One million 'excess deaths' and a modest lesson for our time

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The Independent Online
IT is turning out that there is not one memory of the Irish Famine (1845-52), but many. Today, 150 years after the potato blight's first onslaught, almost all these memories, like the very facts of the Famine, are contested.

Some prefer not to remember. With wonder and compassion, Cal McCrystal described in this paper last week the reluctance of ordinary Irish people to recall what happened to their ancestors. The normal reaction of victims, whether broken by act of man or act of God, is a sort of shame, It takes much exhortation to turn that shame into an angry pride.

Others try to revise the orthodox version of history. Irish historians like Raymond Crotty and Roy Foster argue that the Famine only accelerated trends already perceptible before it - emigration, changes in the land- holding pattern, the checking of population growth - and was therefore not a turning point. They also suggest, in the teeth of nationalist tradition, that it is bad history to put too much blame on the British government's callousness and stinginess.

But Crotty and Foster have been challenged in turn. Christine Kinealy's new book, This Great Calamity, affirms once more not only the overwhelming scale of the disaster but the responsibility of Britain. The Treasury, with its free-market obsession, and the Liberal administration of Lord John Russell let it happen.

In Britain, by contrast, there is no great appetite to "rehash this old story". That's a pity, for we can now consult 15 years' experience of government by free-market fanatics. Before 1979, the tale of the Famine seemed not only horrible but incomprehensible.

About a million "excess deaths" took place during the Irish Famine. Most of them were caused not by direct starvation but by epidemics - cholera and typhus - invading bodies weakened by hunger. In an integral part of the United Kingdom, governed by the Westminster Parliament since the Act of Union in 1801, the population fell from 8 million to 4 million in 60 years. This happened in what was then the most developed and wealthiest nation on earth, in the period which marked the apogee of its prosperity. Why?

In our own times, it is a sound rule that famine is not a "natural" event but man-made. In 1845, this was less true. The blight which destroyed half the crop that year and all of it the next year might as well have arrived from outer space. It was only years later that scientists identified it as a fungus named phytophthora infestans, easily killed with copper sulphate spray. Nothing in 1845 could prevent it wrecking the lives of people who, on average, ate more than 10 pounds of potatoes a day per head and little else. But could human efforts have prevented so monstrous a dying? Kinealy concludes that "the combined resources of the United Kingdom could either completely or much more substantially have removed the consequences of consecutive years of potato blight in Ireland ..." In other words, it was not the Famine but British mishandling of it which killed a million people.

This mishandling arose in part from simple muddle and delay. But it arose also because the government applied to the Famine a set of free-market, non-interventionist principles derived from a skewed reading of Adam Smith. These are the same principles which were dug up and applied to this country after 1979. The problems of Britain under Margaret Thatcher and John Major are of course not comparable to those of County Cork in the 1840s, and it would be obscene to say so. But the answers to both sets of problems have the same timbre - dogmatic, mean-minded, brutally dismissive of "collateral" human costs .

One of these resemblances is the idea of what we are now invited to call an "underclass". This implies a self-excluded layer of pauper families at the bottom of society - idle, dishonest and with too many children - which is actually perpetuated by the welfare payments intended to eradicate it. This is precisely how the Treasury and most of the English media perceived the Irish peasantry: as a hostile dependency culture which must be forced out into the chill winds of competition. It was supposed that the potato, being so easy to grow, was a cause of overpopulation because it allowed the "feckless Irish" time to breed.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer asked in 1847: "What has brought [the Irish] ... to their present state of helplessness? Their habit of depending on government. What are we trying to do now? To force them upon their own resources ... If we are to select the destitute, pay them, feed them and find money from hence, we shall have the whole population of Ireland upon us soon enough."

There were gaps, all the same, between what the government said and what it did. The cruelty of rigid laissez faire, which meant standing back and watching starvation sort out the winners from the losers, often grew unbearable to Westminster and even to Whitehall. Peel's outgoing Tory government imported maize and sold it cheap - though not so cheap that it would ruin local business. Russell's Liberal administration passed the Temporary Relief Act and set up soup kitchens - free food aid. In the summer of 1847, the government was feeding more than 3 million people.

And yet men giddy with hunger had to labour on public-work schemes at deliberately low wages, so that they could earn the pennies to buy Peel's maize. And Russell's "outdoor relief" was denied to anyone with more than a quarter-acre of land, so that countless families had to choose between homelessness and death from hunger. The government's strategy was to "privatise" the cost of famine relief to local authorities, so that it would be borne by Irish ratepayers rather than English taxpayers, and (another foretaste of the 1990s) to contract out welfare delivery to private charities.

Behind all this was a deep inconsistency about Ireland as a part of the United Kingdom. On the one hand, Peel could refuse to halt the export of corn from starving Ireland on the grounds that his British policy was free trade. On the other, successive governments insisted that keeping this desperate mass of metropolitan British subjects alive was the responsibility of Ireland - not of Britain. The Union simply did not work, because Irish MPs were a perpetual minority in the House of Commons although Ireland's interests often conflicted with those of the rest of Britain. After 16 years of Thatcherism in an anti-Tory country, something similar could be said now about the Union with Scotland.

Do we learn from a past as terrible as that? I would not bother to argue that laissez faire is immoral (though it is) because it seems more important to point out that it never works. In that sense, government's performance during the Famine does bear some comparison to its performance today: rhetoric about the market punctuated by desperate government interventions to avert market-driven catastrophe. What works is the mixture of market forces and public control - but the puppeteer likes to fancy that he holds no strings, and the pantomime horse is as wild as Shergar.

And there is another lesson, to be pasted on the mirror of all those who boom on about "healthy economies". It is a final joke cracked by Yorick's skull. It is the concluding thought in the Irish Census Commissioners' report for 1851:

"... we feel that it will be gratifying to your Excellency to find that although the population has been diminished in so remarkable a manner by famine, disease and emigration between 1841 and 1851 and has been since decreasing, the results of the Irish census of 1851 are, on the whole, satisfactory, demonstrating as they do the general advancement of the country."

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