A blighted nation starved of help

This Great Calamity
July 21, 1995

In an essay entitled "Genocide", no less an historian than A. J. P. Taylor accused the British government of slaughtering two million Irish people. That the death toll was not higher was "not through want of trying". The bitterness of these words goes against the grain of many historians writing today. Indeed, the dominant tendency recently seems to be to minimise the culpability of the British government and to focus much more on the reactions of the Irish elite and their representatives within missions and meeting houses.

In contrast, Christine Kinealy's book is more concerned with apportioning blame. Faced with an agricultural catastrophe, the British government is accused of failing to possess the political and social will necessary to prevent a potato blight from becoming a famine of terrifying proportions. The government's harsh treatment of Irish paupers was the result of delegating responsibility for the administration of relief and for the extent of aid provided, to a Treasury dominated by the committed laissez-faire devotee, Charles Treveleyan. Nevertheless, Kinealy never falls into the trap of exaggerating the role of economic dogma in decision-making within the Treasury. One of the most instructive points made in this book concerns the pragmatism of governmental decisions. Laissez- faire policies were implemented when they suited the wider interests of the elite (as in the case of the Corn Laws and the Navigation Acts), and they were conveniently forgotten when they did not. In the case of Ireland, the advice of local relief officials was consistently ignored in the interest of balancing the books.

Much of what Kinealy argues is well known and can be summarised very briefly. By the 19th century, the dependency of the Irish population on the potato was a major feature of the economy. As other historians have stressed, this dependency on a single crop was a rational strategy within late 18th and early 19th century expectations. The health, fertility and longevity of the Irish population when compared with their counterparts across the Irish Sea is regarded as supporting this hypothesis. Kinealy convincingly shows that Ireland's poverty has been greatly exaggerated both at the time by administrators fixated by Malthusian superficiality and, more recently, by historians who fail to take sufficient account of the poverty of the industrial population in the rest of the United Kingdom. The pre-famine Irish economy was more diverse and less static than has conventionally been admitted. Irish agriculture was, in fact, fairly commercialised, with three-fifths of all agricultural output being sold in the marketplace. However, crop failures were neither unexpected nor uncommon. The shortages of 1845 were successfully met due to the actions of Sir Robert Peel. Contrary to common folklore, Kinealy points out that Peel's politically destructive negotiations to repeal the corn laws were motivated by factors independent of his attempts to reform famine administration. The crop failure was transformed into a wholesale famine in 1846 when the new administration under Lord John Russell restricted relief provisions in an attempt to force the Irish population - embracing everyone from landlord to peasant - to take decisive action to reform their own agricultural and marketing systems. This they failed to do. The attitude of landlords within Ireland meant that the condition of the poor varied widely across areas. Even though their attitude hardened in the latter years of the famine, they were often stretched beyond their capacity and were forced to seek other ways of relieving distress (such as sponsoring emigration). Charities were in a similar position, and their funds were rapidly depleted.

The response of the British government to Irish poverty is the most controversial aspect of Kinealy's book. According to her, the government deliberately used the famine to effect change in Ireland. This "hidden agenda" included population control, the consolidation of property and the modernisation of agriculture. Although Kinealy does note a number of unfortunate coincidences (including the depressions affecting Great Britain at the height of the famine which meant that the Irish poor, with their reputation for indolence, were placed in competition with the "deserving" industrial poor from the industrial heartland), she places the blame firmly in the laps of policy-makers within Britain. Insufficient food was imported into the country; depots to distribute the food were slow to open; corn was too expensive for most paupers; and the poor law system that had been established in Ireland by the Poor Law Act of 1838 was inadequate to meet the needs of deprivation of this scale. Although this is an interesting argument, the problem of separating out the actual results of the famine from the intended effects is not sustained. Although her portrayal of the Russell government as opportunistic, arrogant and cynical may be shared by many of her readers, the accusation that this elite deliberately set out to refuse support for the starving Irish in order to facilitate their economic and social reforms smacks too much of the discredited "genocidal" argument.

A proportion of Kinealy's readers will welcome her forceful stance. Even those who retain their reservations about the capability of the British elite will be struck by the clear and vigorous way in which she marshals her case. Given the controversy this book is sure to attract, it is perhaps carping to point out three areas that needed further elaboration. There is an excellent chapter on the way in which the famine resulted in large-scale emigration, but it fails to deal in a more than cursory manner with the effect of the famine in the politicisation of Irish-Americans. Furthermore, at the risk of sounding "politically correct" (a term Kinealy uses with scorn), there is a lack of discussion of generational and gender issues. Famine affects men and women in different ways, just as the experience of poverty may differ for the young and the elderly.

For a book that attempts to provide a less sanitised version of the famine, there is little here that will pull the heart strings. This is to its credit. In speaking to the emotions, Cecil Woodham-Smith's book, The Great Hunger: Ireland 1845-49 (1962) will suffice. Instead, we have a passionate account that maintains a neat balance between narrative and analysis. The broadly chronological structure of the book means that it is a little repetitious in parts, but no student will fail to understand her contentious points. The book is based on an impressive list of primary sources and she never forgets regional diversity, which was considerable. This is the clearest account we have of what has come to be known as the "anti-revisionist" stance. Kinealy has an accessible style of writing, summarising the issues, and clearly articulating her overall analysis.

The Great Calamity is a worthy contribution to the study of the famine and will be a useful textbook to sit next to the writings of Woodham-Smith. For the specialist, there is little new (Roy Foster, Joel Mokyr, Cormac O Grada, and Mary Daly have already introduced us to much of the material in this book), but the argument that "the British government failed a large proportion of the population in terms of humanitarian criteria" will be one which historians will continue to debate. As a powerful indictment of the "revisionist" tradition of Irish writing, it cannot afford to be ignored. Nor embraced wholeheartedly.

Joanna Bourke is a lecturer, department of economic and social history, Birkbeck College, London.

This Great Calamity: The Irish Famine 1845-52

Author - Christine Kinealy
ISBN - 0 7171 1832 0 and 1881 9
Publisher - Gill and Macmillan
Price - £40.00 and £17.99
Pages - 450

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