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The potato famine


Sir Tokyo Sexwale

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IN 1997 Tony Blair, the British prime minister, made the first formal apology for Britain’s role in the Irish famine. Between 1845 and 1855 Ireland lost a third of its population—1 million people died from starvation and disease and 2 million emigrated. Mr Blair regretted a time when those who governed in London had failed their people. Two new books explore Britain’s role in the famine and rekindle the debate about whether its misdeeds can be considered genocide.

 

“The Graves are Walking” by John Kelly, a historian and popular science writer, is an engrossing narrative of the famine, vividly detailing Victorian society and the historical phenomena (natural and man-made) that converged to form the disaster. The decimation of the potato crop in the 1840s brought on the danger of mass starvation, but it was the British response that perpetuated the tragedy. The hand of nature, as illustrated in both books, caused only part of the problem.

 

Both authors describe the folly and cruelty of Victorian British policy towards its near-forsaken neighbour in detail. The British government, led by Sir Charles Trevelyan, assistant secretary to the Treasury (dubbed the “Victorian Cromwell”), appeared far more concerned with modernising Ireland’s economy and reforming its people’s “aboriginal” nature than with saving lives. Ireland became the unfortunate test case for a new Victorian zeal for free market principles, self-help, and ideas about nation-building.

 

Ireland still functioned as a basic barter economy—few hands exchanged money and the peasant population relied on their potato crops, which had failed. But rather than provide aid and establish long-term goals for recovery, Trevelyan and his cohorts saw a chance to introduce radical free-market reforms. As Mr Kelly notes, Trevelyan sent his subordinates to Ireland equipped with Adam Smith’s writings, like missionaries sent to barbarian lands armed with bibles. One absurd project to introduce a money economy was part of the public works scheme. Peasants were hired to build unnecessary roads in order to earn money to buy food. But wages were often not enough to match the high food prices enforced by Trevelyan as a measure to attract imports to Ireland, especially from America.

 

The belief that the famine was God’s intention also guided much of Britain’s policy. They viewed the crop failures as “a Visitation of Providence, an expression of divine displeasure” with Ireland and its mostly Catholic peasant population, writes Mr Kelly. Poverty was considered a moral failure. Within a few years Irish immigrants flooded the port cities of Liverpool in England, Montreal and Quebec in Canada and New York. The emigrant was considered an object of horror and contempt, as Mr Kelly writes: “pedestrians turned and walked the other way; storekeepers bolted the door or picked up a broom; street urchins mocked his shoeless feet, filthy clothing and Gaelic-accented English.” Throughout the book, Mr Kelly bemoans the tragic effects of human folly, neglect and Victorian ideology in causing the famine and its aftermath. He rejects the charge of genocide. Tim Pat Coogan, however, takes a more radical view in “The Famine Plot”.

 

Mr Coogan, an Irish historian and journalist, is, to many, the unofficial voice of modern Irish history. In the introduction to his polemical history of the disaster, he labels the famine genocide and criticises other Irish historians as revisionists who are sanitising the famine’s story. His previous books about the IRA and the reputation of Eamon de Valera, Ireland’s president in the 1960s, caused controversy, but his view of the Irish famine is more widely accepted. Like Mr Kelly, Mr Coogan blames the free market economics that Britain tried, and failed, to apply to Ireland’s problem, but believes that their negligent actions were deliberate. He also describes, in painful detail, the indignity and hardship suffered by the peasant population who were stigmatised by anti-Catholic prejudice and the belief that poverty was self-inflicted.

 

His most compelling argument for British negligence is in the final chapter, in which he recalls the xenophobic images and words commonly used to caricature the Irish in Victorian England. Trevelyan and other architects of the famine response had a direct hand in filling the newspapers with the “oft-repeated theme that the famine was the result of a flaw in the Irish character.” And Punch, a satirical magazine, regularly portrayed “‘Paddy’ as a simian in a tailcoat and a derby, engaged in plotting murder, battening on the labour of the English workingman, and generally living a life of indolent treason,” explains Mr Coogan. The result of such dehumanising propaganda was to make unreasonable policy seem more reasonable and just.

 

The question remains as to whether misguided ideology of a previous era can be found culpable of a greater evil. Mr Kelly’s engrossing book lays out the evidence but stops short of calling it genocide. Mr Coogan’s opinion that the famine was genocide is clear. But both books make a compelling case for why we should revisit our current understanding of it.

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I dont know if I would class it as genocide, to me genocide would mean the famine was deliberately used as a means to wipe out as much of the Irish population as was possible. Ive no doubts the actions of the british government in conjunction with the "landowners" caused untold suffering and death amongst those on this island and the fact is they could easily have provided solutions to the issue but they didnt, its just im not sure if the intention behind their actions was to wipe out the irish.

Edited by Ostrich Man
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Is there another, preferred, terminology?

 

Like Tony, we did very little on this in school so I'm pretty ignorant.

 

Not particularly. It gets called whimsical things like "the great hunger" in Ireland.

 

But I think that there is probably good reason to avoid calling it a 'famine' when that word helps perpetuate the concept of a natural disaster, when in fact it was little more than a barbaric programme of social engineering.

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I don't like threads where the OP (usually macca) posts something and leaves it. Like if there's a presumption it's interesting the opening poster should find it interesting enough to post some thoughts.

 

you really want to hear Macca's thoughts ?

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Not particularly. It gets called whimsical things like "the great hunger" in Ireland.

 

But I think that there is probably good reason to avoid calling it a 'famine' when that word helps perpetuate the concept of a natural disaster, when in fact it was little more than a barbaric programme of social engineering.

 

So you're saying the crops failed through the direct action of the English government's social engineering? Or are you disputing that the crops failed at all? I'm in the same camp as many on here - i.e. I really don't know enough about it - so I am genuinely interested to know. It was my understanding that the crops did fail and that for all intents and purposes there was a famine of the main food crop in Ireland. Are you saying that is incorrect?

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So you're saying the crops failed through the direct action of the English government's social engineering? Or are you disputing that the crops failed at all? I'm in the same camp as many on here - i.e. I really don't know enough about it - so I am genuinely interested to know. It was my understanding that the crops did fail and that for all intents and purposes there was a famine of the main food crop in Ireland. Are you saying that is incorrect?

 

 

It's simple.

There was an over-reliance on potato.

The potato crop failed.

There was other natural alternatives available, livestock beimg a plentiful source (to stop this becoming what it did become).

These alternatives were not made available by the then foreign ruling classes.

People died or emigrated, millions (half the population).

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