The Great Anger


The Famine statues on the quays, Dublin

Legislation is set to pass through the Dáil soon to commemorate the Famine on the second Sunday in May each year.

Ciaran Tierney writes:

Yet news that Ireland is to get a Famine Commemoration Day has been greeted with a huge online debate over whether or not Ireland really experienced a ‘Famine’ in the 1840s.

The Irish term for the worst time in Irish history, An Gorta Mor, actually means The Great Hunger. More and more people are now of the opinion that there never was a famine, but that the five years of starvation were the result of a deliberate policy of genocide by the British authorities who ruled Ireland at the time.

Historian Christine Kinealy, in a book called ‘A Death-Dealing Famine’, acknowledges that there has long been an argument that the deaths of a million Irish people were a triumph of doctrine over humanitarian considerations.

What is beyond doubt is that food was exported from Ireland to Britain during the worst years of the catastrophe.

Kinealy points out that official export figures are unreliable because Ireland was considered part of the British Empire in the 1840s, it was part of a ‘free-trade’ zone and there was little need to keep official data of food imports from one island to the other.

But, considering that a million died, shipping reports from the main British ports at the time are startling.

In 1847, the worst year of the Famine, almost 4,000 ships carried food from Ireland to the major ports of Liverpool, London, Bristol and Glasgow. Over half of them went to Liverpool, where many Irish people also ran out of money as they strove to make their way across the Atlantic.

Records show that ports in some of the worst-affected parts of Ireland, including Ballina, Bantry, Ballyshannon, Kilrush, Sligo, Limerick, and Westport on the Atlantic seaboard, where thousands upon thousands were dying of starvation, were also sending food to the so-called mainland.

Oats, corn, and potatoes left Ireland for the ‘mainland’ while there was an on-going debate over whether or not the ports should be closed raging in British politics.

Merchants had pressed the British Government to keep the ports open and allow free trade to continue without intervention, even though the city councils in Belfast, Cork, Derry, Dublin and Limerick pressed for the ports to be closed so that food could be kept on the island of Ireland.

Mindful of the death and despair all around them, the cries from the Irish cities were ignored.

Under Sir Robert Peel, Indian corn was imported to Ireland following the first appearance of the potato blight in 1845. The main purpose of importing £100,000 worth of corn from America was to stabilise food prices, rather than to feed the destitute Irish.

Peel’s Government fell in 1846 with the Whigs, under Lord John Russell, coming to power in London.

This new Government decided to discontinue the policy of corn importation from America, leaving food importation to “market forces” even though there was far less food than in the previous year.

Merchants and grain producers, a powerful interest group at the time, campaigned to make sure that only a limited number of food depots would open in the West of Ireland, even as thousands were dying.

The Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, John William Ponsonby, criticised the merchants for striving to keep prices up even in the midst of an appalling catastrophe.

“It is difficult to persuade a starving population that one class should be permitted to make 50 per cent profit by the sale of provisions whilst they are dying in want of these,” he reflected at the beginning of 1847.

Soup kitchens eventually replaced the public works programme which was introduced by the Whig Government, and grain imports to Ireland rose, but by then it was too late for the hundreds of thousands who died.

Some historians now agree that British Government policies deliberately led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Irish people, leading many people to proclaim that there never was a Great Famine.

It could be argued that it was a deliberate act of neglect, if not quite an act of genocide.

During the tense Brexit border negotiations before Christmas, many Irish people were shocked by how little ordinary British people knew about their own country’s history in Ireland.

They don’t teach much, or anything, about the Great Hunger in British schools… (More at link below)


Why do the Irish not talk about ‘The Famine’? (Ciaran Tierney)


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15 thoughts on “The Great Anger

  1. Tim

    It was genocide. Had a famine occurred in Sussex, Westminster would’ve sorted it out in 2 mins. Ireland, though part of the United Kingdom, was left to die. The racism of the colonizer meant that no other outcome was possible.

    1. cian

      Possibly. And possibly not.

      There was a famine in Scotland 1846/7; it wasn’t as bad – because it affected fewer people, and there was help provided by other parts of Scotland.
      However “as in Ireland the export of foodstuffs was not prohibited and in Inverness, Wick, Cromarty and Invergordon, troops were used to quell protests about the export of grain or potatoes from local harbours.”


  2. Zaccone

    The famine was attempted /partially completed genocide, and possibly the worst thing to happen to Ireland and its people in recorded history. It should absolutely be commemorated.

    A new early July bank holiday would make far more sense though. At only 9 public holidays currently we’re already below the European average, so we do have room to expand. And early July would be the best time to introduce one – summer, no other bank holidays that month, nicely spaced out from the August/June ones etc.

    1. phil

      I want to say something like that ,but less inflammatory , its wasn’t all the bold Brits, there policies had plenty of support locally , we for people here profiting from it here.

      I have some vague recollection of some record butter exports from cork, and some incident where starving people who descended on some cork coastal town , where the locals beat them away , Skibbereen I think

      1. Woke Bae

        True. It’s as convenient to blame the Brits for everything as it is to blame the church for everything.

        1. Kolmo

          A fine Gael minister in 1996 (avril doyle) told us all to stop blaming the Brits for the famine lest we retreat to an “idealised past” ( is mass, but preventable, starvation, ideal?) she continued this trope by helpfully telling us all to “mature our relationship with the past”, wtf does that mean, are we just immature for thinking about a genocidal mindset that wantonly let millions die and profited from the mass land clearences when the vultures swept in. Minister Doyle went on to say that the famine was a “shared experience”, but someone in her audience quipped ” like rape?”
          We are living with the catastrophic legacy of the famine now, it was caused by reckless governance, we are still living in a state that is relatively poorly governed because of a similar mindset that exists now, its a mean spirited, miserly view of the citizen, as if we are an inconvenience, backed up and voted in by a class snobbery that is so entrenched that if you are not a lucky insider – you’re an undeserving nobody, no wonder they were always nervous about commemorating the famine.

          1. fFs

            Well said – Totally all mindset. We all basically have PTSD. Both government and people are working off the only roles we knew for hundreds of years – abuse and sabotage. We’re still paying ground rents fFs and farm rents up until not so long ago.

  3. blueswannabe

    I genuinely believe if ‘the famine’ wasn’t as despicable, deliberate or evil as many west Brits and actual Brits like to pretend it wasn’t, I wouldn’t be commenting from the Republic of Ireland but from another part of the UK, like Scotland, a beating Celtic heart with a large minority seeking freedom but still part of the United Kingdom. Michael Collins was the embodiment of Revenge for Skibbereen.

  4. Gay Tea Shop

    Do we get a days off (spuds)? Free packet of Tayto for every household? Kathryn Thomas to do a carb-free speech at the Jeannie Johnson? Feeling chipper all the same …

  5. Truth in the News

    The produce of the land was exported whilst those whose potatoes had rotted were allowed
    to die, this was a British Government policy, in many instances many places and ports were
    guarded by British Military to facilitate the export of produce.
    When what occurred is compared on a per capita basis it worse than what was visited on
    the Jews of Europe… is not too late for a Famine Crimes Trial to be held and those who
    now occupy the positions of privelage, in particular elements of the British aristocracy to
    make financial reparations….and we should not forget those who currently espouse the “great
    tory and liberal values” of the 1840’s in the present day.

  6. avocado

    The Famine began on 13 September 1845 potato blight was first reported in Ireland. Would that not be the most suitable date?
    All famines, arguably, are political – at least in modern times when societies are interconnected; perhaps the famine caused by drought that wiped out or exiled the Ansazi was not, but it’s surely a rare exception. Modern famines in Bangladesh, Rwanda, Biafra, North Korea, China, Russia… all political.

  7. Mé Féin

    The United Nations Genocide Convention, which was established in 1948, defines genocide as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.”
    Look at the facts and figure it out…

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