the possible ‘causes’ of the calamity during and after it. Kinealy further writes that nationalist writers refuted the idea of the Famine as a ‘visitation from God,’ which comes from both contemporary accounts and folk memory alike.[40] Kinealy writes: “…throughout the Famine British politicians and paupers alike linked the food shortages with providentialism.”[41] The Achill Missionary Herald claimed that God was punishing the Irish for the 1845 Maynooth Act, which “provided a grant ‘to endow a college for training [Catholic] priests to defend and practise [sic] and perpetuate this corrupt and damnable worship in this realm.’”[42]

Tim Pat Coogan writes in a HistoryToday article that Parliament in London was directly to blame for the high amount of death during the famine that would strike Ireland partly because of the rural state of the land long before the 1840’s. It had been mentioned that Britain had become industrialized over the course of the early nineteenth century, however Ireland was nothing but empty land with a very inadequate road system. When aid came to help the starving, it was nearly impossible to reach them. Coogan writes that this was true in some of the worst affected areas of Ireland. In Connacht in the West of Ireland, for example, “[the area was] so deficient in roads and harbours [sic] that such relief as there was could not be brought to the starving, who died in dwellings that were no more than caves cut into the bog.”[43]

Coogan writes that the calamity did not just extend to the blight and the starvation itself, but the way that the British Government handled the aftermath of the entire situation. Coogan writes that the union of Ireland with Great Britain (because of the Act of Union) was more like a partnership, and when Ireland could not fulfill their monetary part, the political slogan became ‘Irish Property must pay for Irish poverty.’[44]

One hundred and fifty years later, British Prime Minister Tony Blair publicly made an effort to achieve peace in Northern Ireland, but publicly apologized for the Famine in Ireland. He said: “…those Irish men and women who were able to forge another life outside Ireland, and [as for] the rich vitality and culture they brought with them…Britain, the US and many Commonwealth countries are richer for their presence.”[45] Blair was in complete skillful knowledge of the events and the oppression that took place because of the British government’s schemes. However, this was criticized by both Ireland and Britain. The Irish were fueled at the notion that he did not use the word ‘Famine’ while the British were irritated that he was letting the Irish put the blame at their doorstep. The peace that he had hoped to achieve was not ideal, but was a step in the right direction.

It can be suggested that the seeds for the behaviors of the British government accumulated over almost a hundred years of tensions, and were fueled by centuries of oppression, tyranny, and even neglect in years more recent to the Famine itself. The people of Ireland were treated like second to third class citizens when they had the spirits and the will of first class nobility. It was not until 2011 that a British sovereign made his or her first state visit to a free Ireland. Queen Elizabeth II made perhaps the most successful state trip of her 60-year reign- immediately striking a peaceful tone when she stepped out of a plane wearing green. In a speech in front of President Mary McAleese at Dublin Castle, she admitted to the harshness and unnecessary brutality of their shared history. Above all, after laying wreaths with the President at the Hunger Memorial, she opened her speech in the Irish language, a language that her ancestors had robbed of many of the Irish people. That itself was a very symbolic gesture.

It should be understood that no historians blame the British today. Obviously, the Great Famine is long behind us, but those to blame have been gone for longer than a century. Their ideologies of the Irish as lesser people have gone with them, and Ireland herself has gone through many growths and changes and is today on her ninth President in her existence as a Republic, free of British rule.

  • [1] T.W. Moody and F.X. Martin. The Course of Irish History. Cork: The Mercier Press, 1967. 239.
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] Edward Hay. History of the Irish Insurrection of 1798. New York: John Kennedy, 1847. Page 7.
  • [4] Christine Kinealy. The Great Irish Famine. New York: Palgrave, 2002. Print.
  • [5] T.W. Moody and F.X. Martin, The Course of Irish History, Page 239.
  • [6] Ibid.
  • [7] Ibid., Pages 246-247. William Pitt (British Prime Minister under King George III) had become unsure of the results of war based on nationalism after having recently lost the American colonies (despite massive odds) to a similar revolution only fifteen years before to the 1798 Uprising, as well as having witnessed the events of the French Revolution only years earlier. It can be assumed that these successful revolutions (which had small odds of success) during Pitt’s tenure were far too similar to the one that inspired the Irish.
  • [8] Ibid., Page 247.
  • [9] Charles Townshend. Easter 1916: The Irish Rebellion. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2006. 24.
  • [10] Kevin O’Rourke. “The Economic Impact of the Famine in the Short and Long Run.” American Economic Review 84, no. 2 (2001): 309–313. O’Rourke is a part of the Department of Economics at the University College of Dublin. His peer-reviewed journal article provides insight towards the economic factors of the Famine (before, during, and after).
  • [11] Ibid., Pages 309–313.
  • [12] Ibid.
  • [13] David Nally. ‘That Coming Storm’ – The Irish Poor Law, Colonial Biopolitics, and the Great Famine. 98, no. December 2007 (2008): Pages 714–741. Nally is a part of the Department of Geography at the University of Cambridge and uses this journal article as a way to explore the biopolitics and colonialism of the Great Famine.
  • [14] Christine Kinealy. A Death-Dealing Famine. Chicago: Pluto Press, 1997. Chapter 5 discusses in great depth the ‘Black 47,’ which Kinealy writes is the term used when referring to the height of the hunger and distress.
  • [15] Ibid., Page 93.
  • [16] Ibid.
  • [17] Ibid.
  • [18] Ibid.
  • [19] Ibid.
  • [20] Ibid., Page 93. Taken From: Recollection of Richard Delaney, Wexford, in Cathal Póirtéir, Famine Echoes, (Dublin, 1995) Page 102.
  • [21] Ibid.
  • [22] Ibid., Page 94.
  • [23] David Nally. ‘That Coming Storm’ – The Irish Poor Law, Colonial Biopolitics, and the Great Famine. Page 729. The Irish Poor Laws were a series of Acts of Parliament intended to address social instability due to widespread and persistent poverty in Ireland.
  • [24] Christine Kinealy. A Death-Dealing Famine. Page 94.
  • [25] David Nally. ‘That Coming Storm’ – The Irish Poor Law, Colonial Biopolitics, and the Great Famine. Page 729.
  • [26] Ibid.
  • [27] Ibid., Page 729. Nally is actually taking this information from Christine Kinealy’s The Great Irish Famine.
  • [28] Christine Kinealy. A Death-Dealing Famine. Page 104.
  • [29] Patrick Hicks. “Shamrocks on the Prairie”, no. 252 (n.d.): Page 253.
  • [30] Ibid.
  • [31] Ibid.
  • [32] Ibid.
  • [33] Christine Kinealy. The Great Irish Famine.
  • [34] Tim Pat Coogan. “Ireland’s Path to Desolation.” History Today Feb. 2013 : 44–46. Print.
  • [35] Ibid.
  • [36] “The United States and the Irish Famine.” The Times London 1 May 1847 : 8. Print.
  • [37] Christine Kinealy. A Death-Dealing Famine. Page 14.
  • [38] Ibid.
  • [39] Ibid.
  • [40] Ibid., Page 15.
  • [41] Ibid.
  • [42] Ibid.
  • [43] Tim Pat Coogan. “Ireland’s Path to Desolation.” Page 46.
  • [44] Ibid.
  • [45] Christine Kinealy. The Great Irish Famine. Page 14.

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