To fail to do so turns a blind eye to the role of culture in the
shaping of choices and reactions and reduces human beings to automatons
devoid of free will wedded to a teleological destiny.As they say "it takes
two to make a fight" we must also say that the particular culture of a
people provides a particular strategy of interaction which propels that
people through time.
|The Potato Famine in History
by Conrad Jay Bladey
|One day two men Paddy and
Billy went to the fair to ride the wild bull. They first watched
as other customers paid their fees and
rode the bull peacefully around the ring. The two men paid their fee and
mounted the Bull (the bull's name just happened to be John). Unlike the
rides the others had received Paddy and Billy were forced to hold on for
dear life as the bull steaming in the cool air leapt into the air violently
trying to throw the two off. Paddy was a bit concerned about this
fearing for his very life and he screamed out to Billy "why Billy is this
ride so rough and wild? "Billy replied to Paddy "Perhaps it might have
something to do with that large red cloth which you are holding out front
of the Bull Paddy-"Naah!" said Paddy, "It's me favorite red cloth
and I think it quite beautiful- I will have no other!" Billy then,
being sensitive to Paddy's concerns backed off with his own proposal
to exchange the red cloth for his favorite one of Orange.- Tastes
and preferences aside
is this the least painful
and safest way to ride such an animal. What is more important? Your
favorite cultural cloth or your life?
accounts of the famine
fail to account for all elements of the complex multidimensional equation
of the tragedy. One such dimension for example, that of Anglo
Irish relations, is the complex byproduct of hundreds and hundreds of years
of interaction between the cultures of Ireland and those of England. The
"bad blood" between the two which was present during the famine years was
produced by the two players equally as one pushed and the other shoved
back over time. Additionally any study of the Famine must recognize
that there are two distinct cultures involved.
The attributes of each culture both, Celtic and Anglo, structured
in a particular and causal way the relationships of both to the challenges
presented by the failure of the crop. Thus the inner nature of both
cultures as cultures rather than as simply political entities must be carefully
Sometimes the culture is able to pass through history as it were as
the round peg through round holes. In other times, however, culture
becomes the solution of the square peg in the round hole- the misfit not
withstanding driven painfully and unmercifully onward by a people that
for an illusive reason, will simply not exercise their free will to select
another path, another solution. This is an important dimension of the famine
which persisted and developed over hundreds of years and which must be
taken into account. It is the force of this dimension which propelled the
two peoples involved into the crucible of the famine which seems
to be, in uncritical retrospect, their manifest destany-when in fact
it was the sum product of their particular choices over time- a long time.
I am not saying here that the cultural dimension was the most important
causal dimension nor that it was the primary dimension. I am simply
saying that any analysis that fails to account for it is flawed.
was the cultural setting for the famine -a hard and solid foundation of
conflict and hostility which could not be undone during the few decades
of the famine itself. It was none the less a foundation which had been
built equally by the choices and tendencies of both cultures. It
can not be explained away by utilizing the concepts of hate, genocide,
evil, or persecution to mask and obscure its complex and ancient cultural
architecture. There was a much a "famine" of cultural "goodness of fit"
as there was a biological famine of crop failure, a political failure of
compromise and conciliation and an economic failure of that flawed science.
I would propose that when all is said and done, which it may never be,
that it is the cultural dimension which informs both the political science
and economic science of the famine years, and that it was the biological
dimension which was the spring which launched the potato ball" into play.
In any case beware the quick and easy explanation which leaves the culture
of any player completely unaccountable.
Americans today generally view the history of the Great Irish
Potato Famine (1845+) through cultural lenses which tend to distort the
realities of history as often as they magnify elements of truth. These
lenses develop as a result of the normal processes of folk oral traditional
transmission but are also imposed by political organizations with axes
to grind. It is important while examining the history of the Famine to
begin with the facts and only once the facts have been revealed move to
enjoy the folk oral tradition which has developed around it and then to
the respect for the suffering brought by the tragedy. We must do this because
the lessons of the Famine have not yet been learned. The 20th century has
seen little if any progress toward the elimination of famine from the human
condition. We cannot allow the tears nor the methods and causes of politics
to obscure the facts and prevent change and the learning of the lessons
of this tragedy.
It is quite important to remember that prior to
the Great Famine crop failure had been a part
of the lives of the Irish for centuries.
Famines and Crop Failures Prior to 1845
1740-1741 Massive loss of life (perhaps more than during
the Great Famine)
1800-1801 Severe average mortality 50,000 - 60,000
1816-19 Severe average mortality
50,000 - 60,000
1821-2 Welfare Assistance
helps lower mortality
1830-31 (Europe Wide famine causing agrarian unrest in Britain) Welfare
Assistance helps lower
1839 - regional distress (South and West)
1842- regional distress (South and West)
The reality of the continual occurance of Famine over time is important
considers adaptation and cultural response. Other European cultures
most notably that
of Denmark developed cooperative structures, "social safety nets"
if you will, in response
to the occurance of the same cycles of Famine which occured in Ireland.
While it is true
that Ireland was a colony it is also true that the Irish People possessed
and free will. This is reflected in their ability to negotiate with
and welcome foreign armies
and obtain military resources. Additionally in the decades prior to
the famine there existed a severe level of non-conformance between the
Irish People and landlords/overseeers. Secret societies
severely disrupted the fair administration of justice and hindered
the essential cooperation
between landlord and tenant required for mutual benefit. In the
light of the Famine one must question, all be it in retrospect,
the wisdom of such a high level of investment in hostility and non conformance
with the system of administration of the land. This observation does
the nobility of "freedom fighting" but it does recognize its position
on the scale with lives and
human suffering being in the balance.
Up until this time the Irish people were dependent not only upon the potato
as a source of food and income but upon the purchase of other foodstuffs
which they produced including a most important one--wheat. The purchase
of great quantities of Irish agricultural produce by England helped the
Irish economy to grow and the people to prosper. The excessive demand created
by the English war efforts distorted the Irish economy. When the major
European wars came to an end, England reduced dramatically its investment
in Irish agricultural products. Ireland received great prosperity from
1800 population 5.0 million
1821 population 6.5 million
1841 population 8.0 million
The dependence of the Irish upon the potato helped greater numbers to survive.
Potatoes which could feed many could be grown on small plots and not detract
from the payments due the landlord for cash crops. However, none of this
growth would have been possible without the presence of a thriving economy--potato
or no potato--and the prosperity which brought growth was provided by England.
England was a valuable trading partner--even if a politically dominant
one. With the end of a boom, however, comes a bust and unemployment was
the result. It is the backdrop for the famine and a primary underlying
foundation for the events and suffering which occurred.
Two-thirds of the Irish were dependent upon Agriculture as a source of
income. The remaining one-third engaged in other industrial and economic
pursuits did not fare well in competition against a developing English
manufacturing and industrial economy. Business was lost. While England
was indeed a major economic force, a great burden for the failure of the
Irish economy to grow outside of Agriculture has been associated with the
ways in which the Irish as a Culture adapted to the new industrial economy--the
ways in which businesses were established and the inability of local groups
and organizations to pool resources to foster economic growth (especially
in the Fishing industry). These problems are seen by economists not to
have been caused by the dominance of England but by the choices of the
Irish informed by cultural tendencies and practices. Successful economic
strategies, products and markets were not developed.
Famine noted in the Irish press for the first time on September 9. Sir
Robert Peel, Prime Minister of England, took prompt action:
Purchased 100,000 £ sterling worth of Indian corn and meal in the
USA in November. (It was not then know that corn meal would be empty of
important nutrients and that it would combine with other ailments to produce
dysentery and cause more to die--a point missed by many historians.)
A relief commission was set up and formed local committees for relief.
Local contributions were supplemented to the extent of two thirds by government
grants. This all from the people of England. (Although one can argue about
quantities, one cannot argue that the issue was avoided and the cause neglected.)
Relief Works: The English Government paid half the cost of such projects.
140,000 persons were employed at one time. Such relief projects are often
ridiculed in popular accounts (canals with no water, famine roads going
nowhere). But there were also very important functional projects such as
docks and roads which are still in use today. These projects were designed
to provide money and income to help the Irish survive and they did help.
While it has been argued that such projects were too small in scale they
do nonetheless represent a significant investment by the English Government
and it is also suggested that the scale employed was done in good faith
that such programs would be successful.
(Look at the make work projects of the American depression under FDR.
Even in the modern era similar programs were employed and they too were
of too small a scale to make a difference. Many historians now agree (although
some would not) that it was the Second World War which pulled the USA out
The English government provided 365,000£ sterling to the Irish people
in the form of loans in 1845-1846.
The Protective Tariff on grain was repealed: The Repeal of the Corn Laws
was a step designed to lower the cost of grain to the Irish. This decision
was not popular in England and because he helped the Irish in this way
the English Prime Minister was put out of office.
Peel's government confronted a disaster the likes of which had never occurred
in Europe. Economic depression as well as the Famine combined with economic
re-alignment, changes in agricultural technology, and the rise of industry.
The reaction of the English government was not unlike the reaction of FDR
during America's depression era. Rather than hand out money and food, it
was thought by the best minds of the day in England best to put people
to work. The debate over the concept of public welfare is still raging
in our country and throughout the world today. Then as now many believed
that feeding the poor would produce greater numbers of hungry and compound
the situation by creating the welfare dependent masses, ruining the work
ethic. The government also did not want to totally close down the Irish
agricultural economy (putting many more out of work to starve) by stopping
the export of food. This point is often brought up in discussions of the
Famine:How could the English continue exports of Irish food during the
There was a very good case made that should agricultural production
for cash be shut down, the English would be hurting those that they were
trying to help. (One should not miss here the similarity of the recent
situation in South Africa. The U.S. discouraged boycott so that African
workers would continue to be employed and the country could remain stable
to bring about reforms in an orderly way.) The English Government hoped
that through the application of funds and aid received from English taxpayers
that the needs of the Irish people could be met. However, the disaster
was far too large and complex.
Lord John Russell and Laissez-Faire Economic Belief
When we read of the actions of the men of the day, let us remember that
England at that time was the culture and society written about by Charles
Dickens with all of the flaws which he described in his novels. Often as
we look back upon historical events we people the world with ideal human
beings designed complete with our own morality and cultural values. (Sometimes
also we populate the world with humans who are designed as demons!) To
ask for a man dedicated to modern concepts of human rights to stand up
within the ruling classes of the world at that time would be the equivalent
of asking the contemporary Irish peasant to turn on a light bulb to illuminate
his or her cottage; they simply had not been invented yet, at least in
any great numbers. In fact, the Famine would lead to the generation of
modern relief methods and practices and their implementation for the first
time. Bear in mind also that conditions in the USA were also not that wonderful.
In 1845 slavery was still with Americans as was the cruel opening of the
flowers of the industrial revolution which consumed their human workers,
both immigrant and native alike, as Venus fly traps made of factory machines.
Under the new government an economic philosophy called Laissez-Faire
dominated the thinking of politicians and economists who desired to manage
the economy. Still today, our own world economy is managed by economic
gurus in the United States Federal Reserve working not from a concrete
and exacting science but from a philosophy (no longer Laissez-Faire)
which just happens to work from time to time. Laissez-Faire as a philosophy
called for non-intervention by government in the economy and held that
it was wrong for the government to meddle in economics at all. Charles
Wood believed this strongly and he was the Chancellor of the Exchequer
under the new Russell Government. Charles Trevelyan was the head of treasury--a
permanent position--and he agreed. It is not that the government did not
try to solve the Famine but that the economic theory (the specific cure
selected) failed, as did the crop and the economy and the future plans
of agricultural development. Government funding for aid and purchase of
food was discontinued and the responsibility for aid placed into the hands
of private enterprise. (Note the similarity to trickle-down economics and
Reaganomics). Those who had the most to gain, it was thought, from economic
prosperity would see to the protection of those who made that prosperity
possible. The landlords and businessmen and investors, it was thought,
had nothing to gain by allowing their workers to starve. Here several miscalculations
were made. Just as the Irish culture was somewhat responsible for their
economic adaptation or lack thereof, so too the culture of the businessman
influenced their actions. Despite trouble with the economy upon which they
depended, most landlords, Irish and English alike, living generally far
away in England or on the Continent, maintained their lifestyles of conspicuous
consumption as a cultural necessity maintained by cultural values. Landlords
and businessmen did not have as pre-requisites for their employment humanitarian
skills. (Actually according to Calvinism, grace follows deeds.) They were
the same cruel and unsympathetic landlords and bosses described by Dickens.
They were Irish as well as English living high on the hog. Note also that
ever since the penal laws which limited Catholics from certain positions
and occupations, that many Irish Catholics had entered the business community
and were directly responsible for decisions made in economics and economic
adaptation in Ireland. (Parnell discovered this following the Famine and
stressed to the Irish people in his speeches that they should strike at
the Irish landlords as well as the English.) It was only when the Irish
realized that it was a class of people--landlords and businessmen--and
not a Nation or a Culture which was guilty, that success and liberation
The Government targeted the Irish landlords as responsible for the Famine.
They made them pay rates to support relief. In need of money for their
high lifestyle, the landlords exacted the money from the agricultural work
force, causing evictions on a large scale. At the same time they were also
implementing modern agricultural practices which called for larger farms
with fewer people resident and working on the land. Displaced agricultural
workers could not find employment in industry which had not developed sufficiently
in other areas due to the Irish cultural approach to industrialization,
which favored individual isolated workers and small groups over factories
and large cooperative concerns.
Universal Potato Crop Failure in July and August lead to the greatest wave
of immigration, which generally took place in the summer months. Relief
employment was still provided in significant volume to the Irish. In 1846,
the following numbers of Irish were employed under this program:
Expenditures to the Irish from the English Board of Works amounted to 30,000
£ sterling a day with an administrative staff of 11,500 persons paid
by the English. You can argue "Not enough in retrospect," but nonetheless
it was not a small sum for the day. And this under a laissez-faire government.
Governments solve problems with paradigms and they tried one they thought
would work. We will never know if other tactics could have been seen clearly
at the time.
The worst time of the Famine ("Black 47")
In January 1847, public works were abandoned and direct relief extended.
An act was passed providing for the establishment of kitchens and the free
distribution of soup. (Alexis Soyer, chef of the London Reform Club, lead
an expedition to Ireland to bring modern methods for feeding the poor to
their first test in Ireland.) Local fund raising groups were formed in
England and all over the world and brought into Ireland. The Quakers formed
an especially important relief team. (This local and grassroots effort
in England especially has been painfully neglected by historians and those
wishing to make political capital from the famine.)
Epidemics of famine fever (typhus) and relapsing fever combined with
dysentery, caused by consumption of turnips. Also Indian meal provided
by the government did not contain Vitamin C, a fact unknown at the time.
Famine dropsy or hunger edema occurred as a result.
In 1847, 100,000 immigrants sailed to the U.S. (often via Canada).
932,000 were maintained on English government relief paid for by taxation
Population of Ireland was down to 6.5 million. (It had been 8 million in
1841.) Agricultural production had diversified and increased. Farm holdings
were larger; a sort of cure, though costly, evolved without government
No one point of view concerning the Famine can stand
on its own. But we can start by gathering as many facts as are available
from all sides as well as from some of the corners. The Irish Potato Famine
was a multi-dimensional natural/economic/cultural/humanitarian disaster
of huge magnitude. At every level there is enough blame to go around. As
mentioned above- there were famines in all of these dimensions.
We cannot leave any dimension out when trying to
understand the event. The well-intentioned assistance at great political
and financial cost to the English people and government must not be obscured
by folklore or cumulative hatred. The role of both cultures in tragedy
must be fully explored. While the culture of landlordism lacked humanitarianism,
the culture of Celtic Ireland greeted potato dependence with open arms
and failed to adapt to the new Industrial Age or cooperate fully with the
political/economic system which was attempting to manage the land, the
economy and administer justice. Cultural pride and Celtic/Irish ethnocentrism
stood as a mirror to British Industrialism and Imperialism and locked the
people between the image and the looking glass.
Significant resources were expended by the Irish in hostility and conflict.
In the end thousands left a sinking country to its fate. Foreign
countries for which the Irish had fought and died in costly wars of rebellion
did not arrive to liberate the people from both England and the Famine
when they were needed most.
Perhaps the greatest tragedy is the death of millions
and the continuation of famines today to consume millions of lives unchecked.
We cannot let history tell us that the painful fate of so many was somehow
inevitable, that they could have done nothing over the centuries to escape
it, because we too are those people. We just happened to have survived.
Are we doing enough today to escape cultural ethnocentrism
and political inflexability which propel cultures toward famine?
Is our cultural "way of life" so strong that we too may be
investing centuries in our own destruction? Will the hole in the
Ozone, global warming, environmentl polution and the American/International
"way of life" be our crop failures? Has our cultural imperialism
and ethnocentricity made friends or enemies of those we may one day
come to depend upon as neighbors?
the Author and Webmaster
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Declan Bates comments on Mr Bladey's version
of history above
Galvin comments on Mr Bladey's version of
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