Term Post #2 : The Irish Potato Famine / Irish Genocide

From time immemorial, rulers have tried to manipulate the past, discipline historians and control collective memory”

The Irish potato famine is generally agreed to have been between the years of 1845-1852 with around one million deaths and the population of Ireland shrinking by at least twenty percent between deaths and loss by emigration; there are some suggestions that almost one million people also emigrated for other countries during this time with most headed to the Americas. The history between England and Ireland for over six centuries has been filled with hostility and the unfortunate circumstance that the good fortunes of one country usually spoke of the bad situation of the other. At the beginning of the famine, Ireland was under the control of England and its parliament and most of its land was controlled by English landlords who didn't live on their land; in fact, for the seven hundred years before the famine, the Irish people had gradually become tenants in their homeland with the English as the major landowners. In 1690, the British government passed penal laws in Ireland that restricted the rights of individuals who practiced the Catholic religion by prohibiting them from holding public office, getting education, owning land, participating in civil activity, and inheritance rights... pretty much the majority of things that helped people and their families rise out of poverty. By 1843, Ireland's demands for the repeal of their union with England- and the strength behind that demand- was seriously disquieting to the British government. Many commissions/ special committees that looked at the situation in Ireland right before the genocide/famine had nothing positive to say about the circumstances on the ground there: “Without exception their findings prophesied disaster,” or as stated by John Mokyr, “population grew unrestrained, continuously exacerbating poverty, thus making the resolution of the problem by a catastrophe ultimately inevitable.”

And so the straw broke in the form of the fungus Phytophthora infestans also known as potato blight. The potato crop had become the food that the majority of the Irish population depended on for their basic subsistence as almost two-thirds of the population depended on farming for their survival. The fungus was quick working as one day the plants would look healthy and then the next… the plants were dead. If the disease to the potato plants had been it, then the outcome might have been very different and this disaster wouldn't be seen as a genocide. What makes this challenge a man made disaster was the politics and economics that surrounded and enlarged it. As the crop failed and people went hungry and began to starve, the political decisions that England made compounded the problem. Part of the blame for the political decisions that were made can be focused on the attitude that the English populace and politicians held towards the Irish population. Between the racial animosity, the religious difficulties and the English perception that the Irish were a more primitive people, the difficulties between both cultures in some ways was inevitable... it was also a common misconception that the Irish poor took a perverse pleasure in degradation and squalor.
The British prime minister at the beginning of the famine, Sir Robert Peel, stated “There is such a tendency to exaggeration and inaccuracy in Irish reports that delay in acting on them is always desirable.” In fact, the skepticism of the British government in believing or understanding the depth of the crisis- whether intentional disbelief or not- would prove fatal to many. Another challenge was that the land owners (who were mostly English) continued to force optimal growth and work out of the Irish creating large amounts of food that were then exported to England. Some figures suggest that several ships left Ireland daily laden with food for England and in some of the worse times of hunger, the exports were protected by military escorts from the hungry populace. By some accounts, enough food was shipped out of Ireland to England during the famine to sufficiently feed around two million people. As far as I can ascertain, this was the first time in history that a country during a famine where food was a dire need for the population didn't stop exports of food as well as allowing imports of food in. When relief was sent by England, it was not only insufficient but was only a fraction of the amount of food shipped out as well as food that was not easily used in the rural areas of Ireland.

There are many things that can be seen today that we can trace the roots back to An Gorta Mor (the Great Hunger). Even with the pressure and the discrimination that was committed in the cause of removing the power of the Catholic religion and to try and force the population into Protestant leanings, the constitution of Ireland which was ratified in 1937 stops short of calling for a national religion, but does acknowledge the leading role of the Roman Catholic Church. Even the language of discussing the famine says a lot about how it is viewed by the speakers- many people call it the Great Irish Potato Famine, while the Irish call it the Great Hunger. The culture itself changed as even the language of choice shifted from Irish to English and some of the customs disappeared- it is the modern Irish and nearby historian who continues to try and pull the past forgotten traditions, folklore, and customs back into the collective consciousness. It was also right before the famine and during it that the agricultural practices were changed from grain to 'pasture farming' which persisted on after the tragedy itself. The diaspora of thousands to America and other lands helped spread some of the Irish culture with its people, but also removed it from its central place- in both the lives of those who left and in the lives of those who stayed behind and managed to survive. Ireland also was unique among European countries at this time and after due to the severe population loss as all other European countries experienced rapid population growth during this time frame and the years after. The seeds of Irish independence were well watered during the famine and within a few years, Ireland was able to gain her independence from England. And today, both countries are still working on an understanding and tolerance of each other and their differences.

During the time of this indirect or direct genocide (depending on which point of view you take), there were many people who spoke out about the famine, the deaths and the devastation. One of the most well known was the speaker and writer, John Mitchell. As one of the first men to recognize and name the famine as a genocide, he was also one of the most outspoken in his hatred of the British government and its policies towards Ireland. When Parliament and those men ruling England became frustrated with the rhetoric of Mitchell and others, they passed a law called the Treason-Felony Act. This law was meant to try and censor the kingdom's critics in Ireland by creating a mechanism for 'legitimate' punishment. A few people were prosecuted under this law, but most were acquitted... John Mitchell was successfully convicted and was sentenced to fourteen years transportation to Bermuda. He managed to escape and made it to the United States where he continued his writing and vocal rhetoric for the complete independence of Ireland. In a tract that he wrote in 1861, he said, “I have called it an artificial famine: that is to say, it was a famine which desolated a rich and fertile island that produced every year abundance and superabundance to sustain all her people and many more. The English, indeed, call the famine a 'dispensation of providence;' and ascribe it entirely to the blight on potatoes. But potatoes failed in like manner all over Europe; yet there was no famine save in Ireland... The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the famine.” Strong words indeed – no wonder the English government tried to silence him. Censorship continues to this day as both Irish scholars and others portray the famine as a mostly natural disaster and play down any role that the British government had in its beginnings and long lasting effects and mortality.

Thoughts or comments....? :)

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