The Famine’s Aftermath
Most historians agree that by 1850 the very worst of the Great Famine was over, and that the potato crop was beginning to recover its former strength. The potato blight, however, continued to strike the potato crop at intervals, but with less calamitous results. Nevertheless, the Great Famine in Ireland affected future generations of Irishmen and left echoes of Ireland’s suffering for years to come within their minds.
All through those years when the people of Ireland died of starvation and disease, the British Government continually complained about the cost of providing relief schemes. In the end the total costs to the British government of the Famine, between the years 1845 and 1850, according to the records amounted to £8.1 million. Less than half of amount was given as grants from the Treasury, while the rest was provided from Treasury loans that were supposed to be repaid through the levy of poor rates. However, by 1850, there was less than £600,000 repaid to the Treasury, which proceeded to consolidate the debts and refinance them. But, these measures did not lower the total debts by any large amount and, finally, they were cancelled completely in 1853, when Ireland was brought into the British income tax system.
But, if details of these large outlays by the British Government are examined at a closer level quite a different interpretation can be taken from the records. Britain, at this time, was a major world and European power and had to maintain considerable forces for defence. In fact, Britain’s expenditure on its national defences since the end of the Napoleonic Wars, in 1815, had amounted on average to an amount of approximately £16 million per year, from the nation’s average annual tax revenue of about £53 million.
In the meantime, when the famine began in Ireland, the government sent one Commission after another to investigate. They analysed, evaluated, reviewed, and wrote many reports, which they sent to superiors in London for further evaluation. One can only imagine the man-hours that were spent in preparing and collating all this paperwork, but we can be certain that these were considered English, not Irish, man-hours. So, when England boasted about the large amount of money that she was spending to alleviate the suffering of the Irish people, there was a substantial portion of that money going back into English coffers. This cash return came in the form of wages paid to those who completed the paperwork, or to the members of Ireland’s Anglo class, who were the only people employed as commissioners, superintendents of work, inspectors of work, and so forth. In 1847 it was estimated some ten thousand government servants were administering relief to the poor in Ireland, which came out of the same government funds from which their salaries were drawn. What remained of the fund after these costs and salaries were paid left only a small portion of the relief that was needed.
There were, of course, many contemporary voices, in Parliament and elsewhere, who argued that the government was providing funds that were totally insufficient to meet the size of the tragedy being suffered by the people in Ireland. This is particularly cruel when you realise that the Irish had, for generations, been paying taxes to England and tithes to her alien church. But, suddenly, those taxes and tithes were no longer considered Irish money that the English were spending to help relieve the distress; Now, by some hidden means or other construed by the Treasury, it was now all English money. In fact, overall, the greatest assistance to Famine Relief came from Ireland itself, through Poor Rate collections, and money that was contributed by some landlords. On top of these funds there was at least £1 million collected through private charity efforts.
Yet another important fact that is ignored in British reports of the time is the value of Irish exports to the English Treasury. In 1847 a government statistical commissioner, Captain Larcom, listed the total value of the agricultural produce of Ireland for that year to be £44,958,120. In this, one of the darkest years of the famine, the produce listed would have been enough to feed, at least during the famine months, not only the eight million people living in Ireland at that time, but another eight million besides. In almost every major harbour in Ireland during this period, a ship sailing in with Indian maize from America would have passed half a dozen British ships sailing out with Irish wheat, oats, and cattle. Due to the political economy forced upon Ireland, its people were too poor to buy the products of their own labour. The British exported that harvest to a better market, and left the people to die of famine, or to live on the charity of others. They then had the audacity to blame the Irish people for their own distress. But what else could be expected of a country where its own profitable scheme, rather than the Irish lives it cost, that British Government officials held sacred.
It is unfortunate that an exact number of how many people died during the period of the famine is unknown. It is believed, however, that people more died from disease than perished from starvation. State registration of births, marriages, or deaths had not yet begun at this time, and the records kept by the Roman Catholic Church are incomplete. The number of deaths that occurred during the Famine were so numerous that record-keeping virtually stopped, because no-one could keep up with them. Sadly, during this tragic period there were hundreds of men, women and children who died unknown and unmissed, because their families had departed this life before them.
There is one estimate that may help answer this question, which compares the expected population with the eventual numbers in the 1850s. The census of 1841 recorded Ireland’s population at 8,175,124. Subsequently, a census taken immediately after the famine in 1851 counted the population at 6,552,385, which reflected a drop of over 1.5 million people in 10 years. The census commissioners estimated that, at the normal rate of population increase, the population in 1851 should have grown to just over 9 million people, if the famine had not intervened. In this latest census commissioners collected information on the number who had died in each family since 1841, along with the cause, season, and year of their death. They recorded 21,770 total deaths had resulted from starvation in the previous decade, while 400,720 deaths had been caused by disease, among which were listed Typhus fever, Diptheria, Dysentery, Cholera, Smallpox, Scurvy and Influenza. Despite their efforts, the commissioners were not confident about the accuracy of their figures and suggested that the true number of deaths was probably much higher. It is a fact that the more widespread the number of deaths, the less will be the accuracy of recorded deaths, provided through household information. The terrible fact of this Famine was that not only were whole families swept away by disease, but entire communities were also wiped from the land. Later historians agree that the 1851 commissioners’ figures on the number of deaths were flawed and that they had probably under-estimated the level of mortality. The combination of institutional figures and those provided by individuals do give an incomplete account of fatalities during the famine years. The true figure is likely to be somewhere between the two extremes of half and one and a half million people, with the most widely accepted estimate being one million deaths.
At least a million people are thought to have emigrated because of the famine in Ireland. There were about 1 million long-distance emigrants between 1846 and 1851, most of whom, as we have seen, travelled to North America. The total given in the 1851 census is 967,908, while short-distance emigrants, mainly to Britain, have been estimated to have been approximately 200,000 or more. Yet another area of uncertainty are those descriptions of disease as given by tenants, who believed them to be the cause of their relatives’ deaths. The 1851 census has been rightly criticised as being deeply flawed about the true extent of famine mortality. Nevertheless, the census does provide an excellent framework for the medical history of the Great Famine.
The diseases that badly affected the population fell into two categories, namely famine-induced diseases and diseases of nutritional deficiency. Of the latter group, the most commonly experienced were starvation and a form of serious protein-energy malnutrition (Marasmus), as well as a condition at the time called dropsy. Dropsy (oedema) was a popular name given for the symptoms of several diseases, one of which, kwashiorkor, was a severe form of malnutrition that most commonly affects children.
But, the greatest death rate did not come from nutritional deficiency diseases, but from famine-induced ailments. Malnourishment makes us all very vulnerable to infections and, therefore, they are more severe when they occur. Measles, Diphtheria, Diarrhoea, Tuberculosis, most Respiratory infections, Whooping Cough, many Intestinal Parasites, and Cholera were all strongly conditioned by nutritional status. Potentially lethal diseases, such as smallpox and influenza, were so virulent, however, that their spread was independent of nutritional problems. The best example of this phenomenon was Typhus fever, which exacted the greatest death toll among the starving peasantry. In the popular mind, as well as medical opinion, fever and famine are still considered to be closely related. Social dislocation that brought about the gathering of the hungry at soup kitchens, food depots, and overcrowded work houses created the ideal conditions for spreading infectious diseases such as Typhus, Typhoid, and Relapsing Fever.
Diarrhoeal diseases, on the other hand, are the result of poor hygiene, bad sanitation, and dietary changes. The final deadly attack on a population which was incapacitated by famine was delivered by Asiatic cholera, which had visited Ireland briefly in the 1830s. In the 1840s, it had spread uncontrollably across Asia, through Europe, and into Britain, finally reaching Ireland in 1849. It is estimated that this terrible disease reduced the existing population of Ireland by between twenty and twenty-five per cent.
The British Government’s response to the Famine and disease that was sweeping through Ireland was not without its critics. Contemporary opinion was very critical of the manner, in which Russell’s government responded to and managed the great crisis to the benefit of those affected by it. From the very beginning of the tragedy there were accusations that the Government completely failed to grasp the magnitude of the disaster that was happening in Ireland. Sir James Graham, a former ‘Home Secretary’ in Sir Robert Peel’s late government, had written to Peel, telling him that, in his opinion, “the real extent and magnitude of the Irish difficulty are underestimated by the Government, and cannot be met by measures within the strict rule of economical science”. In short, he believed that the normal ‘laissez-faire’ attitude of the government would be completely disastrous.
Criticism, however, was not confined to critics outside of Government circles. The Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Lord Clarendon, wrote a letter to the Prime Minister, Lord Russell, on 26 April 1849 in which, unusually for him, he urged that the Government establish additional relief measures to combat the worsening situation in Ireland. He told Lord Russell, “I don’t think there is another legislature in Europe that would disregard such suffering as now exists in the west of Ireland, or coldly persist in a policy of extermination.” Added to this criticism levelled at the Government by Edward Twisleton, the Chief Poor Law Commissioner, when he resigned his post in protest over the ‘Rate-in-Aid Act’, which provided additional funds for the Poor Law through a 6p in the pound levy on all rateable properties in Ireland. Twisleton declared that “comparatively trifling sums were required for Britain to spare itself the deep disgrace of permitting its miserable fellow subjects to die of starvation”.
We have seen how the government in London spent £8 million for poor relief in Ireland between 1845 and 1850, which represented approximately one-half of one percent of the British gross national product over those five years. There were, of course, certain figures who noted the difference this was from £20 million in compensation paid to the West Indian slave-owners in the previous decade 1830s. There were other critics who loudly maintained that, even after the government did recognise the scope of the crisis, it blatantly failed to take sufficient steps to address it. In 1860, John Mitchel, one of the leaders of the Young Ireland Movement, wrote – “I have called it an artificial famine: that is to say, it was a famine which desolated a rich and fertile island that produced every year abundance and superabundance to sustain all her people and many more. 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. The British account of the matter, then, is first, a fraud; second, a blasphemy. The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the famine.”
There were, also, others who criticised the government for taking any action, no matter how meagre, whilst still more critics saw in the government’s response its attitude to the so-called ‘Irish Question’. A well -known economics professor at Oxford University, Nassau Senior, cold-heartedly wrote that the Famine in Ireland “would not kill more than one million people, and that would scarcely be enough to do any good”. This was much in line with Denis Shine Lawlor’s suggestion that Lord Russell must be a student of the Elizabethan poet Edmund Spenser, who had taken great pains to calculate just how far English colonisation and English policy might be most effectively carried out by Irish starvation”. Also, in 1848, Charles Trevelyan, the civil servant with most direct responsibility for the government’s handling of the famine, described it as “a direct stroke of an all-wise and all-merciful Providence”, which laid bare “the deep and inveterate root of social evil”. He also affirmed that the Famine was “the sharp but effectual remedy by which the cure is likely to be effected. God grant that the generation to which this opportunity has been offered may rightly perform its part…”
With all of this in mind, it is only fair that we ask whether the policies of Sir Charles Wood, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Sir Charles Trevelyan, the Assistant Secretary to the Treasury, would have achieved the terrible results that they did without the Whig Party’s evil manipulation of the press. In 1845, when the blight first struck the Irish potato crop the weight of British public opinion was firmly behind the government making efforts to relieve the tragedy. The change in the British public’s support for these efforts came quickly when donor fatigue and deeply felt resentment against the Irish landlords set in. Other contributory factors affecting this change of support were the widespread revival of traditional Irish prejudice, brought to the boil by sudden appearance of hordes of Irish famine victims fleeing to English soil and filling the slums of the industrial cities. Sir Charles Wood, in trying to excuse Government inaction, told the House of Commons – “No exertion of a Government, or, I will add, of private charity, can supply a complete remedy for the existing calamity. It is a national visitation, sent by providence.” In this one sentence we can see just how the thinking of political economists influenced members of the Government by providing them with a justification for them sitting on their hands doing nothing and allowing the Irish people to starve to death.
Sir Charles Wood’s colleague, Charles Trevelyan, much more anti-Irish and left o-one in doubt about what he thought should be done in Ireland. In his infamously self-justificatory book ‘The Irish Crisis’, published in 1848, he insisted that the crisis In Ireland had ended that year. He maintained this obvious error in the face of all evidence to the contrary. Almost every day there were reports of the great tragedy that was being faced by the Irish in the face of a continuing famine, but Trevelyan stuck to his line even as more and more poverty-stricken Irish peasants found themselves on the streets of England’s cities. Official attitudes to these growing numbers of starving and shoddily dressed refugees were reflected in ‘The Times’ newspaper, which closed an eye to the evidence that Irish emigrants were still pouring into England. This unofficial organ of the Whig Government chose to give support to the government’s generally anti-Irish propaganda. In the columns of that influential newspaper readers were told that the Famine was not a curse, but a blessing sent by God to cleanse an indolent Ireland of its many blemishes.