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Historical Notes: God and England made the Irish famine

ON 20 August 1845, the day the potato blight Phytophthora infestans was first discovered in Dublin's Royal Botanic Gardens, the population of Ireland stood close to nine million people - almost half the combined population of England, Scotland and Wales. Mostly Catholic. Mostly poor.

What was to happen over the next few years was to ensure that by the turn of the century half of Ireland's population had disappeared.

Two million acres in Ireland - one-third of all tilled land - was given over to the cultivation of the lumper potato. While five to six million people were heavily dependent on the crop, some three million souls depended on it totally. The lumper was highly prolific and highly nutritious.

The powerful combination of high yield and high nutrient content in this root would, in its absence, also prove to be a deadly combination. For how else were the people to be fed?

The Union of Ireland with Great Britain in 1800 had not been a Union of equal partners. Ireland was regarded by Westminster as little more than England's granary. Sir Robert Peel, Prime Minister of the Tory Government up to June 1846, neatly captioned the British viewpoint when he uttered, "The real issue is the improvement of the social and moral condition of the masses of the population", a theme oft repeated.

Charles E. Trevelyan, who served under both Peel and Russell at the Treasury, and had prime responsibility for famine relief in Ireland, was clear about God's role: "The judgement of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson, that calamity must not be too much mitigated".

John Mitchel, the Young Ireland leader, transported in 1848 to Van Diemens Land, had a different view, calling the famine "an artificial famine. Potatoes failed in like manner all over Europe; yet there was no famine save in Ireland. The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the famine".

A Trevelyan letter to Edward Twisleton, Chief Poor Law Commissioner in Ireland, contains the censorious, "We must not complain of what we really want to obtain. If small farmers go, and their landlords are reduced to sell portions of their estates to persons who will invest capital we shall at last arrive at something like a satisfactory settlement of the country".

Soup kitchens did keep the Irish alive for a while, some three million daily which is a lasting testament that where there is Government will, so too is there a way. However the free "Soyer's soup" - Alexis Soyer being the French chef at the Savoy hotel who was called in to design a soup for the famine-ridden Irish - if life-preserving for the body, was certainly not the thing for the moral rectitude of the Irish spirit. The soup kitchens were closed.

Relief works were ushered in, which saw starving men, women and children breaking rocks and building "famine roads" - roads which led nowhere - for as little as a sixpenny a day.

Peel's philosophy of a free-market economy was in full swing and scarcity meant higher prices. Potatoes were now a penny a piece. A day's labour would gain for you and your family six potatoes. Poetry, music and dancing stopped. The famine killed everything.

Was Britain to blame? Tony Blair in his May 1997 "apology speech" stated that those who governed in London at the time failed their people through standing by while a crop failure turned into a massive human tragedy.

Blair's speech was important to Irish people all over the world in that it officially recognised, for the first time, that the famine was more than just the "Irish potato blight". His words became part of the healing process between the two islands. Next follows admission of culpability and the asking for forgiveness. Finally there is the forgiveness itself. Are we, the Irish, ready yet?

Brendan Graham is the author of `The Whitest Flower' (HarperCollins, pounds 16.99)