Victorians and King Edwards on trial

Black '47 and Beyond
February 11, 2000

Barbara Solow considers the latest verdict on the Great Irish Famine.

From the mid-18th to the early 19th century, Ireland had the greatest rate of population growth in Western Europe. It used to be thought that this increased population was drawn onto smaller and smaller holdings on marginal lands, encouraging a dependence on potato culture, which alone (or in combination with dairy products) could provide adequate nutrition for such large numbers. Population growth encouraged potato culture, and potato culture enabled the population to grow. The disadvantage of the potato was that it was expensive to transport and could not be stored for long periods. Planted annually on poor soils in rainy climates, the potato proved vulnerable to blight, so that excessive dependence on potatoes was an invitation to massive crop failure.

From crop failure to famine is another step. As we have learned from Amartya Sen, crops can fail without famine ensuing and famine can occur in societies where food supplies are ample. In this story, the potato blight is converted into famine by the economic mechanism involved. And this mechanism has a distinctly Malthusian flavour: in a non-industrial economy, with an increasing application of labour to a fixed amount of land, unchecked population growth will eventually lead to smaller and smaller increments to total output until, in the limit, output per person will fall below the subsistence level. The society cannot continue, and either population growth will have to come under control or famine and pestilence will do the work. Something like this was thought to capture Irish experience in the 1840s (and some of us still think it does).

What has happened to this unemotional, impersonal story? A tragedy of the dimensions of the Irish famine has always invited a different sort of story. For so many victims there must be compassion and there must also be blame. The usual suspects have been what Colm Tóibín has called the "Great Other", the enemy across the water, the English government and the Anglo-Irish ascendancy. To these unfeeling ideologues can now be added a new target: the modern historian and the economic historian in particular, not for causing the famine but for the way they portray and interpret it.

Brendan Bradshaw, in a 1940s essay on "Nationalism and historical scholarship", attacked the concept of a value-free history for Ireland and its "austerely clinical tone, as befitting academic discourse, and (its) resort to sociological euphemism and cliometric excursi, thus cerebralising and thereby desensitising the trauma". Tóibín gives an example from a passage in the work of Mary Daly, whom Bradshaw (but not Tóibín) singles out for criticism. She writes: "The personal consequences of the disaster ... still escape us. For survivors it must have meant the loss of kin - people widowed, orphaned, people who had lost most, perhaps all of their children." Tóibín criticises "a banality in the writing ... an insistence on sticking to a methodology that precludes any unqualified assertion and makes the prose almost comically flat". Tóibín's view is that while the government did not actually cause the famine, it was official contempt for Ireland and official interest in supporting the Irish landlords' desire for land clearance that caused so many to die. Some historians, Tóibín says, are afraid to approach this possibility; others are only too ready to entertain it.

To the attacks on impersonal value-free historical writing and the re-establishment of personal responsibility can be added a different kind of criticism of what once passed as conventional wisdom. This is exemplified by Terry Eagleton's view, in Heathcliff and the Great Hunger , that the complex roots of Irish poverty "must surely include the fact of a vastly inequitable system of agrarian capitalism which was implanted by the British, run by their political clients, and conducted largely for their economic benefit". The ultimate responsibility lies, he says, neither with the landlords nor the British personally, but with the economic system they introduced and sustained.

There is nothing of population, the potato, or the peasantry in the critiques of Bradshaw, Tóibín or Eagleton. But from another direction the modern version of the Malthusian story has been attacked by Joel Mokyr in a very important and influential book. Using the sophisticated methodology of modern econometrics, Mokyr carefully investigates the claims of that story and finds them wanting. Ireland was not overpopulated; excess mortality was not associated with overdependence on the potato; the land tenure system and agrarian agitation were no bar to the capital investment required to alleviate poverty; and Great Britain could certainly have saved Ireland from famine had it possessed the will to do so. There was no economic mechanism driving the economy towards famine, and the famine was caused by a fortuitous event - an exogenous shock to the system. The potato blight cannot be interpreted as endogenous to the economic situation of 19th-century Ireland.

There are irreconcilable differences among the Malthus-cum-potato story, the government and landlords story, the capitalist-colonialist story, and the exogenous-shock story. In Black '47 and Beyond , Cormac O'Gráda, Ireland's most distinguished, prolific and wide-ranging economic historian, offers us a choice selection of six chapters of "fresh perspectives on the famine and on topics hitherto not given their full due in the literature". O'Gráda has explicitly moved away from a traditional narrative or analytical approach to the subject. The great value of the book lies in pushing the boundary of Irish famine studies beyond their accustomed limits and by including suggestive comparative references to famines in other times and places. By concentrating on a few topics, O'Gráda can share with the reader the wealth of his broad scholarship and technical mastery.

The first chapter describes the history and dissemination of the potato in Ireland and elsewhere in Europe; their varieties, yield and vulnerability. There were no crop failures of a magnitude comparable to those of the 1840s, although crop failure on a smaller scale was not unknown. There were signs that Irish poverty was on the road to amelioration before the famine, through emigration and decreased population growth: had crop failure not intervened and had these processes continued, there might conceivably have been no famine. This conforms to the working of the positive check of population limitation in Malthus's framework, the alternative to the negative check of famine and pestilence. O'Gráda comes down for "a loosely Malthusian perspective" as against the dismissal by Mokyr and others.

O'Gráda provides a generous sampling of comparative statistics on other famines. He treats in detail the effects of climate and the course of emigration, mortality and evictions.

This chapter on famine relief is the best in the book; its treatment of this tricky subject is both full and fair. The general verdict is that relief was "too little, too slow, too conditional, and cut off too soon", too cautious, too rigid and subject to waste and corruption. Inadequate funds and ideologically driven policy sum up the indictment. Perhaps the difficulties of adequate information (available but disbelieved), the transportation network of pre-famine Ireland and the bureaucratic competence of the Victorian state have not been sufficiently appreciated. Pre-famine Ireland may compare well to modern Somalia but not in comparison with what was needed for the task of relief. The management of relief in modern famines should perhaps temper the severity of our view of the Victorians' failures. Alongside O'Gráda's discussion of work-for-cash, direct food aid, workhouse relief, inspectorates, local committees and the role of the clergy might be placed the imagined account of an insightful contemporary, Anthony Trollope, in Castle Richmond . On the subject of famine relief it is hard to judge whether O'Gráda is better than Trollope or the other way round.

Behind the analysis of policy failure lies the question raised by Sen's work: was the famine caused by massive crop failure or by the maldistribution of entitlements to food aid? O'Gráda concludes that absolute food shortage was the fundamental problem at least until mid-1847, so that the Irish case did not completely conform to modern examples. A tragedy of substantial proportions would have remained even in the face of optimal relief efforts. Better efforts most assuredly would have mattered but the Irish case has some uniqueness.

O'Gráda's third chapter discusses the spatial and temporal patterns of famine mortality, age and gender differences, the role of medical knowledge and practice. Comparative data with India and Russia are presented. Seventeen succinct pages on emigration, including a snapshot of the Irish in New York, are full of interest.

The remaining chapters cover the distributional effects of the famine's impact, a profile of the experience of Dublin, and a generous sampling of traditional folk memories.

Even in a famine there is room for winners as well as losers. The obvious places to find them are among landlords, speculators and hoarders, and pawnbrokers. O'Gráda concludes that those numerous insolvent landlords whose estates were sold under the Encumbered Estates Act probably assumed their debt burdens before the famine. He quotes "the verdict of specialists" that this is attributable to conspicuous consumption and bad estate management. We have not gone much beyond Maria Edgeworth's diagnosis in Castle Rackrent . Testing the efficiency of markets by standard economic analysis, O'Gráda concludes that they worked smoothly, and neither speculators nor pawnbrokers appear in the winners' circle.

After so much, is it ungrateful to ask more of O'Gráda? We can hope that he continues to write on the legacy of the famine. Did it end a way of life in Ireland or was it no watershed at all? How were the Irish economy, politics, literature and psyche affected? Can the legacy of the famine emigrations be traced in American politics? When did it stop?

Barbara L. Solow is an economic historian currently working on a study of Trollope and Ireland.

Black '47 and Beyond: The Great Irish Famine in History, Economy and Memory

Author - Cormac O'Grada
ISBN - 0 691 01550 3
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Price - £21.50
Pages - 302

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