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Old 02-22-2023, 10:29 AM   #151 (permalink)
Born to be mild
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So much for the man at the top; we’ll see soon enough what, if anything, he did to help stave off the Famine. For now though, let’s return to people who did at least seem to have some sort of compassion for the Irish farmer, but whose voices were either shouted down or ignored altogether. Yeah, back to the Devon Commission we go. One of the observations made by the earl was the absolute naked poverty of the people, as he noted “It would be impossible adequately to describe the privations which they [the Irish labourer and his family] habitually and silently endure ... in many districts their only food is the potato, their only beverage water ... their cabins are seldom a protection against the weather ... a bed or a blanket is a rare luxury ... and nearly in all their pig and a manure heap constitute their only property.”

The Commissioners pointed out that the Irish tenant farmers were working for basically their oppressors, the English. There was no loyalty and no real communication between the two. The one thought the other savage and almost subhuman, the other thought the landlord cruel and unfair, and between both stood the ever-present spectre of religion and sectarianism. It’s fair to say that had these tenants been Protestants, they might have expected better treatment from their Anglican landlords. But to the English, the Irish Catholics were, to put it mildly, scum, who deserved no sympathy and who had to be kept beaten down. In the role of the occupier throughout history, the Ascendancy asserted its power and ensured its authority was unchallenged. England had suffered similarly under the Normans, hundreds of years in the past, but seemingly had not learned from the experience.

Not that the landlords were even there to see the deprivation of their tenants. Most visited Ireland maybe once or twice in their lives, perhaps like plantation owners who left it to the overseers to get things done, and worried only about profits, not caring about the welfare of the men and women who toiled to afford them the luxury in which they lived. Even at that, the profits from the farms went outside the country, over six million pounds being spent overseas in 1842 alone. The hated middlemen, who worked on behalf of the landlord, were cruel and vicious and uncaring, and only wanted to make as much money from the land as they could. They leased it from the landlord and then, like the equally hated slumlords, who would take a house and rent as many rooms as they could in that house to as many people as possible, cramming more and more bodies into a single room with no regard for health or safety, they subdivided it into smaller and smaller parcels of land to maximise their profits. This of course meant that each tenant farmer had a smaller patch to work on, usually bad land too, making it harder to even exist and hold body and soul together, never mind make any money. Most labourers on farms worked for food to feed their families, and the work was often very sporadic and always very hard.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, tenants had no rights. They could be thrown off the land at any time, at the whim of the landlord or middleman, and any improvements they might have made to their lands automatically became the property of the landlord when their lease expired or they were kicked out, so nobody bothered. So with such rotten land to grow anything on, and with so little of it, what choice had the farmers but to sow potatoes? It might seem like (mixed metaphor time) putting all your eggs in one basket, or hedging your bets on the one thing, but they really had no option. Potatoes would grow in hardy soil where other crops would not, and could basically be eaten out of the ground (oh yeah: some people did eat raw potatoes) or at least just peeled and thrown into a pot to make a meal. Cereals such as grain, wheat, corn, oats etc all had to be made into something - usually bread - that would take time. Potatoes were also fed to livestock, so really formed the lynchpin of the Irish diet, both for humans and animals.

Not that it was a reliable crop. The Great Famine was by no means the first time that a potato crop had failed. In fact, there had been multiples failures from as far back as 1728, though none of these were nationwide failures. But then, again, as I say, it’s not like the farmers had any choice. It’s not like they could say, well the potatoes have failed, let’s try something else. Unless they wanted mud for dinner, potatoes was all they had. Which of course led up to the catastrophic potato crop failure due to blight, or Phytophthora infestans in 1845. To some degree, and stretching it a lot I know, but the arrival of the blight in Ireland must have been a little like Spanish Flu or SARS or Covid; it absolutely destroyed people’s lives and livelihood, and was directly responsible for the deaths of over a million Irish. It wasn’t confined to Ireland, but it was here that it hit hardest, for reasons already outlined.

Nobody is certain, even now, where the blight originated, though it’s thought to have begun in Mexico, and then been introduced to Ireland via clipper ships carrying passengers from America to Ireland, in the potatoes used in the food those passengers were fed on board. Like all viruses and pathogens (unless there is an antidote or vaccine) once here it was here to stay. Kind of horribly ironic, I feel, that the people who abandoned Ireland in search of salvation in America were quite likely retracing the path the blight had taken to get here, though of course in reverse. A chronology, then, of the arrival of the blight shows the steps taken, or not, as the spectre of famine leered towards Irish shores.

Countdown to famine: how apathy and disinterest doomed Ireland

As we’ve already noted, Sir Robert Peel was the Prime Minister at the time, and so to him fell the opportunity to help, or to ignore. To be fair to him, he did try, just too little too late. His already-quoted statement about things being exaggerated helped to hammer nails into the coffins of a million people who need perhaps never had died. The response, in general, from the English was a shrug and a sort of who cares, it’s only the Irish. Maybe that’s being overly harsh, is it? Let’s see.

1843: First reports of Phytophthora infestans around the ports of New York and Philadelphia.

1844: Panic in Belgium as the crop failed. In desperation - and surely exacerbating the problem - the Belgian government imported seed potatoes from America. Were they not already aware that the blight was there? Perhaps not: news would not have travelled as fast in the nineteenth century as it does now. Still: a year? Does this not strike you as similar to importing meat from China just as Covid broke out? Anyway, to the surprise of nobody in hindsight, the crop was rotted. The blight spread to France, and then England.


August: Kent had a diseased potato harvest.

September: Blight reported in Ireland. Questions are asked but the British government adopt a “wait and see” approach until the harvest is completed.

October: Evidence began emerging of the scope of the disaster as the potato crop was dug, but the British again hummed and hawed and thought well it can’t be that bad. When it was clear that yes, it was that bad, they hummed and hawed over the expense of providing humanitarian relief to the Irish, nobody wanting to put their hand in their own, or the British public’s pocket. Peel tried to repeal the Corn Laws, which in the case of the approaching famine sounds to me like putting a sticking plaster on after your arm has been chopped off. He sent a scientific team to Ireland to investigate the reports. Tories who were furious with Peel for granting Catholic emancipation, and now his intention to repeal the Corn Laws, refused to allow meetings to even discuss Irish relief, and the whole thing assumed a somewhat Covid-like aura, where people - English of course, and wealthy English - claimed it was all a big hoax, built up to be more than it was, and blamed it on Irish - wait, what? Alligators? Oh no. Agitators. Well. Anyway.

November: A lot happened, but nothing happened really. Peel arranged for the purchase of £100,000 worth of Indian corn to be shipped to Ireland, while his scientific committee confirmed the devastation of the potato crop, this backed up by the Mansion House Committee. Nobody cared. Peel, unable to gain enough support to have the Corn Laws repealed, resigned. His resignation only lasted days though and he was back, leading the government into 1846, the first real year of the Famine.

In March, as the first deaths occurred from the famine, Peel set up projects for public works and relief in Ireland, but three months later his government fell, and the new Prime Minister reversed all his policies, basically telling the Irish they could starve for all he cared. We’ll have a look at Lord Russel later. If there had been any hope of staving off, or nipping the Famine in the bud before it grew to national proportions, they were destroyed by the rise to power of the Whigs, who certainly played their part in dooming Ireland. The Quakers (remember our friend John Bright, one of the founders of the Anti- Corn Law League, was a Quaker?) did what they could to plug the gap, and presumably embarrassed by being shown up by a bunch of peaceniks, the government grumpily reinstated the public works, but dragged its feet on the release of food, while they continued to authorise the export of grain, which could have saved so many lives, from Ireland, even as the Famine tightened its grip.

As famine fever gripped the country, and things began to spiral out of control, the government passed the Temporary Relief Act, also known as the Soup Kitchen Act, which was exactly what it sounds like, cheap food for the poor and starving. It only lasted till September then, when surely the worst of winter was about to descend on the country. After that, the relief was to be financed by the local Poor Law rates, something that was unsustainable. People began to see there was no hope for them in Ireland, and if they were going to die they may as well do so making an attempt to get to a new country. Thus the legend of the coffin ships was born, where vessels bound for America dumped corpses regularly overboard as immigrants died on the way to the New World. Passage on these ships was cheap, but so was life. Little if any food or water was provided by the owners, and it was said that sharks followed the ships, aware of the amount of bodies being thrown overboard. I can’t say of course, but I wonder how many of them were actually dead, and how many just dying of hunger or disease, and thrown over the side just the same? If so, a horrible way to end your journey. Rates are reported of up to thirty percent mortality on these ships, so if you survived to the destination you could consider yourself one of the lucky ones.

Lord Russel’s reaction to the horror being played out just over the Irish Sea was to crack down on agitators by passing the Crime and Outrage Bill (Ireland), which allowed for police forces to be sent into Irish districts, the eternal solution of the British to any sort of unrest (see also, miners’ strikes).

After having peaked, the Famine returned and cholera spread across the island. Sympathetic as usual, the British landlords continued to evict anyone who could not pay their rent (what the fuck were they supposed to pay with, I ask you?) and famine relief at this time stood at 840,000 people. Confirming (hah) the Crown’s contention that there might be a rebellion (really? You think? In a country where you bastards were doing nothing to help and everything to ensure the Irish were wiped out? Never!) a small force of Young Irelanders had finally had enough and staged a tiny uprising, but it was the only spot of trouble in the time of the Famine - everyone else were probably too busy dying or trying to survive another day - and quickly put down.

Another bad harvest, more cholera. More of the same. Minus the uprising.

The famine finally ended.
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