1 The system of land ownership in Ireland prior to the great famine
Following Cromwell’s conquest of Ireland during the 17th century, the country’s land was consolidated into large estates.1 This consolidation was directed by discriminatory laws. These laws were eventually repealed, but not before creating a system that biased land ownership in favour of non-native, typically English, absentee landlords.2 Over time, this system developed such that the land was being divided into increasingly smaller and smaller plots.3 In 1845, 24% of all Irish tenant farms were 0.4 to 2 hectares and 40% were 2 to 6 hectares.4 Since the majority of Irish peasants did not have access to the type or amount of land required for grain production the potato became a crucial table crop, with a heavy reliance on one or two high-yielding varieties.5 6 By the early 1840s almost have of the Irish population had become exclusively dependant on the potato for their diet, and of a population of 8 million, 5.5 million were dependant on agriculture.7 8 Both the lack of genetic diversity and the Irish population’s dependence on the potato famine exacerbated the effects of the successive crop failures of 1845-1849 creating a demographic catastrophe.
Historian Dean M. Braa argues that the Irish dependency on the potato is the result of the policies of the British government that allowed the landowning class to force the Irish to adopt the potato as a staple crop. He claims that the dependant on the potato is the result of the, “extreme subdivisions” of the land and the, “rack rents imposed by a British landlord class”.9 This view is similar to that of Irish-nationalist historian John Mitchel who holds British Policy responsible for the famine and accuses the British government of purposefully engineering the famine via their policies.10 However, the feudal-style culture of land ownership was not a result of the policies of the British Government, but a relic of Cromwell-era conquests and the discriminatory laws that followed it.11 In contrast to Mitchel and Braa is historian Cormac Ó Gráda. Ó Gráda claims that the Irish reliance on the potato was a low-risk strategy and that the failures were unpredictable; characterizing the event as a tragic ecological accident. 12 Although Ó Gráda is correct that, given the economic situation in Ireland, the adoption of the potato was inevitable, he fails to acknowledge that any monoculture is vulnerable to wide-scale failure and that the failure. Additionally, the famine in an of itself was not an ecological accident, given that similar crop failures occurred all over Europe without the same immense demographic impacts.13 Ultimately, British conquest and colonialization lead to the development of a vicious social system that resulted in the fragility of Irish agriculture, and this fragility turned a crop failure into a catastrophe. While it was not the active intention of the British, the social system they perpetuated exacerbated the degree of suffering.
2. The British response to the Great Famine
As an early response the Great Famine, English Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel purchased foreign maize for delivery to Ireland.14 The amount of foreign maize brought into Ireland has been described by historian Braa as, “hopelessly inadequate”.15 In addition, the Corn Laws were repealed, but the repeal was enacted gradually beginning in 1846. Thus, by the time the repeal was complete it was too late to help the starving Irish.16 Following this Lord John Russell’s government focussed on “public works” projects, in which labourers expended the energy from low rations on heavy labour. These projects also had the effect of prolonging the famine, because the Irish were leaving their farmlands in favour of this paid labour.17 Moreover, the “public works” projects were insufficient, and only a fraction of those needing employment were “aided” by Russel’s schemes.18
Historian John Mitchel emphasizes the failures of these programs and the cruelty that was employed by the British as a response to the famine. He claims that the callous response of the British indicates their contempt for the Irish, despite their attempts to shield it behind economic conservatism and Malthusian theory.19 Although Mitchel is accurate in his characterization of the British response as callous, he ignores the fact that in their sustained efforts the British government demonstrated an understanding that something must be done. In fact, the repeal of the Corn Laws was the undoing of Sir Robert Peel’s career and was a major risk for the Tory party to take.20 In contrast, revisionist historians R. Dudley Edwards and T. Desmond Williams site other factors stating, “of great and deliberately imposed evil in high positions of responsibility there is little evidence.”21 They claim that “timidity” is to blame for the lack of action on the part of the British and absolve them of guilt by stating that the blame lay with the, “totality of the social order.”22 Although, the revisionists are accurate with their assertion that endemic issues with the social order are to blame for the degree of suffering, they fail to consider who established this social order, propagated it, and were the beneficiaries of it. The social structure that so condemned the Irish to catastrophe and suffering existed as a result of the polices and attitudes towards the British. Thus, during the Great Famine of 1845-1849 the British were responsible for the degree of suffering in that it was largely the result of the social system they perpetuated.
3.Food Exports from Irealand during the Great Famine
Despite the mass starvation and the eventual death of over 1 million people, Ireland remained a net exporter of food throughout the five-year famine23 Lord Coffin, a British politician was quoted during the famine saying that there was, “a great inconsistency in the importation of supplies in a country Ireland which is at the same time exporting its own resources” 24 He was likely referring to that fact that during the worst of the famine years, over 100 000 tons of grain were exported.25 Additionally, in 1845 3 251 907 quarters of corn and 257 300 sheep were exported; and in 1846, 480 872 swine and 186 483 oxen.26 Moreover, Historian Keneally’s research on the Irish famine reveals that there was sufficient food in Ireland to prevent mass starvation.27 All of this lies in contrast to the policies in response to an earlier Irish famine in 1782-1783. In that instance, ports were closed in order to keep home grown food for domestic consumption and food prices were immediately reduced, despite the protestations of the merchant class.28
John Mitchel goes farther than Keneally with his claim that, “Ireland was actually producing sufficient food, wool and flax to feed and cloth not 9 but 18 millions of people”.29 He stresses that the British in continuing to allow food exports were seeking economic benefits from the famine and adds that many landowner’s saw the famine as an opportunity to clear their plots and transfer their use from tenancy to cash crops.30 With this Mitchel draws clear line from apathetic policy to intent. While he is certainly correct in his assertion that the continuation of exports signals the British’s prioritization of land and merchant classes’ economic concerns, he overexaggerates the implications of this. The British government acted in such a way to support a longstanding social structure, and despite the moral implications this apathetic response does not necessarily implicate them of any guilty intent. In contrast to Mitchel, revisionist historians Edwards and Williams cite the ingrained social structure and capitalist laissez-faire philosophies as reasons for the allowance of food exports.31 However, a philosophy or a social structure cannot in and of themselves be responsible for political policies. Despite their intentions and regardless of their motives the British government failed to act and condemned the Irish to suffer. In perpetuating this social system, the British exacerbated the degree of suffering experienced during the Great Famine.
Consideration of the secondary source literature on the causes and response to the Great Famine of 1845-1849 reveals considerable differences in the interpretations of the events on the question of, “to what extent were the British responsible for the degree of suffering experienced in Ireland during the Great Famine of 1845-1849?” Historians Dean M. Braa and John Mitchel perceive the British as directly responsible. Braa for the construction of a social system that allowed a crop failure to become and famine, and Mitchel for the British’s intent to extirpate the Irish through the famine.32 33 In contrast historians Cormac Ó Gráda, R. Dudley Edwards, and T. Desmond Williams absolve the British government of any possible perceived guilt. Ó Gráda describes the famine as an ecological event, and Edwards and Williams discount the role of the British entirely blaming, “the totality of the social order.”34 35 Ultimately, the British cannot be held responsible for the catalyst of the famine, nor can the be held entirely responsible for its beginnings thereafter. However, they can be held responsible for continuing and propagating the social system created by Cromwellian conquest. In addition, their apathetic response and continuation of exports indicates that British were more concerned with maintenance of this social system than they were with aiding the Irish. Thus, the British propagated and supported a social system responsible for exacerbating the degree of suffering experienced during the Great Famine.