Was the Famine genocide by the British?
Published 06/01/2013 | 06:00
The Famine was our Holocaust. During the mid-19th Century, Ireland experienced the worst social and economic disaster a nation could suffer. A quarter of the island's population starved to death or emigrated to escape truly appalling conditions.
The state of the country was such that the renowned British historian, AJP Taylor, declared "all Ireland was a Belsen", a reference to the infamous Nazi concentration camp.
As one of this country's most prolific and able writers, Tim Pat Coogan is critical of Irish historians as a class for their failure to do justice to the Famine. In his latest work, Coogan deploys the full range of his talents to passionately make the case that the Irish Famine was a deliberate act of genocide.
The maxim of the Young Ireland leader John Mitchell was that "God sent the potato blight but the English created the Famine".
Coogan's research gives credence to this view and he expertly catalogues a shocking combination of ambivalence, incompetence and malignance on the part of British policymakers.
Rapid population growth was at the root of the catastrophe that devastated Ireland in the 1840s. Between 1741, the date of the last big Famine, and the coming of the blight in 1845, the population of Ireland had tripled.
Feeding so many was already a problem before the Famine with bulk of the Irish population surviving on a subsistence diet.
Coogan demonstrates that the British government was not oblivious to the plight of Ireland. The Whatley Commission on Irish poverty in 1833 had suggested that large-scale emigration to the colonies be encouraged and proposed that fisheries be developed and land be reclaimed among other measures.
Had these recommendations been implemented, it would have done much to mitigate against the scale of the disaster which engulfed Ireland just over a decade later.
If a misguided faith in a pro-cyclical economics has caused financial hardship for this generation then the fact that laissez-faire economics was en vogue in the Famine era significantly contributed to the huge death-toll in Ireland.
Laissez-faire economics argued against the morality of assisting the poor because of the consequent risk of stultifying initiative and self-help among the Irish peasantry. One of laissez-faire's most influential proponents, Thomas Malthus, warned that extending relief would swallow the resources of the entire nation and consequently the poor had "no claim of right to the smallest portion of food".
Coogan's research shows how too often British policymakers put an adherence to a callous economic theory above their humanitarian responsibilities.
It would be a mistake to dismiss Coogan's work as a green-tinted history. He is not ungenerous to Robert Peel, the British prime minister at the time of the outbreak of the Famine and for so long the bête noire of Irish nationalists.
Coogan suggests that Peel did, in fact, attempt to alleviate the horrific situation in Ireland by facing up to the challenge of Corn Law reform and by making £100,000 available for the secret purchase of Indian corn in America.
Coogan also points out that Peel's successor, John Russell, was outraged by the "lynch law of Irish landlords" in ruthlessly pursuing evictions at a time when this was akin to a sentence of death.
Russell's efforts to offer legislative protection to Irish cottiers were, however, stymied by a powerful cabal in his own cabinet of Lord Palmerstown, the Marquis of Clanricarde and Lord Lansdowne, all of whom owned huge estates in Ireland.
This was a classic case of self-interest outweighing the public interest even though the lives of innocent people were in the scales.
Coogan's work is a damning indictment of Charles Trevelyan, the assistant secretary to the Treasury, who was effectively in charge of Famine relief in Ireland.
Trevelyan, today, is remembered more in sorrow than in anger in the classic song 'The Fields of Athenry', but he surely ranks alongside Cromwell as one of the greatest villains in Irish history.
Trevelyan was motivated by racialism, laissez-faire dogmatism and anti-Catholicism. Coogan highlights in a variety of ways how Trevelyan's policies consigned a generation of Irish people to death or exile.
But Trevelyan is most conclusively condemned in the dock of history by his own words.
The man whose policies held sway over the fate of a starving population wrote : "The judgment of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson, that calamity must not be too much mitigated . . . the real evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the Famine but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people."
The Famine created an underbelly of resentment that helped poison Anglo-Irish relations until recent times.
Tony Blair deserves great credit for having the political courage in his first month as British prime minister to apologise for the Famine and to publicly acknowledge that "those who governed in London at the time failed their people".
Blair's statement helped to build trust with the incoming Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and put in place the solid foundations on which peace – the greatest memorial of all to the victims of the Famine – was ultimately built.
Brian Murphy is completing a PhD in the School of History and Archives, UCD. He was previously a speechwriter to two Taoisigh.