|The Potato Famine in History
by Conrad Jay Bladey
Often accounts of the famine
fail to account for all elements of the complex multidimensional equation of the tragedy. One such dimension for example, that of Anglo Irish relations, is the complex byproduct of hundreds and hundreds of years of interaction between the cultures of Ireland and those of England. The "bad blood" between the two which was present during the famine years was produced by the two players equally as one pushed and the other shoved back over time. Additionally any study of the Famine must recognize that there are two distinct cultures involved.
The attributes of each culture both, Celtic and Anglo, structured in a particular and causal way the relationships of both to the challenges presented by the failure of the crop. Thus the inner nature of both cultures as cultures rather than as simply political entities must be carefully examined.
It is quite important to remember that prior to
the Great Famine crop failure had been a part
of the lives of the Irish for centuries.
Famines and Crop Failures Prior to 1845
1740-1741 Massive loss of life (perhaps more than during the Great Famine)
1800-1801 Severe average mortality 50,000 - 60,000
1816-19 Severe average mortality 50,000 - 60,000
1821-2 Welfare Assistance helps lower mortality
1830-31 (Europe Wide famine causing agrarian unrest in Britain) Welfare
Assistance helps lower
1839 - regional distress (South and West)
1842- regional distress (South and West)
The reality of the continual occurrence of Famine over time is important
considers adaptation and cultural response. Other European cultures most notably that
of Denmark developed cooperative structures, "social safety nets" if you will, in response
to the occurrence of the same cycles of Famine which occurred in Ireland. While it is true
that Ireland was a colony it is also true that the Irish People possessed significant freedom
and free will. This is reflected in their ability to negotiate with and welcome foreign armies
and obtain military resources. Additionally in the decades prior to the famine there existed a severe level of non-conformance between the Irish People and landlords/overseers. Secret societies
severely disrupted the fair administration of justice and hindered the essential cooperation
between landlord and tenant required for mutual benefit. In the light of the Famine one must question, all be it in retrospect, the wisdom of such a high level of investment in hostility and non conformance with the system of administration of the land. This observation does not obscure
the nobility of "freedom fighting" but it does recognize its position on the scale with lives and
human suffering being in the balance.
1800 population 5.0 million 1821 population 6.5 million 1841 population 8.0 millionThe dependence of the Irish upon the potato helped greater numbers to survive. Potatoes which could feed many could be grown on small plots and not detract from the payments due the landlord for cash crops. However, none of this growth would have been possible without the presence of a thriving economy--potato or no potato--and the prosperity which brought growth was provided by England.
England was a valuable trading partner--even if a politically dominant one. With the end of a boom, however, comes a bust and unemployment was the result. It is the backdrop for the famine and a primary underlying foundation for the events and suffering which occurred.
There was a very good case made that should agricultural production for cash be shut down, the English would be hurting those that they were trying to help. (One should not miss here the similarity of the recent situation in South Africa. The U.S. discouraged boycott so that African workers would continue to be employed and the country could remain stable to bring about reforms in an orderly way.) The English Government hoped that through the application of funds and aid received from English taxpayers that the needs of the Irish people could be met. However, the disaster was far too large and complex.
Under the new government an economic philosophy called Laissez-Faire dominated the thinking of politicians and economists who desired to manage the economy. Still today, our own world economy is managed by economic gurus in the United States Federal Reserve working not from a concrete and exacting science but from a philosophy (no longer Laissez-Faire) which just happens to work from time to time. Laissez-Faire as a philosophy called for non-intervention by government in the economy and held that it was wrong for the government to meddle in economics at all. Charles Wood believed this strongly and he was the Chancellor of the Exchequer under the new Russell Government. Charles Trevelyan was the head of treasury--a permanent position--and he agreed. It is not that the government did not try to solve the Famine but that the economic theory (the specific cure selected) failed, as did the crop and the economy and the future plans of agricultural development. Government funding for aid and purchase of food was discontinued and the responsibility for aid placed into the hands of private enterprise. (Note the similarity to trickle-down economics and Reaganomics). Those who had the most to gain, it was thought, from economic prosperity would see to the protection of those who made that prosperity possible. The landlords and businessmen and investors, it was thought, had nothing to gain by allowing their workers to starve. Here several miscalculations were made. Just as the Irish culture was somewhat responsible for their economic adaptation or lack thereof, so too the culture of the businessman influenced their actions. Despite trouble with the economy upon which they depended, most landlords, Irish and English alike, living generally far away in England or on the Continent, maintained their lifestyles of conspicuous consumption as a cultural necessity maintained by cultural values. Landlords and businessmen did not have as pre-requisites for their employment humanitarian skills. (Actually according to Calvinism, grace follows deeds.) They were the same cruel and unsympathetic landlords and bosses described by Dickens. They were Irish as well as English living high on the hog. Note also that ever since the penal laws which limited Catholics from certain positions and occupations, that many Irish Catholics had entered the business community and were directly responsible for decisions made in economics and economic adaptation in Ireland. (Parnell discovered this following the Famine and stressed to the Irish people in his speeches that they should strike at the Irish landlords as well as the English.) It was only when the Irish realized that it was a class of people--landlords and businessmen--and not a Nation or a Culture which was guilty, that success and liberation eventually came.
Sep. 30,000 Oct. 150,000 Nov. 285,000 Dec. 500,000Expenditures to the Irish from the English Board of Works amounted to 30,000 £ sterling a day with an administrative staff of 11,500 persons paid by the English. You can argue "Not enough in retrospect," but nonetheless it was not a small sum for the day. And this under a laissez-faire government. Governments solve problems with paradigms and they tried one they thought would work. We will never know if other tactics could have been seen clearly at the time.
In January 1847, public works were abandoned and direct relief extended. An act was passed providing for the establishment of kitchens and the free distribution of soup. (Alexis Soyer, chef of the London Reform Club, lead an expedition to Ireland to bring modern methods for feeding the poor to their first test in Ireland.) Local fund raising groups were formed in England and all over the world and brought into Ireland. The Quakers formed an especially important relief team. (This local and grassroots effort in England especially has been painfully neglected by historians and those wishing to make political capital from the famine.)
Epidemics of famine fever (typhus) and relapsing fever combined with dysentery, caused by consumption of turnips. Also Indian meal provided by the government did not contain Vitamin C, a fact unknown at the time. Famine dropsy or hunger edema occurred as a result.
In 1847, 100,000 immigrants sailed to the U.S. (often via Canada).
We cannot leave any dimension out when trying to
understand the event. The well-intentioned assistance at great political
and financial cost to the English people and government must not be obscured
by folklore or cumulative hatred. The role of both cultures in tragedy
must be fully explored. While the culture of landlordism lacked humanitarianism,
the culture of Celtic Ireland greeted potato dependence with open arms
and failed to adapt to the new Industrial Age or cooperate fully with the
political/economic system which was attempting to manage the land, the
economy and administer justice. Cultural pride and Celtic/Irish ethnocentrism
stood as a mirror to British Industrialism and Imperialism and locked the
people between the image and the looking glass.
Significant resources were expended by the Irish in hostility and conflict. In the end thousands left a sinking country to its fate. Foreign countries for which the Irish had fought and died in costly wars of rebellion did not arrive to liberate the people from both England and the Famine when they were needed most.
Perhaps the greatest tragedy is the death of millions and the continuation of famines today to consume millions of lives unchecked. We cannot let history tell us that the painful fate of so many was somehow inevitable, that they could have done nothing over the centuries to escape it, because we too are those people. We just happened to have survived.
Are we doing enough today to escape cultural ethnocentrism and political inflexibility which propel cultures toward famine? Is our cultural "way of life" so strong that we too may be investing centuries in our own destruction? Will the hole in the Ozone, global warming, environmental pollution and the American/International "way of life" be our crop failures? Has our cultural imperialism and ethnocentricity made friends or enemies of those we may one day come to depend upon as neighbors?
Note: Calculation of Famine Fatalities
http://faculty.wcas.northwestern.edu/~jmokyr/mogbeag.pdf . and you will find
"Total famine mortality can be estimated by first projecting Irish population
from 1841 to the even of the famine in 1846. We then add the births that
occurred in the famine years 1846-50 and subtract out estimated out-migration
during the famine years. This yields a total of 1.9 million people dying in
Ireland in those 5 years".
I've attached a chart on which we used that same logic with more data. We wanted to find mortality by year and used a table from the 1851 census that gave percentages of the total deaths by year. But first, we had to find the total deaths. We took the 1841 census (which was a 5.25% increase over the previous one) and applied it to the understated 1841 census to come up with a population increase year by year up to 1845. Then, we used the reduced increase quoted in a study published in the American Economic Review in 1994 that the annual birth rate during the Great Hunger had dropped from 5.25% to 1.4%. In this way we came up with an adjusted 1851 population of 13.6 million. Subtracting the inflated 1851 census number we realized at least a 7 mil reduction in population. Subtracting the million who fled, we get a total mortality of 6 million. Then, using that 6 million with the table from the 1851 census giving the percentage of total deaths by year, we calculated more than 4.8 million deaths between 1845 and 1850. As incredible as that sounds, it's close to that cited on the memorial stone erected at Lios na Binne, a town in Cork that disappeared as a result of the Hunger. -Mike McCormack, 2/2009.
Select view image for much larger original.
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