Reasons for famine

May 1, 1998

PATRICK McGregor is surely right to place considerable responsibility on the Treasury for the scale of Irish mortality in the famine of 1845-50 (THES, April 10).

However, by placing so much weight on one variable (wage rates on the public works) he risks oversimplifying a complex picture. No doubt raising the wage rates would have averted some deaths, but in isolation such an action may have had much less effect than McGregor claims. Most deaths in the winter of 1846-47 were the consequence of contagious fevers.

Equally important is the question of the distribution of wages. A major discrepancy emerged between the earning power of the younger and fitter labourers, and that of the "infirm", elderly and women which led relief officials to recommend the substitution of a more direct relief mechanism in early 1847. Ireland in winter 1846-47 faced an international food scarcity and had a woefully underdeveloped distribution market.

The worst conditions existed in the underdeveloped west, where only the state had the resources to secure imported and indigenous food stocks and to ensure equitable distribution of these. The state's withdrawal from this activity, for ideological reasons, was at least as significant in 1846-47 as the level of wages paid. Of the relief policies adopted in 1845-50 only one, the soup kitchen of summer 1847, appears to have had a marked effect on mortality because it targeted resources at those most in need. The Treasury's greatest responsibility lies in the slowness with which it came to accept this policy, and the haste with which it declared the "end" of famine and the return to business as usual from autumn 1847.

Peter Gray

Department of history University of Southampton

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