The imposition of laissez faire during the Irish famine

Gile na Gile

Ad Honorem
May 2008
The potato blight of 1845-9 (which appeared on the continent first) gave rise to a pan-European subsistence crisis and was in turn a major aggravating factor for the social unrest which preceded the 1848 revolutions; and so, it made perfect sense for individual countries to do all in their power to lessen the sufferings of their peasantry lest they should reap (as many indeed did) - the whirlwind of revolt.

By the mid 19th century closing ports for food exports during a subsistence crisis had long been standard international practice among sovereign nations; Portugal, France, Belgium and Holland all took measures to increase the quantity of food within their borders during these years, either by government purchase of foreign grain, the elimination of import tariffs, banning of food exports, prohibitions on distillery, or in France's case at least, by the suspension of Navigation Acts which otherwise prohibited foreign vessels bearing food to dock in their ports.

Ireland, however, was not a sovereign nation; its laws were drafted in Westminster by Whig and Tory parties responsive, above all, to its English electorate. The Act of Union had transported a native Irish parliament 'lock, stock and barrel' across the seas with a permanently diluted minority of Irish MP's largely ineffective and incapable of determining the type of legislation which their constituencies and the country as a whole required; few of them even bothered to attend parliament in the first twenty years of the Union and only a handful have made any recorded speeches. This political morass changed when O' Connell energised the country with his Catholic Emancipation movement, but the quid pro quo for its success in 1829 was the elimination of the voting rights of the forty shilling freeholders; the voting threshold now raised to holders of land worth ten pounds rental shrunk the Irish electorate to some 42,000 from a previously (still low) figure of 250,000. England, of course, had comparable proportions of the population excluded from the franchise even after the "Great" Reform Act of 1830 but the thing to note is that O' Connell's independence movement (for Repeal of the Act of Union) was the great cause of the overwhelming bulk of the Irish people at this time.

In 1843, the 'Year of the Repeal' he held dozens of monster rallies up and down the country, most of which were attended by at least a 100,000 people - the largest political gatherings the country has ever seen - calling for a dismantlement of the Act of Union and the restoration of an independent parliament so that Ireland could be 'free to govern her own affairs'. The young radicals within the Repeal movement itched for revolt and wanted O' Connell to harness the energies of this unprecedented popular support for revolutionary purposes, or at the very least, use it as a battering ram to force Peel to concede a domestic legislature via the 'proper' legal channels. O' Connell, controversially, backed down at Clontarf and his influence, though dwindled, still retained an enormous hold on the affections of the people.

In 1845, in the autumn the blight struck, the Repeal Association with "The Liberator" O' Connell at its head, sent a deputation to the Lord Lieutenant, Heytesbury, outlining its proposals for what measures it thought should be taken by Peel's government to halt what was clearly perceived by all (including the Tories) to be an oncoming catastrophe; these included all of the common sense devices mentioned above - (1) diversion of grain from distilling (2) elimination of import tariffs for incoming food relief (3) immediate cessation of food exports (4) suspension of the Navigation Acts and (5) raising of monies for relief by the sale of Irish timber - all of which suggestions were studiously ignored by Peel, who set about instead to dismantle the UK's Corn Laws citing specifically to Parliament his reasons for doing so being primarily 'the failure of the Irish potato crop'. The logic was brutally simple; it was intended to lower the price of grain (and by extension all foodstuffs) across the British Isles by eliminating their tariffs but it was done so in a phased, incremental fashion which made no immediate impact at all on Irish imports while its tangible worth only became evident in mid-47 when huge quantities of American grain could be imported at a reduced rate - but by then of course, it was already too late for the hundreds of thousands who were in the midst of being consumed by starvation and famine-related diseases & priced out of a 'buoyant' grain market which naturally enough saw wheat, oats and barley doubling and tripling in price during the cruel winter months of 1846.

So, the laissez faire policy, first adopted by Peel in 1845 and extended by Russell in 1846 with even more fervour, has been regarded even by its kindest critics as being something of a shambles - the "big idea" was to give the starving peasantry access to money to purchase affordable food by placing them on country-wide public work programmes; building canals, harbours, ditches and roads, with the hope that private merchants (grain-sellers) would not be dissuaded from purchasing abroad to sell at home as they would do (it was presumed) if the government were to artificially "interfere in the market" and make their enterprise less profitable by doing such "irresponsible" things as closing ports or feeding the people directly. This latter action was to be avoided at all costs as the fear was then in creating a 'culture of dependency' and so, the workhouse regime where a daily meal could at least be had, was intended to be as horrific an experience as possible - "I'd rather die than break stones for twelve hours a day" - being one memorable fragment left to us by the Folklore Commission.

But why adopt laissez faire at all as a stringently adhered to and unalterable path to famine relief? This was by no means the economic orthodoxy of the time and particular in the context of a starving population - the fulminations of 'Protectionist' Tories led by Bentinck and Disraeli were aghast at stubborn Whig adherence to 'the laws of political economy' in the face of widespread starvation and often came across as more virulent in their opposition to such policies as the most fervent Irish Repealer. O' Connell himself was a free trader, even before Peel's late conversion, yet he saw clearly enough that in times of emergency, when people were actually dying in their droves the first order of the day is to get food into their mouths not wait for the miracle of market forces to deliver them from want - a point belatedly conceded by Russell when he wound down the disastrous public work programmes and legislated for the Soup Kitchen Relief Act in mid-47.

The reasons in fact were threefold:

First, by setting themselves dead against the recommendations of O' Connell and the Repealers (active intervention vs. laissez faire) it would demonstrate who held unequivocable control in the country - an extension of the mind games and power politics of the monster rallies just two short years beforehand when the country teetered on the precipice of revolution. It is difficult to underestimate the personal animosity between Peel and O' Connell, who loathed each other with a passion (they had almost fought a duel in 1816).

Second, England's own food sovereignty would be compromised were Irish grain exports to be curtailed; they accounted for over 80% of total English imports and were enough to feed two million of its population. This is excluding the Irish exports of cattle, pigs, poultry, dairy products etc.. which kept domestic English food prices down and of which exports all continued unabated during the famine years. In the 1830's and 40's the average English labourer spent between a third and a half of his income on bread; a sudden fall in grain availability would rocket prices leading to further Chartist unrest. This was the decade in England known as the 'hungry 40's' and the Anti-Corn Law League was set up to undermine the protectionist monopoly held by the largely Tory landed aristocracy who feared competition from cheaper imported foreign grain. High grain prices meant high bread prices and this meant further exactions on the workers in the industrial centres who naturally formed collectives and agitated politically. Many manufacturers, unwilling to bow to pay demands from their workers backed the Anti-Corn Law League in the hope it would succeed in bringing down the costs of living, saving them in turn from making further outlays. As it was, even despite the on-going Irish grain exports into England food riots were commonplace by February and March 1847 with wheat prices double the norm at this time - until the volatility was abated by the much anticipated arrival of the American harvest in mid-May.

Thirdly, there was what was felt to be the long-term interest of the economic development of Ireland at stake which entailed creating what was referred to as "large-scale commercial farming" - a schema which envisaged no place for small scale cottiers holding precariously to their "unproductive little plots" of 15 acres or less. If laissez faire were not adopted and the recommendations of O' Connell and the Repeal Party carried out, the incipient danger would be that this "idle, unproductive portion of the population" (half the country in effect) would get used to the idea of state charity and continue to live 'on a solitary food item' (the spud), draining in effect the resources of the country, further contributing to agrarian crime and outrages, and moreover providing the populist backbone of support for the nationalist Repealers. A strong perceived economic incentive thereby existed to have them simply "swept from the land" either through forced migration schemes, eviction or, what was just as convenient in the eyes of many (Nassau Senior); through starvation itself.
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Reactions: spellbanisher
Apr 2018
Having only recently discovered my Irish ancestors, I now realise how very ignorant I am of Irish history so your article has been helpful. I have visited only once, about 25 years ago, for a week driving around the south in a camper van.
There was some sort of scheme going on, employing young people in the country to assemble exhibitions of the history of their village and I was just appalled to read for the first time about the famine and the hedge schools. It is only now that I realise I have grown up and been affected by a culture that considers Irish people as ignorant, drunk and only fit for digging railways and that they were dedicated at home to killing each other over religion. Since religion of any sort plays no part in my life, I could not comprehend the latter and must have accepted the other prejudices without thought, to my shame.
I am now thinking about the relationship between 'fact' and perception and I wish this could be taught in our schools. Or is it impossible to teach?
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