On 13 September 1845, the British Newspaper “The Gardeners’ Chronicle announced: “We stop the press with very great regret to announce that the potato murrain has unequivocally declared itself in Ireland. The crops about Dublin are suddenly perishing….where will Ireland be in the event of a universal potato rot?” That simple paragraph ushered in five years of unimaginable human suffering unprecedented in the history of the world. In that period, a minimum of 25% of the population of Ireland, some two million people, would be lost to starvation and forced emigration. Yet, even 175 years on, the facts concerning this human tragedy are often misrepresented, misunderstood, or even downright denied.
The question of “where will Ireland be in the event of a universal potato rot” was one that should have been asked decades earlier. At that time, England had ruled Ireland for seven hundred years. With the Act of Union in 1801 abolishing the Irish Parliament, London ruled Ireland directly; in those four decades, 150 committees and commissions had warned that Ireland was a humanitarian catastrophe in the making. In 1835, ten years before the story in the “Gardner’s Chronicle,” the French political scientist de Tocqueville wrote of a visit to Ireland “You cannot imagine what a complexity of miseries five centuries of oppression, civil disorders, and religious hostility have piled upon this poor people.”
In 1843 a royal commission under the Earl of Devon, the last before the start of the famine, found “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.” The Commissioners concluded they could not “forbear expressing our strong sense of the patient endurance which the labouring classes have exhibited under sufferings greater, we believe, than the people of any other country in Europe have to sustain.” Unfortunately, other than praise for their “patient endurance,” the commission offered little else.
The sad truth is that the Irish famine was not a case of “if,” but of “when.” Shamefully, those, particularly our student’s texts books and school curricula who attribute the cause of the famine to “an over-reliance on the part of the Irish on the potato,” are engaging in a despicable exercise of victim-blaming. They are repackaging the spin of the British government of the time, that it was the Irish who were at fault for their starvation for only planting potatoes, ignoring the fact that the holdings of Irish tenant farmers of British landlords were too small to grow anything else and sustain life. Historically, the Irish had been a cattle-raising society; the transformation to a dependency on the potato was the direct result of British landlords and policies of the British parliament.
Despite claiming dominion over Ireland and the Irish as subjects, when the potato blight struck, there was no “Act of Union.” Food raised in Ireland continued to be exported throughout the famine. Some apologists will dismiss this with an “it was not enough to make a substantial difference” without asking the awkward question of how many lives were there in that insubstantial difference? Priority was given to protecting the Corn exchange prices in London rather than lives in Mayo. Ireland was part of the United Kingdom when recruiting Sargent’s needed to fill their rosters for one of Queen Victoria’s “Little Wars,” but “Irish property must pay for Irish poverty” when it came to the hungry and the dying.
We as Irish American’s need to ensure that the story of the “Irish Potato Famine” is not whitewashed in a sea of political correctness. It was a man-made, not ecological, disaster rooted in apathy and prejudice; the fact that death and suffering were exacerbated, not mitigated is what makes the “famine” “An Gorta Mor,” “The Great Hunger.”
On this 175th anniversary of the great famine, we and our schools should heed the assessment of a recent commentator
“Those who governed in London at the time failed their people through standing by while a crop failure turned into a massive tragedy. We must not forget such a dreadful event.” That commentator was then British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
* Note: the phrase “Irish Famine” is used in this article to highlight the inaccuracy of the phrase when viewed on the facts