In Brief

Deasy's point in saying "I remember the famine in '46" seems to be not only to remind Stephen how long he has been around, but also to lay claim to some historical authenticity, as if he knew the sufferings and can speak authoritatively about their significance. Perhaps no single perspective can be adequate for comprehending this appalling holocaust, but if anyone is not fit to claim special insight, it is a Unionist member of the Protestant ruling class.

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Many have claimed that what happened in 1845-52 was not a famine at all, since food was being produced abundantly in Ireland throughout these years, but rather a genocidal government policy of mass starvation. This claim is highly debatable, but it cannot be denied that the more than one million deaths, and the comparable number of people driven to leave their ancestral land for America (in a population of only eight million), were not caused by a fungal blight on the potato crop. They were caused by a brutally oppressive system of landholding that had reduced rural Catholics to a state of serfdom so inhumanly wretched that millions were subsisting by eating nothing but potatoes (eight pounds a day were required), while the rich fruits of a fertile country (corn, wheat, beef, pork) were exported to England. For a long time, British government policy had discouraged Irish industry while encouraging the export of wheat and cattle to feed English appetites. Huge numbers of peasants, unable to earn money in any way, subsisted on the potatoes that they could grow on their tiny plots of land.

Nor can it plausibly be claimed that the crop failure could not be foreseen or managed. In the famine of 1782-83, the government in Dublin had closed the ports to exports, over the objections of merchants. Food prices fell, and people ate. In the famine that began in 1845, the government in Westminster kept the ports open, and people starved. (Daniel O'Connell observed in 1845 that Belgium was dealing with the blight by closing its ports to exports and opening them to imports. He argued that the same would be happening in Ireland if the country had self-government.) Over the course of at least a century potato crops had failed many times before, and dozens of government commissions and studies in the decades prior to the arrival of the fungus had predicted disaster in rural Ireland, but nothing had been done to forestall it. As the magnitude of the looming crisis began to be apparent, the government did undertake programs to alleviate it, but most of them were poorly conceived, niggardly, and ineffectual.

The famine was not a happy time for Protestant landlords. Gifford notes that "many tried to tide their peasants over the famine and were ruined in the process" (35). But they bore as much responsibility as the British government for the economic arrangements that produced "the worst event of its kind recorded in European history at a time of peace" (Gifford, 35).

JH 2012
Mural on the Ballymurphy Road in Belfast. An Gorta Mór means The Great Hunger. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Skibbereen 1847, by Cork artist James Mahony, commissioned by the London Illustrated News 1847 and reproduced in the Belfast mural. Source: Wikipedia.