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Book on devastating Irish famine rich in unhappy detail

August 2011
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@dcn.davis.ca.us

I thought I knew something about the Irish famine. I thought it lasted about a year, that it was a severe but relatively short crisis and that Britain’s Queen Victoria basically ignored it. I always vaguely wondered why the Irish didn’t turn to the sea for food. The end.

My eyes were opened when I read “The Great Hunger: Ireland 1845-1849” by Cecil Woodham-Smith (a woman), first published in 1962. It’s not a short book, and I picked it up with some trepidation, wondering how many case histories of death by starvation I could read.

Woodham-Smith is a wonderful historian and by that I mean readable and insightful. She answered all my questions and more about this terrible event and its global consequences. While she did describe terrible deaths, it was no more than the amazing and appalling historical truth demanded.

And if you ever wondered why the Irish and English have long hated each other, this will give you an insight.

In broad strokes, then, this is what I learned: Ireland in the 19th century was agrarian and highly populated. But the Irish were not land-owners, by and large. Irish laborers scratched out a living on small patches of land growing potatoes for their families. Because of the desperate need for land, rents were high. Landlords held tenants in a death-grip – pay the rent or be evicted. And if you were evicted, you and your family would starve.

It is believed that in the 1841-1851 decade, 2.5 million died from the famine and its shadow, typhus fever.

Woodham-Smith said there was a large population increase in Ireland before the first major potato failure because Irish peasants were in the big picture luckier than peasants in say China or Russia. Irish peasants had large families and cheap food. They had peat for heat in a relatively moderate climate, and plenty of potatoes and milk to eat. A little more than an acre could support a family of six for a year and only a spade was needed for cultivation.

“They were warm and they were abundantly fed – as long as the potato did not fail,” she said. No equally cheap food existed.

But even before the first potato failure, millions of Irish laborers went hungry in the summer when the old potatoes had finished and the new ones had not come in. It was a precarious situation.

A fungus pushed the population over a cliff. The potato blight was caused by a fungus that is now treated by aerial spraying and immunization by scientific crop breeding. But it continued to be a problem for many years – consider that in 1928 the state of New York lost 13 million bushels of potatoes due to the same blight.

The winter of 1846-47 was one of the most severe in memory up to that time. The Irish laborer usually spent the winter inside huddled up to a peat fire, but in this year if he was lucky he was sent out, starving, to labor at ill-conceived public works projects at low pay. In more remote parts of the country, where English wasn’t even spoken, whole villages were wiped out.

Why didn’t the starving Irish eat fish? I know they ate seaweed.

“Fishing was a backward and neglected industry in Ireland,” she wrote. “A vessel of at least 50 tons was needed, not the lightweight curraghs typically used (and only in good weather). “

When the potato failed, fishermen all over Ireland pawned or sold their gear to buy meal. Seed corn and oats were eaten.

Food was available, if a man had enough money to buy it. The Irish peasants had no money. Ships laden with wheat, oats, cattle, pigs, eggs and butter were exported to England throughout the famine. This fact helped to embitter English/Irish relations.

“It is said to this day in Ireland that when the Queen was asked to subscribe to the relief of her starving subjects, she gave a mere five pounds. Her subscription was, in fact, 2,000 pounds,” wrote Woodham-Smith.

Relief also came from Britain, America and from Calcutta, India, a city with its own hunger problems. Money came from the Queen’s troops in India, a large proportion of which was Irish.

As the famine grew, the British government responded in fits and starts. Public works projects were abandoned and soup kitchens were opened. Neither sufficiently addressed the growing calamity. The underlying philosophy was this: “The property of Ireland must support the poverty of Ireland.”

Fever, on a national scale, followed starvation.

Soon enough, Irish began leaving their homeland. Many landlords booked cheap and dangerous passage to America for their workers just to be rid of them. This massive influx of sick, unskilled workers was not welcomed in Canada or America. More than 100,000 emigrants left the United Kingdom for British North America in 1847. By the end of that year 20,000 had died in Canada, many in overcrowded fever hospitals or on the streets.

“ By a curious piece of reasoning, the Irish starving in Ireland were regarded as unfortunate victims, to be generously helped, while the same Irish, having crossed the Atlantic to starve in Boston, were described as the scourings of Europe and resented as an intolerable burden to the taxpayer.”

Likewise, the flood of starving into Britain was met with violent irritation. Why were they invading Britain, bringing fever with them, instead of staying at home? At one point, there were more destitute Irish in Liverpool than the native population.

No comparable immigration disaster occurred in the United States due to measures, not always humane, taken by the U.S. authorities.

Eventually, the famine ended. No one really knows how many deaths can be attributed to it.

“But the famine left hatred behind between Ireland and England and time brought retribution. By the outbreak of WWII, Ireland was independent and she would not fight on England’s side.

“Along the West Coast of Ireland… are a number of graves of seamen of the British Navy – representative of the many hundreds who were drowned off the coast because the Irish harbors were not open to British ships. From these innocents, in all probability ignorant of the past, who had never heard of the failures of the potato, evictions, fever and starvation, was exacted part of the price for the famine.”

For More Information, Visit These Links:
Cecil Woodham-Smith at Wikipedia
The Great Famine (Ireland) at Wikipedia
Irish Famine 1740-1741 at Wikipedia
Irish Potato Famine at The History Place

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