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What Is The Great Famine History Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

The Great Famine is one of the seminal moments in Irish history. Ireland in the mid-nineteenth century was a colony of Britain – its people mostly tenant farmers. When the potato crop failed in 1845 and failed again for five years in a row a tragedy of enormous proportions played out, there was a cascade of death, but also a cascade of bad decision making, self-serving opportunism, and moral sanctimony – a tragedy that is still having its effects today. There are three predominant lenses through which the ideology behind British response to the Famine is largely interpreted – the traditional Irish nationalist lens, the revisionist lens, and the post-revisionist lens. The nationalist ‘lens’ perceives the Famine as a symbol of British misrule in Ireland and comparisons to genocide are frequently made – fears of fuelling IRA violence have often led historians of the famine to be accused of self-censorship or political correctness. Whilst the revisionists’ attempt to place the Famine in the context of the time arguing the British Government did all they could have done – they are frequently criticised of playing down the Famine by marginalizing, minimizing or sanitizing it. Lastly, post-revisionism endeavours to implement new economic and statistical techniques in an attempt to understand the Famine in a new light – they challenge revisionism and do not accept the nationalist interpretation either. There were three fundamental ideologies that largely determined the British government’s response (or lack of) to the Famine: the economic doctrines of the Famine period, the protestant belief in providentialism, and the deep-rooted ethnic prejudice against the Catholic Irish. Whilst the British indifference to the Famine cannot rightly be called genocide, the nationalist interpretation of the ideology is the most strongly evidenced.

Recent famine historiography has largely been dominated by revisionist scholarship. Kinealy reverses this trend and makes a strong antirevisionist case for “genocide” by arguing against traditional orthodoxies. Kinealy convincingly argues that the British Government knew what was going on in Ireland and had the ability to provide relief to many of the people. However, for various political and ideological reasons they chose not to do so. She posits that the Famine and social policy essentially became a tool with which the British Government could use to ensure that modernization took place in Ireland.

The British Government’s response to the Famine was heavily influenced by providentialism – “the doctrine that human affairs are regulated by divine agency for human good.” [1] Ultra-Protestants typically interpreted “the blight as vengeance against Irish Catholicism” [2] . Gray argues that it would be wrong and too simplistic to say that the British Government was a direct cause of the Famine, its responsibility lies more in its inaction – its failure to grasp the growing and tremendous problems within Ireland in the early nineteenth century. It is evident that the British Government saw there was a problem – a growing crisis of poverty and unemployment, however not enough was done to address the massive problems of poverty and inequality in pre-famine Ireland. When this great, sudden, unforeseen shock of the potato blight comes and the flimsy underpinnings of rural Irish society collapse the Government was not prepared – they had no plan or solution. They fell back on methods with which they had used to deal with previous much smaller crises, when those failed there was a tendency to see the Famine as an opportunity and also a necessity of rebuilding Irish society from scratch. For those who are genuine believers in divine providence the blight was interpreted as a ‘catalyst’ for implementing these “fundamental changes in Ireland” [3] and to alleviate Ireland’s need for continued private financial dependence on England. This notion of Providentialism was inextricably linked to the classical economic doctrine of lasses-faire.

Donnelly’s post-revisionist interpretation, along with Kinealy and Gray is careful to emphasize the British governments’ reliance on the economic doctrine of laissez faire (prevailing economic theorem of the day) singling out Trevelyan’s devotion to this economic ideology of allowing industry to be essentially free of government interference that led (what Donnelly illustrates) to Trevelyan’s greatest blunder – his refusal to prohibit food exports. Donnelly points out that the relief efforts provided by the British Government were deliberately spread over a period of time rather than simultaneously in order to prevent a culture of dependence. He states that since “economy in public expenditure being one of the gods that Trevelyan worshipped” [4] , Trevelyan and his contemporaries certainly were not forthcoming with funds and cut corners. This aversion to ‘charity’ was implemented to avert, as they believed, an Irish population that could potentially become solely dependent on government assistance as opposed to contributing to their own prosperity. Kinealy and Ó Gráda both reflect that the government placed the economy above humanitarian relief efforts during the Famine period [5] . The impact of the economic doctrine of laissez-faire can be seen as the ideology behind the British Governments (under Whig leadership) decision to end the Temporary Relief Act or Soup Kitchen Act in September 1847 – only six months after it was established.

The British Government also decided that “strict adherence to the principals of ‘political economy'” [6] regardless of, or because of its consequences: the decision to allow the export of large quantities of grain and livestock to Britain during the height of the crisis; the sale of relief supplies at market prices; and frivolent expenditure on ‘unproductive’ public works. These disastrous decisions certainly lend some weight to John Mitchel’s case for “genocide”. However, as Donnelly illustrates in reality Irish grain exports decreased significantly throughout the Famine period and imports ultimately increased substantially. Although we cannot dismiss Mitchel’s perspective completely, by halting grain exports during the period after the catastrophic harvest of 1846 and before the importation of large supplies of foreign grain early in 1847, could possibly (as many Nationalists since the Famine have argued) have prevented or at minimum slowed the onset of mass starvation and disease. Kinealy is of the opinion that had grain exports been stopped, the effects of the Famine could have been minimised. She puts forward the notion that the Famine was due to inadequate food distribution as opposed to an actual lack of food – potatoes were only responsible for 20 percent of Ireland’s agricultural production [7] . Kinealy points towards the British government’s reluctance to intervene and upset the merchant classes due to the forthcoming election [8] . Conversely, Ó Gráda, along with Gray does not believe there would have been adequate food supplies, regardless of whether food was exported or not [9] .

Sir Charles Trevelyan, who was a key British official for public relief and oversaw the entire relief process during the whole period of the Famine (he served under the Tory and Whig governments), has been fairly targeted by Nationalist historians and thoroughly demonized as …..Trevelyan a strong proponent of providentialism described the Famine in 1848 as “a direct stroke of an all-wise and all-merciful Providence”, which laid bare “the deep and inveterate root of social evil”; the Famine, he avowed, was “the sharp but effectual remedy by which the cure is likely to be effected. God grant that the generation to which this opportunity has been offered may rightly perform its part…” [10] With statements like this it is not hard to label Trevelyan as an evangelical providentialist (interpreting the Famine as part of Gods divine plan for Ireland). In contrast to many Nationalist historians, the revisionist Haines controversially attempts to put up a defence for Trevelyan (merely a civil servant) suggesting that the possibility that Trevelyan could have influenced the government policy on famine relief measures was unlikely [11] . Haines states “Phytophthora Infestans [the potato blight], not Trevelyan, was the tyrant who brought death and suffering to Ireland on a scale never before witnessed.” [12] She is correct in asserting that the cause of the Famine was undeniably due to the potato blight, however the distinction between the blight and the Famine is best surmised in John Mitchel’s famous phrase: “The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the Famine.” [13] 

The revisionist Peter Gray views the manifestation of burgeoning British public opinion in parliament as an explanation behind British ideology and consequently British policies towards Ireland (during the Famine period). He sees ‘The Panic of 1847’ (the British financial crisis) as a plausible justification for the catalyst which inspired, awakened and gave voice to an “assertive middle-class political opinion” [14] .

British hostility towards the Irish was further… The Panic of 1847 (British financial crisis) is often viewed as a plausible justification to the British Government’s response to the Famine.

Peter Gray states “in the conditions of the later 1840s [government policy] amounted to a sentence of death on many thousands” (93

Moralism unsurprisingly trails behind providentialism in the deplorable belief that the Catholic Irish were morally bankrupt, physically and mentally inferior – they were viewed as biologically inferior according to those in the British government. Members of parliament were abundantly clear in making such statements on the floor of the House of Commons. Kinealy, along with Donnelly develops this notion that the British government held a set of ethnic prejudices towards the Catholic Irish. These prejudices, Kinealy argues, had an impact of leading British officials (ministers, civil servants, politician and representatives) that to led widespread discrimination and the formation of attitudes which in turn justified the inadequate aid and relief policies by the British government. These racist attitudes had the effect of spreading, as Donnelly states, ‘famine fatigue’ in Britain. This blunted or perhaps even eliminated any potential sympathies that could have sustained political will to alleviate the Famine.

De Nie has argues the British government used the Famine as an opportunity to promote and reinforce and portrayal of the Irish as subhuman and fundamentally a foreign race. [15] He points out that it was the Times that set the precedent of racism even in the earliest years of the Famine.

De Nie argues that by implementing racism the British people succeeded in self-justification “this was accomplished by projecting the blame for the Irish suffering onto the Irish themselves”

This essay has examined the three prevalent lenses through which the British ideology is viewed. The nationalist view of British ideology is the most well evidenced. However, as historians we must refrain judging the actions of individuals against contemporary morals and ideals. There is some merit to revisionist and post-revisionist arguments and they must not be dismissed entirely. All three lenses must be viewed within the context of the time without impediment by personal or national agenda. It is evident that the Great Famine was arguably one event in a long process of colonial disregard and exploitation of segments of the Irish people by the British Government for its own purposes and benefits. The psychological damage of the Famine was predated by several hundred years of policies by the British government which were specifically designed to undermine the spirit of the Irish people, remove them from their lands, destroy the structure of Irish society, and in general reduce the segments of the Irish population to poverty and insignificance. The Famine came along during the tail end of previous three-hundred years of discrimination to weaken the people who are weakened already in many ways by the institutions of the Church. This caused widespread devastation through disease, starvation, death and emigration. Approximately twenty-five percent of people left Ireland or died over a ten year period. The psychological history of the Famine continues to live on particularly within the Irish Catholic population. Maybe the deepest price the Irish have paid for the famine was the shame – not the shame of those who let it happen, but the shame of those to whom it was done and which they have found it so very hard to speak.

It is important in this academic analysis not to lose sight of the scope and significance of the Famine. It would be a great travesty for an event of such magnitude to be relegated to the pages of revisionist historiography. Nationalist outrage has been stifled by the weight of revisionist historiography.

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