Wednesday, 4 November 2015

The Irish Potato Famine, part 1

This great disaster, unlike anything else occurring in Western Europe for centuries, devastated Ireland between 1845 and 1851; permanently affecting the history of the country. In point of fact, it was a catastrophe waiting to happen: there had already been warnings, such as the famine of 1816; and disaster had been foreseen by the great Irish nationalist leader Daniel O’Connell amongst others, but nobody seemed to have any idea of what could be done to avert it.

The census of 1841 found an Irish population of 8 million (compared with 4 ½ million in 1801: by 1901 it would be back to the earlier figure!) Of these, 80% lived in the countryside, mostly in villages of less than 20 homes, usually without shops or a church. Ulster had the densest population, but here there were mostly small but prosperous farms. Elsewhere the densest population was in Connaught and other western areas, where the real problems lay.
   There the census found the biggest class was half a million “cottiers": labourers who rented land annually, with no further security of tenure, often paying with labour-service rather than with money. Just above them in the class structure were 400,000 smallholders, of whom 65,000 had less than one acre of land. Many of these were no more than squatters, who held onto their tiny farms only because nobody bothered to remove them; and few having any legal security of tenure. There was no industry in Connaught to attract people away from the land, very few good harbours on the coast, and bad roads.
    40% of Irish homes were one-room cabins, with earth floors and without windows or a chimney. (It has been suggested that the census-takers actually underestimated the population of western Ireland, because they refused to believe that any human beings could inhabit the worst of these squalid huts, and so did not investigate them!). Families slept on straw. Women and children usually went barefoot, and clothes were second-hand. Many families would keep a pig (which might live in the hut with them), feed it on scraps, and sell it to pay the rent.
   One third of all land grew potatoes, and three million Irish ate little except potatoes; up to 14 lb. a day for a labourer, plus some milk, with very little meat or bread. This wasn't too unhealthy a diet, since it contained sufficient vitamins and protein; so scurvy and rickets were rare in rural Ireland. But disaster was always likely if the potato crop failed; not just because of shortage of the main diet, but because the poorest Irish had no money to buy anything else!

The land structure was very different from that found in England. Almost all Irish land was held in vast estates, owned mostly by Protestants (many being English, who rarely visited Ireland), or by institutions such as the Anglican church or Trinity College Dublin. Landlords in Ireland had long been criticized by agricultural experts for their financial irresponsibility and failure to make improvements. Many estates were mortgaged after their owners spent too much on grandiose building projects and imported luxuries, while many landowners preferred taking a steady if low income from rents rather than attempting expensive investments in agricultural development.
    97% of land was let, and then often sublet, passing through hands of middlemen, so landlords were cut off from any direct link with the land and left without any responsibilities. Trinity College Dublin had 12,000 tenants, but only 1% paid rents direct to the college; 45% were subtenants of middlemen and others were sub-sub tenants! The rising population led to endless division and subdivision of holdings, especially in Connaught, where 75% of all farms were less than 5 acres in size and hardly any were over 15 acres!  The 1836 Report from Irish Board of Works found almost 2 ½ million Irish living in “abject poverty”
     The system of farming was also unique to Ireland. Conacre was a procedure common in Connaught, where a labourer made annual arrangements to grow potatoes on a patch of land. Often middlemen contracted with a village collective called a Clachan, who farmed the land communally and were communally responsible for collecting the rent. This system was sometimes called Rundale. All these systems seem very mediaeval, though they can be compared with sharecropping in America. In Ulster there was more security of tenure, and compensation could be paid for evictions; for instance, reimbursement to a tenant for any improvements made to the property at his own expense. But in the west, annual tenure meant no security. Middlemen acting for landlords encouraged constant subdivision into tiny holdings: this being profitable because a rapidly rising population meant continuous competition for land. Reliance on monoculture of potatoes would bring disaster if the crop failed: especially since supplementary earnings from traditional cottage industries (such as in textiles) were declining in the face of mechanized factory production.
      The situation was not so much absentee landlords "grinding the faces of the poor" as landlords having no contact with the poor at all: instead leaving everything in hands of middlemen, and being themselves merely inactive proprietors; receiving money from their agents and themselves contributing nothing!

Many people foresaw disaster - but what could be done? Feeding the starving in bad years could only be a very short-term policy. The only real remedy would be a massive reduction of population in the poorest areas. But in the poverty-stricken west a high proportion of the people were illiterate, spoke no English, and had no money: they would find it very difficult to move even to other parts of Ireland, let alone to England or overseas. Someone with money and administrative skills would have to organize and pay them to emigrate - but who would do this? the landlords? the church? the government? Daniel O’Connell and the Irish Nationalists? Without any such radical action the same problems would simply re-emerge the next time the crop failed! There had been warnings in previous years: such as the complete crop failure of 1816, when the aftermath of the eruption of the Tambora volcano in Indonesia brought starvation all over western Europe and even in America.

(In the view of the Marxist economists, history shows that the subsistence farmer is inevitably doomed: he never makes enough profit in good years to pay back the debts and arrears of rent incurred in bad years)

The 1838 Poor Law for Ireland set up 130 “Unions” of parishes, each with own workhouse. The system was organised and financed purely on a local basis: the Poor Rate being paid by landowners and better-off tenants. “Outdoor relief” (that is, the giving of cash handouts) was supposed to be banned: instead anyone wanting help had to go and live in the local workhouse, each of which could house about 1000 people. In order to discourage idlers and scroungers, food was no better than in prison, and discipline was harsh. This was much the same as in England, but there was also much governmental prejudice against the Irish. Secretary Trevelyan spoke of the “selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people”, who were naturally lazy and would always prefer free handouts to working. Therefore there must be no free handouts: the Irish must be encouraged or compelled to work, to earn money to buy food!

The potato blight first appeared in August 1845, coming from America via continental Europe. Many countries were affected, but Ireland suffered worst. It was a fungus, spread by spores: the leaves of the plant withered, and the potatoes were found to be black and rotten. 
     Nowadays the fungus is treated with copper sulphate to kill the spores, but at that time it was a mystery. There was not much effect in the first year, because most of the crop had already been harvested. The British government authorized the importation of American maize to cover shortages. But 1846 was warm and wet, encouraging the fungus, and the harvest failed totally. 1847 was rather better, but then there was another complete failure in 1848. The situation in that year was complicated by bad grain harvests all over Europe, leading to revolutions and the collapse of governments in many countries. 

    Soon reports were coming in of mass starvation in western Ireland. How would the government try to deal with the situation? This will be discussed in my next essay. 

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