All apologies, Gentle Reader. This article was meant to be a quick, concise commentary on an historic tragedy and wound-up becoming a nearly four-month-long exercise in obsession and nit-picking bullshittery. Sure, I could feed you an impressive and maybe even believable line about how I have just soooooooooooooooo much going on in my life that I needed to step away from this post. I ain’t gonna lie; I have simply over-obsessed and over-researched and over-written for this post. This is why I miss college and having a history professor to tell me things like “Synaptic Laxative, reign in your argument”.
Anyway, here it goes:
This past Easter (2016) marked the 100th anniversary of Ireland’s much-fabled Easter Rising. It was a classic, forlorn hope of a relative handful of fed-up radicals who commandeered a few key points in and around Dublin and declared an “Irish Republic”, free of British rule and meddling after some 700 years. In short, the whole affair was a disaster which left nearly 500 dead and over 2000 wounded (most of them civilians, caused by the British using heavy artillery), the city destroyed (again, mainly caused by the British use of heavy artillery) and a population left bewildered by what happened. Despite, and because of, the British government’s zeal to punish the leaders, it paved the way for the eventual end of British rule in 26 of Ireland’s 32 counties. (more on that at a later date)
Regardless of the significance of the Easter Rising, there is no single event in Irish history that has done more to galvanize popular opinion against the British rule in Ireland than the “Famine” ( An Gorta Mór “The Great Hunger”) of 1845-1850. This event completely shook the very foundation of Irish society as a whole to the core. It left a scar so deep within the psyche of the Irish people that the country has yet to fully recover. In fact, Ireland celebrated it’s population reaching one half of it’s pre-“Famine” population in 1995– 150 years later. Between 1845 and 1851, over a million starved to death, another million or so died from diseases such as dysentery (“the bloody flux”), typhus, cholera and diphtheria. Another three million left Ireland and, according to some accounts, nearly half a million escaping died on the trip to either Australia or North America. The impact of these five years have become an indelible watershed in not only Irish history, but in Anglo-Irish relations that continues to resonate even today.
Certainly the horrors of entire towns disappearing, mass graves of wasted bodies and a lack of affordable food existed. However, to call this tragedy a “famine” is wholeheartedly untrue. A “famine” implies “a lack of food”. When in reality, cattle and crops were being exported from the island the entire time. Famines, like poverty, in industrialized nations only occur when there is a lack of political will to prevent them. And the lack of political will was certainly rampant in Britain’s oldest colony. But, was it an intentional attempt at “genocide” by the British government? Honestly? Not really, although there were undoubtedly elements within the administration at the time that more than likely hoped for that.
The challenge with Irish history as a whole is that the mythology is so intertwined with history is that it’s difficult to sift through the bullshit and get to the facts. The Irish nationalist will tell you it was flat-out genocide, and they would not be far-off. The British apologist would tell you that it was the laissez–faire free-market that kept the British government from stepping-in and doing more to assist the distressed people. And again, they would not be far-off, either. However, the “Famine” occurred at a time when Britain was not only the most prosperous nation in the world, but possessed the largest empire the world has ever known before or since. So, what the hell happened?
In order to explain the events that occurred in Ireland between 1845 and 1850, one must delve way back into Irish history. As briefly as I can, I will attempt to explain the how and why this “famine” happened.
The background: Croppies Lie Down
Oh, croppies ye’d better be quiet and still
Ye shan’t have your liberty, do what ye will
As long as salt water is formed in the deep
A foot on the necks of the croppy we’ll keep
And drink, as in bumpers past troubles we drown,
A health to the lads that made croppies lie down
Down, down, croppies lie down.
After the Elizabethan conquest of Ireland, a series of laws were put into effect to ensure the pacification of it’s people. While these Penal Laws were established in the early 1600s, (it was forbidden to dress or wear one’s hair in the “Irish fashion”, for example) it wasn’t until 1691 that they took a serious draconian character. Ultra-progressive Anglo-Irish statesman Sir Edmund Burke in the 1750s, described these Penal Laws as “a machine of wise and elaborate contrivance, as well fitted for the oppression, impoverishment and degradation of a people, and the debasement in them of human nature itself, as ever proceeded from the perverted ingenuity of man.” Wow! So what were these laws?
Among them were provisions forbidding Irish Catholics (as well as Presbyterian “dissenters” to a lesser extent) from practicing their religion (rescinded in 1795 for Presbyterians), to hold any sort of elected office or voting, to obtain an education in Ireland or abroad, forbidden to be armed or to serve in the military (until 1793), marrying a Protestant or even owning a horse worth more than five pounds. It also forbade Irish Catholics from living within five miles of a corporate town. These restrictions were eventually dropped entirely for all Protestants (even the Presbyterian “dissenters” from the Anglican fold) by the 1780s. Hell, Catholics weren’t even allowed to build churches out of stone; they had to be built out of wood (because that shit is easier to burn, right?). Perhaps most damaging was the provision that Catholics were not only unable to own land worth more than a few pounds, they were also unable to inherit land from Protestants. Add to that a “Plantation” of Protestants to Ireland by edict of King James I (the King James Bible guy), and maybe you can see where I’m going with this.
Ireland did have it’s own “parliament”, of a sort. However it was merely an extension of the will of the English monarch and was unable to enact any legislation on it’s own. But even this token institution was rendered obsolete by the Act of Union in 1800 in which Ireland was officially made part of the United Kingdom. Interestingly, this act had some unlikely supporters and opponents. Among those in favor was the Catholic Church, who believed that with the Union, Catholic Emancipation would immediately follow. The staunchly Protestant Orange Order was opposed to the Union also for this very same reason. The “Catholic question” had stymied any sort of progressive legislature in Ireland since Tudor rule; it had made and broken repeated coalition governments, it had smothered the repeal of the Penal Laws, it had hampered any sort of meaningful land reform scheme, but most of all it obscured Ireland’s own sense of self-determination.
Granted, most of the Penal Laws had been repealed thanks to Daniel O’Connell and the “Catholic Emancipation” movement by 1830. Sure, they were “emancipated”, however there was no equivalent to the “Freedman’s Bureau” (as there was in the US) established in Ireland to help acclimate the peasantry to their new-found alleged freedom. Rather than using the momentum of Catholic Emancipation to fight for any transitory programs that would have helped to bring the Catholic peasantry more into the political and social fold, land-reform or educational opportunities or anything else to sort-out the immediate destitute, O’Connell chose instead to direct his energy towards an ill-fated campaign to Repeal the Union. Regardless, the damage was done.
Emancipation itself did very little to change the state of the average Irish Catholic peasant. Generations before the Act of Union, the Penal Laws had effectively reduced Irish Catholic peasants to a state of such brutal ignorance and poverty that is incomprehensible to most of us in the modern world . As a result, by the eve of the “famine”, while the Irish Catholics comprised of roughly 85% of the population, they only owned about 15% of the land, and most of this was marginal land that could really only support a handful of crops. One of these crops was a New World importation: the humble potato. But it was a particular variety of potato , the lumper, that really took off. It could be grown in the crappiest land and required little maintenance in the Irish climate. It produced a hell of a lot of spuds for the amount of land it required as well. Sounds pretty cool, huh? It wasn’t.
Thanks in part to both Catholic dogma and the propensity of impoverished and rural people to have larger families, the peasantry of course bred like rabbits (because what else can you do when you have absolutely no money and no chance of leaving your assigned ghetto other than to have sex?). Between 1767 and 1845, the population exploded from approximately 2.5 million to around 8.5 million. And out of that 8.5 million, around 2/5 (or 3 million) were completely reliant on the potato as their sole source of nourishment. In fact, the average adult was consuming between 13 and 15 pounds of potatoes a day. Since for generations the peasantry had become so completely dependent on this one crop, most of the poorest folks had no idea how to cook anything else except boiled potatoes. No salt, no sour cream, no butter. Just boiled potatoes, naked. Yep, naked boiled taters in the morning, naked boiled taters in the evening, naked boiled taters at suppertime. Naked boiled taters for second breakfast, naked boiled taters for a snack.
The over-population, combined with the utter dependency on a single crop as well as being marginalized in not only land, but in every social and civil institution as well, created a Malthusian atmosphere. Defined by English scholar , Thomas Malthus, Malthusianism is “that population tends to increase at a faster rate than its means of subsistence and that unless it is checked by moral restraint or disaster (as disease, famine, or war) widespread poverty and degradation inevitably result” (thanks, Mirriam-Webster). Needless to say, this sort of situation never tends to have a happy ending.
To put this in a more relateable context: imagine the local “cat lady”. She feeds a hungry cat. Eventually, a second cat comes along and the cat-lady has no problem feeding her friend’s buddy. Then one of the cats gets knocked-up. Well the cat-lady can’t just fuck-off four little kittens, can she? So, now she is feeding six cats. Other cats also start showing-up because — hey, free food, right? The six cats become a dozen. Those dozen cats start reproducing (as cats do when there is an ample supply of food and they feel comfortable) and within a year that one cat becomes twenty cats. The population continues to grow exponentially because there is a severe dependence on a single food source and no real source of predation (other than disease which becomes rampant in unchecked populations). This goes on for years, until the cat-lady either dies, or is removed from the home due to cat-hoarding or medical mishap. Now, you have dozens of cats with no means of sustenance. This is what happened in Ireland, only the “cat-lady” was the potato and the “cats” were the destitute Irish population.
So, you have an explosion in the population, living on increasingly smaller plots of marginal land, completely dependent on a single food source. The crop failure of 1845 was not a new phenomena, either. Between 1728 and 1851, Ireland had experienced crop failures at least 24 times. Yet, even with the harvest was good, many Irish lived in a state of semi-starvation for several weeks to a few months waiting for the next crop to come in. However, the blight, Phytophthora infestans wiped-out well over 1/3 of the potatoes in 1845. While, that in itself was terrible, it was manageable. However, the blight in 1846 wiped-out over 1/2 of the crop and in 1847, the tiny amount of potatoes that escaped the previous two years were a complete loss. It is noteworthy that the provinces of Ulster to the north and Leinster to the east were relatively unscathed, thanks partly to less Catholics living in those areas (hence, less absolutely destitute people) and a more diversified agriculture.
The rampant, widespread poverty; the social and civil exclusion for generations; the marginalization of land-ownership and the complete dependency on a single food source all played their part in creating the disaster of the “famine. There were several other mitigating factors that also played an integral part in creating the atmosphere that allowed it all to happen. Most notably was the British attitude towards the Irish in general; the ridiculous system of land-allocation; the absolute free-market laissez-faire economic mind-set and the British government’s response; the “Poor Law” system; the failed rebellion of 1798 (more on that at a later date) and the Act of Union in December 1800.
British Attitudes Towards the Irish: Drunks Calling Drunks, “Drunks”
Theoretically, the abolition of the separate, puppet parliament and the ensuing Act of Union was supposed to bring Ireland in from the provincial cold. In reality, very little actually changed. As mentioned earlier, Catholic Emancipation would not occur for another thirty years, there was no program for land-reform or industrialization. Basically, all it really did was eradicate the last vestige of any economic independence Ireland may have had. In other words, it bound the trade to whatever standards the London government established for the rest of the United Kingdom. If the price of a pound of oats was X in England or Wales, it was X in Ireland as well, regardless of the supply in the local market. Additionally, it maintained Ireland as an agrarian backwater and a bread-basket for the mainland and the rest of the empire.
It’s not a new revelation that the Victorian English regarded the Irish Catholics as something less than human, a common enough opinion regarding the natives in Britain’s far-flung colonies. However, it was Ireland’s proximity to the Mother Isle and large, mainland urban pockets of impoverished Irish immigrants living in squalor topped with the Irish’s propensity to rebel against their Anglo masters that did little to engender any sense of brotherly love towards Irish Catholics. Needless to say, the Victorian press was at best unkind towards the Irish peasantry and the problems they faced. They were commonly portrayed in the media as being ginger-haired bearded apes; violent, lazy, Gaelic-blithering, drunken troglodytes. Of course, with the Germanic-leaning British upper-crust, eugenics also reared it’s ugly head.
The Irish Gaelic Catholic had still not been broken into acquiescing what Kipling called “The White Man’s Burden”: that is accepting British ways, including the Anglican / Protestant religion; therefore they were regarded as “disloyal” to the crown. The Irish were filthy, ignorant parasites that were always leeching off the hard-working, industrious English. The Irish were scum, bacteria and hardly worth a second thought. This propaganda helped to serve two very different echelons of society.
The upper-class benefited by having an eternal scapegoat close at hand; as did the working-class who were literally fighting immigrant Irish for daily work in the mainland, often alongside children also vying for a finite number of jobs. Throw into the mix several thousand of unskilled or semi-skilled Irish laborers fleeing the poverty and agrarian violence of home. With the failed rebellion of Wolfe Tone’s in 1798 still fresh in folk memory, Marx-inspired rabble-rousers would frequently be the bearers of Irish names, lending credence to the spectre of a Guy Fawkesesque, Catholic “conspiracies” ever afoot So, while the upper and working-classes of British society saw eye to eye on absolutely nothing at all, they could at least agree on one thing : the Irish simply made everything worse.
The British upper-class also regarded the Irish as perpetually making the “poor mouth”, as in constant need of charity (because they were all lazy drunks, of course). That “Charity” was not a virtue the Victorian British government, nor the upper-crust possessed at all. Charity, it was believed, was best left to religions orders, or private enterprise so as to not destabilize the market. However, as the crisis wore on, the government eventually had no choice but to step-in to a degree. More in this further on.
Being by and large proudly, and steadfastly Protestant, the British, tended to view the state of the Irish poor as a by-product of their outdated, medieval, superstitious Papist religion. Quite a few Evangelical sects went so far as to proclaim the “famine” was the result of Divine Intervention and some even attempted exploit the situation by attempting to force conversions in exchange for a bowl of soup. Thus the legacy of souperism and “taking the soup”as an euphemism for “betrayal”. Other sects used Divine Intervention as a way of expressing outrage at the rampant poverty that enabled a handful of landlords to live so lavishly while the majority lived in squalor and starved.
However, many Protestants went to great lengths to help the destitute. Most notably the efforts of the Society of Friends (the Quakers) was astonishing. Although they numbered only about 3000 members in Ireland, the Quakers worked tirelessly to feed as many people as possible. They managed to raise some £200,000, eventually distributing around 8,000 tons of food and also provided clothing to thousands of people. Some of the funds they raised were used to purchase land to provide a “model farm” in County Galway to help provide job-skills training crop diversity, land-drainage and mill construction. One would be hard-pressed to find anything other than praise for these incredibly kind people.
Land Ownership: To Hell or Connaught
After a few hundred years, the disenfranchisement of the Catholic Irish peasantry had become the unquestioned norm. Repeated rebellions and invasions, along with various partial conquests and re-granting of land to “loyal” Protestants had expanded English jurisdiction in Ireland well beyond the English “Pale” of Dublin and it’s suburbs .
By the end of the 17th century a majority of the Irish Catholic population had been driven to the western and southern fringes of the island. Huge tracts of Ireland’s land (estates) were in the hands of British and Anglo-Irish absentee landlords who did not even reside on their Irish possessions. Through the aforementioned Penal Laws scheme, land was portioned-out to all male heirs in the event of a Catholic land-owner’s death, rather than the traditional oldest son or daughter. Unless one of the Catholic’s offspring decided to convert to the Anglican church. If he did, he acquired all the land. If there were no qualifying heirs, the land was forfeited either to the landlord via auction or the Anglican church.
This ensured that Catholics would never acquire any substantial amount of land. Instead, more and more were forced onto smaller and smaller plots of marginal land. This has been regarded by many historians as a deliberate attempt at genocide; by the displacing of millions to such substandard land that forced emigration would invariably result. Duly noted.
Most Irish peasants were reduced to renting a plot of land to eke-out their merge living from one of these landlords, again in the most marginal tracts as the best land was leased-out for grazing cattle. Additionally, the tenant-farmers were highly discouraged from making any improvement on the land as that would have meant a higher overall value of the land, which would have of course incurred the corresponding increase in tax owed to the Crown. Many of these estates were managed by local, Catholic lackeys who were rarely in possession of the faculties to organize a teenagers’ keg-party, much less manage thousands of acres of land with sometimes hundreds of tenants. In fact, these Catholic lackeys acted in much of the same vein as black overseers in the antebellum American South.
In addition to the rents paid to them by the tenant farmers, landlords made money off agriculture such as cattle, food crops other than potatoes (that fetched a higher market-price) and of course, booze. It’s no secret that quite a bit of food was in fact exported out of Ireland and many landlords did very well for themselves. However, it’s a matter of conjecture as to whether or not the amount of food being exported would have been sufficient to feed the masses had it remained. Scholars continue to quibble over the numbers, nevertheless. More on this a little further on.
For a little further reading, check-out this article from History Ireland regarding the exports of food during 1846-1847: http://www.historyireland.com/18th-19th-century-history/food-exports-from-ireland-1846-47/
Given that the value of their estates had been appraised for a certain amount of money based in part on the number of tenants paying rent, land-lords were to render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s in taxes. As the blight continued, the tenants were forced to either spend whatever they had on food which was skyrocketing in price, or pay rent and starve. Most chose the former, rather than the latter for obvious reasons. In the early stages, this was not a real problem; the landlords were generally able to weather the odd bad harvest, etc. However, as the crisis wore on, landlords rapidly began to lose their savings. In order to have the value of the land, and accordingly the amount of tax, lowered, landlords took to evicting tenants who were in arrears. This created an entirely new mess altogether. As people were not only being evicted, in many cases, the landlords (with the backing of the police) were literally tearing-down the crude stone hovels in which the peasantry resided. Now, you had not only a starving population, but you also had a homeless, starving population.
The Poor Law Unions, the Workhouse, Corn Laws and Public Works : The Laissez Faire free-market’s loquacious “fuck you” to the poor
Considering the economic circumstances, it was only a matter of time before the crushing poverty endured by a majority of the population would have an effect on the landed gentry. Not surprisingly, it wasn’t until the gentry began to feel the bite was anything actually done to address the land-issue. Of course, government intervention occurred only too late i the game to save the lives of millions, and even then it came grudgingly.
In exchange for keeping these sometimes vast estates, landlords (along with merchants) were also required to invest in the maintenance of roads and bridges and other bits of infrastructure; as well as contribute to the local Poor Law Unions. The Poor Law, on the surface, sounds like a government scheme to take care of the destitute. And yes, it was. However, it’s origins lay in the aftermath of the Black Death in the fourteenth century when 30% – 40% of England’s labor force perished. A series of statues were passed in order to keep the remaining labor in place as well as keep prices and wages fixed. In the 1530s, this was expanded to help take care of the destitute and became part of the social contract that the state would help take of the poor who had no means whatsoever. Thus, a primitive precursor to the modern welfare state. However, for nearly 300 years, the Poor Law remained virtually static until the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the coming of the Industrial Revolution. After 1834, some parishes or “unions” were operating on the “new” system, administered from central committees; while most remained under the old standard of being administered locally. Of course this lack of uniformity lead to problems of inefficiency and opened the door wide for corruption.
Generally speaking, the first line of government defense against crushing poverty was the dismal institution of the dreaded Workhouse and limited public works. Volumes have been written about these bleak holes of wretchedness and abject poverty. In brief, they were designed to be horrible; the absolute last resort of the chronically impoverished. Most of them doubled as orphanages and nursing homes; able-bodied men were allowed only for day labor, generally stone-breaking for roadwork; only unmarried or widowed women with children and the elderly were admitted as “inmates”. There they survived on the most meager of rations, slept in filthy straw and sewed grain bags, picked oakum (bits of shipping rope) or performed other menial tasks. The chances of most people entering the Workhouse ever leaving were slim as there was no wage system or job-training in place to help people get back on their feet and disease in these cramped quarters was rampant.
At most, the workhouses of each Union were designed and funded to accommodate anywhere from a few dozen to a couple of hundred bodies. However, as the crisis deepened and more and more people were being evicted, even the workhouses were being overwhelmed by hundreds and thousands of desperate people. What could possibly be done?
Chas steps in:
By a lonely prison wall, I heard a young girl calling
Michael, they have taken you away,
For you stole Trevelyan’s corn,
So the young might see the morn.
Now a prison ship lies waiting in the bay.
Enter the most reviled and misunderstood character of the entire debacle, Charles Edward Trevelyan. He was a British civil servant and in charge of the Exchequer during the crisis. He was perhaps both the best and the worst for the job. His disdain towards the Irish is well documented:
“The real evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the Famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people”.
Yes, he said that.
Yet, he is also credited with saying in an 1846 letter:
“Our measures must proceed with as little disturbance as possible of the ordinary course of private trade, which must ever be the chief resource for the subsistence of the people, but, coûte que coûte (at any cost), the people must not, under any circumstances, be allowed to starve.”
The real challenge for the historian is to provide Trevelyan with an adequate defense. While it is difficult for contemporary opinion to forgive the man, it’s important that we distance his work from his personal views to a certain degree.
Working within the confines (and sometimes, creatively manipulating those confines) of contemporary British trade laws, such as the infamous, protectionist “Corn laws”, Trevelyan was given the most impossible task: figure-out how to fix this mess without spending any money. There is absolutely no question that he took his job seriously. Working sometimes upwards of 16-hour days, he managed to come up with public work schemes that fell out-of-line with his own bigoted view of the Irish, yet in many ways also went against the “free market”. Most noteworthy (or infamous) was his managing to purchase a load of “Indian corn”, (at the time, all grains were considered “corn” in the UK. Maize, is what your people called “Indian corn”) in an attempt to stabilize the market. This corn sat idle as the other farmers grumbled about the profits they would make off the other crops, which were being shipped to England. Meanwhile, people were starving to death.
Clearly, this particular market-stabilization scheme was not going to work; farmers were getting screwed, the economy was spiraling out of control, landlords were falling into arrears despite evictions. However, Trevelyan’s Corn did precious little to alleviate the rapid inflation despite it’s original intention. He cut-off food distribution centers, complaining that the Irish were already too dependent on the graciousness of Her Majesty’s Government and vowed to make “Irish property pay for Irish poverty”. What to do?
With the workhouses being filled to over-capacity and existing Poor Law Unions funds stretched beyond their limit, the British government decided the best way to solve the problem was through a series of public works. Trevelyan railed against it; building roads to nowhere was anathema to the free-market; it created a class of people dependent on public works. So, what he did, is he made them only temporarily favorable. Public works were limited, overseers were on hand to make sure laborers bought food and not booze with their pay. Anyone found buying booze was generally cast-out of the public works labor pool. Trevelyan was a stickler for sobriety.
In many ways, the public works exacerbated an already precarious situation. Since Trevelyan closed-down the government-backed food depots, it was up to local land-owners to provide food for the workers to buy with their daily wages, nevermind that many starving workers were required to walk several miles just to get to the worksite. Unfortunately, the wages were rarely enough to purchase food as well as pay rent. In a masterful scheme, landlords were taking rent money from these folks, selling them what little food they could afford with public works wages and then evicting them when they were unable to pay the rent; thereby alleviating their own tax burden to the system that was supposed to help these people to begin with. Talk about having one’s cake and eating it, too
To be fair, the landlords did have a legitimate complaint; as the crisis wore-on and more and more tenants were unable to pay rents, the landlords had to absorb the cost of having them as tenants as well as pay int the the Poor Law Unions. Many of these landlords were also British army officers paying out-of-pocket to raise local regiments for the British army. The tax-burden of having non-paying tenants, as well the tax-burden of allowing said tenants make improvements on the land as well as the raising of regiments left many landlords on the brink of economic ruin. Despite the sometimes mass-evictions, most landlords were in arrears and many were unable to shoulder the tax-burden any longer. This dilemma eventually led to the Encumbered Estates Act of 1849, but that only sorted-out the landlords.
Deportations : The Removal of the Irish from Ireland, For the Sake Of Ireland
After five successive years of blight, the Irish countryside was in every sense an agrarian wasteland. Eyewitnesses recalled lurid, apocalyptic imagery straight out of The Inferno or The Decameron; vast tracts of desolation, devoid of any living being; of hollow-eyed living skeletons languishing for want of food that simply is not there. The torn-down homes of the evicted. Corpses on the roadside with mouths full of grass; entire townships reeking of decay from nearby mass graves; consistent, crushing poverty, and general despair took it’s toll. During the “famine” and for years, even decades, afterwards, the Irish fled their homeland, in record numbers thanks to landlord-assisted emigration. In 1847 (Black ’47) even The London Times commented:
“They are going! They are going! The Irish are going with a vengeance. Soon a Celt will be as rare in Ireland as a Red Indian on the shores of Manhattan.”
As the Encumbered Estates Acts became law, landlords found that paying the emigration passage of tenants made more economic sense then trying to wrestle with the Crown regarding back-taxes. The Government quickly saw the benefit and cost-effectiveness of thinning the herd as well, and began their own assisted-emigration schemes. In all, some one million to one and half million left between 1845-1855 alone. While many went to the British mainland, others left for North American and Australia. Again, the “free market” was allowed to come into play and landlords and government agencies sometimes either unwittingly, or indifferently dealt with unscrupulous passage contractors. Forever hailed as “coffin ships”, the conditions of these particular vessels were reminiscent of floating dungeons. Cramped, often without adequate food and water, disease was rampant and hundreds, if not thousands in total died en route. Even those that made it ashore were not always guaranteed and end to their Hell. At the quarantine station at Grosse Isle, Quebec alone, some 5,000 died from disease.
It’s well I do remember the year of forty-eight
When we arose with Erin’s boys to fight against our fate
I was hunted through the mountains as a traitor to the Queen
And that’s another reason that I left Old Skibbereen
Aftermath : Rebellion and Reform
In 1848, a handful of idealistic fools attempted a rebellion. Under the guise of Young Ireland, brave men such as William Smith-O’Brien fought a doomed-from-the-start battle to address the injustices committed by the British on Ireland. (More on William Smith-O’Brien at a later date). But it did help to solidify Patrick Pearse’s claim in 1916 that Irishmen and Irishwomen of every generation had repeatedly struck for Ireland’s freedom. Also, to his eternal credit, he also envisioned what would eventually become the Irish National Flag. “The new Irish flag would be Orange and Green, and would be known as the Irish tricolor.“
The Irish diaspora of which so much has been written about already, began to factor into the Irish political landscape. Before the “Famine” the Irish generally sang songs of love-affairs, maybe the odd brigand or something nostalgic from the good-old-days. During and after the “Famine”, Irish bards took a decidedly darker turn and began composing songs of vengeance. This was especially prevalent along the northeastern seaboard of the US where thousands had taken refuge. And this is also where most of the money for the Easter Rebellion of 1916 came from as well.
The bullshit legislation introduced during the crisis was only geared to alleviate the alleged-sufferings of the landed Anglo-Irish gentry. It really wasn’t until 1878, nearly thirty years after the “Famine” crisis had passed that any real land reform came into being. And the hero of this movement was not an angry Catholic peasant, as would be expected. It was the prodigal son of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy , the “Uncrowned King of Ireland”, who was ruined by the revelation in the press that he was banging the wife of Captain William O’Shea, a “respected” army officer, and had been banging her for quite some time.
Before the scandal ruined him politically, Charles Stewart Parnell had been a scion of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy. Born during the “famine” in June, 1846 into an affluent family, he looked a bit like Graham Chapman of Monty Python, and upon his father’s death in 1859, he inherited the modest estate, Avondale. He attended the Magdalene School in Cambridge for a time, but did not finish. In 1871, he visited his eldest brother, John who was a farmer in Alabama (of all places) and spent a considerable time touring the American South. By 1847, he was was High Sheriff of Wicklow and became active in the Land League (formed in 1873 by the likes of Micheal Davit and inspired in part by the writings of James Fintan Lawler). After a couple of false-starts, he won a seat in Parliament in a by-election in 1875.
However, it wasn’t until 1876, that he really began to gain attention when he expressed his disbelief that Fenians in Manchester had committed a murder. It was well known he won the by-election partly due to the backing of some Fenians and the question remains whether or not he was actually involved in the Irish Republican Brotherhood. He had attended many IRB (Fenian) functions and meetings, that much is well known as well. However, it was his success in promoting the Land League’s platform as well as championing the cause of Irish Home Rule that ultimately did more to ruin him than his dalliance with Kitty O’Shea. It was supposed to have ruined his work as well; however, that was simply not to be. When Captain O’Shea finally divorced his tart in 1890, Parnell’s reputation was dragged through the proverbial political mud in the courts as well as in the press. He tried to fight on, but the strain caused his health to fail and he never regained his political pedestal, yet still died a hero in October 1891, aged 45.
Ireland would pass through some incredibly uncertain times between Parnell’s death and the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1920 which partitioned the island into the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland. But the fuse had been lit. Thanks to Parnell, the legacy of O’Connell, the failed Young Ireland rising and most importantly, the “famine”, the Irish of the second-half of the 19th Century had learned a key lesson, the legacy of which continues to a degree, to this day; it took constant, organized agitation as well as strong-arming the establishment back to be taken seriously as a self-determined nation once again.
But that is all for a much later post.