Causes and contributing factors
John Mitchell is often described as a precursor of ‘Fenianism’. Born in County Derry in 1815 he was the son of a Unitarian minister, but he detested the emotional excesses of evangelical revivalism and displayed a sympathy for Catholicism, which he regarded as a vital element of Irish nationality. His father had been a ‘United Irishman’ and John became an influential Irish nationalist activist, author, and political journalist, becoming a leading member of both Young Ireland and the Irish Confederation. Writing in ‘The Nation’ newspaper he said, “The English, indeed, call the famine a ‘dispensation of Providence’ and ascribe it entirely to the blight on potatoes. But potatoes failed in like manner all over Europe; yet there was no famine save in Ireland.”
In February 1845 an observer of the declining situation of the peasantry in Ireland wrote, “It would be impossible to adequately describe the privations which they habitually endure -.” He went further by saying that, “… in many districts their only food is the potato, their only beverage water … their cabins are seldom a protection against the weather … a bed or a blanket is a rare luxury … and nearly in all their pig and manure heap constitute their only property.” (Quoted in “The Great Famine”, Charles Rivers Editors, on Kindle)
Ireland had been part of the United Kingdom since the ‘Acts of Union’ in January 1801, and in the forty years that followed the union, successive British governments struggled with the problems of governing a country which had, as Benjamin Disraeli put it in 1844, “a starving population, an absentee aristocracy, an alien established Protestant church, and in addition the weakest executive in the world.” Indeed, one historian calculated that, between 1801 and 1845, there had been 114 commissions and 61 special committees enquiring into the state of Ireland, and that “without exception their findings prophesied disaster; Ireland was on the verge of starvation, her population rapidly increasing, three-quarters of her labourers unemployed, housing conditions appalling and the standard of living unbelievably low”.
As previously stated, in the 17th and 18th centuries, Irish Catholics had been prohibited by the Penal Laws from purchasing or leasing land, from voting, from holding political office, from living in or within 5 miles of a corporate town, from obtaining education, from entering a profession, and from doing many other things necessary for a person to succeed and prosper in society. These laws had largely been reformed by 1793, and the ‘The Roman Catholic Relief Act, 1829‘ allowed Irish Catholics to again sit in parliament. This, did little to positively affect the lives of the huge majority of Irish Catholics that made up the peasantry living off the land as labourers.
Catholics, the bulk of whom lived in conditions of severe poverty and insecurity despite The At of Emancipation in 1829, made up 80% of the population. But, at the top of the “social pyramid” in Ireland was the ‘Ascendancy class’ English and Anglo-Irish families who owned most of the land, and held more or less unchecked power over their tenants. Some of these estates of land were vast, for example, the Earl of Lucan owned over 60,000 acres. For the most part, these ‘Ascendancy Class’ landlords lived in England and were known to their tenants as ‘Absentee Landlords’
With the increase in ‘Absentee Landlords’, during the 18th century, the ‘middleman system’ for managing landed property was introduced. In this system the collection of rents was left in the hands of the landlords’ agents, or middlemen. This system ensured that the landlords were in receipt of a regular income, while relieving them of direct responsibility, but it left the tenants very much open to exploitation through underhand methods employed by the agents. The rent revenue that was collected was from the impoverished tenants, who were paid the minimal wage to raise crops and livestock for export, was sent to England less ‘agent expenses.’
As a result of such changes, during the thirty years prior to the outbreak of the ‘Great Famine’ the country had witnessed a rapid expansion of shanty cabins being constructed on the edge of towns, and the bogland squatter colonies like the ‘Erri Troglodytes’, the foundations of whose dwellings were sunk eight feet and more below the surface of the surrounding bog. The walls of these dwellings were constructed of wet sods cut from the surface of the bog, and they had no chimney, door, or door way. The holes through which they entered and the smoke escaped were filled up against the wind with bundles of heath, or turf kreels, filled with potato stalks. They also settled on land at the edge of cultivation which were pushing over 1,000 feet.
The impact of changes in cultivation and land usage, land ownership and tenant rights worsened the situation in the country in three important ways. The first was that the more better off tenants took the opportunity to emigrate to a better environment, which brought about a simplifying of the country’s social structure and greatly weakening that structure. Secondly, the continuing trade depression drained the capital resources of the country and seriously damaged the peoples’ resilience to serious crises in later years. Finally, the weakening of other cash inputs forced the tenant farmers to sell all their cash crops, such as oats, and brought them to increasing dependence on the much inferior ‘Lumper’ variety of potato, which was initially called the ‘Connaught Lumper’.
In that same thirty-year period there came about a decline in the number of potato varieties, with preference favouring the ‘Lumper’. This was a high bulk variety of potato, which could be grown almost anywhere, tolerating poor soils and, more importantly, requiring little manure to aid it. But, tying themselves to one variety also meant disaster in the event that the potato was stricken by disease. The threat increased once Oats became a cash crop and was no longer an integral part of the peasant diet, leaving dependence on the potato at a dangerous levels. This was especiall true as an already depressed economy was being squeezed further by the constant changes in land usage being forced through by the authorities. The growing amount of land being given over to pastoral farming, which was more productive than tillage, meant that farmers no longer had the same demand for labourers.
Because the farm labourer had become economically redundant their position within society had become marginal. That position was further eroded by his complete lack of any legal rights on his ‘Conacre’ ground. This was an agricultural custom in Ireland, at this time, in which labour was exchanged for the use of a plot of land on which was grown a crop of potatoes that was sufficient for a family’s annual subsistence. Farmers, however, could peremptorily refuse to renew the verbal contract for ‘Conacre’ ground, or evict and sell their goods for owed rent or services, and all this without any legal restraint on their actions. Not surprisingly saw these ‘mini-landlords, rather than the landlord-class who were quickly becoming the worst enemies of the agricultural labourer.
The following is a description of a scene near Roundstone in Galway, during 1845 – “The poor peasants, men, women, and children were gathering seaweed, loading their horses, asses and backs with it, to manure their wretched little patches of potatoes sown among the rocks. ‘Three hundred and sixty-two days a year we have the potato,’ said a young man to me bitterly, ‘the blackguard of Raleigh who brought them here entailed a curse upon the labourer that has broke his heart. Because the landlord sees that we can live and work hard on them, he grinds us down in our ways and he despises us because we are ignorant and ragged.”
With this increased dependence on the potato a failure of the crop would cause disaster and repeated failure would simply decimate the population. The disaster began in 1845, and while countless numbers of men, women and children starved, the famine also compelled many to leave the country. While this was happening the British were exporting enough from Ireland on a daily basis to prevent starvation of the people. Over the course of ten years the population of Ireland decreased by over 1.5 million people and, not surprisingly, when these facts are taken together the British have been accused ofconducting inhumane actions, including genocide. While some would deny the latter charge, their actions have at least shown the desire of the British to remake Ireland in a mould more beneficial to Britannia. Such an accusation is justified by British efforts in population control, and the consolidation of property through a variety of means, including emigration. Despite the overwhelming evidence that shows prolonged distress caused by successive years of potato blight, the underlying philosophy of Britsh relief efforts was that they should do the absolute minimum. In fact, their relief efforts were decreased as the famine progressed.
As we have see it is not as if the famine and its consequences had not been anticipated by the British Governement. A Royal Commission in 1845 stated that bad relations between landlord and tenant were principally responsible for all the grievances beng aired in Ireland. It stated that there was no hereditary loyalty, feudal tie, or mitigating tradition of paternalism as existed in England. It was not surprising when the Greater number of native Irish considered that Ireland was a country conquered by an evil empire. These opinions were not helped by the attitudes of such men as the Earl of Clare, who observed of landlords that “confiscation is their common title”. Not surprising, when you realise that the landlords regarded the land as being simply a source of income, from which as much as possible was to be extracted. With the Irish peasantry filled brooding in anger and discontent at their treatment by the landlords, these same landlords viewed the countryside as a hostile place in which to live. Thus, absentee ownership became very common, with some landlords visiting their property only once or twice in a lifetime, if ever. The money raised from the rents in Ireland were generally spent elsewhere, annually estimated at £6,000,000 in 1842.
The ability of middlemen was measured, and they were paid, by the rent income they could contrive to extract from tenants. These men were often described in evidence before the Commission as being “land sharks“, “bloodsuckers“, and “the most oppressive species of tyrant that ever lent assistance to the destruction of a country“. The middlemen would lease large tracts of land from the landlords on long leases with fixed rents, which they then would sublet as they saw fit. They would divide a holding into smaller and smaller parcels of land so as to maximise the amount of rent they could obtain. Meanwhile, the tenants could be evicted for reasons such as non-payment of the high rents they were obliged to pay, or a landlord’s decision to raise sheep instead of grain crops.
A tenant often paid his rent by working for the landlord, but such contracts were not legally binding upon the landlord. Moreover, any improvement made on a holding by a tenant instantly became the property of the landlord when the lease expired or was terminated. The incentive among tenants to make improvements to their holdings was, therefore, limited. Most of the tenants, unfortunately, had no security of tenure on the land, because as tenants “at will”, they could be turned out at the landlord’s pleasure. The only exception to this type of arrangement was found in the province of Ulster where, under a practice known as ‘Tenant Right’, a tenant was compensated for any improvement they made to their holding. Such was the difference, indeed, that the Commission felt able to state that “the superior prosperity and tranquility of Ulster, compared with the rest of Ireland, were due to tenant right“. But, throughout the entirety of Ireland the landlords often used their powers without compunction, and teir tenants lived in dread of them and what they would do next. Some observers, at the time, recorded that in these circumstances, “industry and enterprise were extinguished and a peasantry created which was one of the most destitute in Europe”.
In 1845, 24% of all Irish tenant farms were of 1–5 acres in size, while 40% were of 5–15 acres. Holdings were so small that no crop other than potatoes would suffice to feed a family. Shortly before the famine, however, the British government reported that poverty was so widespread that one-third of all Irish small holdings were not able to their tenant families after paying their rent, except by undertaking seasonal migrant labour in England and Scotland. Following the famine, however, reforms were implemented by the government that made it illegal to further divide land holdings.
The 1841 census showed that Ireland had a population of just over eight million. Two-thirds of these people depended on agriculture for their survival, but they rarely received a working wage. They had to work for their landlords in return for the patch of land they needed to grow enough food for their own families, but the rights to a plot of land in Ireland could mean the difference between life and death in the early 19th century. Unfortunately, it was a system which forced the Irish peasantry into monocultural farming, since only the potato could be grown in sufficient quantities.
From the beginning of the famine in Ireland the response of the United Kingdom’s government was dominated by its view that the potato was the “Root of all Irish Evil.” In their opinion it was a ‘Lazy Root’ grown in ‘Lazy Beds’ by ‘Lazy People.’Among many in the upper levels of British society the potato was considered an inferior food for any civilised people, and it kept the Irish peasant at the bottom of the ‘cultural ladder’ because it accentuated the negative issues associated with the Celtic race and the ‘Papish’ religion. It was generally believed among such people that the potato fostered, from earliest childhood, habits of indolence, improvidence, and waste. But, there was no other crop that produced such an abundance of food on the same extent of ground. At the same time it requires so little skill and labour to raise a crop, or to prepare it for eating, that the labourer was left with a considerable amount of time on his hands.
One response to the coming of famine to Ireland was for the government to recognise it as an opportunity to replace the backward, degenerate potato as a food source with a ‘higher form’, such as grain, which would forcibly elevate the feckless Irish further up the ladder of civilisation. By linking food, race and religion in a cold and unfeeling view of civilisation, the famine could be interpreted in a benevolent way as being an accelerator effect that would help achieve the goal of implementing and anglicised agricultural system. Creating a link between Celtic inferiority and the obstinate Roman Catholicism of the Irish poor, the famine could be interpreted as ultimately being caused by moral not biological failings. Viewpoints such as these were shared by senior politicians, key administrators and influential journalists, all of whom encouraged the government to be extremely reluctant to intervene in Ireland. They appeared to profess that Ireland should be allowed to starve for its own good.
The official assault on the potato as a food source was accompanied by an onslaught on the ‘Rundale’ and ‘Clachan’ farming systems, in the belief that only individual farms would encourage initiative and self-reliance. The ‘Clachans'(small hamlets of tenant holdings), it was felt, needed to be dispersed to break the cultural moulds, which sustained mutual aid and, thereby, fostered a debilitating dependency. The privatisation and linearisation of the landscape spread a logical lattice of ladder farms over the west of Ireland, obliterating the earlier informal networks of the ‘Rundale’ system. This was a system by which the land was divided, when a dozen or more people possessed alternate furrows in the same field. It was similar to the ridge and furrow system used in England, but on a more extended scale.
The changes in existing systems also began to dislocate the culture of the Irish peasantry, which was symbolised by a rapid erosion of the Irish language in the reorganised areas. When seeing a tally-stick around a child’s neck that had been notched for each occasion that the child had spoken Irish, a reporter asked the child’s father if he did not love the Irish language. The reporter records that the man spoke no other language, and told him, “Sure it is the talk of the old country, and the old times, the language of my father and all that’s gone before me – the speech of these mountains, and lakes, and the glens where I was bred and born; but you know,” the reporter continued,”the children must have learning, and as they teach no Irish in the national school, we must have recourse to this to instigate them to talk English.” (Kevin Whelan, The Great Irish Famine,Ed. C. Poirteir, Mercier Press, dublin 1995.)
The assault on the ‘Rundale’ and the ‘Clachan’ was also accompanied by an assault on Irish landlordism itself. The British establishment welcomed the bankruptcy of Irish landlords whom they saw as being equally feckless as the Irish peasantry. If these men could be replaced by a new breed of hard-headed English and Scottish owners, occupying newly cleared estates for large scale cattle or sheep rearing, so much the better. At the time ‘The Times’ noted – “in a few years a Celtic Irishman will be as rare in Connemara as a Red Indian on the shores of Manhattan.” But the ‘Encumbered Estates Act’ was designed to facilitate the easy transfer of land from Irish to English, and Scottish, landowners who would transform the society, culture, politics and economics of Ireland.