The Making of Great Famine



In the following excerpt from “The Malthus Factor: Poverty, Politics and Populations in Capitalist Development” New York: Zed Books, author Eric Ross shows the strong ’ influence of Malthus in explaining the 19th century Irish Famine. Ross argues that most of these explanations systematically ignore the

structural and institutional complexities of Ireland and thus the historical context of the making of Irish poverty and famine. Such explanations, according to Ross, have not only resulted in the blaming of the poor but t also suggest that the political and social movements representing them are incapable of improving society. In light of the present experience of Ethiopia, other African and Third World countries, we believe that many of our readers will find Ross’ thesis an interesting perspective that should be debated.


The Making of the Great Famine


In 1845, most of Western Europe was hit by Phytopbtbora infestans. Combined with a poor grain harvest in many parts of Europe, the failure of the potato added to a pattern of agrarian stresswhich would be a major factor in the riots, rebellions and revolutions that swept across Europe in 1848.

However, events in Ireland differed dramatically from developments elsewhere, where, at least, widespread starvation was generally fore- stalled. In the Swiss canton of Bern, for example, when a food riot broke out in October 1846, the reaction of the cantonal government was to acquire food grains from abroad to prevent wholesale food shortages (Pfister 1990: 283). The contrast between this response and England's reaction to pending famine in Ireland was due to the fact that Bern was in command of its own affairs, while Ireland's fate depended on the interests of a colonial power. Indeed, many of the leading figures in the British cabinet at the time - including Lord Palmerston, the Foreign Secretary, and Lord Clarendon, President of the Board of Trade and Lord Ueutenant of Ireland - were absentee Anglo-Irish landlords (Ridley 1970: 2-4, 321; Ptest 1972: 237; Stephen and Lee 1921-22, Vol. 20: 347-50). And if they were not, their families often were: the Duke of Bedford, the brother of the prime minister, Lord John Russell, also owned substantial estates in Ireland (Prest 1972: 238).


Travelling through Ireland late in 1845, as the first potatoes were beginning to blacken in the fields, Thomas Foster wrote that he was 11 certain that some steps will be required to be taken to avert the horrors of a famine" (1846: 328-9). Those measures were never taken. The British government generally acted as if it regarded the famine as the only effective means of repressing the rebellion that was then rampant throughout rural Ireland. Russell, moreover, was especially possessed of "a Malthusian fear about the long-term effect of relief ", while Clarendon believed that "doling out food merely to keep people alive would do nobody any permanent good" (Prest 1972: 271). Except, of course, the poor, whom such callousness ultimately condemned to death.


The relief programme, such as it was, was in the hands of Charles Trevelyan, who had been educated at the East India College at Hailey- bury, "where he had been greatly influenced by [Malthuss] lectures" (Clive 1973: 318; Stephen and Lee 1921-22, Vol. 12: 886-7; Vol. 19: 1135). His wife, Hannah, was the sister of the historian and politician Thomas Babington Macaulay, whose fervent Malthusianism (Trevelyan 1978: 116) had led him to challenge Sadler for a parliamentary seat because of the latter's anti-Malthusian views. Trevelyan's own forceful Malthusian attitudes were clearly reflected in his opinion that the famine was "a direct stroke of an all-wise and all-merciful Providence" (Trevelyan 1848: 201). His justification for meagre assistance for the Irish was that

posterity will trace up to that Famine the commencement of a salutary revolution in the habits of a nation long singularly unfortunate, and will acknowledge that on this as on many other occasions, Supreme Wisdom had educed permanent good out of transient evil. (Trevelyan 1848: 1)

But if Trevelyan thought it was a divine blessing, the divines thought otherwise. A year earlier, Bishop Hughes of New York had already written:

they call it God's famine! No! no! God's fan-tine is known by the general scarcity of food, of which it is the consequence; there is no general scarcity, there has been no general scarcity of food in Ireland, either the present, or the past year, except in one species of vegetable. The soil has produced its usual tribute for the support of those by whom it has been cultivated; but political economy found the Irish people too poor to pay for the harvest of their own labour, and has exported it to a better market, leaving them to die of famine, or to live on alms; and this same political economy authorizes the provision merchant, even amidst the desolation, to keep his doors locked, and his sacks of corn tied up within, waiting for a better price. (Hughes 1847: 21)

Nevertheless the argument that the famine was God's way of redressing a Malthusian imbalance between people and resources appealed to a British cabinet dominated by Irish absentee landlords. And, to the extent that it justified the barest minimum of relief, the argument that nature must be allowed to take its course also meant that aid would not con- found the workings of the "market". As a result, one of the most perverse features of the famine years was that Irish exports - the reason, after all, that the island was a colony - were not only maintained throughout the crisis, but actually increased. In 1846 alone, almost half a million pigs were shipped to England - pigs that in a good year might have been eaten, but now had to go to pay the rent (O'Donovan 1940: 192). Even the London 7-imes, which had little visible sympathy for the Irish, conceded that, "while England was avowedly feeding Ireland ... whole fleets of provisions were continually arriving from the land of starvation to the ports of wealth and the cities of abundance" (71mes 1880: 45). Yet this was not widely appreciated in England, where the famine was simply a dramatic sign of how catastrophically the Irish had mismanaged their resources and of their failure to diversify their diet. As a letter-writer to the 77mes remarked:

they inhabit a country a great part of which is at least equal in fertility to our own, with more that is capable of being made so. There is no reason, except their own willful  mismanagement [my italics], why they should not grow as fine crops of wheat as are raised in the Lothians, and, after feeding themselves, export the surplus to our shores.

(Times 1880: 14)

The real problem was that the food that Ireland was already exporting to England in such prodigious quantities was not surplus.


The Aftermath of the Famine: The Clearances Continue

Despite massive depopulation  as over two million people died or emigrated due to the famine( O Grada 1972: 154) - and in spite of increasingly delayed marriage, the "permanent good" to which Trevelyan alluded never materialised, because the real problem of Ireland, British colonialism, had not gone away. And, far from leaving Ireland's future to God's will, Westminster quickly took advantage of the famine to enact bills which accelerated the very process of land concentration and eviction that had put rural Ireland at such peril in the first place (Kennedy 1973: 28-9). One of the most notable of these measures was the so-called "Gregory clause" to the poor-relief act of June 1847, named after William Gregory, the MP from Cork, who introduced it. This provision prevented anyone with more than a quarter-acre of land from being considered destitute and thus able to qualify for poor relief Since many Poor Law guardians, who were responsible for administering local relief, were also landlords, it was inevitable that this measure was exploited to force impoverished tenants to relinquish their holdings (Donnelly 1975: 98;'1995: 159-60).

Through this and other pressures, as many as half a million people may have been evicted between 1846 and 1854 (Donnelly 1995: 155- 6). The agricultural landscape was dramatically transformed.

The market in evicted land was especially brisk during die famine and its immediate aftermath ... The wholesale clearances of the late 1840s and early 1850s allowed commercially ambitious individuals to acquire pasture ground at relatively cheap rates. On many estates the evicted land formerly held by subsistence tenants was consolidated into large pastoral holdings and relet to graziers and other men of capital. (Jones 1983: 392)

Between 1845 and 1851, the number of plots of less than one acre fell from 135,000 to 38,000, while those between 1 and 15 acres de- clined from 493,000 to 280,000 (Steele 1974: 3). Between 1841 and 1901, the percentage of all holdings between one and five acres fell from 45 to 12, but the proportion of those 30 and above rose from 7 to 32 (Kennedy 1973: 89). By the 1870s,

half the country belonged to a thousand people with an average of around 10,000 acres each. Great and small, the landlords were, as a body, British, or Anglo-Irish, and Protestant. (Steele 1974: 3)

For decades, the main source of pressure on the small-scale Irish cultivator remained precisely what it had been in the years preceding the famine, the expansion of pasturage, only now it occurred with an unprecedented intensity. The proportion of Irish agricultural land being cultivated declined from one-third in 1851, in the immediate wake of the Great Famine, to less than one-fifth in 1881. It had fallen to one- seventh by 1926 (Kennedy 1973: 91-2), at the time of partition. All this was to meet a growing demand for beef in Britain, which was reflected in the dramatic price differentials between grain and meat that characterised the post-famine period:

From a low point in 1850, the last Famine year, the prices of cattle at the

Ballinasloe October fair, the "greatest" fair in the west of Ireland, doubled by 1855 and then continued to rise steadily at an average of 2 pounds per year until 1880 .... In contrast, grain prices fluctuated wildly after the Famine, wheat prices being 21 per cent lower nationally in 1876 than in 1840. (Jordan 1987: 326)

Irish exports of cattle rose from almost 202,000 in 1846-49 to about 558,000 by 1870-74 (O'Donovan 1940), a development that was facilitated by the establishment of the Irish railway network in the second half of the nineteenth century Uones 1983: 377). By 1880, it could be written that

agriculture of most other kinds has been steadily dwindling down; 519,307

acres out of a total tillage area of 5,500,000 had gone out of cultivation in ten years. 'Me wheat culture was ruined .... The breadth of land even under oats had declined by 320,000 acres ... 50.2 percent of the entire surface area of the country and two-thirds of its wealth were devoted to the raising of cattle. (Dublin Mansion House

Relief Committee 1881: 2)

In the province of Connacht alone, total crop acreage declined from 744,263 in 1869 to 694,708 a decade later, while land in meadow and clover - a sign of grazing - soared by 30 percent from 200,766 to 262,095 acres (House of Commons 1870: 756-7; 1880a: 848-9). By then, cattle and sheep graziers, who occupied almost half the land of Ireland, were the dominant political force in the country (Crotty 1981: 111-13). One of the worst hit parts of Connacht was County Mayo, where the post-Famine increase in pasture had been especially rapid.


        Between 1847, the first year for which reliable are available, and 1851 the number of                 cattle in Mayo rose from 79,148 to 116,930. There were 173,596 cattle in 1876 and 191,497 in 1900, representing an increase of 142 per cent over the fifty-three years. The number of sheep rose 225 per cent over the same years. In order to graze this livestock the amount of land in Mayo devoted to grass, meadow and clover increased from 485,651 statute acres in 1851, or 38.8 per cent of the total acreage of the county, to 595,843 acres, or 44.9 per cent of the total, in 1900. (Jordan 1987: 327)


Because much of this expansion involved the conversion of cropland and a process of land consolidation, typically effected through evictions, the result was that many remaining subsistence cultivators in the most fertile regions of the county were forced either to relocate in peripheral areas or to emigrate (Jordan 1987: 327-30). As early as the 1860s, a Poor Law Inspector reported from Mayo that

Amongst the small farmers or occupiers of land, [deprivation] is everywhere in the barony severe; but in the electoral districts, already alluded to, I am convinced it is intense. Many families there are, I believe, utterly without means. The whole of their stock of potatoes and corn is gone; it has barely sufficed for their own support up to the present time, and been inadequate for that of their cattle, which have died of starvation and cold. Such families are now without means of supporting themselves or cultivating their farms. They find that if they surrender them, and go into the workhouses, they become paupers for life; and, in most cases, they will die sooner than adopt such a course. (in Day 1862: 37)

By 1870, the expansion of cattle and sheep grazing had considerably worsened conditions for small-holders and rural labouters. In Mayo, where as few as nine landowners owned over one-third of the land and most were disinclined to rent their land to anyone but large graziers (Jones 1983: 395), families which still depended on potato cultivation were under increasing pressure (Jordan 1987: 334; cf Crotty 1981: 111). As cattle and sheep pushed tillage onto worse soils, not only did total crop acreage decline, but productivity fell as well.


The Crisis of 1879: Famine and Protest

The pattern of increasing land monopolisation and the expansion of grazing which spurred it were only a part of the problem, however. By the late 1870s, a great agricultural crisis had embraced much of Western Europe and severely affected the British Isles. In large part, this was due to horrendous weather, which made European agriculture espe- cially vulnerable to new developments in the international market. As Lamb has noted,

The decline of English agriculture, which lasted for fifty years, dated from this time. The harvests had been affected by difficult seasons from 1875, and the impact of competition on Britain's free trade market of cheap North American meat from the prairies was beginning to be felt. 1879 turned the decline into a collapse. (1982: 245)

The situation in Ireland was especially grim for the near-landless who depended on the potato, the average yield of which fell from 4.7 tons in 1876 to 2.0 tons in 1877 (Solow 1971: 121). There was a slight, patchy recovery in 1878, but climatic conditions worsened the following year and average yields declined further to about 1.3 tons per acre - "half a ton below the last recordedfamine [her emphasis] year (1872)" (Solow 1971: 122).

One of the normal safety-valves in times of rural distress, seasonal employment in England (Kerr 1943; Green 1956: 116; Johnson 1970: 236-8), was limited now by the general agricultural depression and by increasing mechanisation (Royal Commissioners on Agriculture 1881: 668), which had significantly reduced English farmers' demand for Irish labour. At the same time, imports of cheap and abundant grain and meat from the United States, whose vast interior plains were being opened up by new advances in long-distance transport (Royal Commis- sion on Agriculture 1881; Ross 1980: 198-204), were not only filling the vacuum created by crop failures throughout Europe (Solow 1971: 122-3), but undercutting local prices. The price of Irish ham in Ireland was actually three pence higher than that of imported US ham (Sligo Independent 1879: 3). It is little wonder that 1878 was regarded by some as the least profitable for the agricultural economy of Ireland for thirty years (Moody 1981: 273).

As a result, many small and moderate-sized farmers and cottiers were in debt to merchants and landlords (Moody 1981: 283) and, as few landlords were prepared to countenance non-payment of rent, the number of "ejectments" rose nationally from 1,749 in 1878 to 2,677 in 1879. It was an increase of 53 percent in one year. The growing tide of anger and frustration which had been accumulating since the late 1860s began to be expressed in new forms of rural protest by the end of the 1870s.

Connacht, which was the most deprived region of the country, took the lead with 56 percent of all the so-called "agrarian offences" registered by the constabulary during 1879 and the first month of 1880. Of the 544 cases reported for that province alone, 36 percent occurred in Mayo, one of the counties hardest hit by evictions, although it only contained 29 percent of the province's population (House of Commons 1880b: 286-7, 349). Half of the protest meetings called within Connacht at this time, to build public pressure - "agitation" in official parlance - for land reform, were held in that one county alone (House of Commons 1880b: 292). Not unexpectedly, it was the home of the land agent for the Earl of Erne, Captain Charles Boycott, who gave his name to the mass resistance - "boycotting" - which he encountered when he attempted to evict his employer's tenants (Ellis 1972: 160; Marlow 1973: 13; Taatgen 1992: 170). And it was in Mayo that growing popular resistance gave birth to one of the most potent challenges yet raised against English rule in Ireland, the Land League, with its call for land reform. The challenge was perhaps the greater because, as Crotty has observed, although the majority of participants in the League were small-scale cultivators and rural labourers, one of its guiding forces was actually the graziers themselves, who no longer wanted to put up with "the sharing of profits from the booming livestock trade with an Anglo- Irish Protestant elite whose title to that share rested on the increasingly anachronistic grounds of conquest, confiscation and royal munificence in an increasingly distant and irrelevant past" (Crotty 1981: 111). To that extent, the League brought into question the very basis of English hegemony.