Ireland Essay, Research Paper
The Great Starvation of Ireland
I. The starvation in Ireland: 1845-1852
Over the years, the people of Ireland have suffered many hardships, but none compare to the devastation brought by the Irish potato famine of 1845-1857. A poorly managed nation together with ideally wicked weather conditions brought Ireland to the brink of disaster. It was a combination of social, political and economic factors that pushed it over the edge.
After a long wet summer, the potato blight first appeared in Wexford and Waterford in September of 1845. The phytophora infestans were carried in on ships from Europe and America. Less than a year later, in August of 1846, virtually the entire potato crop in Ireland had been destroyed. The following winter became unbearable for the already starving nation. The westerly winds, which usually brought warmer air, failed, letting cold conditions from Scandinavia and Russia overtake the island of Ireland. The effects of malnutrition from starvation combined with the unusually cold temperatures aided in the spread of disease and ultimately death among the nation of Ireland. Starvation, respiratory disease, typhus epidemics, cholera, dysentery, scurvy, and deficiencies in vitamin A, all contributed to the loss of over a million Irishmen over a seven-year period. The practice of medicine at the onset of the blight was extremely inadequate. Ireland had only 39 infirmaries; this translated into one clinic for every 366,000 people. When looking at these numbers, one can easily understand why so many perished.
Many of the deaths during the famine were never recorded, because of this the death toll may never be known. The number of deaths related to starvation is estimated to range from one to one and a half million people. According to Don Mullan, 200-300 mass graves were discovered, and in each grave over 1,000 bodies were identified. The infant mortality rate in some areas reached 50%. It was mainly the deaths of babies and children were the ones that often went unrecorded.
The beginnings of the starvation are said to be a “biometeorological phenomenon,” however, the British reacted in a sociopolitical manner. Relief from the British government was slow and insignificant. The economic policies that existed were unhelpful and the British Parliament refused to make adjustments to provide for a national disaster. No free food was offered to the starving people as long as there was food for sale. Charities offered to undersell the merchants, but under Parliament policies, this was not acceptable. Ships carrying aid from other countries were intercepted before they could reach the hungry peasants. Several American groups contributed huge amounts of money, food, and clothing for relief purposes, but little, if any, reached the starving peasants of Ireland.
In March of 1847, Quakers and religious charities began funding soup kitchens and workhouses. For many of the hunger victims, this was the only kind of aid seen during the years of the famine. Before the peasants were fed, many protestant groups ordered the peasants to condemn Catholicism. Meals served by “soupers” consisted of watery soup and bread. These meals did not provide adequate nutrition to keep the starving people alive and, many times, made it worse. People who are starving to death suffer from water retention and nutritional edema and by trying to hydrate them with watered down soup, increased their chances of mortality.
The workhouses were overcrowded as well as unhealthy. There were as many as 173 workhouses in Ireland, more than the number of health clinics. The workhouses sometimes housed more than three times the amount of people they were originally built to hold. This promoted the spread of disease that was already rampant among the Irish. These aid efforts were halted to finance improvements in long term seed distribution.
British soldiers were sent in during the 1846 food riots. The troops were placed in depots, ships, and harvest fields. This action was taken by the British to ensure that the peasants did not keep their produce. During the same year, an Irish physician by the name of Dr. Dominic Corrigan wrote,
“Starve in the midst of plenty, as literally as if dungeon bars separated them from a granary. When distress has been at its height and our poor have been dying in our streets, our corn has been going to a foreign market. It is to our own poor, a forbidden fruit.”
By August of 1849, some relief from the crop failure finally came, but the potato harvest was limited. By this time, at least one million had already died and just as many had fled the country. The death rate of people without food, money, or shipfare continued to rise, as another winter came and went. By the spring of 1851, the famine began to lift, but thousands still remain at high risk.
II. Social, economic, and political factors that predisposed Ireland to starvation
There were many repressive societal conditions under which the Irish peasants were forced to live and as a result became dependent on the potato. “Prior to 1845, Pre starvation Ireland was characterized by primitive technology, a colonial social organization dictated by an exploitive political policy, and an economic system that did not reinvest in Ireland.”
Under the colonial system, the rents became extremely costly, in which individuals were often faced with a choice to pay rent or buy food for their families. The relatively cheap and easy to grow potato was encouraged as a dietary staple and Irish peasants were forced to use the potato for survival purposes. Technology used for agriculture was also lacking. Quality lands were being used for grain, livestock, and flax forcing many families to use the barest lands for subsistence. Irish farmers were forced to farm on wastelands and marginal croplands, and the potato was the only crop that would flourish in these conditions. Due to these factors the potato became the basic food source for Irish peasants.
During the Napoleonic Wars, the French isolated Great Britain; the English took advantage of Ireland’s resources. Over the next ten years, grain and livestock, exported from Ireland, fed the British army and the factory workers who produced war materials. England’s economy fell into a post-war depression after 1815, and created further problems among Irish farmers.
“Wheat prices fell by one third promoting the London Parliament to pass the Corn Law. Thin legislation, ostensibly enacted to “save the farmer” excluded imported grain (except from captive Ireland) from the British Isles until the price of domestic cereals reached a profitable target price in the marketplace. Although the law led to continued growth in the export of grain from Ireland to England, guaranteed minimum prices favored the landlords and led to greater dependence on the potato.”
Wars and rebellions were commonplace in seventeenth century Ireland. Sociopolitical conditions were yet another reinforcement that made the potato an ideal crop. “Potatoes were not easily trampled by calvary and did not require warehouses that could be burned by marauding armies.” Potatoes were ideal in their ease of preparation and long shelf life, good source of nutrition, as well as filling, when prepared with butter and milk. Potatoes were also ideal because they did not require more fuel or new utensils to prepare. In Ireland the common method of preparation boiling food and if stored in a cool dark place, could be kept for long lengths of time.
III. British racism toward the Irish contributed to starvation
Since the Norman Invasion of Ireland in the twelfth century, the English took an attitude of racism toward the Irish. It was this viewpoint that hindered the Irish from receiving adequate aid from the English. The Irish were said to have no morals and careless breeding practices. The Irish came under great scrutiny by prominent members of the church and authors. Many newspapers of the time used God and religion to explain the starvation. They said the Irish peasants were essentially being punished for not participating in religion and having a tendency toward crime. The British viewed the Irish as an inferior race and subhuman. This made it easier for them to “excuse one’s humanitarian obligations,” and essentially exterminate them. Many Irishmen were led to believe that they were responsible for the situation in which they were being placed. If the Irish were to blame for their own poverty, starvation, and death; the English, who were really to blame, could go on living without guilt or regret.
IV. The starvation influenced the history of the United States
During the years of starvation, many Irish fled their homeland and came to the United States. In 1851, two hundred fifty thousand Irishmen boarded ships headed for America. One main draw for immigration into the United States was that many Irish had relatives already living in the U.S. Fares were inexpensive, it that was known as the land of opportunity, and it was free from British law, making it Evan more attractive.
After the Civil War came the industrialization of the United States. Much of the workingmen who built the foundation for industrialization were African Americans, Asian Americans, and as well as Irish Americans. The Irish immigrants built many of the canals, sewers, water systems, railroads, and roads that were essential to the urbanization and industrialization of the U.S. “One author said that the United States ran on steam power, water power, and Irish power.”
The Irish have also been credited with improving the growth, function, and power of urban machine politics. With their knowledge of the Anglo government system, the Irish used their communities and neighborhoods as a basis for gaining control over the Democratic Party. The Irish were masters at the “diverse and desperate” tactics of coalition politics, the backbone of the Democratic Party. Eventually, in 1972, the McGovernists, an anti-ethnic group, took over the Democratic Party, forcing Irish democrats to deflect to the Republican Party.
The increased Irish population in the United States during the last half of the nineteenth century had a huge effect on the American Catholic Church. The Church went “from a quiet, reserved institution to an aggressive growth oriented organization.” The basis of the Catholic school system was introduced along with the construction of many parishes. Systems of hospitals and orphanages were also established through the work of the Irish-Catholics.
V. Effects on Anglo-Irish relations
The history of Anglo-Irish relations is the basis for modern Irish republicanism.
“A legacy of distrust and hatred influenced Anglo-Irish relations. The folk memory of the ordinary people retains the bitter recollections to this day – the coffin ships, the soup kitchens, the mass graves, the workhouses; all under the watchful eyes of thousands of well-fed British troops.”
As a response to this treatment, rebellions broke out. The Young Irelanders, already weakened from hunger, and without adequate arms were sure to loose. The leaders were pro-landlord, and did not condone violence, because of this they were not successful in their endeavors. In order to be truly free from Great Britain the people needed to control the land and be rid of landlords.
VI. A starvation, not a famine
There are two reasons that the starvation in Ireland should not be referred to as a famine. The first reason is because there was plenty of food to go around. Second, the reason so many people starved to death was because of the direct actions taken by the British, fueled by racism toward the Irish.
In The Last Conquest of Ireland, 1861, John Mitchell wrote:
“The Almighty indeed sent the potato blight but the English created the famine.” Mitchel further observed that “a million and a half men, women, and children were carefully, prudently, and peacefully slain by the English Government. They died in the midst of abundance which their own hands created.”
Many have questioned the stand the British took in helping the famine victims and have concluded that the British looked the other way as millions died. Nothing was sent to help the Irish, no free food, no money to develop infrastructure or subsistence. Sadly, many died as a result of the actions committed by the “most powerful and wealthy empire the world has ever known.”
VII. Britain: Guilty of passive or opportunistic genocide
The term famine leads people to believe that the blight in Ireland was caused by no more than the devastating weather, crop failure due to fungus, overpopulation and the wrath of God. The term famine, according to Frank O’Conner is “a useful word when you do not wish to use words like ‘genocide’ and ‘extermination’.”
Starvation has been said to be a more accurate portrayal of what happened to Ireland between 1845 and 1852. While there were up to eight ships leaving daily with large quantities of food, such as wheat, oats, barley, butter, eggs, beef, and pork; the peasants of Ireland were dying of starvation. The real reason so many died was because the British empire had a racist attitude toward the Irish, made them dependant on the potato, and refused to take adequate action when the situation called for it.
The British policies at the time were targeted for small regional crop failures, and when a large-scale national famine occurred, they refused to amend these policies and increase their aid, resulting in the death for millions. When the British government forced the nation of Ireland to become part of their colonial system; they should have also accepted responsibility and offered help for its people in the midst of the disaster. The British, however, tolerated the mass deaths as a cost of their unsympathetic governmental policies, therefore resulting in passive genocide. The destructive and exploitive ways of the British definitely had ulterior motives, such as “clearance, death, and forced emigration.” The English were using food as a weapon against the Irish. England, not only, had the resources to considerably lessen the effects of the potato blight, but also selfishly chose not to offer help because of their anti-Irish way of thinking. These actions are said to have been worse than a direct extermination.
VIII. Academics have negatively influenced historical perceptions of “the Great Starvation
A revision of history is necessary in bringing out the true accounts of what really happened in Ireland. The problem lies with many historians who wrote from the perspective of the ruling power and did not tell the stories objectively of the oppressed Irish. This skewed historical account takes away from Irish history and it’s heroes, undermining the basis of Irish nationalism. It also de-emphasizes the role that Great Britain took in depriving Ireland of food. The estimated number of people who died had been downplayed considerably. Some death toll estimates were as low as 250,000, while others have said over one million died. According to authors such as Roy Foster, nothing that occurred in the past of the Irish has any importance today. Many revisionist authors suggest that the death and starvation was unavoidable and what God had intended for nation of Ireland. Anglo-Irish revisionists use so-called scholarly writings to disguise sociopolitical propaganda. These writings place fault on the victim and overlook the fact that violence and coercion were used maintain order in British ruled Ireland. By reinterpreting the role of England during the starvation, revisionists take the blame off of their “sociocultural idols” so they do not look so bad.
IX. My personal reaction
Before writing this paper, I was aware if the potato blight in Ireland. I knew there was a crop failure and that many people died from a food shortage. I did not know however that the British worsened the effects of the situation due to their harsh policies, refusal to give aid, and their racist attitude. I am convinced that the British took advantage of their power and consciously tried to exterminate the Irish race. Since the Great Hunger there has been tension and fighting in Northern Ireland and an apology from the English government would be a great step towards peace. It has been documented that other governments offered its apologies for crimes against humanity. Some of these include Germany apologizing to the Jewish race, Japan to wartime crimes against Korean women, and the Southern Baptist Church to African Americans for their past support of slavery. I feel that the English had a direct impact on how disastrous the famine was, and with the right amount of aid, the worst of the famine could have probably been completely avoided. The English must admit to their wrongdoings and give an apology to the Irish that is needed and long overdue.