Historians have debated the issue of anti-Irish job discrimination in the United States. Some insist that the “No Irish need apply” signs were common, but others argue that anti-Irish job discrimination was not a significant factor in the United States. These ‘No Irish Need Apply’ signs and print advertisements were posted by the limited number of early 19th-century English immigrants to the United States, who shared the prejudices of their homeland. There were, however, many instances of this restriction used in advertisements for many different types of positions, including “clerks at stores and hotels, bartenders, farm workers, house painters, hog butchers, coachmen, bookkeepers, blacksmiths, workers at lumber yards, upholsterers, bakers, gilders, tailors, among others. While the greatest number of ‘No Irish Need Apply’ instances occurred in the 1840s, there were instances that showed its continued use until at least 1909. Meanwhile, alongside the ‘No Irish Need Apply’ signs, that were a common sight in the United Kingdom, in the years after World War II they were replaced with signs saying “No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs” or similar racial sentiments.
Several historians agree that the Irish Famine of 1845–50 was neither inevitable nor unavoidable. They point out that the underlying factors which combined to cause the famine were aggravated by a totally inadequate government response. The British Government were aware from the beginning that they had to do something to help alleviate the suffering of the Irish peasantry. But, the nature of the government’s response to the crisis, especially after following 1846, suggests there was a more covert agenda and motivation behind their efforts. This conclusion becomes much clearer as the Famine progressed, because it soon became apparent that the government was using its legislative powers not merely to help it formulate its relief policies. The Famine had also proved to be an opportunity for the government to introduce various long-desired changes within Ireland. These desired changes included a form of population control, alongside the consolidation of property through various means, including emigration. In response to the overwhelming evidence of the distress caused by successive years of potato blight, the underlying philosophy of the government’s relief efforts was that they should be kept to a minimalist level. In fact, the evidence suggests that these efforts decreased in quality and effectiveness as the Famine progressed.
Several researchers into this Famine period have highlighted the government’s decision to permit the continued export of food from Ireland as an example of the attitudes held by the government policy-makers. There were suggestions that there was an ample supply of food within Ireland, which along with Irish-bred cattle was being shipped off to feed England’s population.
Other researchers have refused to name this period as ‘The Famine’, preferring to call it ‘The Starvation’, suggesting that it was an imposed catastrophe upon the Irish people. They argue that when a country is full of food, and exporting it, there cannot be a famine. In their view only England, the government and its people were to blame for the people of Ireland being starved to death. Credence was given to the claims that England governed Ireland for what she deemed her own interest. It was said that England made her calculations on the gross balance of her trade ledgers, and left any moral obligations to one side, as if right and wrong did not matter in the scheme of things. The ‘Great Famine’ in Ireland, as history calls it, was the result of generations of neglect, misrule and repression by England. It was an epic of English colonial cruelty and inadequacy that has been seen in the history of many lands that came under the rule of the British Empire. In Ireland, the landless, starving peasantry were left with a simple choice, namely emigration or extinction.
There are, of course, certain elements who argue that the policy of the Whig Government toward Ireland during the Famine years was merely a bungled attempt at a relief, and that the policies which followed had a genocidal outcome but not a genocidal intent. When considering such an argument it is best to first obtain the official definition of the term ‘Genocide.’ In Article 2 of the UN Convention on Genocide the term is defined as meaning “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethical, racial or religious group,” by means that include the following:
- Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group.
- Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions calculated to bring about its destruction in whole or in part.
- Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group.
- Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”
In Article 3 of the UN Convention, under the term “Punishable Acts”, the following is included:
- Direct and public incitement to commit genocide and complicity in genocide.
The term ‘genocide’ was originally coined by Raphael Lemkin in his 1944 book ‘Axis Rule in Occupied Europe’. Since that time, it has been applied to the ‘Holocaust’, the Armenian genocide and many other mass killings. It (genocide) is an intentional action designed to destroy a people (usually defined as an ethnic, national, racial, or religious group) in whole or in part.
That a policy of extermination was being carried out by the English government in Ireland was a concern for several members of that government. Lord Clarendon, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, wrote a letter to the Prime Minister, Lord Russell, on 26 April 1849. In this letter, unusually for him, he urged that the Government in London immediately establish additional relief measures to combat the worsening situation in Ireland. Quite candidly, 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.” When a man, in such an influential position, questions his government’s policies there must be some truth in his understanding of government motives.
Undoubtedly some of you reading these pages find yourself believing that events described were horrific, but that they could not happen in today’s world, because we do things so much better. Unfortunately, these things do happen now, and is continuing to happen. All the old arguments are still being trotted out about how famine aid is not appropriate, how it doesn’t reach the right people, how it demoralises the ability of communities to look after themselves. People now place their trust in technological development and the ease of modern transport and communications. But, despite having all the advantages the nineteenth century didn’t have, does not seem to have made any difference to the universal human ability to delay, to confuse, to prevaricate, to discriminate, to excuse the inexcusable.
Any person who studies ‘The Famine’ soon realises that it remains a controversial event in Irish history. Debate and discussion on the British government’s response to the failure of the potato crop in Ireland, the exportation of food crops and livestock, the subsequent large-scale starvation, and whether, or not, this constituted genocide, remains a historically and politically charged issue. Some circles insist that there is no historical evidence that implicates the British Government in a conspiracy to exterminate the population of Ireland, and yet many government officials as well as those advising them looked upon the famine as a God-sent solution to the so-called ‘Irish question’.
Noted Theologian, Tutor, University Reformer and renowned Master of an Oxford College, Benjamin Jowett, reported on a conversation he once had with an Economics adviser to the Government. He wrote – “I have always felt a certain horror of political economists, since I heard one of them say that he feared the famine … In Ireland would not kill more than a million people and that would scarcely be enough to do any good.” This heartless regret that the famine would do away with only a million people was also shared by those in government as well, who spoke publicly of the Irish as though they were completely unsuitable to be a part of the human race. Instead of closing all Irish ports against the exportation of food and keeping the produce in the country where it was most needed, the British Government opened the ports. One possible solution to the problem could have been the purchase of Ireland’s wheat and oats, storing them in Ireland for Irish use during the famine. If the government had chosen this solution, the landlords would have been paid and the people kept alive and strong enough to prepare for the next harvest. This solution, however, was completely opposite to England’s sacrosanct political economy, which demanded all crops grown in Ireland, excepting the potato, be earmarked for consumption in England and elsewhere.
The suggestion that the famine in Ireland was the work of Providence gained more and more adherents with the assistance of various Anglican churchmen and government officials. As the crisis in Ireland deepened, and the deaths from starvation and disease increased, it was easy for the British Government to blame God for its grievous sins of omission. The government had both the money and the power to provide a timely intervention in the ‘Great Famine.’ But, the dismal failure of Westminster to act in time allowed a disaster to seize hold of Ireland that would soon be almost ten times greater than that witnessed during the ‘Great Plague of London, 1665’, when the Black Death killed off an estimated sixty thousand to a hundred thousand people. Four hundred thousand people had already died in Ireland and the deaths were increasing, but the government still insisted on calling it a local distress.
Eminent American law professors have concluded that the British government deliberately pursued a race- and ethnicity-based policy aimed at destroying the group commonly known as the Irish people and that the policy of mass starvation amounted to genocide as per The Hague Convention of 1948.
Others have declared that the British government’s crime was rooted in their effort to regenerate Ireland through landlord-engineered replacement of tillage plots with grazing lands, which took precedence over their obligation to provide food for its starving citizens. From the evidence it is little wonder that the British policy in Ireland had the appearance to many people of genocide. From an early stage of the ‘Great Famine’ the government’s total failure to stop, or even slow down, the evictions contributed in a major way to enshrining the idea of English state-sponsored genocide in the minds of the Irish people. It was an idea that still appeals to many educated and discriminating men and women, and not only to the revolutionary minority of the population.
There are those who disagree that the famine in Ireland was genocide. Such people argue that ‘genocide’ must include murderous intent, and that even the most bigoted and racist commentators of the day did not seek the extermination of the Irish. In fact, these people believe that most people in the government hoped that Ireland would have better times ahead. Furthermore, these people state that claims of genocide overlook the enormous challenge that faced all relief agencies working in Ireland. But, it must be said that views of the Irish as racially inferior beings, and responsible for their own circumstances, had gained a significant following in Great Britain both during and immediately after the famine, especially through propaganda disseminated through influential publications such as ‘The Times’.
For those people who still regard the Famine as being some form of Divine dispensation and punishment, you must first satisfy yourself that human agency and legislation, individual oppressions, and social relationships, have had no hand in what happened. The verdict that should have emerged from these pages by now is an unequivocal “NO!” John Mitchel’s stark analysis that “God sent the potato blight but the English created the Famine” still rings true. The policy of the Whig Government was directed at getting the peasantry off the land, and if it took mass death to achieve that objective, so be it. It was this simple.
What sort of legacy has been left to the Irish by the Famine that resulted in the deaths of so many? Firstly, the landless tenantry remained poor and insecure, and still basically dependent on the potato, for another thirty years. At the end of the 19th century, the Irish consumption of potatoes, per head was four pounds a day, and was the highest in the world. Later famines had minimal effect on the population and are generally forgotten, except by historians. But, by the census of 1911, Ireland’s population had fallen to 4.4 million, which was about the same as the population in 1800 and 2000, and only a half of its peak population. Meanwhile, the population of England and Wales doubled from 16 million in 1841 to 32.5 million in 1901.
Due to the reduction in population caused by the famine, through death and emigration, there was a breakdown of Ireland’s rural society. Entire communities that had been built up over centuries disappeared and with them went many of the age-old traditions and folk-ways. In 1845, for example there were an estimated three million people who were Irish speakers, but by 1850 this number had dropped to below two million. This occurred because those most gravely affected by the Famine were mostly in Irish-speaking districts, and those districts were also the main source of emigrants to new lands. The Famine, therefore, gave considerable impetus to the shift from Irish, as the language of the majority to, English. In later years, as awareness of the cultural loss heightened, Irish language activists in Ireland, Britain, America, and Australia, were spurred such pro-Irish organisations as the ‘Gaelic League’. It is through the efforts of such people that interest in the Irish language continues to grow at home and abroad.
Another area of Irish life to be markedly affected by the Famine was the custom of marriage and, with it, the decline in the birth rate. The Famine and its trials brought to the fore some unattractive characteristics of the Irish psyche. There was an innate cunning within the Irish peasant, which coined the phrase “whatever you say, say nothing”. The famine had served to deepen this sense of helplessness in the lives of the Irish peasant stock. It manifested itself in a rejection of the idea of early marriages, which they felt had contributed to the horrors of the Famine. Thus, in rural Ireland, particularly west of the Shannon, bachelordom, spinsterhood, and loneliness became common and, alongside alcohol abuse, took a toll in mental illness.
Prior to the famine the average age in Ireland for marriage had been between 21 and 24 for women, and between 25 and 27 for men. Those men and women who chose not to marry numbered about 10% of the population. In the decades following the Famine the age of marriage had risen to 28–29 for women and 33 for men, and as many as a third of Irishmen and a quarter of Irishwomen never married, due to low wages and chronic economic problems that discouraged early and universal marriage.
Culturally it is surprising to learn that, for a country renowned for its rich musical heritage, only a small number of folk songs can be traced back to the catastrophe brought about by the Great Famine. There are those who believe that subject was generally avoided for decades among poor peasantry because it brought back too many sorrowful memories. Also, with land clearances and emigration, large areas of the country became uninhabited and the folk song collectors of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries chose not to collect the songs they heard in the Irish language, because it was the language of the peasantry and often regarded as a dead language, or “not delicate enough for educated ears”. Of the songs about the Famine that have survived the years, probably the best known is ‘Skibbereen’. However, emigration has been an important source of inspiration for many Irish songs during the 20th century. But, it is only since the 1970s that a most of the popular songs about the famine have been written and recorded, such as ‘The Fields of Athenry’, ‘Famine’ and ‘Thousands are Sailing’.
The Famine’s legacy for the land of Ireland was one that brought conflict and misery. Admittedly, it was a difficult task to relieve a country like Ireland, which had been trapped in poverty that had been inflicted upon her by British laws designed precisely to make her poor and keep her so. Under these laws and the uncertainty of tenure they included, the tenant farmer was deterred from improving his land and home because he knew from experience that there would be no benefit to him. If he built a better cabin for his family and improved his farm, it was very likely that he would be forced to pay an increased rent for the property, or evicted for not paying it, and in either case would receive nothing for his efforts. There is no doubt that it was very difficult to help a country whose laws made a mockery of the idea of self-help and instilled in the peasantry the conviction that it was better if they remained in their squalor.
The Famine caused other social evils to raise their ugly heads in Ireland. Among these were the many ‘carpetbaggers’ who profited well from buying up the land of dead cottiers but added to the rising tensions among the Irish population. The problems of tenancy and land ownership were far from settled by the government’s actions during the period of the Famine. As a result, the latter part of the nineteenth century saw a bitter struggle ensue in what was became known as the ‘land war’. In this struggle agrarian reformers like Michael Davitt and the Irish political leader, Charles Stuart Parnell joined forces to give substance to James Fintan Lalor’s vision of “the Land of Ireland for the people of Ireland”. Ultimately, the efforts of these two men produced a series of land acts that effectively created a peasant proprietorship as the British government issued bonds to buy out the landlords, who were in turn recompensed by a system of land annuities. In this often angry but largely peaceful struggle, the Irish used tactics the names of which passed into the English language e.g. “boycotting”.
Some improvements undoubtedly took place in the existing land system, because of the Famine. It was more efficient that the smaller farms were replaced by larger holdings, but this efficiency had been purchased at great cost. In 1850, A Franchise Reform Act gave the vote to thousands of farmers, although it was mostly to those who held twelve acres of land or more. They could now act collectively for a change and caused Dairy Farming to greatly increase in importance, and cattle farmers to grow prosperous.
The greatest legacy given to Ireland and the Irish people by the Famine was the depth of anti-British feelings. When the first accounts of the Irish famine reached America during the early months of 1847, and were soon authenticated by English eyewitnesses visiting America, there was an immediate sympathetic and generous response. This was in sharp and direct contrast to that response shown by the British Government, whose responsibility it was to give immediate and sufficient aid to its own starving subjects. Beginning in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, meetings were held in cities and towns throughout the United States to devise the best and speediest means of helping the starving people of Ireland. Even the US government itself intervened, allowing its ships of war, with their guns removed to afford more room for stowage, to hurry to Ireland’s shores with supplies. The horrors of the Famine continued unabated for several years more before it came to an end. Then, the population of Ireland began to recover its numbers and its strength, once conditions improved. Within a generation many communities had built themselves up again, but the traditional stories of hunger and misery were passed down from one generation to another, fuelling the deeply held anger against Britain, which was viewed as being the author of it all.
This anger and hatred against Britain, and all things British, was probably the most long-lasting effect of the Great Famine. It was this hatred that was the driving force behind the rebellions and land agitation which broke out at intervals until the end of the century. The physical force in Irish self-assertion continued where the Whiteboys had left off. The post-famine ‘Fenian Movement’, which was founded by the Irish Republican Brotherhood in the 1860s, derived enormous support from the American emigrants and was, in effect, motivated by revenge for Skibbereen and many places like it. But, it was from America also that support would come for the build-up of forces that led to the 1916 Easter Rising, the subsequent foundation of the IRA, and the Anglo-Irish War of Independence during 1919-21.
As we can see, the effects of the ‘Great Famine’ were far-reaching and included the vast diaspora of emigrants who spread as far as Australia, Canada, and the United States. It also included the pervasive distrust that has influenced relations between Ireland and Britain ever since that time. Meanwhile, another lasting effect of the Famine and the large-scale emigration that was forced upon Ireland, was that the large number of emigrants did provide fertile ground for Ireland’s efforts to win its independence and assisted in spreading elements of Irish culture far and wide.
The causes and consequences of the ‘Great Famine’ are not forgotten by the Irish and the tragic event is memorialised in many locations throughout Ireland. These include, at Custom House Quays in Dublin, the thin sculptural figures, by artist Rowan Gillespie, who are portrayed as if walking towards the emigration ships on the Dublin Quayside. There is also a large memorial at the Murrisk Millennium Peace Park at the foot of Croagh Patrick in County Mayo. The creation of memorials is especially true of those regions in Ireland that suffered the greatest losses in the tragedy, but it is also true of cities overseas such as New York, that have large populations descended from Irish immigrants. Among the memorials in the US is the ‘Irish Hunger Memorial’ near a section of the Manhattan waterfront in New York City, where many Irish emigrants arrived. An annual Great Famine Walk from Doolough to Louisburgh in County Mayo was inaugurated in 1988 and has been led by such notable personalities as Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa and the Choctaw Indian Nation of Oklahoma. The walk takes place on either the first or second Saturday of May, and always links the memory of the ‘Great Hunger’ with a contemporary Human Rights issue.