Nothing ‘natural’ about this disaster

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29/12/2021 by socialistfight

Worth another look:
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.

Socialist Fight

Irish famineBridget 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…

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