The Real Cause of the Great Irish Famine

Posted on: July 4th, 2012 by Annette Welsford No Comments

Commonly referred to as The Great Hunger, Ireland’s horrific famine of the 1840s ranks as one of the very worst tragedies in the history of mankind.

Famine Memorial in Dublin features ultra-thin statues by Rowan Gillespie

It is a well-known fact that the massive failure of Ireland’s potato crops from 1845 to 1849 was caused by a fungus (Phytophthora infestans) that generated blight. At the time, potatoes were the staple crop for the people of Ireland, and with no back-up crop, as many as 1.5-million people died of starvation. Many more fled the country in search of food.

But why were the Irish so heavily dependent on potatoes?

The Role of Politics in the Great Famine

Hundreds of books have been written about this historic tragedy, with historians implicating what is sometimes referred to as an “ecological accident” in the form of an unforeseen plant disease that nobody could possibly have imagined.

But some economists theorise that it was in fact the political domination of England over Ireland that was the root cause.

Having been “conquered” by the English, most people in Ireland became tenants on the land, working it in return for cash crops and their labour. They had no rights and could only subsist.

At the turn of the 19th century, the British Corn Laws were created to protect English grain famers (and those who owned land in Ireland) from fierce foreign competition. As a result, much of the arable land in Ireland was kept for grain crops that were then exported to England. Only crops that would not deplete the soil could be grown – which is how the potato became a hero. Irish tenant farmers were able to grow nutritious potatoes in relatively vast quantities, and so feed their families, as well as their animals. It was all they had.

In her 1962 book, The Great Irish Hunger: Ireland 1845-1849, Cecil Woodham-Smith writes explicitly about the dire poverty that existed in Ireland several years before the great famine.

“All this wretchedness and misery could, almost without exception, be traced to a single source – the system under which land had come to be occupied and owned in Ireland”.

She also noted that potatoes were virtually the only food that was cooked, and that it was usually boiled.

“Cooking any food other than a potato had become a lost art.”

The Difference Between this Famine and Others in Ireland

In 1998 the then Prime Minister of Britain, Tony Blair, publicly apologized that the British Government had historically done “too little” in response to The Great Hunger in Ireland.

But in fact they did too much, claims Mark Thornton, author of What Caused the Irish Potato Famine?, an article that appeared in The Free Market that same year.

Just before the Great Famine, the British Government had begun building workhouses as part of a government intervention programme to help alleviate poverty in Ireland. This decreased productivity and only made the situation worse.

As people were forced into smaller living quarters, the primary “killer of the Famine – disease” – was left to “do its evil work”, says Thornton.

In previous famines, he states, private individuals had rallied with “charity”. But now the Government was taxing the English so they could pay for their massive (and seemingly useless) welfare programmes.

While the British Government did open soup kitchens for a while in 1847, these were short-lived.

There were other factors too, that have many other writers accusing the English of creating the Famine (as opposed to the blight itself).

In a nutshell, says Thornton:

“Ireland was swept away by the economic forces that emanated from one of the powerful and aggressive states the world had ever known. It suffered not from a fungus (which English scientists insisted was just excessive dampness) but from conquest, theft, bondage, protectionism, government welfare, public works, and inflation.”

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