Peter Berresford Ellis welcomes S J Donnelly’s new book about the ‘the great hunger’ and reminds us that this was not the first misnamed ‘famine’ to have resulted from British colonial policy
A FAMINE, according to the Oxford Dictionary, is an extreme and general scarcity of food.
During the period 1845-49, which is often called the ‘Irish potato famine’, Ireland was actually producing sufficient foodstuffs, wool and flax, to feed and clothe two-and-a-half times her population of 8.5 million people.
Why, then, did Ireland, in those four grim years lose some 2.5 millions from death due to malnutrition and attendant diseases and migration?
Were the Irish so stupid that they could only eat potatoes and when the potato crops failed they starved in the midst of abundant grain harvests, amongst great herds of cattle, fat pigs and ample poultry?
The answer is that this ‘famine’ was an artificial one and created solely by the colonial landlord policy in Ireland.
For every single ‘famine relief’ ship sailing into Irish ports, six ships loaded to the gunwales with Irish produce, owned by the absentee landlords and their agents, were sailing out bound for English ports.
The produce was denied to the starving people by a combination of the colonial landlords, their police and army, working with the collusion of the newly ‘emancipated’ Catholic middle classes and the church hierarchy.
This was not the first and only ‘famine’ caused by colonialism in Ireland.Between 1728 and 1845 there were no less than 27 ‘famines’ and each one deadly in its outcome. In 1740, for example, nearly half a million people starved to death in Ireland. During the 1822 ‘famine’, over 100,000 people died.
During all these ‘famine years’ the great colonial estates were producing enough food to feed all Ireland’s people twice over.
Cobbett in his Political Register for July, 1822, comments: “the food is there (in Ireland) but those who have it in their possession will not give it without money. And we know it is there; for since the ‘famine’ has been declared in parliament, thousands of quarters of corn have been imported every week from Ireland to England”.
The London Times, 26 June 1845, also made it clear: “They are suffering a real though artificial famine. Nature does her duty; the land is fruitful enough, nor can it be fairly said that man is wanting. The Irishman is disposed to work, in fact man and nature together do produce abundantly. The island is full and overflowing with human food. But something ever intervenes between the hungry mouth and the ample banquet.”
That ‘something’ had been intervening in Irish lives for many centuries causing the most terrifying depopulation ever suffered by one small nation. The Tudor ‘ethnic cleansing’ policies saw a devastation almost impossible to enumerate. The Cromwellian years saw the Irish population actually halved by sword, pestilence and starvation.
The conquests of the 16th and 17th centuries provide the answer as to why the Irish population became mainly dependent on potatoes as soon as they were introduced into Ireland in the late 16th century.
A society ‘on the run’ needs food to sustain it but food which can be easily concealed from their enemies. The potato became the ideal crop for the Irish population, dispossessed from their lands, farms and homesteads, and constantly on the move to avoid the colonial soldiery.
As the English Lord Deputy in Ireland, Sir Arthur Chichester, wrote to Lord Burghley: “I have often said and written it is famine which must consume them; our swords and other endeavours work not that speedy effect which is expected for their overthrow...”
However, the Irish have survived. But Ireland has never recovered in population terms the level of 8.5 million in 1845. It is only in recent years that Ireland has crept back to a population of just over five million (combining both the Republic and Northern Ireland).
Professor Donnelly’s book The Great Irish Potato famine is an excellent account and his conclusions give us much to think over. As he says: “a million people should not have died in the backyard of what was then the world’s richest nation, and that since a million people did perish while two million more fled, this must have been because the political leaders of that nation and the organs of its public opinion had at bottom very ambivalent feelings about the social and economic consequences of mass evictions, mass death and mass emigration”.
Prime Minister Tony Blair’s apology to the Irish nation for the ‘famine’ at Cork a few years ago was widely criticised by the Tory establishment here. It demonstrates their continuing lack of historic shame.
Personally, I still feel irritated when I see the period referred to as a ‘famine’. The Irish call it ‘an ghorta mhór’ (the great hunger) or, indeed, simply ‘the starvation’. I await the historian who will record all the ‘famines’ but the resultant sum total of the many million deaths caused by colonialism will probably sit uncomfortably in the psyche of both the colonials and the colonised.
The Great Irish Potato Famine by James S. Donnelly Jr is published by Sutton, price £12.99 pbk.
Connolly Publications Ltd, 244 Gray's Inn Road, London, WC1X 8JR
Copyright © 2002 Peter Berresford Ellis