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Black 47: The Irish Potato Famine - Part Two

Posted November 20th, 2011 at 07:35 AM by Gile na Gile
Updated September 7th, 2012 at 08:32 AM by Gile na Gile

The discontent among the Gaelic clans reached it’s height under the appalling Charles I during the 1630’s when his minister Wentworth was rumoured to be planning further plantations. The later alliance with the Royalists was a marriage of convenience, only a springboard used to further the ultimate goal of eventual independence. Likewise, in the support for James II during the Williamite War; the interest of the Gaelic clans would be best served under a Catholic monarch. Public declarations of support and privately held convictions are two entirely different things; there is no love of the Crown amongst the Gaelic majority whether it be Stuart or Hanover, Catholic or Protestant. If the ‘Glorious Revolution’ had not occurred and a Catholic monarch had sat on the throne for the next hundred years the native Gaels and the Old English would still be struggling to have their lands back; only this time that struggle to repossess these lands wouldn’t be conducted through the sectarian framework of the penal laws - but through some other mechanism of civil apartheid which would need to be invented to justify their dispossession and continual subjugation.

After all, what plausible steps did James II take to reverse Cromwell’s plantations in the three years of his reign? The penal laws were less about religion and more about the ownership and control of the land in Ireland and to this end they were designed to ensure the continued quiescence of an already subjugated native population. If they were entirely about achieving security from a restless “Catholic” population they would have been relaxed in 1713 with the Treaty of Utrecht, which, by ending the Spanish War of Succession, restored the balance of power in Europe and thereby diminished considerably the threat of France or Spain using “Jacobite” Ireland as a backdoor to unseat the Hanoverians.

Certainly, by the time we reach the implosion of “Forty-Five” and the end of the War of the Austrian Succession, Jacobitism is no longer tenable as wish-fulfilment, let alone as a political creed. When the Netherlands were defeated during this war, the British in settling terms with the French in 1748 requested the expulsion of the Bonnie Prince from French soil. They duly obliged, probably grateful for the opportunity of relieving themselves of this source of embarrassment, arrested him as he was blithely making his way to the Opera and jailed him for a brief period before sending him packing. Of course, during the Jacobite rebellion of 1745 Ireland wouldn’t have been too fruitful a source of recruits at any rate, given it was in the midst of yet another 18th century famine, this time claiming half a million lives, and known, and still remembered as ‘An Gorta Mor’ (the Great Famine) to the Defenders and United Irishmen of the 1790’s - of course by then the native Gaels should have been more wary in choosing superlatives to describe their enforced starvation.

Finally, when the ‘Old Pretender’ James VIII/III died in 1766 the Holy See refused to recognise any further Stuart claims to the throne of Great Britain and so surely with the support of France and Rome withered away we would have expected a significant amelioration of the penal laws but, this of course, did not happen, because the southern Anglican Ascendancy were by now completely entrenched and in effective control of every single apparatus of political power at local, county and national level; the latter under the provisions of Poyning’s Law. The ostensible reason for keeping the penal laws on the statute books - the threat of Jacobitism - elapsed, in reality, with the passage of 1745, and certainly, with the renunciation of Stuart claims to the throne in 1766 it may have been expected that they would be amended, but this wasn't the case. Catholics had to wait until 1778 for the first major relief measure; the right was granted to hold longer land leases along with the ability to inherit land in the same fashion as Protestants. In 1882 Catholic 'secular' clergy were allowed perform their duties, though they were still forbidden to use churches 'with a steeple or a bell' or 'assume any ecclesiastical rank or title whatsoever'. Also, they could now own a horse worth over £5; sounds innocuous enough but this is the one that cost Art O Laoghaire his life.

The creeping pace of these reforms are usually looked at in the context of Britain now fighting a war on two fronts; with the American colony and with France. The threat of agrarian unrest by the Defenders in the late 18th century and the growth of the Volunteers - protestant militias set up to defend the country in case of 'invasion' - are the most striking developments during this time. (Apparently Charles Stuart Parnell kept Volunteer flags and insignia from this period proudly displayed in his hall.) But pre-revolutionary France was not a likely candidate to stage an invasion in my opinion and the Volunteers were as much a response to fears of domestic disquiet as is seen in the Augmentation Bill which was being considered to draft some 5,000 soldiers stationed in Ireland for service in America. The strategy therefore was to offer some concessions to Catholics with the promise of further reform in the hope this would quell any potential unrest whilst simultaneously addressing the issue of their depleted security.

In addition to all this the Anglican Ascendency parliament in Dublin were squeezing trade concessions from Westminster and advocating for more autonomy by repealing the Declaratory Act and Poyning's Law. Gains on this front in 1882 has led us to regard this period as the highpoint of 'colonial nationalism' - fed of course by a natural, if seldom expressed sympathy, with the American secessionists. Then of course the French Revolution exploded onto the scene and if any country was ripe for absorbing it's principles it was Ireland with a by now entrenched Anglican aristocracy of some 8,000 strong monopolising almost the entire country's farmland whilst withholding the franchise - let alone representation - from the 70% Catholic majority.

It's unavoidable if we are to talk of the progression of democracy and human rights in the history of the country that we must naturally refer to this simple fact however much we disturb the sensitivities of some who see the act of placing this transparently injust and unsustainable state of affairs 'front and centre' in our narrative as being somehow misleading or distortive of the truth.

Yes, we can go so far as to accept that the penal laws as originally conceived were necessary to protect the Ascendency from the potential of revolutionary outbreak in the years following the Treaty of Limerick - but that uprising were it to occur would have been in the name of reclaiming lands and title that were originally claimed through conquest - the original aggressors would have been toppled in their turn. There is only so much sympathy you can extend to the plight of the aggressor who is compelled to introduce punitive legislation to keep the majority which he has subjugated under his thumb. If they relaxed the penal laws to allow Catholics carry arms for instance, sure they would only rebel!? Well, yes of course, precisely because they are oppressed.

Equally, I find it just as grating to read a narrative exclusively focusing on the little successes of Grattan's parliament, the erection of all those magnificent buildings etc when I realise that even as they chink glasses congratulating one another for winning another battle for "Irish" industry - the vast majority of the population are living in filth and squalor, excluded from education, denied any say in politics, unrepresented at every level, excluded from juries, civil service, teaching, taxed to pay a church of a foreign denomination and generally allowed fester in the margins of society in increasingly smaller allotments sustained by a solitary food source. This was the time to end this tyranny - and no other word more fitly describes it - now, on the occasion of the French Revolution; when Paine had issued his rebuttal to Burke, when men of the enlightenment were to the fore with the ideas of Rousseau and Voltaire swimming in their heads and when the American First Amendment, the Rights of Man and ideas of religious tolerance were on everybody's lips. I don't blame the small-minded sectarian bigotry on both sides of the fence whose violent encounters crushed any hope of the United Irishmen becoming a more potent body - instead it is to the administration of the imperial British government and the clutching Anglican Ascendency to whom the focus must inevitably dwell. Personally, I can't look at any of those stately country sprawls, no matter how magnificent they are, without retching, and thinking if the vast acres they encompassed were instead parcelled out equitably, as opposed to cultivating export crops for a British nation that couldn't feed it's own populace then the Irish farmer would have been food sovereign, and the disaster of the famine years would never have occurred.

The penal laws were ostensibly designed to stamp out Catholicism but in actuality operated as an apartheid lever which transferred Irish labour surplus back to Britannia which needed to expand and further consolidate it’s industrial revolution. Irish low wage labour and agricultural produce were required to produce the food it couldn’t and if it wasn't a rivalry from Spain, it was the threat from France, then Holland, Russia and next Napoleon - there really is no end to it is there - by the time we get to 1916 it's the Kaiser; wherein we decided to pull the plug on the whole endless charade and shoot our way out of it's tormentuous cycle of exploitation.

But England’s Industrial Revolution and it’s implications for the re-orientation of Irish farming practices certainly needs to be addressed in any assessment of the vulnerabiity of the Irish peasant to the otherwise unremarkable potato blight. Eric Hobsbawm dates this rapid industrialization from about the 1780’s whereas T.S. Ashton reckons it to be from as early as the 1760’s but for our purposes it is enough to know that these dates coincide with the loss of English grain sovereignty. From around about the mid 1760’s England is henceforth a net importer of grain and by the 1830’s only 22% of it’s population is employed in agriculture; by far the lowest proportion in the world.

This is not to say that agricultural productivity in England hadn’t improved. In the 1720’s the average yield for wheat was 19 bushels per acre compared to 30 bushels an acre by the 1830’s; it’s just that productivity couldn’t keep pace with the demands of the growing urban populations. Grain shortages in England became a recurring problem towards the end of the 18th century and in fact emerged as the single biggest issue that dogged successive governments right up until the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846. In England, the interests of manufacturers and industrialists are being compromised by the feudal aristocracy. They are pressured into conceding higher wages (which they refuse to do by and large via their new found enthusiasm for laissez faire) because of the bloated grain prices which are driving up the costs of living and are thus engaged in a direct struggle against the grain-producing members of the landed aristocracy who, of course, because of the property holding qualifications, compose the majority of MP’s in Westminster and almost all members of the House of Lords.

This was a long and protracted struggle which centred around the reduction of the hardships of the English working classes and the amelioration of conditions found in the ‘dark, satanic mills’. It takes us from the St. Peter’s Field massacres in 1819, to the Reform Bill of 1832, the rise of the Chartist Movement in the mid 30’s, the eventual formation of the anti-Corn Law league and the Bills which (narrowly) expanded the franchise. All of this political agitation is of course of direct concern to anyone seeking to understand the policies that will be adopted by Westminster in response to the Irish crisis.

The era was referred to as the ‘Time of Troubles’ with the 1840’s in England characterised by severe depression, widespread unemployment and rioting. After all, it may be wondered whether Tennyson had the fiery speeches of the Chartist leaders in mind when he wrote in Locksley Hall;

“Slowly comes a hungry people, as a lion creeping nigher, Glares at one that nods and winks behind a slowly dying fire”

Perhaps we’ll never know, but what we do know is that Westminster’s response to the industrial revolution’s grain shortages was to reassess the “Colonial System” as it pertained to Ireland and particularly their policy of mercantilist protection in the sphere of agriculture. Hitherto forbidden to export anything but "servants, horses, victuals and salt" (to the plantation colonies) and confronted by prohibitive import tariffs for exports to England (which sought to protect it’s own industries), various schemes and inducements were now being proposed to stimulate Irish grain production.

Early in the 18th century, the Irish Ascendency Parliament had made vain attempts to promote tillage and wheat production but they didn’t amount to much as can be seen in the remarks of Bishop Berkeley in 1735;

"whether it be not a new spectacle under the sun to behold in such a climate and such a soil so many roads untrodden, fields un-tilled, houses desolate and hands unemployed". He goes on asking "whether there be any other nation possessed of so much good lands, and so many able hands to work it, which yet is beholden for bread to foreign countries".

(Berkeley is writing here in between the Irish famines of 1727, 1728, 1741 and 1742).

So, the Irish Parliament, beginning in the 1760’s, were now encouraged to provide ‘bounties’ (subsidies in today’s terms) to the carriage of Irish corn on the ‘coastways’ to Dublin. In time, the practice was spread nationwide and became such a success that by 1772 the country was for the first time a net exporter of grain. Further stimulus was provided by the Irish Corn Laws of 1784, known as Foster’s Corn Laws, and Westminster facilitated this development in turn by making Ireland an exceptional case and lowered it’s import tariffs - anathema to English grain producers, but necessary of course to keep inflation down and popular unrest at bay. Very soon, the export of grain to England became so profitable that every landholder in the country found ways to turn their unproductive acres over to the cultivation of barley, wheats and oat. Taking note of the changes in the grain market as registered in the Mark Lane exchange we see that from 1742 to 1756 prices averaged around 24 shillings a quarter.

From 1766 on when England is no longer food sovereign we can see an abrupt shift in the market;

1765-74 - 51 shillings a quarter
1775-84 - 43s " "
1785-94 - 47s " "
1795-1804 - 75s " "
1805-1814 - 93s " "
1815-24 - 68s ..

On average, as can be seen, prices have trebled and in certain instances quintupled. The price increase from 1792 is explained by the fact that grain imports now predominate and the large hikes between 1800 and 1815 are a result of Napoleon’s continental blockade but nevertheless these prices still maintain themselves up to the 1840’s with the popular unrest spurred on by the Chartists.

From 1780 to 1840 Irish grain exports rose from 20% to 80% of the total amount of grain imported by England. The networks of supply and demand built up in the cross-channel grain trade proved to be too entrenched to dislodge even in the face of natural disaster. The Corn Laws of 1815 were designed to protect this important segment of the market by offering the Irish landlords near monopoly access to the English market and we know from Chartist agitation that grain prices were a powder keg for successive British governments and that Corn Law repeal was held back by landed interests in Westminster. If the Irish ports were closed to keep food within the country which is the normal response of sovereign governments at such times - Holland closed theirs in 1847 during it's blight though their population were far less dependent on the potato - then grain prices would have shot up in England and led to further social unrest. With an election looming in 1847 this option had been dismissed.

Conversely, if the Irish tenant farmer had owned their own land and produce we wouldn't be talking of a famine today; the larger farmers would have sold their grain in the domestic market and the smaller farmer would have held their own crop for consumption instead of passing it over as rent - and this was the principle grievance of Fintan Lalor;

"The principle I state, and mean to stand upon is this, that the entire ownership of Ireland, moral and material, up to the sun and down to the centre, is vested of right in the people of Ireland; that they, and none but they are the land-owners and lawmakers of this island; that all laws are null and void not made by them, and all titles to land invalid not conferred or confirmed by them and that this full right of ownership may and ought to be asserted and enforced by any and all means which God has put in the power of man. In other, if not plainer words, I hold and maintain that the entire soil of a country belongs of right to the entire people of that country, and is the rightful property, not of any one class, but of the nation at large, in full effective possession, to let whom they will, on whatever tenures, terms, rents, services and conditions they will, one condition being, however, unavoidable and essential, the condition being that the tenant shall bear full, true and undivided fealty and allegiance to the nation, whose lands he holds, and owns no allegiance whatsoever to any other prince, power or people, or any obligation of obedience or respect to their will, orders or laws. I hold further and firmly believe, that the enjoyment by the people of this right of first ownership in the soil is essential to the vigour and vitality of all other rights; to their vitality, efficacy and value; to their secure possession and safe exercise. For let no people deceive themselves or be deceived by the words and colours and phrases and forms of a mock freedom, by constitutions and charters and articles and franchises. These things are paper and parchment, waste and worthless. Let laws and institutions say what they will, this fact will be stronger than all laws and prevail against them - the fact that those who own your lands will make your laws and command your liberties and your lives. But this is tyranny and slavery; tyranny in its wildest scope and worst shape; slavery of body and soul, from the cradle to the coffin; slavery with all of its horrors and none of its physical comforts and security; even as it is in Ireland, where the whole community is made up of tyrants, slaves and slave-drivers.A people whose lands and lives are thus in the keeping and custody of others instead of in their own are not in a position of common safety. The Irish Famine of 45 is example and proof. The corn crops were sufficient to feed the island. But the landlords would have their rents despite famine and fever. They took the whole harvest and left hunger to those who raised it. Had the people of Ireland been the landlords of Ireland not a human creature would have died of hunger, nor the failure of the potato been considered a matter of any consequence."

Fintan Lalor, letter to the Nation, 1848.

Lalor was a farmer himself and an agitator for land reform who initially wrote to the British government, over the heads of O’ Connell’s Repeal Association, asking them if they could please consider his urgent proposals to settle the mess that the agrarian issue had become. In these letters, which he is writing in mid 1845, when the blight has hit but has not yet exacted it's toll, he is referring to the landed aristocracy as the “Irish gentry”; it is only when the Irish Secretary is asked by Peel to check out the bona fides of this anonymous poster that his proposals are summarily dumped. This enrages him beyond measure; and he henceforth becomes a demagogue stirring up popular discontent. His collected writings are indispensable to understanding what's going on here as he is utterly consumed by the tragedy unfolding around him and is driven to use the most emotive language at his disposal as he is sure that only immediate revolution will save the lives of the peasantry. He was right. Lalor was the only radical nationalist writer of the day who was steeped in agriculture (Gavan Duffy, Smith O'Brien etc had no comparable conception of what conditions were really like) - his grandfather, his uncles, his ten brothers were farmers. His own father had famously branded “no tithes” onto his sheep during the Tithe War of the 30's, an act which saw him first courted, then roped in by the Repealers as a guarantor of strong local support. His was a family who knew the markets, the land, the capacity of the smallholders, the cottiers, the lot - with an almost mathematical precision he could detail what was going to happen and who was going to be wiped out. Lalor knew acutely the precise nature of what was unfolding as much as anyone in the country; John Mitchel, having read his later letters to the Nation immediately severed ties with the pacifist elements within the Irelanders and called openly for revolution; fulminating himself in the pages of the Felon and the United Irishman telling his readers how best to make home-made bombs etc and pelt British troops as they arrived in Dublin. Open anarchy is eventually what they advocated. It was Lalor's rebuttal from the government that threw him into a frenzy of rage and his letters to the Nation became more and more incandescent with the landlord system increasingly the focus of his wrath.

Forthwith, he now refers to the landed aristocracy as '8,000 English landlords', a semantic shift calculated to inflict maximum political damage on a Dublin Castle bulging with freshly drafted coercion bills. The established decorum has been dropped and he has simply reverted to what many of the catholic “lower classes” are calling the aristocracy behind their backs anyway. This is pretty mild compared to the language of witness depositions in trials of agrarian outrages; there are accepted public and private registers used in referring to the gentry - but now Lalor is voicing in print what everyone says anyway when his “lordship” is out of earshot. The subliminal message is clear; “They are English, they are usurpers, this is colonialism - and we are starving as a result of it. Rouse yourselves for the love of God!”.

The Irish landed aristocracy, both Protestant and Catholic, are in many ways indistinguishable from their brethren across the seas - whether they like to admit or not - in customs, affiliations, habits, ways of thinking - but also from an economic standpoint; they will be just as concerned about Corn Law Repeal - the issue that (really) gripped Westminster in this period - as their large-scale farming brethren up and down the Pennines. Here, they have a common language which removes them both as far as is possible from the world of our small cottiers and conacre farmers. The schism of class will cut like a knife through the still protean nationalist discourse, a watershed Lalor chooses, to throw into stark relief the futile disjunction propelling events;

"I will never contribute one shilling, or give my name, heart or hand for such an object as simple Repeal by the British Parliament of the Act of Union ... forever henceforth, the owners of our soil must be Irish ... unmuzzle the wolf dog .. there is one at this moment in every cabin throughout the land, nearly fit to be untied, and he will be savager by and by".

As the crisis escalated some minds crystallized on this new issue of dual agrarian reform; both class-based and nationalist. The immense wheeze of the thumb-twiddlers in the Repeal movement is seen in the furore that greeted Francis Meagher's attempt to block plans by the O'Connell camp to dilute the revolutionary potential of the movement. That the “sword speech” of Meagher was considered radical will tell you just how effeminized the gentry had become; it's the right message alright but delivered in the choicest Victorian bombast. Who do you blame for all this? - the monastic redactors, the priestly caste who continued to dull the blood?; or simply the savagery in which successive uprisings had been quashed?

We’ve all heard the one about Smith O' Brien whilst in the midst of 'rousing the country' - half dead with starvation - that he stormed a police barracks only to be told by the sergeant that 'it would be 'shameful' for them to be captured by so few, so could you please come back with more men! - the worse, O'Brien actually conceded the point - to the despair of the volunteers - went back to muster up a more respectable party of troups only to return later to find that the four officers had already decamped to a more secure barracks! Such were the leaders imbued with the myth of the chivalric code; those gallant ideals of the all-civilising English gentlemen; fully internalised by the Irelanders - young and old - they themselves were products of their finest academies. If they were the genuine oppressed, and let's not fool ourselves, they did exist - the appalling waste of life is testament to that - the Young Irelanders, the Repeal Movement, the readers of the Nation, would instead know not to dialogue, but to slit Empire's throat at the first opportunity, for how often would history give them these moments when it's collossal hide cracked with bare flesh.

Lalor was right, they were worse than timewasters.

"In the post-Union decades, it would not be difficult to compile an impressive list of landlords who showed a commendable involvement in the welfare of their tenantry. The Edgeworth estate was perhaps the best example of this attitude at work. Visitors to Mitchelstown were likewise impressed by the neatness of the cottages and by the general signs of comfort, all of which owed much to the paternalism of Lord Kingston. The ladies of the Big House often busied themselves on local committees, promoting education, inculcating thrift, and, with increasing frequency, distributing charity to the poor.
Yet, to suggest that these instances of enlightenment represented the norm would be a gross distortion. The prototypal landlord of propaganda - bleeding his tenants of rent while recognising no responsibility towards them - too often corresponded to the reality. This state of affairs owed as much to indifference as to malice. As numbers rose and prices fell, problems multiplied, and many landlords closed their eyes and ears and asked no more of agent or head-tenant than that the rent be paid in full and on time. Drummond’s famous reminder to the gentry of Tipperary - that property had it’s duties as well as it’s rights - might have been heeded by many more of their class throughout the country.
Yet even the best disposed gentry encountered difficulties in attempting to gain the confidence of the peasantry. Quite apart from a consciousness of a conflict of economic self-interest, the peasantry and most of the gentry were separated by strong social and religious barriers. Most landlords were Protestant; the minister dined with them regularly, they worshipped in his church on Sundays. Their country houses were the fixed points around which revolved a social whirl of parties, hunting, shooting and fishing; picnics for the ladies as they gossiped of family and fashion; while the men played at croquet and talked of honour and horses. In general, the career routes of the young gentlemen were predictable - school in England, then Trinity, Oxford or Cambridge, or a commission in the army; an estate and politics; the Church and the Bench. This somewhat rarified cultural syndrome was, of course, expensive, and in the post-war decades many landlords fund it increasingly difficult to stand the pace. Some could not and had to mortgage their estates. The contrast between the lifestyle of the world of the Big House and that of the mass of labouring tenants was enormous."

Gearoid O Tuathaigh "Ireland Before the Famine, 1798-1848" pg 130-131.

During the Irish potato famine there were just too many competing political stances, ideologies, received notions and entrenched interests to assert that a singular dominant mindset prevailed. There were many ideas ‘in the air’, with many possible trajectories for policy, but, in the end, what emerges clearly is that the struggle for predominance within the Whig party itself led to the derailing of much promising legislation. Ultimately, the ‘Foxite’ Whigs of Russell and their traditional call of ‘justice for Ireland’ was swamped by an interior Whig alliance of the ‘Bowood set’ centred round Lord Lansdowne and the ‘Clapham sect’ of evangelical moralists led by Wood, Grey and Trevelyan. In policy formation, a perverse reading of Benthamite utilitarianism blended with Clapham moralism which led to workhouse food relief being granted and work performed - such as cracking stones for ten hours a day - being valorised for it’s ability to inculcate moral virtue as much as being a test of true destitution. Malthusian notions of a population time-bomb were eagerly picked up and used to justify mass evictions on the pretext that intensive capitalisation on consolidated farms preceded by mass clearances was the only path to progress. To this end, the Devon Commission’s inquiry into poverty in Ireland had already recommended state-assisted emigration in 1843. Despite being landlord chaired it conceded there were 2½ million people regularly in a state of semi-starvation. In Autumn 1846 when the second potato crop failed, leading the Times to declare ‘total annihilation’ John Stuart Mill abandoned his ‘Principles of Political Economy’ and wrote a series of impassioned articles in the Morning Chronicle denouncing the barbarity of mass clearances along with the dogmatic conclusions of the orthodox economists. Many of these ‘orthodox’ economists such as Nassau Senior were being actively patronized by the Bowood Whigs.

Added to this were feudalistic conceptions of overall responsibility towards the poor in times of dearth vs. the responsibilities of government. The Labour Rate Act of 1846 effectively shifted all responsibility for relief onto the propertied classes and the payers of the poor rate levy. In England, the “Manchester School” of rising middle class, commercially minded “Radicals” were flatly opposed to the notion that the English taxpayer should be forced to bail out the Irish gentry. “Justice for England”, they cried. In the end, more money was raised within Ireland than was given by the British treasury. Expenditures under the revised Poor Law which targeted Irish payers of the poor rate - holders of farms with rental of 4 pound or more - contributed £7.3 million between September 1846 and September 1851 compared to the treasury’s outlay of £7 million. When £50,000 pound was tacked onto the 1846 Labour Rate Act to assist indebted Poor Law Unions, Archbishop Mac Hale reminded British PM Russell that 20 million pound had been raised by the British treasury to free West Indian slaves. “They may starve” roared the Freeman’s Journal. Between the same five year period the British treasury received £265 million in income tax receipts!

There was also a providentialist undercurrent to many policies; the disaster being actually the will of God ipso facto to intercede would be thwarting the plans of an all-wise providence. However, even the Quakers derided this sort of fatalism as a gross abdication of responsibility. Most importantly, there were differing conceptions over the ultimate sovereignty of the land; should the Ulster custom of tenant right be extended to the south as suggested by Sharman Crawford, Fintan Lalor and J.S. Mill amongst others or does the tenant have no right of address in the case of expulsion? Even Russell was favourable to some kind of legislation that formalised a sort of dual ownership in the soil - a position greeted with horror by landowning Whigs. Lansdowne, Clanricard, Monteagle and Palmerston all held extensive Irish estates and this quartet were instrumental in affixing wrecking amendments to successive Bills which copper fastened landlord rights over that of the tenant throughout the crisis. Meanwhile, tenant right committees were being established in the face of the escalating evictions and alarming increase in agrarian crimes. This latter development prompted an ongoing debate over the level of coercion to be adopted; with the Foxite aim to pacify through ameliorating smallholder hardships being continually opposed by the Bowood hardliners. In the end, Russell’s confidence was sapped by an antagonistic cabinet.

Even Peel’s earlier Tory administration, who oversaw the first appearance of the blight in the autumn of 1845, were divided strongly on ideological grounds. He set a scientific commission to work who confirmed the worst and determined that at least half the potato crop was lost. In October, O’Connell, in his last significant political act led a delegation to the Viceroy with a set of proposals for raising money; tax of 10% on landlord’s rental, 30-50% tax on absentee rental, a 1½ million pound loan from the treasury to be secured from the proceeds of Irish woods and forests, immediate closing of the ports to halt exports, and the cessation of all grain-derived brewing and distilling. The latter two steps had been successful in avoiding the worst effects of the last major scarcity some 50 years beforehand just prior to the enactment of the Union. On that occasion, a grant of 100,000 pounds had been issued to merchants to buy foreign grain in an attempt to keep famine prices down, a policy which, by most accounts, was largely successful.

These proposals, however, as far as we know, were never seriously considered. Peel had apparently determined that the only remedial measure worth considering was a repeal of the 1815 Corn Laws - a personal political project of his which he had long been nourishing. He had in fact drafted several economic advisers to “educate” his more intransigent fellow Tory party members on it’s benefits over the preceding several years; and now at last a raison d’etre had presented itself. English landed interests - many of whom were Tory back-benchers and members of the House of Lords - were far from impressed. In fact, it was heavy lobbying principally from Irish landlords which had them enacted in the first place. Due to the slump in agricultural prices after the Napoleonic Wars gentry on both sides of the channel felt legislation was required to protect their profit margins from foreign imports and so monopoly access to English markets was granted solely to Irish exporters. The policy was a ‘success’ and grain prices returned near enough to their war time levels at 60-70 shillings a quarter maintaining thereby the privations for the English urban working classes and fuelling Chartist agitation.

The contention is often made that policy makers at this time were imprisoned by prevailing ideologies; laissez faire in the marketplace, Malthusianism in population control, utiltarianism in drafting the Relief Acts and providing workhouse schemes, orthodox economics in justifying rapid consolidation of small farms and finally, providentialism when it came to disowning
all culpability for the dramatic loss of life.

A much easier solution to understanding the disruptions of this period would be to apply Occam’s razor and ask yourself simply who stood to gain from the mass death and emigration. Many landlords went bankrupt when the Whig government effectively wiped its hands of the matter by switching the onus of supporting poverty to the Irish gentry but this move had the effect of clearing the land and preparing the way for the long sought consolidation of small farms into more capital intensive profit-making entities. A feverish assertion of ideologies always indicates a distant tumour in the body-politic and in truth the Union was never seriously threatened, on this occasion at least, but the famine hardened the hearts of many Irish nationalists; among them Fintan Lalor and John Mitchell who both powerfully denounced the government's inaction, along with Michael Davitt and O' Donovon Rossa whose families were evicted during the clearances. It is difficult to imagine the revolutionaries of 1916 acting without their legacy and by extension the birth of an independent Ireland. In the end, it was the legacy of the famine which really consumed the western flank of the "Empire".

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