The Irish Famine – a summary

The Irish famine was without doubt the worst humanitarian crisis to hit the Victorian world. Over a million people starved to death whilst two million more fled the Irish shores forever creating the beginnings of the huge Irish diasporas which still exist in today North America, Canada, Australia and also, of course, London.

A Land of Poverty

Irish famineIreland by the middle of the Nineteenth Century was a land of tenant farmers, agricultural labourers and small holders known as cottiers. Many cottiers were “bound” tenant farmers, who in return for working other farms, would be “paid” by being allowed to grow potatoes on tiny strips of land known as conacres. The diet of these people, who spoke Gaelic and worshipped a Catholic God, consisted almost solely of potatoes with a tiny bit of milk, buttermilk or sometimes fish as their only other source of nourishment. It was estimated that the average cottier or labourer ate around twelve to fourteen pounds of potatoes a day. The diet was boring but it was also filling and nutritious, and until the 1840s, reliable but then blight arrived on Irish shores having already swept across Europe devastating potato crops in its wake.

The blight

Historians aren’t certain where the blight that caused the Irish famine came from but it’s believed this new fungus probably arrived on ships from Peru or even North America. The blight – Phytophthora infestans – grew on the under surface of the potato leaves and consisted of an extremely fine filament ending in thousands of minute spores.  Ireland’s climate of endless rains and strong winds, meant the fungus was able to spread extremely rapidly devastating the potato crops, season after season, causing a humanitarian catastrophe on an epic scale. But its effects were severely worsened by the actions (or perhaps we should say, inactions) of the British government, headed by Lord John Russell, in the crucial years from 1846 to 1852.

One million dead, another two million fled

The Irish famine saw a million people in Ireland dying of starvation or related diseases like the “the bloody flux” between 1846 and 1851, and some two million more Irish emigrating, some by their own choice but with many more forced out of their cottages and off the land onto the notorious “coffin ships” by their British landowners. Some unscrupulous landowners saw the famine as an opportunity to rid their farms of troublesome Irish and the “tumbling” as it was called, was done by organised gangs who often set the cottages alight to drive the desperate people away. Many Irish in the countryside became so hungry they tried to live off wild blackberries, nettles, seaweed, grass or even weeds. The homeless dug down into bog holes or scalpeens for their only form of shelter and to hide from the dogs and gangs.

Although the British government did make some attempt to bring famine relief to Ireland, and there were a number of charitable ventures by groups such as the Quakers and English Catholics to bring emergency food into the country, the infrastructure in Nineteenth Century Ireland – such as roads or railways lines – was almost none existent making it very difficult to reach people living in remote areas and in the end, it was a case of too little too late.

Nowadays, governments and the international community see themselves as having a moral responsibility to relieve suffering during times of humanitarian crisis but back in the Nineteenth century attitudes were different.

Leave them to it

Irish famineThis was the time of laissez-faire. An ideology held by the British elite which believed in as little government interference in economic matters as possible, which strongly worked against the idea of outside help. Ireland in the 1840s – under the control of British landowners – produced grain for export (it wasn’t eaten as part of the Irish diet and there were few mill stones in Ireland to produce flour) but there are there are many historians who argue that if Britain had halted the export of grain from Ireland and fed its population instead, the famine might have been avoided. But the idea of stopping the export of Irish grain was an unacceptable and it was therefore firmly rejected in London by the Whig government. Soup kitchens and other relief programmes were also wound down too early in a futile attempt by the British government to force the Irish to “stand on their own two feet”. Meanwhile, to make matters worse, the winter of 1846-47 became the worst in living memory.

A Bleak Winter

During this winter, hundreds of thousands of desperate people sought work on public works programmes in return for some form of sustenance. Old men, women and even children found themselves breaking stones by hand to build roads going nowhere.  The programmes themselves were completely pointless and many of the workers weakened by fever fainted or even dropped dead on the spot.

One Quaker Englishman observed that children had become “like skeletons, their features sharpened with hunger and their limbs wasted, so that little was left but bones, their hands and arms, in particular, being much emaciated, and the happy expression of infancy gone from their faces, leaving behind the anxious look of premature old age.”

Nicholas Cummins, the magistrate of Cork, said of a remote place in South West Ireland he visited. “I entered some of the hovels and the scenes which presented themselves were such as no tongue or pen can convey the slightest idea of. In the first, six famished and ghastly skeletons, to all appearances dead, were huddled in a corner on some filthy straw, their sole covering what seemed a ragged horsecloth, their wretched legs hanging about, naked above the knees. I approached with horror, and found by a low moaning they were alive — they were in fever, four children, a woman and what had once been a man. It is impossible to go through the detail. Suffice it to say, that in a few minutes I was surrounded by at least 200 such phantoms, such frightful spectres as no words can describe…Their demoniac yells are still ringing in my ears, and their horrible images are fixed upon my brain.”

Divine Judgment

But despite all this horror and appalling suffering, the idea of laissez-fair prevailed. The British government believed that the Irish were a feckless people anyway and that they should be forced into greater self-reliance. Indeed, there was a very widespread belief that in many ways the famine was a divine judgment against the Irish people for their sins. Sir Charles Trevelyan, the British civil servant chiefly responsible for administering Irish relief policy, described the famine as ‘a direct stroke of an all-wise and all-merciful Providence.’

Drunk and Feckless

English attitudes to the Irish during the Victorian period were deeply bigoted. Cartoons of thuggish looking Irish peasants appeared regularly in The Times and Punch magazine and the general view was that the Irish were lazy, feckless and drunk. Here’s a Nineteenth Century diarist talking in 1855 which sums up a widely held attitude:

Turn whichever way you will, the same “wild, Milesian features, looking false ingenuity, restlessness, misery, and mockery, salute you” on every side. Glance down these narrow courts and filthy alleys that open upon you at every step, and again and again you recognise the race; “there abides he in his squalor and unreason, in his falsity and drunken violence, as the ready-made nucleus of degradation and disorder.”

Other Victorian gentlemen, including one Charles Kingsley thought of the Irish as the “missing link” between man and ape:

I am haunted by the human chimpanzees I saw [in Ireland] . . . I don’t believe they are our fault. . . . But to see white chimpanzees is dreadful; if they were black, one would not feel it so much. . . .”

Less Than Human

Little wonder then that these deep-rooted anti-Irish (and anti-Catholic) prejudices contributed to rapid charity fatigue and undermined any efforts over the long term to combat the Irish famine. The result of this failure to help the Irish in their hour of need was to sow the seeds of hatred in Irish hearts against their enemies –  “The Bloody Brits” – for generations to come. And no surprises then, that the Nineteenth Century was also the period which witnessed the birth of Irish nationalism, the rise  of the Fenians and the Irish National Brotherhood which is one of the themes, along with the famine, which I explore in my new book, The Devil’s Ribbon.

The second in the Hatton and Roumande series take us into the heart of the rookeries in London, ten years after the famine, where thousands of Irish people, the poorest of the poor in the city, lived in squalor. Forensic scientist Adolphus Hatton and his trusty assistant Albert Roumande are dealing with a morgue full of cholera victims, and a city bubbling under the summer heat and rising tension. When a leading politician of the Irish Unionist movement is murdered, Hatton and Roumande find themselves tracking a series of murders connected by the same macabre calling card – a green ribbon. Amidst the growing unrest, dockside strikes, bomb blasts and violent retribution, they try to hunt down the killer and at the same time stop a bombing campaign, fuelled by an agitator priest and a group of would-be terrorists.

The Devil’s RibbonD.E. Meredith
Author of The Hatton and Roumande Mysteries

For more on the Irish famine, we suggest:

The Great Hunger – Cecil Woodham-Smith
The Great Irish Potato Famine – Cormac O’Grada

See also D. E. Meredith’s article on the Dawn of Forensics.