The Great Starvation (3/3)

National Famine Monument in County Cork, Ireland

Continued from part 2

England wanted to make “Irish property pay for Irish poverty” and so landlords became responsible for paying the fees of any tenant whose annual rent was less than four pounds. Landlords with lots of poor tenants turned to eviction to escape these fees. They would turn out hundreds or even thousands of people in a single day, then burn their cabins to the ground. One Bishop described the scene.

Seven hundred human beings were driven from their homes in one day and set adrift on the world, to gratify the caprice of one who, before God and man, probably deserved less consideration than the last and least of them… The horrid scenes I then witnessed, I must remember all my life long. The wailing of women – the screams, the terror, the consternation of children – the speechless agony of honest industrious men – wrung tears of grief from all who saw them. I saw officers and men of a large police force, who were obliged to attend on the occasion, cry like children at beholding the cruel sufferings of the very people whom they would be obliged to butcher had they offered the least resistance. The landed proprietors in a circle all around – and for many miles in every direction – warned their tenantry, with threats of their direct vengeance, against the humanity of extending to any of them the hospitality of a single night’s shelter… and in little more than three years, nearly a fourth of them lay quietly in their graves.

It is unclear exactly how many Irish emigrated during the Famine, because such records weren’t kept until the end. Historians generally agree on “at least one million” as a useful figure. The journey was rough and “accommodations” were whatever scrap of deck one could find. Of the over 100,000 Irish who went to Canada in the single year of 1847, about one in five of them died during the passage.

By 1853, the potato crop was recovering. The blight had lifted. The natural component of the disaster was over. But the impacts of that great starvation persist even now. Because Irish-speaking poor communities were most effected, English became the dominant spoken language. The average age of marriage rose by about five years, and the number of Irish who never married more than doubled, to about a quarter of the population.

A 1841 census counted over 8 million Irish, but by the 1851 census there were only 6.5 million. If not for the blight and related famine, by 1851 there should have been 9 million Irish people. Today there are about 4.5 million people living in Ireland, and another 1.8 million living in Norther Ireland, the part of that island still belonging to the United Kingdom. 150 years later, Ireland still hasn’t recovered its pre-blight population.

Between 1870 and 1903, British Parliament passed a series of Land Acts that lowered rents for tenant farmers and gave them rights to purchase land. The Wyndham Land Act of 1903 effectively ended the era of absentee landlords by breaking up the large partitioned estates that favored potato monoculture farming into more reasonably sized family farms and rural properties.

I hope to write soon about Irish immigrants in America, their struggles and contributions. Irish history is American history. Several US metropolitan cities would not be what they are today without that Irish immigration, which in turn would not have reached the scale it did without absentee landlords and English rule in Ireland.

If you glean only one thing from this essay, let it be this: The potato blight did not cause the Famine. Political will, religious intolerance, and absentee landlords did. The blight impacted potato crops throughout Europe, but no other country was so reliant on a single strain of potato, and no other people were so encumbered in the efforts to eat anything else. Writing in 1860, Young Ireland Movement leader John Mitchel had this to say:

I have called it an artificial famine: that is to say, it was a famine which desolated a rich and fertile island that produced every year abundance and superabundance to sustain all her people and many more. The English, indeed, call the famine a “dispensation of Providence;” and ascribe it entirely to the blight on potatoes. But potatoes failed in like manner all over Europe; yet there was no famine save in Ireland. The British account of the matter, then, is first, a fraud; second, a blasphemy. The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the famine.

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