Like most historical events the so-called famine in Ireland in the last century is shrouded in myth. It is commonly believed that not only was there an actual shortage of food but that the British government was solely responsible for the shortage. Needless-to-say, the facts tell a different story.
This year, in Ireland and probably in places like Boston and New York, the 150th anniversary of events in Ireland in the years 1845/49 will bring organised ceremonies of remembrance of the Great Famine that was to lay the foundations of bitter memories and abiding hatred.
In scale it was probably as great as those terrible events of a hundred years later in Nazi Europe which accounted for the state murder of some six million people who were, by religion, or tradition, Jewish. The method of killing in Ireland was not death camps but the utter despair and terror of parents watching their children die, or, perhaps worse, predeceasing their children, which was common to both cataclysmic obscenities. Both arose out of the material conditions of a society where the nourishment of human life was obliterated by the needs of wealth and power.
If that latter contingency belonged to the past, if life today was lived as it could be with the guarantee of the material needs of a full and happy life for every human being, then we might weep for all the victims of class society and build their memorial, in the categorical assurance that such evils have been banished forever.
But they haven’t: famines, real and contrived, are an endemic feature of world capitalism. Dying parents in one part of our world watch stark-eyed children stare . . . hear their futile cries of pain and puzzlement, as mercy ushers them into peaceful death while, in the same place, life-saving food for which the starving do not offer a market is shipped to places where it can be converted to profit.
In Ireland in 1841 census returns showed a population of some 8.1 million people and forecast that, by the end of another decade, that figure would have increased by a further million. Life for the serf-like Irish peasantry was frugal beyond our imagination. Their diet was potatoes, enhanced sometimes by other root vegetables and, for those affluent enough to possess a cow, a bit of butter. It is a compliment to those basic foodstuffs that visitors to Ireland not infrequently remarked on the good physical condition of the people. But life was grindingly hard and physical security non-existent.
Landlordism was at the centre of the Irish economy. Outside of the province of Ulster, the peasant was simply a tenant-at-will, that is to say their tenure and their rent were arbitrarily determined seasonally by landlords or, more often, by their rapacious agents. Holdings were generally tiny, sometimes as little as a quarter of an acre, and any attempt at improvement, either of husbandry or habitation, drew the threat of eviction or higher rent.
Potato blight was common and in the years of the great Hunger the whole of Europe was seriously affected. Today the blight is exorcised by the use of chemical fungicides but then, in most countries where farms were larger farmers grew a number of varieties of potatoes thus assuring that if one species was blighted the others would escape the blight. Given the size of peasant smallholdings in Ireland, this natural antidote to the problem of blight could not be applied and a single variety of potato represented the tenuous hold on life in rural Ireland.
The ravaging of the crop by blight was not uncommon. For the pathetic smallholder and his family it meant months of semi-starvation and an increased burden of debt until the new season’s crop would appear. In 1846 there was a rich crop and the promise of a bumper harvest brought joy to the burdened people. But the promise was not realised for, almost overnight, the blight returned and turned hope into despair as the landscape became infested with putrefying vegetation and the atmosphere filled with the evil smell of decay.
Hope was abandoned: witnesses have testified to the despair of men, women and children sitting on fences, in the dank, overcast day wailing almost ritually at the sight of their life’s support turning to a foul-smelling mucilage. There would be no rent for the agent, and the landlords, doubtless prompted by the 1846 abolition of the Com Laws, were anxious to evict their miserable tenants and turn their estates into cattle ranches.
In the following year, 1847, not only did the blight return but, because of the shortage of seed potatoes and mass evictions from the land, the acreage under cultivation was down and the prospect of saving some potatoes offered even less hope.
For those fit enough to travel, places like Liverpool and the northern cities of England offered hope but the place where: “they say there’s food and work for all and the sun shines always there ” was the eastern seaboard of America.
Helped often by landlords anxious to get them off the land, they left in their thousands and their need to travel provided an attractive market for speculators who could provide any form of shipping space for these miserable poor. Such were the conditions in the hulks playing the long, pitiless Atlantic crossing as to test the fit. But the starvelings embarking in these “coffin ships” were not only ill-fitted to face the cold, insanitary journey of endless nights and days; they travelled with death as a companion in their midst in the form of typhus and relapsing disease resultant from the conditions they had already experienced.
Until 1854, when the Passenger Acts were strengthened by Act of Parliament, most British ships carrying Irish emigrants provided only the most basic facilities for cooking at sea and sanitary provision was minimal or non-existent. It is estimated, from passenger lists, ships’ logs and medical records in the ports of arrival, that some 25 percent of Irish emigrant passengers on British ships were fatalities of the Atlantic crossing.
Those who did survive nourished a hatred of “England” (Irish folk patriotism always singularised England as Perfidious Albion) that would survive the generations and ensure that rebellion in Ireland was not only funded but most forcibly stimulated. From the Fenians to the plastic buckets of Noraid
the folk memory of more than a million sad refugees matured to anger and bequeathed the memory of the other millions whose lives had been torturously forfeited to a semi-feudal landlordism and an equally brutal capitalism.
In reality there was not a famine in Ireland during the terrible years of hunger and disease. What did happen was the staple food of the poor was blighted with disease and such was the system of landlordism that there was no fall-back root crops available to the peasantry. It was the rapacity of the feudal aristocracy that imposed this frugal living on the people. They were mainly English but the vile agents who carried out their sentences— for eviction in the prevailing conditions was almost certainly a death sentence— were often Irish.
We say there was not a famine because the well-documented record reveals that during the starvation years, when people ate dogs, cats and rats and when a few instances of cannibalism were reported, enough food to feed twice the number of people in Ireland was continuously exported. Cattle, sheep, pigs and the thousands of tonnes of cereal crops left Ireland during each of the famine years.
James Connolly is among the writers and historians who give us an insight into the grim mathematics of economic murder that capitalism wrought in Ireland in the years between 1845 and 1849:
“The first failure of the potato crop took place in 1845 and between September and December of that year 515 deaths from hunger were registered although 3,250,000 quarters of wheat and numberless cattle had been exported. From that time until 1850 the famine spread, and the exports of food continued. Thus in 1848 it was estimated that 300,000 persons died of hunger and1,826,132 quarters of wheat and barley were exported. ” (Labour in Irish History, p. 102.)
That Connolly’s figures may err on the low side is contested by some other writers and would seem to be borne out by the figures he quotes, earlier in the same work, for the yearly value of the Irish potato crop which was approximately £20 million while, in the year 1848, when the entire potato crop was a total loss, the value of Ireland’s agricultural produce was £44,958,120.
The historian, Curtis, points out that while half of Ireland’s 8.1 million population was entirely dependent on the potato at the time of the potato blight, “three quarters of the soil was under wheat and other crops”. (A History of Ireland, Edmund Curtis, p. 367.)
L. M. Cullen, an apologist for capitalism, unwittingly shows the cause not only of the Irish “Famine”, but of most subsequent famines elsewhere, when he draws attention to the fact that in much of the country a retailing system existed. “Here the problem was not one of the absence of a food market but of the lack of an income on the part of the poorer members of the community. ”
With the exception of the counties Antrim, Down and, to a lesser extent, Armagh, the lifestyle and culture of the comparatively new system of capitalism was foreign to Ireland. But the London parliament, consisting then of free marketeers like the contemporary brigands Portillo, Lilley and their compassionless ilk, preaching the brutal gospel of laissez-faire, did not see the economic murder of the poor as a valid reason for disturbing the free play of the market. In the light of public outcry in Britain and elsewhere, the government did reluctantly introduce some relief schemes but because they had to circumvent market interests they were often absurdly ineffectual and a starving people continued to watch the export of the food that could save their lives.
It is a pattern—market forces dictating that food should be exported from a famine-stricken area towards consumers who can pay, leaving those who can’t pay to die of starvation—that has been followed ever since under capitalism: in Bengal, in the Sudan, in Bangladesh and in Ethiopia.