Nothing ‘natural’ about this disaster


08/01/2015 by socialistfight

Irish famine

Bridget O’Donnell and her two starving children, Skibbereen 1849
Published in the Irish Post February 24, 1996.

The highest mortality rate in the period between September 1846 and September 1847 was 19 per cent in the parish of Goleen (my own parish) and 18 per cent in (neighbouring) Drinagh, with half the deaths occurring in March and April of Black ’47, by far the worst year.

Gerry Downing provides an overview of the recently published Thomas Davis lectures on the Irish Famine, which, he says, give the lie to historical revisionism.
Consisting of sixteen RTE lecture, the Great Irish Famine, the Thomas Davis Lecture Series, edited by Cathal Pórtéir, gives an in- depth picture of the circumstances surrounding the Great Famine of 1845 to 1851. However, because of the format, the compilation suffers from a lack of overview. I aim here to supply that overview and show that the details given so professionally prove beyond doubt that the famous dictum of the revolutionary nationalist John Mitchell – “God sent the potato blight, but England sent the Famine” – was correct.

Ruthless pursuit
Laissez faire, the doctrine of economic self-sufficiency and market forces was used to obscure the fact that the Famine was basically the result of the ruthless pursuit of the economic interests of the new Whig administration of Lord John Russell of 1846. The one million dead and two million immigrants were not down to “providence”. Despite themselves, even the contributions of those who obviously lean towards the historical revisionist trend, so fashionable of late, prove this if we ignore their moralism and half- baked excuses for the actions of the British (and Irish!) establishment.

Lord John Russell: celebrated scourge of the rotten boroughs and architect of democratic reform

“Lord John Russell: celebrated scourge of the rotten boroughs and architect of democratic reform” and mass murderer of the Irish peasantry in the Great Famine, the Telegraph caption writer forgot to tell us. Photo: Getty Images

The so-called ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688 was a compromise between the land—owning aristocracy and a rising mercantile capitalist class. In Ireland, for the next 150 years, the mainly absentee English landed aristocracy pressed home the advantage gained by the defeat of the Irish in the battles of the Boyne and Aughrim. The Penal Laws of the 18th century, which denied Catholics all civil liberties, were perfectly designed to maximise the income of these tyrants. Tenants were rack- rented – if they made any improvements to the land, the rent was raised – and land had to be subdivided among the children of the tenant. However, if any son converted to Protestantism, he inherited the lot.
The cottier sub-class, often sub-tenants of larger tenant farmers, and small-holding direct tenants were driven further and further into the marginal lands of the west of Ireland, higher and higher up the mountains. They subsisted on the potato and later the ‘lumper’ potato, which, while it was of inferior quality and more susceptible to disease, was perfectly evolved to crop heavily in poor soils. The cash crops – oats, barley, and rye – were sold to pay the rent.

Eviction of a poor ”cottier” class family during the Famine.

Even more vulnerable than these were the landless labourers, dependant on seasonal work from farmers. The population explosion of four million between 1780 and 1845 (p. 24) was directly encouraged by the landlords to maximise rent income. However, at the turn of the century, as the English and Scottish industrial revolutions gathered pace, two new classes began to assert them- selves” the industrial capitalist class and the industrial working class.
By the 1840s, the industrial capitalists and their allies in sections of the land-owning aristocracy saw a need to re-negotiate the Act of Settlement of 1688. The conflict that emerged was not just about the Corn Laws but about which section of the ruling class would politically dictate the future course of Britain. The industrialists wanted to allow in cheap corn from the plains of North America and so begin the cheap food policy to placate the rising discontent of the working classes about their terrible poverty. This was fiercely opposed, mainly by those with large estates in Ireland, as it undercut their main source of revenue, the subsidised corn from Ireland.
In 1846, the Whig (Liberal) government of Lord John Russell came to power when the Tories, under Sir Robert Peel, split over the repeal of the Corn Laws. These laws had seen the import of corn from Ireland rise from 16 percent in 1790 to 80 percent in 1830 (p 20) to feed the new English industrial working class. As soon as the ‘protectionists’ were defeated, the owners of Irish estates understood that a new source of income from different capitalist methods of farming was necessary. Lord Palmerston informed the cabinet of the necessity for this new system:

“It is useless to disguise the truth that any great improvement in the social system of Ireland must be founded upon an extensive change in the present state of agrarian occupation, and this change necessarily implies a long, continued and systematic ejection of small holders and cottiers.” (p 163).

It is reported that a shudder went through the entire cabinet at this coldly-delivered sentence of death. In the wake of the clearances, a new rural Ireland emerged. Thomas Scott bought the estate of R. H. H. Belcher of Holybrook Skibbereen, Co. Cork, on behalf of an English miner (surely mine- owner?) and “consolidated” the “higgledy-piggledy mixture of fields” into new farms. He introduced Italian rye grass and fertilisers, raised the tenants’ rent by 50 per cent, and urged them to keep more cattle and grow more crops. Sheep, cattle and dairy produce must now take the place of the Irish peasantry. (p 199-200).
However, between the new system of agriculture and the old there stood upwards of three million Irish cottiers and smallholders and land- less labourers who could not be expected to agree very easily that history had consigned them to its dustbin. They were almost all Gaelic-speaking and had a rich cultural tradition. They had not devised the system that they lived under, but they had adapted it brilliantly to their needs.
Dr. Kevin Whelan describes the rundale and clachan system of communal landholding, baile or nucleated farmhouses, individual garraí, or vegetable gardens and the ‘infield’, where individual families owned alternative ridges producing the cash crops, separated by a sturdy wall from the ‘outfield’, the poorer, hillier land where grazing was allocated by the old Gaelic qualitative measure, the ‘collop’. These were periodically redistributed to ensure fairness, implying a highly-developed democratic system (p 23).
There can be no doubt from these pages that the Whig government was far worse for Ireland than the previous Tory one because it pursued different economic interests. In the Autumn of 1847, the Treasury Secretary, the infamous Sir Charles Trevelyan, declared the Famine over and, henceforth, the provision of relief was down to the Irish Poor Law rate-payers. As the Famine progressed, the rents dried up, the poor- houses were bursting at the seams, and a vicious circle developed.
The more poor and destitute there were, the greater were the demands on the boards of guardians to provide relief, so they raised the poor rates. But the destitute could not pay. The Poor Law decreed the landlord was liable for the rates of those with holdings valued less than four pounds, so they evicted to save themselves from bankruptcy. In 1847 the Whig administration passed the Extension Act which allowed public works ‘as repulsive as possible consistent with humanity’  to able-bodied paupers. The notorious ‘Gregory’ clause decreed that no relief could be given if the applicants had more than a quarter of an acre of land until they gave up that land. It was passed in the House of Commons without a single dissenting British vote and only seven Irish MPs opposed (Gregory was a Dublin MP, the husband of the much younger and more famous Irish nationalist and patron of the arts, Lady Gregory) (p 190).
Various boards of guardians interpreted this clause as they wished. Many refused the wives and children of destitute cottiers relief until the holding was given up and many interpreted it to mean that the entire holding and cabin must be given up, and the cabin levelled, before they were allowed into the workhouse.
The Home Secretary instructed boards of guardians to ignore legal opinion that this was against the law. Laissez faireism would not allow food to be distributed free by the government so, in the worst months of 1847, Swanton’s mill in Skibbereen, Co. Cork, had between 100 and 200 tons of meal but the starving had no money to buy it (p 190).
The Whigs, whose policy in this was dictated by the two great Irish landowners in the cabinet, Lord Palmerston and Lord Clanricard, took advantage of a unique set of circumstances. Three years of famine rendered the cottiers and smallholders too weak to resist the mass evictions and clearances.
The poor law union of Kilrush, Co. Clare had its population slashed from 82,000 to 60,000 in late 1847 and 1848 mainly by mass evictions. James S. Donnelly Junior estimates that these evictions came close to half million in the period from 1845 to 1854. Thirty-three per cent of these were in the counties of Clare, Mayo, Galway and Kerry.
The Earl of Lucan evicted 3,000 in the parish of Ballinrobe, Co. Mayo, alone and boasted that he would not “breed paupers to pay priests”. (p. 156 et seq.). As the Limerick and Claire Examiner observed, though they put the responsibility the wrong way around, “the good landlords are going to the bad, and the bad are going to the worst extremities of cruelty and tyranny, while both are suffered by a truckling and heartless government to make a wilderness of the country and a waste of human life” (p. 165—166). Without the Famine, the level of evictions would have produced civil war. Indeed, since O’Connell’s Monster Meetings, this was a constant fear of the government.

The Mizen Peninsula compromises the ancient parish of Kilmoe, modern Goleen, with the worst death rate from the Famine in the whole of Ireland in Black ’47. Its population fell from 12,594 in 1841 to 6,553 in 1851. It stood at 1,163 in 2002, Source, Next Parish to America, Complied and Edited by Denis Downey for Goleen and District Community Council, p 141.
One of the most powerful essays in the compilation is from Patrick Hickey of the West Cork parish of Drimoleague/Drinagh on the Famine in the Skibbereen Union (1845-51). His vivid accounts of the terrible devastation wrought during those six years in the six parishes in Skibbereen reminds us why “Revenge for Skibbereen” was the battle cry for revolutionary nationalists in Ireland over the next half century. The highest mortality rate in the period between September 1846 and September 1847 was 19 per cent in the parish of Goleen (my own parish) and 18 per cent in Drinagh, with half the deaths occurring in March and April of Black ’47, by far the worst year. The workhouses in Skibbereen had 1,170 inmates and there were 106 deaths in the week ending March 27. The Union lost 36 per cent of its population by death and immigration in those six years, failing from 85,222 to 54,477. For every three that died of starvation, six died of ‘“famine fever” (p. 185 et seq.)
This book should be read for details on Quebec’s Grosse Isle and the coffin ships; on the stigma of souperism and Protestant evangelism; on the relationship between priest and congregation; on the total lack of political representation which the cottiers, small-holders and landless labourers had at the time; as well as the details of the famine fevers’ and the reasons why the Irish respond so generously to present-day famines. It is a must for all those who want to understand the history of the Great Famine and a slap in the face for the historical revisionists who peddle the lie of ‘natural disaster’.
The Great Irish Famine, The Thomas Davis Lecture Series is published by Mercier Press, priced IR 8.99.

One thought on “Nothing ‘natural’ about this disaster

  1. […] [1] Nothing ‘natural’ about this disaster, Published in the Irish Post February 24, 1996, Gerry Downing provides an overview of the recently published Thomas Davis lectures on the Irish Famine, which, he says, give the lie to historical revisionism. […]


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