“God sent the Potato Blight but the English created the Famine” – John Mitchell 1848.
It was the defining and watershed event in Ireland’s Nineteenth Century History, radically altering Irish society and the economy, enshrining emigration as the default option, dealing a fatal blow to the Irish Language as the vernacular tongue and leaving a bitter legacy among the Irish in Ireland and the Diaspora in America it did so much to create. It gave an enduring fillip to the separatist movement which came to fruition in 1916 and the War of Independence.
The basic facts are well known. Ireland’s population more than doubled to over 8 million between 1800 and 1841, the vast majority peasants or tenant farmers heavily dependent on potatoes for their staple diet. In 1845 a potato fungus destroyed up to half the crop. The situation worsened in 1846 with over two thirds of the crop destroyed. In 1847 (“Black 47”) the catastrophe became complete with few potatoes even planted. Few died in 1845 but after the toll rose dramatically. Deaths in workhouses alone in 1847 exceeded 50,000. The effects were island wide, though much less in the Pale and the eastern counties where there was access to (and money to buy) imported food. Connacht and the South West suffered most, with population falls of up to 30%.
There was food available in 1845 with Peel’s government buying in corn. Thereafter as the crisis worsened, London proved unable to cope. People began to die in growing numbers in 1846, overwhelming relief attempts. The official mind set was to give nothing for nothing underpinned by an inflexible dogmatic doctrine of laisser faire liberalism. A scheme of public works was instituted, with the undernourished expected to perform manual labour (digging roads) for money to buy food. In January 1847, the nadir, soup kitchens were introduced and were soon feeding up to three million. Inexplicably, in August the scheme was abandoned lest it encourage dependency, and the onus to provide relief was shifted back to Irish taxpayers, predominantly landlords, with predictable results. Throughout, the country exported food, not enough to bridge the gap but enough to have ameliorated conditions somewhat.
There have been much larger famines. The famine which struck Ireland in 1740-41 -the “Year of Slaughter” – killed perhaps a quarter of the population, proportionately more than a century later. But that was in archaic times, when the authorities had neither the resources nor the technology to alleviate distress. Note also that with the exception of the Bengal Famine of the early 1940’s (where Britain was also the governing power), the other major famines since 1800 all took place under totalitarian mendacious regimes where knowledge of, publicity about, and the extent of, what happened, were suppressed or falsified.
The Irish Famine took place in what was then the most advanced country in the world, edging towards democracy (after the 1832 Reform Act), with a reasonably free press, a vocal parliamentary opposition, a developing social conscience (working age and conditions were being regulated), and an infrastructure advanced enough – thanks to industrialisation and the railways – to enable and facilitate action by government. More could and should have been done. The British Government’s response to the catastrophe has been castigated as inadequate, inept, tardy, indifferent, bloody-minded, cruel, callous, and tinged with racism, with the dead bearing silent witness. The clincher being continued exports of food while millions starved. It was all of that.
With contemporary accounts and artists’ sketches of the starving poor abounding it’s not surprising that then and since the spectacle of the Famine grips us and stirs deep emotions. Upwards of a million died, over and above the “normal” death rates; not necessarily of hunger but of associated diseases aggravated by malnutrition, such as cholera, dysentery and fever. There are no exact figures, beyond what the population was in 1841 (8,175,124)), 1851 (6,575,000) and actuarial calculations as to what the figure WOULD have been without the Famine (roughly 9 million).
Emigration (which had of course preceded 1845) increased massively, though impossible to measure accurately. In the decade after 1845 probably two million emigrated. Almost 600,000 arrived in the USA in the five years 1846 – 1850, three times that in the previous five years; a further 700,000 arrived up to 1855. This was quite apart from the huge numbers settling in England and the lesser numbers who travelled to Canada and Australia. At Grosse Ile in Quebec, where the arriving Irish, many sick, were quarantined, the queue of ships waiting to dock at the end of May 1847 stretched for two miles.
The Great Hunger was a catastrophe, with Britain firmly in the dock for omission, neglect, and wrongheaded policies and indifference. Ireland was remote, the Irish peasant poor more so. But did British policy constitute Genocide? Raphael Lemkin’s definition, (a Polish Jewish jurist who had studied the Armenian massacres of 1915) as enshrined in the UN Genocide Convention of 1948, specified that for actions to be deemed genocidal there must be prior INTENT to destroy in whole or in part a national or ethnic group.
The Holocaust during World War Two was clearly genocidal, in that a determined premeditated attempt was made to murder Jews in every country in Europe occupied by the Nazis. In an elaborate and comprehensive campaign Jews were separated out and transported to death camps where they were either immediately murdered or kept as slave labour in conditions which proved fatal for many. When mass shootings proved inadequate industrial scale mass murder by gassing was introduced. All this sanctioned by the Nazi authorities and carried out by the SS.
Fifty years later in Rwanda, in 100 days in 1994, from April 6 to July 16, at least 800,000 of the minority Tutsi tribe were slaughtered by the majority Hutus. The massacres were in the context of an ongoing civil war but were carefully planned and orchestrated by the ruling government elite. Most of the rural murders (by machetes, many stockpiled earlier) were by villagers under orders from district leaders and village headmen. Rape was employed as a weapon against many surviving Tutsi women. An under resourced UN peacekeeping force was powerless to stop the slaughter.
In 1915 roughly 1,500,000 Armenians died at the hands of the Turks, with intellectuals murdered and whole communities driven out by the authorities and force marched into the Syrian desert with little or no sustenance. Men were shot, women and girls raped before being murdered .Observed atrocities included crucifixions, impalements, massacres, mass burnings alive and drownings, conducted by early equivalents of the Nazi Einsatzgruppen. (Though Turkey denies what occurred was genocide, Hitler asked rhetorically in 1939 “Who… speaks today about the annihilation of the Armenians?”)
The key elements in all the three above were advance planning and intent. By these standards, deplorable and blameworthy as the British Government’s attitude and performance was, it hardly constituted genocide. There was no plan to kill, no wanton or systematic acts of cruelty and indeed considerable attempts, however inadequate, were made to address the suffering. The sheer scale overwhelmed the authorities and the situation was exacerbated by the prevailing economic and political orthodoxy of the time .This was, after all, the 1840s.