Photo: Sir Charles Trevelyan
The 1841 census showed a population of just over eight million in Ireland. Catholics made up eighty per cent, the bulk of which lived in poor or very poor conditions on rented scraps of land. At the top of society stood the Ascendancy class, made up of landowning families either of British descent or descended from Irish converts to Protestantism, which enabled advancement in the colonial context. Only the potato could be grown in sufficient quantity to maintain the system of monoculture that supported this class of parasites.
The potato blight first appeared in 1845. In 1846, the Conservative Prime Minister Robert Peel moved to repeal the Corn Laws, which maintained tariffs on grain imports and kept the price of bread artificially high. The measure split the landowners in the Conservative Party, leading to the fall of Peel’s government on 25 June. Ten days later, Lord John Russell of the Whig Party assumed office. The Whigs opposed state interference in the economy and believed in letting ‘nature’ take its course. Peel’s relief programmes in Ireland were shut down on 21 July 1846 on the orders of Charles Trevelyan, the new Treasury Secretary.
The Irish temperance preacher Father Theobald Mathew soon wrote to Trevelyan, saying that on 27 July he had passed from Cork to Dublin and “this doomed plant bloomed in all the luxuriance of an abundant harvest”. He compared the return journey on 3 August when he saw “one wide waste of putrefying vegetation”. The priest saw that “in one week the chief support of the masses was utterly lost”. Russell’s government introduced short-lived and useless public works projects in the winter of 1846-47, the period of highest Famine mortality, when weak, severely malnourished people were forced to do hard labour to prove their destitution. Then it turned to a mixture of indoor and outdoor direct relief. The former was administered in workhouses; the latter through soup kitchens. The cost of this relief was nonetheless landed mainly on the landlords, who in turn often attempted to reduce their liability by evicting their tenants, like dead souls.
On 16 February 1940, Odilo Globočnik declared in Lublin that the evacuated Jews should feed themselves and be supported by their countrymen, as these Jews have enough. If this does not succeed, one should let them starve. Half a million people were evicted in Ireland between 1845 and 1851. The Great Hunger clearances in just one county out of thirty-two, Clare, began at the end of 1847 and centrally involved a landlord and land agent named Marcus Keane, who quickly became known as the Exterminator General.
Of Clare’s 153 landowners, 63 were absentees and Keane controlled nearly a quarter of the county. A fanatical Protestant, though Keane is not a colonist’s surname, he promoted forced conversions and even sometimes grotesquely offered a fiver to his tenants to level their own cabins. Keane also maintained an Einsatzgruppe of forty thugs to carry out his massive eviction programme. By early 1849, 90,000 people in Clare were dependent on inadequate rations at workhouses or soup kitchens for any hope at all of survival. In 1851, the census showed a population drop of 74,000 in the county in just ten years. Globočnik killed himself after his capture by the British in 1945. Totally unpunished, the pillar of society Marcus Keane died of natural causes in 1883. His lead coffin was soon stolen from its crypt at night but it was so heavy that the funny thieves decided to hide it in a newly used grave nearby, where it lay undiscovered for many years.
In the absence of any humane state intervention, large sums of money were donated by charitable sources. The British Relief Association was formed in January 1847 by Lionel de Rothschild, a Jewish banker in London. Its international fundraising activities raised almost £400,000. Even the poor Choctaw Native Americans famously sent a few dollars to help. The Ottoman Sultan declared his intention to send £10,000 but then the British consul quietly requested that he give less than Queen Victoria had (£2,000). Victoria did publish two letters appealing for public donations. Her letters were widely criticised at the time, notably by the London Times, namely for encouraging people to throw money into an Irish bog. In 1847 the American government fitted out two ships and loaded them with food supplies. The Jamestown was commanded by a Captain Forbes who accompanied Father Mathew on a tour of the terrible sights in the city of Cork.
I saw enough in five minutes to horrify me: houses crowded with the sick and dying, without floors, without furniture, and with patches of dirty straw covered with still dirtier shreds and patches of humanity; some called for water to Father Mathew, and others for a dying blessing. Forbes also described a soup kitchen where hundreds of spectres stood… begging for some of the soup which I can readily conceive would be refused by well-bred pigs in America.
There was a stark choice for the poorest people: flight to America on the coffin ships or certain death. It is true that much opinion at the time was sharply critical of the Russell government’s response to the crisis. This condemnation was not confined to outside critics. From Dublin, officially the second city of the United Kingdom, even their own Lord Lieutenant, Lord Clarendon, wrote to Russell on 26 April 1849, urging that the British government introduce additional relief measures. I do not think there is another legislature in Europe that would disregard such suffering as now exists in the west of Ireland, or coldly persist in a policy of extermination.
The British government spent just seven million pounds on Famine relief between 1845 and 1850. Contemporaries noted the sharp contrast with the figure of over twenty million pounds given to compensate British slave-owners in the Caribbean in the 1830s. When Ireland had experienced crop failure in 1782-83, the ports were closed and local food prices promptly dropped. That, of course, was before the Anschluss of the Act of Union in 1800, when the semi-independent Irish parliament, composed entirely of Protestant landowners, voted itself out of existence with the assistance of massive bribery. There was no export ban in the 1840s thanks to the Whigs and their avowed devotion to free trade. Ireland thus remained a net exporter of food through most of the Famine.
In response to the biological weapon, Phytophtora infestans, that had fallen in his lap in the form of the blight, Trevelyan described the Famine in 1848 as “a direct stroke of an all-wise and all-merciful Providence” and he was soon knighted for his Irish services. He died in his bed aged 79. As recently as 2014, the BBC felt able to publish this sickening biographical sketch. He has come to represent the British government’s controversial policies of minimal intervention and attempting to encourage self-reliance, and he remains a contentious figure in Ireland. His most lasting contribution, however, began in the 1850s with the publication of his and Sir Stafford Northcote’s report on ‘The Organization of the Permanent Civil Service’.
To put this snow-job in some context, a BBC viewers poll in 2002 ranked another keen exterminator of Irish civilians and prisoners, Oliver Cromwell, as the tenth greatest Briton of all time. Then again, to give just one crude example of how the spirit of collaboration is endemic in Ireland too, it was only a year earlier that a book by an Irish printer – Cromwell, An Honourable Enemy – received respectful, serious reviews in several Irish broadsheets. The same crank had another go at his theme in 2014, which at least then gave occasion to a funny demolition in the Irish Times by Pádraig Lenihan. I am not sure why Reilly includes a report that Cromwell had his penis shot off at Drogheda. But I am glad he did.
As for the academic “revisionists”, those West Brits bent on whitewashing the Famine as something that just happened – es ist passiert, to borrow the words of Robert Musil – and sneering at folk memory as ‘myth’, well, they had a much longer free run of media propaganda but that too has had its day, not least because (i) the Troubles in the North are over and (ii) the mainstream media are in steady decline. These characters are now often reduced to figures of fun, like the Trinity College Dublin professor hired in 2013 by a private TV station to dig up a 1920s IRA ‘killing field’ in Co. Laois. To the professor’s bewildered disappointment, they found nothing but at least they left the field nicely ploughed for its owner. The same professor subsequently opened Department of Justice files in Dublin to discover the skeletons he’d been looking for had been of men who hadn’t been killed at all.
In contrast to those Irish campus quislings who invented a version of Irish history that most British scholars would greatly hesitate to endorse, it was the English historian Robert Kee who more honestly observed that the Famine could be seen as comparable in its force on “national consciousness to that of the Final Solution on the Jews”. The round figures themselves are uncontested. A million people died. Another two million had left the country by 1860.