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Tony Blair Speaking About The Great Irish Famine History Essay

In 1997 Tony Blair, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, in a formal letter about the great Irish famine admitted that: “Those who governed in London at the time failed their people through standing by while a crop failure turned into a massive human tragedy.” [1] He continued on recognizing, “That one million people should have died in what was then part of the richest and most powerful nation in the world is something that still causes pain as we reflect on it today.” [2] 

Mr. Blair and many others assert that the Irish suffered more during the famine due to a lack of intervention by the British government and that the famine was an example of the harm laze-faire and free trade policies can cause. This paper will focus mainly on the economic circumstances that lead to the famine and argue the opposite, namely that England’s role in turning a failed crop into a catastrophe was caused by protectionist policies, government intervention, a disregard for individual property rights and a lack of adherence to true free market principles. This paper will focus mainly on the economic circumstances that lead to the famine. This paper will not dispute the use of ‘free market’ terms by British politicians in their rhetoric to defend themselves, despite in practice their policies did not match their speech. Also this paper will not dispute that cultural, religious and possibly racial issues played a role in the British response. The main argument will consist of three examples that show the effects of government intervention and the disregard of basic property rights that laid the ground work for a catastrophe.

In an attempt to explain the ultimate origins of the famine, it is necessary to look at the conditions at that existed at that time. There are several commonly believed circumstances that played a role in creating the famine.

Expansive population growth is one circumstance. From 1750 to 1800 the population of Ireland grew from 3 million to 5 million and then by 1841 it reached 8 million people. [3] This population expansion was not unusual for the time period as Europe saw the expansion of agriculture and the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution. This by itself, like the other circumstances, did not cause the famine. It was how population growth relates to the other factors. The reliance on the potato as the main source of food is the next aspect of the famine. By 1845, one third of farming land was used for potatoes and three million people were dependant on the crop for food. [4] A large population dependant on one crop for food is the first symptom of this crisis. The answer to why this happened consists of many different reasons, but one that stands out more than the rest.

The first and largest example of a policy that directly affected the circumstances of the Irish famine of 1845 was the Importation Act of 1815, which included the more commonly known British Corn Laws. Since the Act of Union in 1801 Ireland was subject to any laws passed by the British Parliament. The Corn Laws consisted of tariffs that protected the price of grain and other cereal crops grown in the United Kingdom by guaranteeing a minimum price for British producers. No grain could be imported at a price lower than the one set by the government. At the time grain prices were beginning to fall from the high prices they commanded during the Napoleonic wars, which had just ended.

The artificially high prices that were maintained by the British Corn Laws had several direct and indirect effects on conditions in Ireland. As a direct result Corn, which refers to wheat and grain, was relatively expensive making it difficult for the average farmer to afford to eat it. Most grain and wheat was grown for export to England where a growing demand for food was needed to feed factory labourers or other British colonies. Another direct result was that it was illegal to import any grain that was cheaper than the set price, so Irish farmers did not have access to cheaper grain and wheat that was available from places such as Prussia or the United States. The indirect consequences of this were two fold; because corn prices were practically guaranteed, Irish landowners, who up until this point did not take much of an interest in the running of their land, saw the potential for greater profit. This was heightened by the fact that the British government had gone into debt to fight both the Napoleonic Wars as well as the 1812 war with the United States. In order to pay for the wars it raised taxes, placing a larger burden then normal on the nation’s landowners. As their way of life became more expensive Irish landowners sought ways to increase the yield from their land. One major method was to issue leases for less time in order to adjust prices more regularly, taking advantage of the corn prices and rising demand in England and Europe. Along with shorter leases, larger leases that expired were willing divided and rented as smaller plots of land. This gave the landowner two or three tenants on land that originally supported one. This caused the division of farming land, and therefore families into smaller and smaller plots while the number of people in the family remained the same. The second indirect consequence was as follows.

As rent rose, Irish farmers were forced to grow grain on a larger percentage of their acreage to pay the rent, leaving less land for sustenance farming. In order to grow enough food to feed the Irish farming family needed a new crop that could grow a large yield in a small plot preferably in less than ideal soil. The potato filled that role to the tee. It was inexpensive to sow and maintain; it needed relatively little tending too and was nutritious to the point that it replaced the need for other, more expensive crops. As more and more wheat was grown to pay rent, reliance on the potato grew.

On a side note, the artificially high price of corn may have diminished Ireland’s ability to industrialize like England had, artificially maintaining it as Britain’s “bread basket”. Ireland had several recourses that were required to industrialize, such as a large population which contained a sizable labour force and small but successful textile mills in the north. However, it is reasonable to assume that with the artificially high yields of agriculture, landowners were not interested in developing industry. They were satisfied with the income and low capital investments that farming was providing. Not only did this slow Ireland’s overall development, but it may have added to the continued division of land as families divided land to provide for their children. Had there been large factory jobs where land was not needed to support a family, the land divisions may not have been as severe and perhaps the effects of the potato crop failure would have been mitigated by factory incomes.

Despite the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846, the pricing scheme was not fazed out until 1849. Prices dropped in 1847 and so did the value of land. The British Corn Laws if not intentionally, at least unintentionally had a helping hand in creating several circumstances that turned a crop failure in 1845 into a catastrophe. Because of the Corn Laws, the Irish farming family was dependant on a small piece of land and a tiny crop of potatoes and could not afford to supplement their diet should the potato crop fail.

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