The Treasury's fatal choice

April 10, 1998

Did the British government, as nationalists claim, exacerbate last century's potato blight so causing the Irish famine? Patrick McGregor sifts the evidence.

The great Irish famine, triggered by the devastation of the potato crop in 1846, killed one million people. Another million emigrated. Ever since, argument has raged over whether the British government policies, by prolonging people's suffering, were to blame for the tragedy.

The camps are clearly delineated. Apologists for the British government, such as the Poor Law inspector W. P. O'Brien, highlighted the scale of the problem and the lack of "local support" that made the outcome "nothing more than in the circumstances absolutely inevitable". At the other extreme stands the militant nationalist John Mitchel, whose assessment was blunt: "The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the famine."

Although much research has been published as part of the recent 150-year commemoration of the famine, the central issue of who was to blame has not been resolved. This is partly because the debate has been restricted to political historians. Whatever the motivations that underpinned the British government's policies for dealing with the famine - the assessment of how effective those policies were requires economic analysis.

The first step is to appreciate the nature of the pre-famine rural economy. Ireland's dependence on the potato - it comprised one-fifth of net agricultural output - reflected the country's low wage rate, itself due to one of the highest rates of population growth in Europe. If the blight had not attacked in the summer of 1846, what would have happened?

The labourers and cottiers who, with their dependants, made up over half the population, owned the bulk of the potato crop. Once immediate food needs were assuaged (adult males consumed 12-14 lbs of potatoes daily) they turned their attention to the future. Land was usually acquired by a deal with a farmer who let the labourer grow his potato crop as part of the farmer's crop rotation in exchange for labour. Each day's labour was accorded a notional wage and the pair settled up at the end of the year.

With the destruction of the potato crop the labourer had no food and so demanded wages instead of land. 1846 was a year of European crop failure and world food prices were high - the New York maize price doubled in six months after July 1846. The money needed to feed a labourer was similarly high.

The partial failure of the potato crop in 1845 was dealt with by implementing a government programme whereby people were employed to carry out public works (mostly road building) in return for a low wage. This was extended in subsequent months with the numbers employed growing to a peak of 709,500 in the week ending March 6 1847. That the programme was a dismal failure was evident by January of that year. According to the Cork Examiner, a post-mortem on two-year-old Catherine Sheehan found her body "had all the appearance of a skeleton over which the skin had been tightly drawn; the child indicated herself as healthy naturally, but the stomach was empty, save some fluid, and having the appearance of not having taken any food save oar-weed". Her father had been employed on the public works for about six weeks at 9d a day wages, which provided him with sufficient food to carry on, but his family received nothing.

A flood of such reports forced the government to consider alternative strategies. By June 1847 the works had effectively come to an end. Instead, after a hiatus that has been severely censured by historians such as James Donnelly, Mary Daly and Christine Kinealy, the government introduced a policy of gratuitous food relief under the Soup Kitchen Act. The longer-term solution was through the poor law, which was amended in June 1847 to allow the government to give relief to families who stayed in their own homes, not only to those who entered the workhouses.

My research has focused on the government's programme of public works, since a successful response to the blight attack of 1846 would have greatly reduced deaths thereafter.

The new poor law marked the end of exceptional government measures to counter famine in Ireland; thereafter Irish landowners paid for Irish poverty. The switch from the British government's active involvement to almost callous indifference was mirrored in the public mood. The Times of March 23 gives the flavour: "We have to change the very nature of a people born and bred, from time immemorial, in inveterate indolence, improvidence, disorder, and consequent destitution."

After the first blight attack the poor lost the most since their capital, their food for the coming year, had been destroyed. However, many farmers also suffered, leading them to cut the scale of their production. Thus the supply of labour increased and demand for it fell; as a result the price of labour, the wage rate, fell until it was so low it could not pay for a family's nutrition.

It was into such a situation that the government stepped with its public works programme. The crucial variable that it had to set was the wage rate. To prevent the starvation of the destitute the wage for building roads had to be high enough to pay for enough food to keep a family alive. Yet, at such a wage, the works programme would have been inundated with small farmers clamouring for jobs to make good their losses. At this point the Board of Works, which was responsible for administering the programme under close Treasury guidance, crucially misinterpreted the position. If small farmers were willing to work at the wage being offered, then the wage was too high. The tragic result was thousands more Catherine Sheehans.

The starving were those whose resources plus the wage offered by the public works programme were inadequate for survival. Using a number of statistics, we estimate that an increase of a fifth in the average wage paid by the public works programme would have reduced death rates by nearly one quarter.

In other words, a simple, though not inexpensive, device that was within the control of the government could have saved about 250,000 lives. The government cannot even claim it was unaware of this. The Treasury official in control of the programme, Charles Trevelyan, wrote shortly after the debacle: "The wages, paid regularly in money, were higher than any which had ever been given for agricultural labour in Ireland, but at the existing prices of food they were insufficient for the support of a family, melancholy proof of which was afforded by daily instances of starvation." What he did not add was any apology for not raising them.

The British government had the capacity to reduce mortality by hundreds of thousands of lives. It chose not to do so. To add insult to injury, it did not apologise for so choosing.

Patrick McGregor is senior lecturer in economics, University of Ulster.

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