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