Monday, April 06, 2009

Cecil Woodham-Smith - The Great Hunger, Ireland 1845-9

The Irish Potato Famine of 1845-9 probably resulted in 1.5 million deaths. A further million people fled the country looking for food and work. It's legacy, for millions of people in the Irish diaspora was a hatred of the British ruling class.

The potato blight that destroyed repeated crops was a purely natural phenomena. The starvation that followed however was entirely man made, and a direct result of racist, colonial attitudes of government in London. In addition, ministers were more interested in the profits of food merchants than the relief of the poor.

Cecil Woodham-Smith's social history of the period and of Ireland before and after the famine is a detailed extensive history of this sad period. She points fingers clearly, particularly at those ministers who would do nothing to provide assistance, seeing the Irish as a source of trouble, rather than people to help. "Would to God the Government would send us food instead of soldiers" lamented a starving citizen in County Mayo as soldiers arrived in the region.

Sir Charles Trevelyan, who oversaw relief efforts (such as they were) during the famine, had little but contempt for the Irish... "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." For Trevelyan, the greatest problem was that famine relief might upset the profits of merchants and undermine free trade.

Particularly during 1847, Ireland continued to export grain, which that year was a bumper harvest. The population had no money and no employment, and the grain crop was exported to pay rent. Speculators and landlords amassed huge profits - indeed Trevelyan saw opportunity for profit in the famine, rather than horror. At one point he ended relief completely as economic downturn arrived, saying that he would "leave the rest to God."

The author documents the few attempts at resistance - but the population was too exhausted and hungry to mount any serious attempts at rebellion or insurrection, and she shows how "the Irish people starved and died in one world, the landowning classes inhabited another."

First published in 1962 this book is a valuable read for anyone who thinks that there is something natural about natural disaster. It is a grim reminder that the rich and powerful care little for the poorest of the poor.

Related Reviews

Davis - Late Victorian Holocausts
Kee - The Most Distressful Country


Andrew said...

I've blogged recently ( here & subsequently) on an earlier period than the Famine, especially with regard to one of England's most revered poets, Edmund Spenser. Spenser in 'A Brief Note of Ireland' wrote:

"Great force must be the instrument but famine must be the mean(s), for til Ireland is famished it cannot be subdued."

Spenser (who lived on an estate of 3,000 acres of confiscated land in County Cork) knew the consequences of the starvation he advocated. The most powerful paragraph in his View renders in graphic detail the effects of a starved and cannibalistic Irish population who 'consume themselves and devour each other':

"Out of every corner of the woods and glens they came creeping forth upon their hands, for their legs could not bear them, they looked like anatomies of death, they spake like ghosts crying out of their graves, they did eat their carions, happy where they could find them. Yea, and one another soon after, inasmuch as the very carcasses they spared not to scrape out of their graves."

Having seen its effects first-hand, Spenser vigorously advocated mass starvation as proven policy."( James Shapiro- 1599 A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare).

Another apposite extract from elsewhere:

Historian Charles Kingsley on seeing the devastation during the Famine in the mid-nineteenth century:

"I am daunted by the human chimpanzees I saw along the hundred miles of horrible country. I don't believe they are our fault( that people were forbidden education, destitute and starving to death while foodstuffs were being removed to Britain). I believe that there are not only many more of them than of old, but that they are happier, better & more comfortably fed & lodged under our rule than they ever were. But to see white chimpanzees is dreadful; if they were black, one would not feel it so much, but their skins, except where tanned by exposure, are as white as ours."

In 1859, Charles "White Chimpanzees" Kingsley was made chaplain to Queen Victoria. From 1860 to 1869 he was professor of modern history at Cambridge and in 1873 was appointed canon of Westminster. His book The Water Babies is a story for children written to inspire love and reverence of Nature.

Rumela said...

This amazing book is a great way to step back from current affairs and see it in relief. The story of the famine of Ireland in the 19th century shows how the British Government carefully avoided responsibiiity and how millions died. At the same time, Ireland was exporting the potatoes that were left after the blight ruined the crop. Some of it was chaos, some of it man's inhumanity to man, some of it plain ignorance, but what it shows is that the techniques for refusing to help people and make it sound good don't really change. thank you for shearing your post.

Unknown said...

Ham reading the book now.have come across this comment by the author. She talks of the irish as being" less civilised and less skilled emigrating to a more civilised and more skilled community". Its not the first time ive come across her racist and prejudical view of irish people.