Robert Kee: History of Ireland Episode 4 FAMINE

Nora Connolly 

Image© illustrated London News, December 22, 1849

 It’s so lonely round the fields of Athenry…

Robert Kee focuses on the emotive issue of the Irish Potato Famine from 1845 to 1849. Explaining why the population in the West and South West depended on this food for nutrition, outlining the organisation of land and tenancy arrangement`s. Other crops abundantly produced sold to pay rent, encapsulated by the following contemporaneous observation reported in Hansard, `not a bit of bread have I eaten since I was born, nor a bit of butter. We sell all the corn and the butter to give to the landlords [for rent] yet I have the largest farm in the district and am as well off as any man in the county`. The population which increased to eight million was linked to the peculiar organisation of land tenure in Ireland, `land was divided into smaller and smaller plots – the number of those depending on the potato grew larger and larger`. In Kee`s written history he demonstrates an in-depth understanding of issues i.e. the impact on agriculture post Napoleonic Wars such an analysis not always possible in a fifty minute television overview.

When the potato blight hit Ireland in September 1845, the country was full of food which was required for export. The threat of eviction a real one, forcing tenants to pay rent in extremis, in order to avoid the double indignity of starvation by the roadside. Once the tenant removed (the picture of Bridget O`Donnell illustrates) the home vandalised by landlords (not all behaved this way as Kee points out). Tens of thousands dying in this manner, a human tragedy which Kee reminds us, took place in a region of Britain; Connemara as British as Yorkshire.

All of this played directly into the hands of Irish nationalists and subsequently shaped an orthodox historical perspective and nationalist narrative. However, RF Foster convincingly argues that it would have been impossible for the government to stop the exportation of food from Ireland. And even if governmental powers had been available, the resistance from the Irish farming class would have blocked it. Furthermore he argues from 1847 `Ireland was importing five times as much grain as she was exporting`. On the other hand, Kee reports a cargo of food leaving Cork in 1848 suggesting an extraordinary amount of food was leaving this impoverished land. He portrays a country where great wealth and banquets existed, in the midst of mass starvation.

Kee highlights that the government, within the confines of political economy, did act. He outlines the role initially played by `conscientious` Prime Minister Robert Peel, setting up an inquiry and crucially organising food stuffs imported from America and stored in depots in Ireland. A Relief Commission was formed to co-ordinate with the Irish Landowners. Public Works programmes, organised to provide wages for people in order to buy food. The Repeal of the Corn Laws is soundly critiqued by Kee, explaining the irrelevance of this measure, `a third of the Irish Population couldn’t afford bread at any price`.  But Foster counters this view by highlighting that Peel`s policies in Ireland were `more effective than sometimes allowed`. He also makes a comparison with Belgium, who in 1867, dealt with a famine in much the same way as the British government. Foster does agree that British policy differed as it `fluctuated` resulting in a fatal `time-lag`. Perhaps the Belgian government benefitted from British mistakes helping them later to finesse policy.

The rationale of political economy, held back the distribution of food stuffs stored in Cork, while outside Kee informs us people were starving, eventually the authorities, after lengthy delay, releasing food in 1846. Kee describes the efforts of the starving to commandeer food sent for export, as desperate people `with bones protruding through their skins` took the decision to attack food conveys. This is a bleak picture, which gets worse at the mention of Charles Trevelyan, the civil-servant responsible for famine relief in Ireland. With a commitment to political economy, akin to his Malthusian explanation for the famine in Ireland. This logic unfettered when matched to his justification to export food from a starving country. Trevelyan is damned with faint praise by Kee as `a cultivated man`. The Mandarin appearing to exhaust himself conjuring up endless ways to deny the starving food, in order to protect the sanctity of political economy. He is portrayed almost as a Victorian villain (knighted in 1848). He died aged eighty-five no doubt in his own comfortable bed.

Kee describes the closing down of depots but also points out that by August 1846 the Public Works were having an impact. However, only 140,000 people were involved, while two million dependent on the potato. The Workhouses took a further 100,000 but that hardly benefited those locked outside, doing the minimum for those inside.

The government, Kee explains, handed responsibility for this issue over to the Landlords, a perilous decision. And when Lord John Russell became Prime Minister in 1846 it looked like a good potato crop was on the way, a forecast that allowed Trevelyan to close down the public works programme. Doing so whilst rejecting a shipment of maize bound for the starving. Such was his fear of `having this country on you for an indefinite number of years`. When the crop failed Trevelyan reintroduced the Public Works Programme but omitted the Treasury from financial responsibility placing matters in the hands of `the Landlords and the local rates`. Wages were kept low, often not paid, highlighted by various Inquests at the time as a cause of death.

Kee tells countless stories of starvation – burials for those wearing rags stripped before they were planted in the ground, in order to clothe others. We hear of the impact of `Road Fever` of hundreds of corpses lining the roads and of cannibalism – mothers eating their own children – Swift`s nightmare incarnate – minus the satire of his modest proposal. Those not buried providing food for the dogs. Such carnage prompted charitable action in the form of soup kitchens, with Queen Victoria sending a substantial cash donation.

Eventually the government introduced `revolutionary change` and began to distribute free food. Public Works abandoned but food was slow in arriving, delay resulting in more deaths, aggravated by the ending of the works programme.  By 1847 three-million were receiving direct relief but at the hint of another good harvest, `Trevelyan reacted by easing all government relief in the Soup Kitchen Act in August 1847`. At this point we are told the role of central government ceased and the issue placed on the local rates as `Ireland now had to be left to what Trevelyan called the operation of natural causes`. Emigration well underway prior to the famine now rapidly accelerated.

However, is it right to judge Trevelyan by today`s social democratic standard? Should we not instead view his actions within the context of the time, based on the alternatives available? As Foster explains Trevelyan `simply epitomised the Whig view of economic theory, as did Wood (Chancellor of Exchequer) and Lord John Russell`.

In the 1840s the Irish population stood, according to Foster, at 8,200,000 and by 1911 it was reduced to 4,400,000. He offers various contentious estimates on those who died from disease alone. These figures range from 775,000 to 1,000,000 to 1,500,000. This famine took place when few policy alternatives were available (unlike today). And as AN Wilson points out the government provided £7 million pounds for famine relief in 1847, a huge though inadequate sum. However, a few years later, Wilson explains, the government was able to find £70 million to help finance the Crimean War. Strange and depressing, how governments find money to take life. And that is as true today, as it was in the middle of the nineteenth century.

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