The Irish famine, An Gorta Mor, was unparalleled. No famine ever claimed such a high percentage of a country's population. Only two famines in this century have claimed more lives. Below, MEADBH GALLAGHER looks behind the horror to the processes which allowed it to happen. Poverty was the disease; over 4 million died of it. More than 2.5 million became refugees, fleeing Ireland to seek new lives abroad. This horror took place in the space of five years 150 years ago. Poverty is never a natural disaster. It is the by-product of wealth for the few. But the catalyst for An Gorta Mor was natural. A blight, a fungus growth, began to affect potato crops in Ireland in September 1845. The blight affected other European countries, but none experienced famine. Ireland's poor depended upon the potato for survival. When blight damaged nearly half the crop in 1845, millions of peasants faced a winter of partial famine. Continuous rain until March 1846 provided ideal conditions for the spread of the fungus. In 1846 there was total crop failure and famine. By 1847, the blight was less severe, but the effect of the famine had multiplied. Most vulnerable were the poorer, densely populated, Irish-speaking areas in the south and west. Two thirds of the peasant farmers of Connacht were cottiers, surviving on less than 2.3 hectares each. Throughout the island, 130,000 families were trying to survive on less than half a hectare. This massive class of the poor grew grain to pay their rent. For as long as they could sell their grain, they could pay the landlord and avoid eviction. This grain was exported to feed the working class of England, whose staple diet was bread. On the worst land, the Irish peasants grew potatoes for their food. About 40% lived in one-room mud cabins without windows or chimneys, which they shared with an average of 10 others. The English establishment had a word for this extreme poverty — "pauperism". An economic adviser to the British government, Nassau Senior, railed against the "cancer of pauperism". The establishment's magazine of wit, Punch, described Irish paupers as "the blight of their own land, and the curse of the Saxon".
Pauperisation was blamed on the paupers. The size of the Irish peasant population was seen as a threat to the economic viability of Britain as well as the future incomes of Irish landlords; in 1841 Ireland's population was one third that of Britain's.Establishment Britain deemed the famine to be the cure for "Irish overpopulation". The permanent undersecretary to the British Treasury, Charles Trevelyan, a civil servant with responsibility for Irish famine relief, believed the famine was divine retribution. The overpopulation of Ireland, he wrote, "being altogether beyond the power of man, the cure had been applied by the direct stroke of an all-wise Providence". Aided by the natural blight on potato crops, Irish land was cleared for different uses. The fact that millions of peasants had to be evicted was of little consequence. In one case, in March 1846, the entire village of Ballinglass was evicted in order to turn the land to grazing. Some landlords paid their tenants' emigration fares. In 1847 foreign secretary Lord Palmerston, half of whose income came from his Irish estates, had his agents "emigrate" 2000 people. In 1848, Chancellor of the Exchequer Charles Wood wrote to an Irish landlord: "I am not at all appalled by your tenantry going. That seems to me a necessary part of the process." The prime minister, Lord Russell, whose father had served as viceroy in Ireland, hid behind evasive parliamentary rhetoric when confronted with accounts of what was happening. However, by 1848, Russell's own appointee in Ireland, the Lord Lieutenant Clarendon, was calling his government's policy there "extermination". Laissez-faire economics was the creed of the day. Parliament's role was to protect the interests of the few against the plight of the many. Politicians were busy replacing the interests of landlords with those of traders. Under the banner of free trade, one form of protectionism was being swept aside to make way for another. The Irish peasantry had no purchasing power. Neither did they have political power. Their impoverishment was helped by their disempowerment, and the support they lent to Catholic middle-class agitation led by Daniel O'Connell did nothing to change their status. O'Connell, himself a landlord of some ill repute, summed up his politics thus: "I desire no social revolution, no social change. In short, salutary restoration without revolution, an Irish parliament, British connection, one King, two legislatures." The churches also offered the peasantry little hope for change. The Church of Ireland was entitled to collect taxes from tenants regardless of their religion and was vehemently on the side of the landlords. It was left to the Society of Friends (Quakers) to seek long-term relief for the Irish poor. The Catholic Church hierarchy remained largely silent. The group that offered most hope of democratic revolution in this period, the Young Irelanders, were largely of the landlord and urban professional classes. They offered high-minded ideals but no change from the property system impoverishing the people. James Fintan Lalor did offer an alternative politics, but his was a voice in the wilderness. In 1848 he said, "I acknowledge no right of property which takes the food of millions and gives them a famine". Lalor was also clear that "this full right of ownership may and ought to be asserted and enforced by any and all means".
Resistance to the great starvation did take place, but it was sporadic and disorganised. Both the constitutional nationalists and the British government responded predictably. Daniel O'Connell frequently called for more troops to be sent to quell the secret societies which resisted landlord oppression.Within six months of the first potato crop failure, the British government had heavily armed escorts accompanying Irish food transports. Within a year, a mobile force of 2000 troops had been deployed and the military guarded food depots, export ships and harvest fields. In mid-October 1846, extra troops were drafted into "trouble spots" where food riots were taking place. In November, the chancellor, Charles Wood, wrote to his Irish lord lieutenant urging him to go "to the verge of the law and a little beyond" in suppressing revolt. A month later, a new emergency powers act was in place, voted in with the help of most Irish MPs. Fifteen thousand extra troops were sent to Ireland that same month and an additional 10,000 in 1848. Local responsibility and private charity were advocated as the methods of famine relief. Between 1846 and 1853, Britain spent &163;9.5 million on famine relief in Ireland, while its system of poor rates and landlord borrowings collected &163;8 million for the same purpose. Irish food exports continued unhindered while millions fell victim to starvation and disease. Between July 1845 and February 1846, over &163;1 million worth of food was exported. In 1845, Robert Peel's administration bought &163;100,000 worth of Indian corn in America, but this was stored rather than distributed immediately in order to ensure the continued ability of local traders to make a profit. The country was divided into Poor Law Unions based on district electoral divisions. Each union had a workhouse, and those who became inmates could receive assistance. Workhouses were designed to deter "spongers", and conditions were so bad that inmates often committed misdemeanours in order to get transferred to jail, where their chances of survival were better. By 1847 many were physically incapable of working. The physical design of the workhouses speaks volumes: at the end of each was an exit point known as the "dead house". A few years after the great starvation, Britain was to spend &163;69.3 million on the Crimean War. In his analysis of the famine, James Connolly argued that the actions of the English capitalist class and the Irish landlord class were "unassailable and unimpeachable". Connolly wrote: "The non-socialist Irish man or woman who fumes against that administration is in the illogical position of denouncing an effect of whose cause he is a supporter. That cause was the system of capitalist property." For the sake of an understanding of what continues to be called "famine" in today's world, none should forget the cause of the Irish great hunger, and none should ignore the cure for it.
[Abridged from An Phoblacht/Republican News.]