Furthest Right

Did the Anglos Cause the Irish Potato Famine?

We hear a lot from every minority group about how they are oppressed by wealthier groups and therefore justified in demanding shakedown payments and more power, but upon inspection, most of these claims involve them making their problems into our problems.

For today, we offer an excerpt from Debunking History: 152 Popular Myths Exploded by Ed Rayner and Ron Stapley, focusing on the Irish potato famine:

The Irish famine had become a disaster of unprecedented magnitude by the summer of 1846, and its after effects, in terms of epidemics and destituion, continued long after the good harvests of 1847 and 1848. During the worst years over a million died. The famine embittered further the relationship between the English and the Irish, and it was an important factor in the Irish demand for self-rule. It was generally believed in Ireland that an Irish government would have handled the famine better than the British government had done — surely it could have done no worse. So arose the widely held belief that the British government had failed to deal effectively with the famine; worse, that the British government had deliberately allowed the famine to rage in order to weaken Ireland and bring it to heel. And it passed into legenda that the governments of Sir Robert Peel and Lord John Russell were so influenced by Malthus’s views on population that they regarded a decline in Ireland’s population as inevitable and even desirable, and did little to prevent it. The British government gave credence to these views by publicly apologising in 1998 for the British handling of the famine — an apology based more on political expediency than historical accuracy. How much truth is there in these indictments against the governments of Peel and Russell?

It could be argued that in one sense England was responsible for the famine. England had imposed upon Ireland an alien system of land tenure. Two and a half centuries earlier the English had dispossessed the ruling Irish chieftains and had replaced Irish landholding with a modified form of the landholding practiced in England. But whereas in England most tenant farmers held long leases, in Ireland care was taken that tenants held land on short leases, or, as tenants-at-will, on no leases at all. Thus when tenants on short leases improved their land it gave landlords the incentive to rack up the rents. After all, improved land was in demand and would command much higher returns. While the main crop was grain it was necessary for tenants to keep their land in full cultivation, but the introduction of the potato brought a dramatic change. It was a crop which could feed a family for a year on 20 per cent of the acreage necessary for a family dependent on oats or wheat. So a tenant farmer could leave much of his land uncultivated, allow his outbuildings to fall into rack and ruin, and keep a few animals to sell to pay the rent. This would be kept low by the poor and neglected state of his holding. Landless labourers would still work for the landowner, growing corn largely for export to England, but the tenant farmer would subsist virtually entirely on the potato which could provide almost all his nutritional needs. The potato came into widespread usse in the second half of the eighteenth century. By 1845 it is reliably estimated that half of Ireland’s eight million population was totally dependent on it.

There had been partial failures of the potato crop before 1845, and these had necessitated widespread relief measures. But no one anticipated a disaster of the magnitude of 1845-6. Peel’s Conservative government became alarmed when potato blight appeared in England in August 1845. Two experts, Dr Lyon Playfair and Professor Lindley, reported in late October that the situation was very serious, and that Ireland’s potato harvest would be less than half of normal. They recommended drying potatoes in kilns, and applying chemical preservatives. These remedies were useless, but time was wasted in trying them. Since Peel received the report in late October there was some complacency in that most of the potatoes had already been harvested and were in store. So at first there was skepticism about the gravity of the situation. But potatoes taken from store were often found to be rotten, and Peel’s public utterances showed from the beginning that he recognised not only the seriousness of the situation, but also that it was the government’s responsibility to deal with the famine, regardless of the laisser-faire notions current at the time. Peel decided to suspend the Corn Laws as early as November, but some of his aristocratic allies thought the Corn Law crisis had been drummed up for political reasons and that the rotten potato had become a political vegetable. One royal duke whent so far as to assert that rotten potatoes mixed with grass made a very nutritious meal.

But this callous indifference did not represent the policy of government. The Irish clamoured for a ban on corn exports. The English corn harvest had failed, while the Irish one was only a little below normal. Wagons taking corn to the ports while the Irish countryside starved necessitated the use of troops to guard them. But Peel thought that banning corn exports would solve nothing. It would ruin the landowners, some of whom were trying to help their tenants, and its retention for sale in Ireland would avail little as the Irish could not afford to buy it. Moreover, to aggravate the corn shortage in England by banning Irish corn exports would have been politically suicide and in Peel’s view unhelpful. He proposed other measures. He scoured Southern Europe to buy disease-free seed potatoes for the spring sowing. Even so, 75 per cent of the 1846 potato harvest was lost. Soup kitchens were set up in Irish towns and accessible Irish villages. These had the double motive of bringing succour to the starving and attempting to wean the Irish off their dependence on the potato. He secretely ordered maize to the value of £160,000 from the USA and sold it openly to the Irish peasantry at 1d per pound. To the peasant brought up on potato, maize savoured of animal feed and was unpleasant to the taste — it was nicknamed “Peel’s brimstone.” But the Irish were soon glad enough to eat it. To help the destitute pay for the maize and other available foods, Peel set up, through the Board of Works, a programme of relief works, such as drainage, railway construction and road improvements. Over £½ million was spent on this in 1846, but it was ineffective. Starving men could not cope with heavy labour. The officials in charge had no experience of dealing with famine; the few that had experience it in India were still there. Some 15,000 officials were required in a matter of a few weeks, and many unsatisfactory appointments were made. There was much jobbery and corruption.

Even more was spent on relief works in 1847, but in March, rather tardily, Russell’s government gave the Irish boards of Guardians permission to grant outdoor relief. Ireland’s workhouses were being swamped. The harvest of 1847 was good good and showed little sign of blight, yet in many was 1847 was the worst famine year. Infectious disease was always dendemic in Ireland, and after nearly two years of deprivation diseases such as typhus took a heavy toll. It is impossible state with accuracy how many died of disease and how many of starvation. It was not usual Irish practice to carry out post-mortems on bodies that had been lying undiscovered for weeks in remote districts. The lack of railways and the poor state of Irish roads meant that some areas were virtually untouched by relief efforts. But it is estimated that typhus killed 350,000 in 1847 alone, and tuberculosis resulting from the famine was still killing its victims into the 1850s. The best estimates suggest that, during the years 1845-51, ¼ million died of starvation, 1 million died of disease and 300,000 emigrated. At its height in the spring of 1847 3 million of Ireland’s 8 million were in receipt of some form of public relief. Of the one-third of Irish landlords who were ruined by the famine, many had lost everything by showing a duty to their tenants. They were soon to be replaced by absentee landlords interested only in maximising their rent rolls.

England was not indifferent to Ireland’s plight. £7 million of public funds was spent on government relief efforts. Public subscription and private charities substantially supplemented the government’s contribution. With annual government expenditure in excess of £50 million an allocation of little more than 2 per cent to Ireland at the height of famine seems inadequate. Yet the Irish famine could not easily have been solved by throwing more money at it. Distribution of relief suffered from inadequate roads and the absence of railways. It lacked honest and experienced officials. Attempts to distribute relief were often met by sullen resentment, suspicion and hostility from those the government was trying to help. Time was wasted on useless measures to deal with and prevent the spread of blight. And in the mid-1840s there were no magic bullets for the prevention and cure of epidemic disease. It is thus somewhat churlish to question the humintarian motives of Peel’s and Russel’s government. Neighter government would have wanted so many deaths on their conscience. They floundered, and they possible did too little, too late, but the famine was more the result of natural agents than human ones. (pp. 6-10)

As usual, the primary culprits in third world failure are the lack of organization, reliable officials, functional roads, and sensible agricultural practices in the third world. England moving Ireland to the system used in England made sense from an administrative perspective.

It is worth considering that diversity ruined England as well, since the Potato Famine brought political instability in its wake, but even more because an attempt to make the Irish behave like a first-world population backfired because the Irish people as individuals were not ready for the burden.

When we consider the utter wrecking ball that Irish immigration to the United States has been, it makes sense to consider how much of its mythos as righteous victims is a lie, and how much every diversity complaint about the majority similarly displaces their problems into your problem.

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