Why it’s important to talk about the famine rationally without invoking old hatreds

I was on Nolan on Monday with Mark Simpson to talk about the famine, Sir Charles Trevelyan and possible reparations. It’s a subject close to my heart, not least because generationally my own great grandfather was 19 in 1845, the onset of the famine.

Featured was an interview with Laura Trevelyan, one time BBC journalist and great great granddaughter of the man who, as assistant secretary to the Treasury was responsible for famine relief in Ireland under the Premiership of Lord John Russell.

My great grandfather’s homestead wasn’t the worst hit. His landlord (the Second Earl of Leitrim) was one of the more liberal landlords. According to family stories, being right at the end of a northern peninsula the blight was slower to attack their crop.

In 1995, on the 150th anniversary of the great famine I was asked to research a presentation for use in Northern Irish schools. It opened a door on not only on the terrible tragedy that enfolded life in the south and west of the island, but its causes.

If I was to put my finger on when partition rather than the unity dreamed of by the rebels of 1798, became almost inevitable I’d say the famine was it. Not that you’d have guessed it in the early years or even through Black ’47 when it was at its worst.

The most engaging part of my research was a long shift in the newspaper archives which was then housed in the basement of Belfast’s Central Library. As I flicked through each year, I dropped in at random intervals on the editorials of the News Letter.

It had to be that title because the only other paper in Belfast at the time was The Vindicator which ran briefly (from May 1839 to September 1848), and whilst there were some references to it in the News Letter, there were no paper copies in the Library.

What was striking was the way in which the Belfast title found itself in a prolonged and pitched battle with the Times of London over where the blame lay for such a catastrophic event. The Times took the view it was all the fault of the feckless victims.

The News Letter was fierce in its defence of the character in what it referred to as the people of ‘south and west of Ireland’ and adverted to the weakness of the response of London, where most of the power and the agency lay after the Act of Union.

Its defence was in a free, declamatory prose that continued for four years. But the fight petered out after the Young Ireland rebellion of 1848 and as typhus began to spread misery beyond those whose fate was exclusively tied to the health of the potato.

The other thing that struck me was that in England at least, Ireland’s fate was settled by the victory of the mercantilism of the Protectionist Conservatives who believed that the balance of trade must always favour exports over the free trade Peelites.

Peel had the support of many (though not all) Irish landlords whose landed interests statutes like the Corn Laws were supposed to protect, but who could see the value of their estates fading into nothing because of the devastating effects on their workforce.

As PM he brought in £100,000 of sweetcorn from the US. Selling it cheaply he hoped to keep the price of food low. A relief commission raised funds and distributed food, and a board of works initiated road building to keep unemployment down.

All of that changed in the summer of 1846, with disastrous results when leader of the Whigs took over from Peel. The state effectively withdrew from any responsibility for famine relief putting the burden all upon the estates themselves.

It’s this moment which set the island up for the dreadful tragedy of 1847. Russell limited the Government’s food aid programme because of a firm belief in laissez-faire leaving the population weakened and on the brink of disaster but hoping for an end.

The sheer depth of the poverty ( in which the last cash people had was spent) in 1846 meant that on top of the blight, many had no money for the seed they needed to sow in the following spring. It was the year of the greatest outmigration in Irish history.

It never seemed to have occurred to Trevelyan and others who acted primarily to protect the market that the Irish agrarian economy was in large part semi detached from the larger UK one, less than fifty years after the Act of Union was signed.

I read one story of a tenant farmer coming into Limerick city to pawn a ten shilling note for coins on the basis that paper money meant nothing to them. Tenants livelihoods were tied to their ability to offer cash crops in lieu of rent to the landlord.

In good years they could save, whilst the potato fed the family. By the third year of catastrophic failure, in the worst hit areas along the southern and western seaboards there was nothing left for them but the road and Britain, Canada or America.

The truth is that what kept the Irish landlord system afloat was something close to, but not quite, an indentured system which in large part lay outside the wider market system in which peasant farmers could not afford to take part in.

As I argue in the piece with Mark, this system had been in place for 50+ years before Trevelyan showed up. The famine was a black swan event which showed up the weakness of an arrangement that granted tenants few rights and little economic power.

That it had more than one staple crop, the northern custom afforded tenants more rights, and industrialisation meant the Ulster counties suffered less from direct famine (although typhus was as deadly in Belfast as anywhere) than elsewhere.

The famine triggered the first of a series of generational mass migrations which in many respects has only abated in the south after the 1980s by a series of structural and economic reforms that were put in train by Seán Lemass some thirty years earlier.

Even today the sheer scale of the tragedy makes it hard to talk about rationally without people invoking old hatreds that in fact have little place on an island were so much has changed for the better both north and and south.

“We make fiction because we are fiction … It lived us
into being and it lives us still.”

Russell Hoban

Here’s the piece with Mark…

YouTube video


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