Created on Monday, 10 December 2007 10:44 Written by Harry Whittaker
The blight which devastated Ireland's potato crops in the late 1840's was not confined to Ireland alone. It also descended upon other countries, notably Belgium and the Netherlands. It is true that these countries also lost a percentage of their populations through famine-related deaths: the Netherlands suffered a death toll of 60,000 and Belgium lost 48,000 ‑ about 2% and a little over 1% of their respective populations. Yet at the same time Ireland, under the control of the British Government, lost a staggering 13% of its population to death by disease and starvation.
How could it be that Britain, which was still the richest and most powerful country in the world, could not prevent this horrific death toll? The answer is simple ‑ the British ruling-classes did not want to minimize the death toll, on the contrary, they welcomed it!
Apologists for the British government will claim that it was Ireland's over reliance on the potato that caused the death and misery that the Irish endured during and long after the years of the 'Great Hunger' as it is known in Irish history. This is an argument that must be exposed for the shameful lie that it is. It was capitalism and landlordism, fully aided by Government policy, which resulted in the terrible tragedy which befell the people of Ireland.
The following is a by no means comprehensive account of the callous attitude of the British Government and the upper-classes during that terrible period in Ireland's history.
The Great Starvation, as the Irish called it, known to the rest of the world as The Irish Potato Famine or the Potato Blight, is blamed for the unspeakable tragedy that befell the rural community of Ireland during those terrible years. The mind-boggling death toll from starvation and disease, together with the horrific ordeals endured on the ‘coffin ships' by those wretched, half-starved emigrants who fled to America, constitute the most nightmarish chapter in Irish history, a story which will forever brand Britain's ruling-class and many of its so-called intelligentsia at that time with the indelible stigma of genocide and infamy.
"The miserable dress, and diet, and dwelling of the people; the general desolation in most parts of the kingdom; the old seats of the nobility and gentry all in ruins and no new ones in their stead; the families of farmers who pay great rents living in filth and nastiness upon buttermilk and potatoes, without a shoe or stocking to their feet, or a house so convenient as an English hogsty to receive them - these may, indeed, be comfortable sights to an English spectator who comes for a short time to learn the language, and returns back to his own country, whither he finds all our wealth transmitted." (Jonathan Swift, 1667 - 1745)
The living conditions of the Irish peasantry described by Swift were no better 100 years later in the pre-famine years of the mid-nineteenth century. The Irish agricultural labourer and his family were the poorest of the poor. Nowhere else in the world was there such extreme poverty: 75% of the dwellings were mere mud huts, many of them consisting of only one room, which the family shared with a pig whose manure was heaped outside the home to fertilize the next potato crop. When fully grown the pig would be used towards payment of the landlord's rent and another piglet raised to repeat the process. The great majority of agricultural labourers and their families lived on a diet consisting of potatoes, supplemented when they could afford it with buttermilk and, eggs if they were lucky enough to own two or three hens. The average man in rural Ireland consumed up to 14 pounds of potatoes each day. The potatoes the family did not eat, along with any corn they could grow, went to pay the rent for the miserable hovels they lived in.
Life was hard, stressful and insecure; a constant struggle to survive where even a partial crop failure could result in the entire family being evicted from its meagre plot and turned out onto the road. The big landowners were mostly absentee landlords who lived in England, where they tried to keep up with the rich life style of their English counterparts. To this end they hired agents to run their estates, squeezing the life's blood out of the downtrodden peasantry. Often the agent would let out large tracts of land to one farmer who would then be responsible for paying the rent for that land. He in turn would sub-let the land in small plots to be worked by the smaller farmers and labourers (cottiers). These smallholders lived in constant dread of the agents, who were ruthless in evicting tenants who failed to pay the rent to their parasitic masters. Those who were evicted or unemployed could only dwell in bog holes or put makeshift roofs over ditches to shelter themselves.
So how did the people of Ireland get themselves into this drastic state of extreme poverty and over-population? The English middle-class and ruling-class of that time seemed to think they knew the answer, although very few of them had ever set foot in Ireland: it was obvious, wasn't it? - the Irish were stupid, they were lazy, they lacked initiative, they were nothing more than a backward nation of beggars and human sheep who had to be led and looked after by the superior race; the superior race of course was that of the "True born Englishman".
The historian Macaulay wrote: ‘The English have become the greatest and most highly civilized people the world ever saw.' Other eminent historians, such as Lord Acton and Charles Kingsley, expressed similar ‘master race' nationalistic sentiments. Such was the arrogance of the middle and upper classes of 18th century England. Ever since the days of Cromwell the gentry and rulers of England believed that to be English and Protestant was to be superior in every aspect to all other breeds of men; they considered themselves especially superior to the Celts, particularly the Irish Celts. It must be said that some of the Scottish intelligentsia, such as philosopher David Hume and historian Thomas Carlyle also held this racist contempt for the Irish. All the more praise, therefore, to those more honourable Englishmen such as economists John Stuart Mill and George Scrope who had the courage to point the finger of blame for Ireland's plight exactly where it belonged - at the ruthless exploitation of Ireland by the British!
But the relentless racist diatribe continued. Popular journals claimed that living in rags and squalor came naturally to the Irish (Blackwood's Magazine) and that Celts in general and the Irish in particular were lazy and workshy (Fraser's Magazine). Even Benjamin Disraeli, who should have known better, made his own contribution to this racist ranting with a bigoted article in The Times: "...This wild, reckless, indolent, uncertain and superstitious race has no sympathy with the English character..."
Of course the Irish were far from being inferior to the British.. Nor were they lazy, they were as tough and hard-working as any race on the planet, as later generations were to prove beyond doubt. As for being backward, Ireland was renowned for its learning and its culture throughout Europe in the Middle Ages: it had the first hospital in Europe and students from many countries, including Anglo-Saxon England, flocked there to study medicine and religion; at least one English king, Aldfrith of Northumbria, studied there.
Then came the Anglo-Norman invasion: in 1169 the first Earl of Pembroke (Strongbow) invaded Ireland to settle a feud on behalf of the Irish chief Diarmuid MacMurrogh. Strongbow saw the opportunity to make himself Ard-Ri, the equivalent of becoming king of all Ireland, and Henry II was not going to put up with that. Henry had long been urged by Pope Adrian IV and his successor, Pope Alexander III, to conquer and rule Ireland. He decided to invade in 1170; that was the real beginning of Ireland's troubles. Thereafter Ireland endured feuds, rebellions, oppression, the Tudor and Cromwellian invasions (the latter reducing the country's population to half a million), and repeated confiscation of their land and estates.
The result of all this is that the Anglo-Irish landlords earmarked all the best farmland for the raising of cattle, sheep and pigs, and for the growing of grain, barley and oats which they exported to England at great profit. The remaining land was rented out to the rural poor and was mainly only fit for growing potatoes. One acre of potato crop could feed three times as many people as an acre of grain. Consequently the land could be rented out to three times as many people thus enabling three times as many workers to rent a plot, get married and start a family. This also led to land being sub-divided repeatedly till some were living on small strips of land and some were unemployed and had no land at all.
Hence, through a set of circumstances imposed upon them by others, the rural Irish became over-populated and over dependent on the potato for sustenance. The acclaimed historian Mrs Cecil Woodham Smith, in her book The Great Hunger (the most widely read work on Irish history) sums it all up perfectly: ‘All this wretchedness and misery could, almost without exception, be traced to a single source - the system under which land had come to be occupied and owned in Ireland, a system produced by centuries of successive conquests, rebellions, confiscations and punitive legislation'.
There had been a serious crop failure affecting parts of the country in 1865, but those affected managed to survive on whatever scraps of food and potatoes they could salvage, along with relief measures brought in by Peel's Tory Government. Peel's government had also introduced public works schemes which were unpopular because they were inefficiently and often corruptly administered by local officials and also because they took workers away from the farms. This experience, hard though it was to live through for those involved, was nothing compared to what lay ahead.
Things were looking good in the summer of 1846. There had been a small outbreak of the disease in early June in some parts of County Cork, but it had been contained and had done little damage. Then it returned. In late July farmers awoke to find the air filled with a vile, overwhelming stench so putrid and unbearable that it filled them with alarm. When they opened their doors that morning their alarm turned to fear: the stalks of their potato plants were discoloured and the leaves were brown-spotted and withering. The stalks broke off in their hands when they tried to pull up the potatoes, so in desperation they tried to dig them up with their bare hands. The potatoes had to be saved at all costs - their lives, their families' lives, the entire community's lives, depended upon it. But all their hands unearthed was a blackened, slimy, inedible pulp. And this time the disease was not restricted to Cork; every corner of the land was affected. The potato famine had arrived - and hell came riding on its back!
Man's inhumanity to man,
Makes countless thousands mourn.
Yes, hell came riding on its back: the hell of dying by inches with unrelenting pangs of hunger gnawing and clawing at your insides, your starving body eating its own muscle and brain tissue until your emaciated, lice-ridden body gives up the fight and disease or starvation finally kills you.
Starvation was not the only fate visited upon the long-suffering Irish rural community: there were also the horrific diseases that came with the famine, diseases such as typhus and cholera to which, with their weakened immune systems, they became easy prey; there were the cynical evictions, when sick and starving families had there homes demolished and then were kicked off their rich landlord's estate; and there was the Hobson's choice of death or emigration, resulting in families, friends and whole communities being forever split asunder.
All of these horrors, and more, could have been avoided or greatly reduced if the British Government had met its responsibilities; instead, by its action and inaction, this government, this abhorrent, abominable group of parasitical oligarchs, was instrumental in inflicting most of the suffering on those tragic victims of the famine, or, to be accurate, victims of so-called "Political Economy".
So what was Political Economy? It was a loose conglomeration of nonsensical ideas, along with Providentialism and Moralism, which shaped the political ideology of the day. It's most famous proponent was Thomas Malthus ( 1766-1834) who claimed that food production could never keep up with population growth and therefore population growth would have to be curtailed either by prudence or natural disaster - he considered birth-control to be wicked but on the other hand famines could be very helpful. He also believed charity to the poor to be a dangerous thing, something that had to be kept strictly under control. Unfortunately for the Irish, the influential Charles Edward Trevelyan, permanent head of the treasury, along with many other leading political figures of those days, was very much in favour of such ideas. To strip Political Economy of all its hypocritical arguments all it meant was ‘Let the rich get richer and let the poor go to hell!' In other words, like its repugnant political descendant, Thatcherism, it was nothing more than unfettered, dog-eat-dog capitalism.
There is no doubt that the British Government had the political and moral responsibility to resolve the problems caused by the famine. The Act of Union which came into effect on January 1, 1801, puts the political as well as the moral argument beyond doubt. But this act, following an Irish uprising in 1798, was achieved with bribery and false promises, and was no more than a pact between the landed gentry of both countries to watch each other's backs and keep the peasantry in their place. The ferment of revolutionary republicanism that was manifest in Ireland and Europe was contagious; the English ruling classes, alarmed at the thought of this unrest affecting the English peasantry and working-class, deemed it wise to close ranks with their Anglo-Irish counterparts.
To be fair, considering the political climate and the times they lived in, Peel's administration had been relatively prompt and helpful to the famine victims in 1845-46. Even the radical nationalist Irish newspapers of the day offered their grudging praise. But, by repealing the Corn Laws to bring down the price of grain, Peel committed political suicide. After the general election of 1846 the Whig administration under Lord Russell came into power, and those who pulled the strings of power were sympathetic to the ideas of Malthus. It was the worst thing that ever could have happened to the people of Ireland at that time.
Charles Trevelyan, backed by influential sympathisers such as Charles Wood, Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Whig government, was now going to handle the famine his way. The Peel administration had purchased corn which they stored in several depots in the worst affected parts of Ireland. This corn was to be resold at reduced prices. Trevelyan decided there was to be no more of that - private enterprise must supply the food. The only exception to this would be half-a-dozen inadequately stocked grain stores on the West coast, where no other food but the potato was ever available, but even these were only to be opened as a very last resort. Merchants asked for assurance that there would be no more food supplied by the government and this assurance was readily given along with the promise that there would be no more interfering with ‘the legitimate profits of private enterprise'.
If the Irish wanted famine relief they would have to work for it: with money provided by the local rates, a new public works scheme was to be introduced. If the local rates needed to be subsidised by government money then this money had to be repaid with interest within ten years (the public works scheme introduced by the Peel administration the previous year had proven much too costly). But this was not to be just an ordinary work scheme that could be of future use to the country: there would be no houses built for the dispossessed, nor hospitals for the sick; no improvements to existing roads or the country's infrastructure - that would be taking away potential business from private contractors. Instead this blinkered administration deliberately devised projects that would be completely useless to the people of Ireland. Thus it came about that half-starved men were forced to expend there remaining strength constructing roads that went from nowhere to nowhere and bridges that spanned non-existent rivers. Often their pittance of a payment for this useless labour was delayed; as a consequence many of them died who may have lived if they had been paid on time. But even this nonsensical plan proved too costly for the government's liking and they later decided to scrap it.
This then was the basic government famine relief plan, modified here and there as the famine continued. Trevelyan received enough warnings from his agents and the clergy in Ireland that to endorse these measures was like signing the death warrant for the Irish peasantry, but, rather than visiting Ireland and seeing for himself the plight of the famine victims, he haughtily stuck to his guns.
And the famine began to take its toll. People died. They died on their own, they died with their entire families; they died in their homes, they died in the poor houses; they died on the roads and in the ditches; they died in fields and they died huddled up in caves, their skeletons still being discovered or unearthed by the plough years later. Throughout all this horror the landlords and food traders took enough cattle, sheep, pigs and cereal crops out of Ireland to feed the entire population twice over.
As news of the famine became widespread money was raised to get food to Ireland by people all over England, Europe and America. The USA sent shiploads of food supplies hurrying to Ireland, only to find that they had to pay to have their cargoes transferred to British ships and then unloaded in the ports of Ireland - the British Shipping companies had to make their profit while Ireland starved. This legalised robbery continued for a whole year until outraged world opinion embarrassed the government into putting an end to it.
A lot of this aid was put at the disposal of the Quaker movement in Ireland and England, and the Quakers deserve great praise for the effort they made on behalf of the people of Ireland. One of the measures taken by them was to establish soup kitchens. These soup kitchens saved an incalculable number of lives and shamed the Whig administration into reluctantly doing the same. It must be noted that, not surprisingly, the soup issued by the Quakers was much more nutritious than the "flavoured water" supplied by the government.
All the outside help, welcome though it was, was inadequate to feed the starving Irish and counteract the damaging policies of Britain's government. And of course the Irish peasants and small farmers were unable to pay the rents demanded by many of the landlords, so evictions came on a massive scale. Whole families, sick and weakened by hunger and dysentery, and often already infected with typhus, were thrown off the estates to wander the countryside dressed in rags that could not protect them from the cold. Some of them made it to the poorhouses; some of them died on the roads, their mouths stained green from eating grass in a last desperate attempt to survive. Their corpses, half-eaten by dogs, littered the roadside hedges and ditches. And even the dogs began to disappear from the countryside as they were caught and eaten by the desperately hungry peasants.
Ireland's 130 poorhouses were designed to shelter the normal endemic unemployed and destitute of the country; they could not hope to cope with the unprecedented number of victims now seeking help. Even when these hostels were overcrowded well beyond their normal capacity there were desperate crowds clamouring and hammering at their doors pleading for food and shelter. Inevitably this concentration of people whose immune systems were weakened by malnutrition became ideal breeding grounds for disease and soon thousands were dying of typhoid, dysentery and cholera. The gathering together of large numbers of people at relief works projects and food depots also helped spread disease; soon there were as many dying of disease as there were dying of hunger.
But the stony-hearted bureaucrats of the Treasury were unmoved. In 1848, in the midst of all this unbearable human misery, with more than half a million already dead, the heartless Trevelyan commented: "the great evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people... they are suffering from an affliction of God's providence." So there you have it - according to the great advocate of Political Economy and private enterprise God was lending capitalism a hand by ridding the world of the ‘morally evil' Irish. The shocking element of these appalling utterances is that Trevelyan and his capitalist friends really believed them.
It is no exaggeration to say that in examining the Political Economists' attitude to the solution of the ‘Irish Problem' one can detect the same inhumane thinking that lay behind the Nazi solution to the ‘Jewish Problem'. Should anyone debate this let him explain this statement by Benjamin Jowett, talking about a conversation he had with the oddly named Nassau Senior, professor of Political Economy at Oxford: "I have always felt a certain horror of political economists, since I heard one of them say that he feared the famine in Ireland would not kill more than a million people, and that would scarcely be enough to do any good."
For you stole Trevelyan's corn
So your young might see the morn,
Now a prison ship lies waiting in the bay.
(The Fields of Athenry)
Well armed and properly trained Irishmen made formidable warriors, as their performance in the Napoleonic War proved. Wellington said of the Connaught Rangers: "I don't know what those men do to the enemy, but they terrify me!" If Ireland had had a well armed peasantry there would have been hell to pay. It would have put a stop to the boatloads of grain, dairy produce, cattle, sheep and pigs that were being exported out of Ireland by food merchants to fill English stomachs and feed the British army garrisons abroad. As we have seen, there was enough food being taken out of Ireland to feed its entire population twice over and the food exporters and importers of Ireland and England were making fat profits while Irish women and children starved.
But Ireland did not have a well armed peasantry. It had a hunger-weakened, disorientated population of agricultural workers with little in the way of weapons to oppose the British army, and most of them could not afford the luxury of going off to fight while their wives and children were dying of hunger. There were isolated incidents when small armed groups ambushed food supplies being transported by road or canal, and there were protests against evictions and high rents; at least one landlord was shot.
The best known of these incidents was one involving the Young Irelanders. It is necessary to briefly explain the background to this group: it is usually described by historians as a somewhat violent collection of hotheads who were keen to gain freedom for the Irish people by armed rebellion and all means of physical force. This is a misconception. The Young Irelanders is an adopted name of the Irish Confederation, which is in turn the name of the group who broke away from the Repeal Association which was founded by Daniel O'Connell. In adopting the name Young Irelanders they were identifying themselves with movements like "Young Italy" founded by the Italian revolutionary Mazzini.
Broadly speaking this group (with a few honourable exceptions) was still conservative in its outlook, respecting big business and private property etc. and would not have done a great deal to change the status quo. Its one abortive attempt to seize power entailed the besieging of some constables in a house in Tipperary. This ill-conceived incident was led and financed by the inept and indecisive William O'Brien; it resulted in two of his followers being killed and many of the others, including O'Brien himself, being transported to Tasmania.
One of the honourable exceptions was John Mitchell. He is regarded by today's establishment historians as a hot-headed firebrand, but if the leaders of the Young Irelanders had adopted his strategy they would have had the active support of the people and in all likelihood would have had a much greater impact on the outcome of the famine; it would certainly have highlighted the injustice of the grain, cattle and other food produce being shipped out of Ireland to make profit for the landlords, food merchants and shipping companies while the people of Ireland starved to death in their thousands.
What Mitchell advocated was that instead of handing over grain and other foodstuffs to the landlord the peasants should eat it themselves and refuse to pay rent; they should also destroy railroads and bridges and block canals to prevent food from being taken to the ports for exporting to England. This strategy would have been supported by the people and would certainly have hit the pockets of the traders and landlords who were making money while Irish women and children were being transformed into walking skeletons by private enterprise. Mitchell expressed these ideas in the United Irishman and was consequently transported to Tasmania for inciting rebellion.
"They are going! They are going! The Irish are going with a vengeance! Soon a Celt will be as rare on the banks of the Liffey as a red man on the banks of the Manhattan!'
With unconfined joy The Times gloated over the mass emigration of thousands upon thousands of desperate, downtrodden, humiliated human beings, defeated by hunger and disease, fleeing the unbearable suffering and oppression inflicted upon them by the British Government and its policies.
Their only escape was emigration, saying goodbye forever to their homeland, their friends, families and the sweethearts they loved. Some did well in America and were able to send for a younger brother or sister, some never got any further than Liverpool where they were fleeced out of their money by the crooks and tricksters who waited like vultures to prey on them. For many the parting was as final as death, indeed for thousands it was death, for they did not survive the hazardous journey to America: instead their corpses were thrown overboard into the cold grey waters of the Atlantic.
The mass exodus of the Irish from their homeland was a dream come true for most landlords, after all, as far as they were concerned, Ireland was far too good for the Irish. They were eager to clear the Irish riff-raff from their estates in order to adapt the modern English methods of agriculture to their farmlands: raising livestock; harvesting wheat, oats, barley, meal; anything that would increase their profits, even if it brought heartbreak, misery and death to their tenants. This is why the Gregory Clause (nicknamed the eviction-made-easy Act) had been introduced to amend the Poor Law in June, 1847. This meant that any desperate Irishman who applied for benefit had to give up the right to all but one quarter acre of his tenancy in exchange for a mere pittance with which to feed his family. This meant that he and his family would soon be doomed to eviction as it was impossible to exist on such a tiny sliver of land let alone raise the rent to pay the landlord. This clause enabled the landlord to clear his tenants off his estate quicker, thus clearing the land for the raising of more livestock and exportable food produce to increase his profits.
Those tenants who had not yet fallen victim of the Gregory Clause knew that they too would still be unable to pay their rents, so when the landlord, in his haste to clear him off the estate, offered to pay his passage to America he had no choice but to accept. Thus began mass emigration of the rural Irish from their beloved homeland, a process that was to continue for decades.
Needless to say, the steamship companies made capital out of this tragedy by greatly increasing the cost of passage from Ireland to Liverpool, the starting off point of the voyage to the USA. And needless to say it was even more profitable to pack the passengers in like sardines: on one stormy voyage from Sligo to Liverpool 75 out of 200 passengers died of suffocation because the captain of the ‘Londonderry' covered the hatches with tarpaulin to drown out the cries of the passengers pleading for the hatches to be opened.
This nightmare was repeated on the voyage across the Atlantic. In 1847 alone more than one quarter of a million people died of starvation or disease and the Irish peasantry fled in fear from the country. Some were aided by money sent from abroad by relatives; some were aided by charities; some were paid to go by their landlords; all of them fled because they feared the fate that lay in store for them if they stayed at home. True to form the transatlantic shipping companies also swelled their profits by cramming and overcrowding the passengers into the holds. The stifling, suffocating, cramped conditions under which these poor wretched people were forced to live made the ships little better than floating ‘black holes of Calcutta'. Their overcrowded living spaces were ideal breeding grounds for the disease-carrying lice with which many were already infected; the outcome was inevitable: in that terrible year alone over 6,000 souls perished during the voyage and were thrown overboard; another 12,000 died soon after reaching the shores of North America. But the shipping magnates made bigger and better profits.
The worst effects of the potato blight were over by 1850, by which time about one and a quarter million people had died of disease and starvation and over a million had fled the country: this is the equivalent of over 8 million people dying of starvation and disease in Britain today and as many again fleeing the country. But the dying and the homeless, the sick and the hungry, and the emigrants fleeing their ruined nation dragged on for decades afterwards. Nor should we forget the mental trauma of those who survived: the parents who watched in helpless despair as their once lively, bright-eyed children turned into living skeletons then faded into unconsciousness and died before their eyes; the man who had to carry his wife's corpse over his shoulder to the cemetery; the man who dragged his dead children in a sack behind him to be dumped in the famine pit (coffins were now an unaffordable luxury); the man who came home to find his wife, crazed with hunger, eating the arm of her dead child. These mental and emotional scars could never heal and such tales would be handed down to succeeding generations, carrying with them a bitter legacy of hatred for the British which would affect later events for decades to come.
The harrowing horror stories of Irish suffering, and of the pitiless policies of Britain's capitalists, could fill countless volumes.
There are two schools of historical opinion on the subject of culpability for the tragedy that befell Ireland during the famine years: the nationalists and the revisionists. The nationalists agree with John Mitchell, who, after all, lived through it. He put the blame squarely on the capitalist-class and the callous genocidal capitalist policies of the British government. The revisionist view is that it was nobody's fault, just one of these natural disasters, an act of God, or whatever. It almost beggars belief, that the majority of historians who support the revisionist view are themselves Irish. Perhaps some did their graduate training in British Universities, but many revisionist historians were linked to Trinity College, Dublin.
There is no denying that there were many officials who defied government orders and gave food to starving Irish families, nor is there any doubt that some landlords did behave humanely by foregoing their rents and even helping supply food to their tenants - but such people were the minority.
For the revisionist case look at this piece of unmitigated drivel from E.R.R. Green in The Course of Irish History:
"...we need to be clear in our minds that this was primarily a disaster like a flood or earthquake. The blight was natural, no one can be held responsible for that. Conditions in Ireland which had placed thousands upon thousands of people in dependence on the potato are another matter. Yet the historian, if he is conscientious, will have an uneasy conscience about labelling any class or individuals as villains of the piece."
Oh really? Who does he think he's kidding? And what about the mountains of well documented evidence to the contrary? What about the Government refusing to allow the people access to the food that was generously sent to them in shiploads from America because doing so would affect the profits of the British food traders? What about the Government amending the Poor Law to make it easier for landlords to evict sick and dying tenants from their homes? What about the government ruling that relief food stored in depots must only be opened when no private traders are available to sell for profit, and that even then the relief food must not be sold at a price that would undercut the prices charged by private traders - so America was willing to supply free food to the Irish while Britain, still the richest country in the world, insisted the penniless Irish must pay market prices to protect private enterprise? And must we ignore the previously quoted statement by the professor of political economy at Oxford who complained that "...the famine in Ireland would not kill more than a million people, and that would scarcely be enough to do any good."?
There are numerous such sickening examples of the Whig administration's victimisation of the Irish peasantry in the interests of capitalism and the landed gentry, and of the utterances of Trevelyan et al., about putting the profit motive above all else. And through all this pitiless, genocidal period the press, in particular The Times, gloated and rejoiced at the plight of the Irish. The logic of these revisionist so-called historians is beyond all understanding.
However, in 1962 Mrs Cecil Woodham-Smith's book The Great Hunger appeared on the shelves of Britain's bookstores and quickly became the mostly widely read of all books on Irish history. It remains so to this day. It was the result of ten years of research and was written with objectivity and compassion, a truly commendable work which deserves the great success it achieved, although if anything it was more than fair in its judgement of the British establishment throughout the famine years.
But Mrs Woodham-Smith made the revisionists look like the fools they were and so they reviewed her book with disdain. Again it was ironical that it was an English historian, the controversial and outspoken A.J.P. Taylor, who came to her defence: "...all Ireland was a Belsen. The English governing class had the blood of two million Irish people on their hands...that the death toll was not higher was not for want of trying." A.J.P. was not a man to mince his words.
Let us leave the last word to the great Marxist-Socialist James Connolly. Scots-born Connolly, born just 20 years after the famine, always considered himself to be Irish. He gave his life for the freedom of Ireland's people, not merely freedom from British rule, but freedom from the slavery of capitalism:
"Had Socialist principles been applied to Ireland in those days not one person need have died of hunger, and not one cent of charity need have been subscribed to leave a smirch upon the Irish name. At the lowest computation 1,225,000 died of absolute hunger; all of these were sacrificed on the altar of capitalist thought."
The Irish are the great survivors among Europe's nations. They have endured centuries of oppression, persecution, occupation and attempted extermination: The Vikings, the Anglo-Normans; the attempt by the Tudors to crush them, the attempt by Cromwell to exterminate them; the defeat of their rebellions and the horrendous ordeal of the famine. All these things they have overcome and today they are a thriving nation with a prosperous economy.
Yet there is one thing they have not overcome: they have not overcome the warping of history by establishment propagandists. There is a towering monument in Dublin to Daniel O'Connell, there is even a street named after him. He is revered as the greatest of all Irishmen. But what, in reality, did ‘The Great Dan' achieve? Irish emancipation? The vast majority of Ireland's poor were no more able to vote after ‘emancipation' than they were before. And his avowed belief that you could not be Irish if you were not Catholic played a huge part in the religious antagonism that divided the Irish working-class. O'Connell was a charismatic politician, a born leader and a tireless worker for Irish nationalism. But he was not the ‘man of the people' that he is reputed to be. If he had achieved his dream of repealing the Act of Union the Irish poor would have remained just as poor, they would still have been oppressed by landlordism. In reality he was a champion of the Irish landlords, the gentry, the men of property, as indeed was his son, John O'Connell, who did much to slander and undermine the Young Irelanders.
William Smith O'Brien, descendant of the legendary king Brian Boru, was a leading figure in the Young Ireland movement and is also a revered figure in Irish History. But he too was a landlord and respecter of private property who, well-intentioned though he may have been, could not put the needs of the starving Irish people above all else and was ultimately ineffective in helping their cause.
The true heroes of the famine years were Fintan Lalor and John Mitchell, and the greatest ever champion of the Irish people was undoubtedly James Connolly. But there are no towering monuments dedicated to them. It is to the writings of these brave and selfless men today's Irish working-class should turn if they wish to be guided in bettering their lot, and it is to them that this article is dedicated.