Many commentators agree that it was the fragile shape of the Irish economy more than anything else that exposed the people so disastrously to a crop disease that had comparatively slight effect on neighbouring countries in Europe. The factor which made the biggest difference economically was that these countries had a higher rate of development and unlike Ireland, had participated in the Industrial revolution. Ireland’s poor economic status rendered it incapable of withstanding the shock administered by the potato blight. Taking a modern example, Mokyr (1985) cites the ability of Western economies to withstand the rise in energy prices in the 1970s as a reflection of the robustness of their economies. While the German and Swiss economies were exposed in the same degree to rising oil prices as the Portuguese or Turkish economies, the results were very different.
To understand why Ireland’s poor rate of development compared with the rest of Europe at the time we need some picture of the political and economic landscape of Ireland. At the time of the Famine most of the land and property was owned by landlords whose forebears had been beneficiaries of successive settlements by English royalty and Parliament: Elizabethan, Cromwellian and Williamite. The Penal Laws of 1695 codified the suppression of Catholics who constituted three quarters of the population. Though not strictly enforced, the Penal Laws at the very least created a culture of distrust and enmity between two traditions. The case could be made, however, that irreparable damage was done to the delicate basis of the Irish economy principally by the policy of land confiscation from the indigenous owners, replacing them with a class of soldier-adventurers fortunate enough to be on the winning side after the Williamite Wars.
One must distinguish, though, between British policy before and after 1782, when the Penal Laws were relaxed. From this time onwards Catholics participated more in business and the professions. The principal industry, agriculture, benefited greatly from the expansion of the Empire and particularly from the French Wars at the turn of the century as the demand grew for Irish grain, beef, pork, butter and livestock.
The basic elements that sustained life for the majority of Irish people in the mid-nineteenth century, the potato and turf, though cheap to produce, were not tradable commodities. This was because the crop could not be stored for periods exceeding one year, so that there were no buffer stocks. Moreover, because of its bulk, transportation costs were very high. The only way to convert potato into a store as a hedge against future crop failure was by feeding it to pigs. The sole cash transaction of the year for the cottier was the sale of the pig the proceeds of which, together with his working as an agricultural labourer for his landlord, helped to pay the rent on the conacre plot.
Since trade in the main food commodity, the potato, was very low, commercialisation as a whole was therefore also at a low level. Large areas of Irish life, geographically as well as socially, ran on a cashless economy. To understand the precarious nature of this economy one can compare a self-sufficient farmer to a farmer who deals at the marketplace. The economic standing of the self-sufficient farmer will depend purely on factors which affect his agricultural output, the most obviously devastating in this case being blight. For the commercial farmer, on the other hand, who sells most of his crop, this dependence is no longer true. When output falls due to harvest failure, agricultural prices rise, offsetting partially or completely the fall in income due to harvest failure. In addition, savings made in previous good years provide a buffer in difficult years. The risks of starvation, therefore, in case of harvest failure are smaller for the commercial than for the self-sufficient farmer.
That Ireland remained very much a peasant society while the rest of Europe was developing industrially may be explained by one important factor. Most of the wealth and political power rested with the 8000 or so landlords from whom the great majority of the population, predominantly rural, rented their houses and land (Campbell, 1994). The abolition of the Irish Parliament in 1800 and Ireland’s official integration into Great Britain removed whatever trade barriers there were in place. The previously-protected cottage industries of spinning and weaving were wiped out by industrially-produced imports from England.
In addition, following the end of the French Wars in 1814 agricultural prices collapsed causing many producers to fall into rent arrears, resulting in eviction from their holdings. Those losing their livelihoods as a result could either choose between emigrating or becoming a part of a feudal land system sustained by landlordism and condoned by the government.
With the passing of the Act of Union landlords resided at their country estates less and less, using the rental income to support political careers or fashionable living in England. They let their estates at low rent to wealthy farmers known as middlemen who made vast profits by subletting at increased rent to numerous under-tenants. The very poor held land in one of two ways. The ‘cottier’ was a farm labourer who rented a small portion of land annually from his employer. The cottier paid rent by working a fixed number of days on the employer’s farm. A more prevalent system in Connaught was the ‘conacre’ system where a casual or seasonal labourer made an annual arrangement to occupy a portion of manured ground to grow one year’s crop of potatoes. This class, accounting for over 3 million people, would rent the use of about an acre of land from a middleman paying 5 times the price the middleman would have paid the landlord. The existence of land division and sub-tenantry in this way constituted a mainstay of what stood for economic life in Ireland. Bourke (1993) has provided us with a tabular description of pre-Famine Irish Society with some indication of the relative potato dependence of the various groups (Table 1).
It is an oversimplification to contrast a small group of grasping landlords, English and Protestant, with a great mass of exploited tenantry, Irish and Catholic. Bourke (1993) has referred to the many landlords and middlemen who were efficient, innovative and generous to their tenants, particularly in stressful times. “To lay the blame solely on political and sectarian lines,” he added, “ignores the fact that most of the bailiffs, agents, gombeen men and usurers who battened on the potato system were Irish and Catholic.” Daniel O’Connell, for instance, was charging his Kerry tenants over £1500 for Trinity College land on which he paid the College less than £900.
It is easy to see why the potato was viewed as a blessing, a nutritional miracle, and why growing potatoes compared to other crops held such an attraction (Table 2). Several independent reports (see Bourke) have calculated that during the period of the year when potatoes were available Irish agricultural labourers consumed up to 14 pounds of potatoes daily along with some buttermilk when available.
As well as having a high nutritional value potatoes were also a high-yielding crop compared to grain crops, highlighting how suitable the culture of potato dependence was in upholding the exploitative pre-famine land system. The sustenance provided by this one staple food source encouraged repeated sub-division of land and created an overpopulation of ill-paid, ill-treated, but grateful labour. The potato could be grown on land where no other crop could survive. From population maps of the period (Vaughan, 1989) it is possible almost to track the pre-famine movements of this huge underclass of landless peasantry, living in cabins which afforded little more than a secure shelter from the elements, reclaiming mountain and bogland through the ‘lazybed’ system of potato cultivation.
There is much evidence to show, however, that in spite of their being disadvantaged in most other ways, the Irish in the main were healthy and strong. The most commonly used index of long term nutritional well-being is height. Height measurements in Irish recruits to the British Army in the early half of the nineteenth century have been used by Ó Gráda (1994) to show that as far as diet was concerned, at least, the Irish were better off than their English counterparts, their diet, of course being largely composed of the potato.
There was a complete disintegration of the social norms, the only reality being the desperate search for sustenance. Hygiene was neglected, clothing and bedding were pawned or left unchanged for months on end, and displaced families, who had abandoned their holdings, or been evicted, congregated together in vacant cabins throughout the country. The sick and dying clamoured for admission to the workhouses, while the jails were filled to overflowing. Dirt, neglect and gross overcrowding generated fever, which was diffused in a variety of ways, by vagrancy, by the intermingling of the infected, the convalescent and the healthy at soup shops, food depots and public works. Even those who were barely able to crawl out of their makeshift beds were compelled by the direst necessity to report for work on the roads, where they occupied themselves in industrious idleness and in infecting their susceptible workmates.
At their peak in March 1847, over 700,00 people were employed, if that is the correct description, on public relief schemes; in vain as it turned out, since the wage they earned was often not enough to keep up with the rising price of grain.
Exports of food from Ireland went unrestricted. While imports far exceeded exports for the period of the famine as a whole, there was an acute shortage of food in late 1846 and early 1847. Food riots broke out and the rate of crime doubled during the famine period, though these were mainly crimes against property and included poaching, siphoning blood from cattle for direct consumption, burglary, attacks on food shops and armed robbery (Ó Gráda, 1994).
Meanwhile, overwhelming numbers were flooding onto the relief works, administration was breaking down, and costs were escalating. The alarming increase in mortality from starvation, fever and other diseases prompted the government in February 1847 to set up a system of soup kitchens on foot of a loan which was to be repaid from local rates. The destitute got soup free; those earning wages insufficient for their needs were allowed purchase it. By July, up to three million people were receiving soup daily, the scheme saved many lives and was by far the most effective of all the methods adopted by the government to deal with starvation and disease.
In retrospect, however, it merely marked a hiatus in the soaring mortality rate as economic and political events in Britain again intervened to the detriment of the Irish poor. A combination of a financial crisis in October 1847 together with a general election result saw Russell retain power as British Prime Minister, but now even more at the behest of a circle of monetarist politicians led by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Charles Wood. Encouraged by the fact that the 1847 potato harvest was unscathed by blight although only one quarter of the usual acreage was planted, Sir Charles Trevelyan, Assistant Secretary to the Treasury but effectively the man in charge in Ireland, declared the famine to be at an end and proceeded to oversee the almost total withdrawal of British financial responsibility for famine relief. From then until the famine petered out around 1851 responsibility for relief was transferred to an expanded Poor Law system whereby local rate-payers bore the total burden for the operation of indoor (i.e. workhouse) and outdoor relief for the locality.
Faced with overwhelming numbers now being thrown onto the poor law system, whose physical manifestation was the dreaded workhouse, local landlords were given every incentive therefore to clear their land of small tenant landholders who were in rent arrears in order to decrease their rates obligation. La0nd clearances were greatly facilitated by the infamous ‘quarter acre’ clause – whereby those holding a quarter of an acre or more were ineligible for public relief.
…the tenants must be taught by the strong arm of the law that they had no power to oppose or resist….it was the landlord’s undoubted, indefeasible and most sacred right to deal with his property as he lists ...
Lord Brougham, on the eviction of 76 families from Baltinglass village, March 1846 (Woodham-Smith).
As soon as the occupier left for the workhouse agents of the landlord quickly rendered the cottier-dwelling uninhabitable by pulling down the roof. Faced with overcrowded workhouses and two successive severe winters, countless thousands, old and young, had no option but to settle by the side of roads, in woods and in bogs, where they died in their countless thousands.
Several car and coach drivers have assured me that they rarely drive anywhere without seeing dead bodies strewn along the roadside, and that in the dark they have even gone over them.
Usually the victims of famine endure malnutrition and disease. As the case of the Irish famine shows, many of the victims are afflicted with the additional trauma of eviction from their homes and subsequent homelessness. In the Irish case, it was not a coincidental circumstance, but rather an integral and inevitable feature of the dynamic set in motion by repeated failure of the potato crop. Nevertheless, the systematic process of eviction was supported in law and, by default, by the government and parliament of the day. The government took no action of any consequence to stop or regulate evictions, nor to feel an obligation of care for the dispossessed, other than to direct them to most certain danger in overcrowded workhouses.
To ease their rate obligation even further landlords took to offering tenants their passage to Canada and the United States, an offer which many accepted readily, overcoming their reticence and fears of voyaging across the Atlantic, sometimes in the depth of winter, in unregulated ships many of which were unsuitable for passenger transport. Between 1845 and 1855 a total of 2.1 million Irish had emigrated either by assisted or unassisted passage, mainly to North America.
Much of the disastrous course of the subsequent famine period was dictated by this policy of withholding funding for famine relief and instead placing the relief burden locally.
Diet, Politics and Disaster: The Great Irish Famine. Part 2