We are the Silent People.
How long must we be still,
To nurse in secret at our breast
An ancient culture?
Let us arise and cry then;
Call from the sleeping ashes
Of destiny a chieftain who
Will be our voice.
He will strike the brass
And we will erupt
From our hidden caves
Into the light of new-born day. (Macken 5)
From 1845, when Ireland's potato crop partially failed, to 1847, when starvation and disease rose to dramatic levels, to 1852, when the economy and population was just getting back on its feet, the Irish were the Silent People. The "Great Hunger", known as An Gorta Mor in Gaelic, happened in an era when millions of people knew only famine, oppression, and degradation. The potato famine itself was a natural disaster such as a flood or an earthquake, and there is no way to predict when such an event will happen. A fungus known as "phytophthora infestans" causes the blight itself. But to be prepared for such an event and to deal with it in a correct and timely fashion is the important issue. The English, the ruling body in all of Ireland at the time, did not remedy the situation, nor did they care to. In fact, they seemed to do the opposite.
Scholars offer some reasons for the large-scale effect of the potato blight on Ireland's economy and people. First, we must understand that the population had been steadily rising and by 1841 had reached over eight million. This was one of the healthiest in Europe. With so many people, and so little land, unemployment rose, and two-thirds of the people fell into great poverty. So how could a poor farmer best feed his family on a small parcel of land that he did not own? The answer was to become dependent on agriculture to be able to pay rent to the English landlords. Now that we understand why the people were dependent on the potato, no we can see how this dependency came about.
A visitor to Ireland in 1822 noted, "Potatoes are the grand nutrient principle and support of existence, and without this valuable vegetable, hundreds must daily fall into the grave. It forms the great barrier to the ravages of hunger and indeed constitutes almost the only one" (Daly 26). The dependence on the potato had already been deeply rooted at this time. Also noted by Austin-Bourke, a famine authority, was "a sinister trend toward monoculture" (Daly 26). Potatoes were first used as backup for grains but toward the end of the seventeenth century had become an important winter food. By the middle of the eighteenth century, potatoes were a general field crop and a staple diet item of tenant farmers year round. The potato adapted very well to Ireland's cool, wet climate while grains suffered from a high moisture content that could lead to molding in storage. The landlords then grew grain as a cash crop and the tenants were satisfied with a small patch of ground, one acre could yield six tons of potatoes, as payment for harvesting the grain. They provided a substantial diet and were easy to grow and harvest. In perspective, if the potato crop were to fail, disaster would occur on a tremendous scale.
In September of 1845, the blight was observed first in Waterford and Wexford. It then spread quickly to other regions of Ireland. No part of the country was spared, but those who lived near fishing areas fared better than those who lived inland. "The scourge of famine has struck the West and the South with greater fury than elsewhere" (Keegan 18). In the first year of the blight, the English authorities took prompt action to remedy the situation. To prevent food prices from soaring, and to control the market, Sir Robert Peel, Prime Minister of England, purchased $100,000 worth of Indian corn and meal from the United States (Moody 268). This was a considerate gesture, by any means, but the first act that should have been implemented was to prohibit the export of foodstuffs from Ireland. This was never considered because foremost in Peel's mind was the thought of the revenue that the exports would collect for England. But he did donate $365,000 in government grants and the Irish made it through the first year safely.
But in 1846, the blight was more severe, and to complicate matters a new Chancellor of the Excheqor was elected, Charles Wood (Moody 269). His economic philosophy, that of lassiez faire, was in tune with that of other intellectual people of that era. They believed that government should not interfere with an economy, that "the invisible hand" should rule it. So in 1846 no relief was extended to Ireland.
By 1847, the famine was raging out of control and many people were dying of both hunger and disease, so the English Parliament passed the Labour Rate Act to Ireland (MacManus 604). This act enabled the Irish to tax themselves to give employment to those people worse off than they. Also granted was $100,000 to benefit those areas that were too destitute to even raise money at all. Of course, Anglo-Irish agents, who distributed what money that remained after their salaries had been deducted, administered these funds. This remaining money was paid to starving men for doing unprofitable public work. The 'unprofitable' was a noted stipulation in the Act. Among other things, the Irish could not build Irish railways because this would discriminate against English railway builders. They could not seed lands because this might give the Irish farmer an advantage over the English farmer and enable him to fare better in the market. The money could only be used, and was only used, to build roads where nobody ever traveled, to have them start anywhere and end nowhere, or to erect bridges where there was no river. These 'acceptable' uses can still be seen in parts of Ireland today as monuments to British wisdom. Reported in The Dublin Evening Mail was, "a gentleman traveling… counts on both sides of the road… 'nine men and four ploughs' occupied in the fields; but sees multitudes of wan laborers… laboring to destroy the road he was traveling upon. It was 'public work' " (MacManus 607).
American corn was still being imported, but a ship sailing into an Irish harbor would meet several ships with Irish foodstuffs sailing out (MacManus 605). It is also noted that more corn was exported from Ireland in one month than was imported in an entire year (MacManus 606). It seems like such a contradiction to me, that in one of the richest agricultural lands in the world, with plenty of crops to feed the population that so many people were dying of hunger.
Parliament's next idea was to force the English landowners in Ireland to bear the cost of the famine. The way the landlord's dealt with the situation was to ship the poor tenants out of Ireland and to dump them on the United States or Canada. This became the age of the 'coffin ships'. An actual letter from an agent to his tenants read, "There is no hope for you as long as you remain in Ireland. The only means of improving your situation is to leave the country. All those who are in arrears for rent will be forgiven what is due, passage to Canada will be paid and you will be given a title to free land from our agents in Canada" (Keegan 21). Many people have said that if something sounds too good to be true, then it probably is. This is an understatement in this situation. Starving from an artificially created famine, and disease ridden because of it, the poor tenants were easy bait. The cruelty of the landlords is well known, but life aboard the coffin ships is hardly documented and the ultimate fate of the emigrants is rarely adverted to. To put it simply, the route from Ireland to Canada is littered with the bodies and graves of Irish tenant farmers.
It seems to me that when one country invades and conquers another country, it should advance the culture and help the people. For example, compare Rome and England. Rome conquered England and brought better technology, roads, and building techniques to England. Now look at England and Ireland. England abolished Catholicism, the Irish gentry, the Irish language, and the Irish culture. They kept the Irish in total poverty and tried to convert them to the Protestant religion. Then, when the potato blight happened, and hundreds of thousands of people began to starve, England acted like they had no hold on Ireland at all. They started off with good intentions, but their self-interest got in the way of Ireland's best interest. Lecky, another Irish authority, states, "It would be difficult in the whole range of history, to find another instance in which various and powerful agencies agreed to degrade the character, and blast the prosperity of a nation" (MacManus 492). England just wanted the economical resources that Ireland could provide.
The conditions in Ireland that placed thousands and thousands of people in complete dependence on the potato are what the English have to account for. The landlords held ultimate responsibility, but on the whole, they were as much a part of the disaster as their tenants. The English government, who failed to accept complete responsibility once the disaster occurred, was greedy and self-righteous. They have to account for the deaths of one million poor Irish people. They also have to account for the fact that the resources needed to keep those people alive were being shipped overseas so as to line the Crown's pockets.
The Irish people's feelings of resentment caused by the way the famine was handled (or not handled) were deep and slow to heal. But Ireland survived, and didn't let the feelings cause bitterness. They let the hardships of the past teach them valuable lessons that would lead them into a bright future, one full of reawakening culture and pride in their country.
The Story of the Irish Race by Seamus MacManus copyright 1921 Random House Publishing
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