The Great Irish Genocide aka The Great Irish Famine: Failures And Intentional Harm By Britain To The Irish

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This is a combined summary of the historical accounts in two books,  The Graves Are Walking by John Kelly and The Famine Plot by Tim Pat Coogan. The reason for combining the accounts is that The Graves Are Walking ends when the Famine was officially over, in 1847. However, as can be seen from the time-line taken from Tim Pat Coogan’s book, below, the Famine continued for another several years, finally being truly over in 1851.

Not only that, but a great deal of additional suffering, as well as the greatest amount of native Irish leaving for other shores, happened in this later time. It was in 1847 that the evictions really accelerated, as more and more people succumbed to diseases of the Famine.

As far as books go, The Graves Are Walking is written exceptionally well, as it is written by a novelist with a great deal of experience creating best-sellers. There is something different about a book whose purpose is similar to that of fiction, which is to evoke the strongest emotions possible.

John Kelly makes you really feel the Famine, feel the suffering, see the people who are dying in your mind’s eye, and really get a visceral taste of what the Famine was like. This book is highly recommended.

The Famine Plot by Tim Pat Coogan is excellent as well, but is written by a true historian rather than a novelist. While there is great emotion in the writing, and the suffering is described in minute detail, it does not evoke the same kind of visceral response. However, for those who want to know about every detail of the Famine, including the incredible suffering that it produced, Coogan’s book is incomparable.


He goes into detail about the politics of England and Ireland, the bad choices and terrible decisions that really led to the Famine, and total ignoring of the human suffering that was all over Ireland, though not as much in the parts that were considered British, such as Dublin and Ulster, closest to England. In those places, people fared much better because they were more well-off to begin with, having come from England, and also because many of the residents there were responsible for exporting food to England from Ireland.

Some may believe that Ireland was unable to produce any food during the Famine, but this would be incorrect. To the contrary, the period during the Famine saw a higher output of exported produce than the time before or after the Famine. So, the land of the Irish was able to produce enough food for the British and the Irish, realistically, or at least to alleviate their Famine.

But this food exportation to England was never stopped, never infringed upon, and the people of Ireland were left to starve. For context, 80% of Britain’s produce came from Ireland, both before, during and after the Famine. So the British took the food the Irish land produced for themselves, preferring to let the masses of native Irish starve to death.

Do you know about the Great Irish Genocide, aka the Great Irish Famine? Many in Britain at the time said that God sent the blight and famine to punish the lazy Irish.  This perception caused much of what happened after the blight, causing the Irish to say “God sent the blight but England sent the famine.”

The latter is a statement with a great deal of proof to support it.  The purpose of this article is to discuss some of the ways in which this was so.

Realistically, though, it is the setup of the British system of government, as well as being governed by an outside force, that caused many of the famine problems.  As is often the case with colonialism, out of sight out of mind is often the issue, and this was the case in Ireland.

Charles Trevelyan, England's treasurer during the Famine. Image Credit - John Kelly

Charles Trevelyan, England’s treasurer during the Famine. Image Credit – John Kelly

There has been a lot of debate on the topic of the Famine, but it is certain that the aftermath of the Famine consisted of a great deal of opportunistic land theft.  This will be covered further in a section below.

In other words, many Irish farmers were forced to sell their land or simply forced to leave Ireland, and those who had money, including many absentee landlords, took over their tenants land.

There is some evidence that the Famine was intended to take the Irish land to modernize their agriculture.  This backfired though and led to the little known period of history called the land wars. There are letters and other written evidence that stated the intention to modernize Irish agriculture just prior to the Famine.

British Governance and the Famine

At the beginning of the famine, which I have dubbed the “Great Irish Project,” the prime minister of Britain, and thus Ireland which was not yet independent, was Sir Robert Peel.

Unlike his successor, he cared about people, including the people of Ireland who were suffering.  For John Russell, the prime minister for most of the famine, the people’s suffering was not as much of a concern as his political career and advancement.


Sir Peel, at the beginning of the famine, used his own money to send shipments of food for the Irish.  This was not merely to provide food for them, but also to prevent the price gouging that became a major problem of the time, often called “famine pricing.”

When capitalism was allowed to reign freely, as in Lord Russell’s tenure, the businessmen selling grain marked the prices higher and higher as the supply became less and less. At the same time, wages stagnated (for those lucky enough to be given work), and fewer people were able to afford to buy food. This led to even more suffering.

It was Sir Peel’s concern for the people of Ireland that caused him to lose his power.

For those unfamiliar with the British system of government, it has some similarities with America’s system, but some critical differences.

For example, their Parliament has two houses: the House of Commons (similar to the House of Representatives) and the House of Lords (like the Senate).

These two houses represent their respective populations, in general, as the classes that each is concerned with tends to align with the class you would expect, i.e. their own higher class.

One large difference between their system and ours is how the Prime Minister is appointed, and how they are replaced.

Unlike in the US, where the president is elected by the population, the Prime Minister is generally appointed by the monarch and approved by the Parliament members.  When they are ousted, or forced to step down after their party loses the general election, it isn’t a Vice President who takes their place.

Rather, it’s the monarch that appoints a new prime minister, in line with which party has a majority after the general elections.  In Britain, only the members of the two houses are elected by the general public.  In the past (such as at the time of the Famine), only land holding men were eligible to vote.  https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elections_in_the_United_Kingdom Today, the whole population over 18 is eligible to register to vote.

As a result of the outcome of the election in the first years of the Famine, Prime Minister Peel resigned, and Lord Russell was appointed by the queen (Queen Victoria at the time).

This was terrible for the Irish, because while Sir Peel was able to stand up against the policies and actions of the treasurer, Lord Russell lacked the support of his party, and was a much less personable prime minister than many others before him.  This led to infighting in the government, rejections of every plan to mitigate the problems for the Irish, and a severe increase in the death toll of the Famine.

Attempts To Explain and Mitigate Blight

Many people don’t know that the Great Famine was at a time when there were many other famines going on around the developed world. The potatoes had a very bad four years. There was a famine in Scotland and elsewhere at the same time.

A Novel Theory About Blight Ignored

This was particularly due to the lack of knowledge of pest control during that time due to the primitive nature of agriculture.

Shortly after the Famine, the discoveries that would prevent this from occurring in the future were made. Blight is caused by a type of mold that eats away at the roots of some plants, particularly potatoes (the edible part of the potato is the root).

In fact, at the time there was a gentleman by the name of Matthew Moggridge who had a theory for the government.

No one would listen to what he said, which was in essence that there was no blight by the copper smelting factory. Politics and economics got in the way, and there were very few who supported the fungus as a cause.  Moggridge theorized an association based on observation that where copper smelting factories were, within two hundred feet of the chimney, there was no blight.  He tried to bring attention to this simple fact,  which would have seriously mitigated the effects of the Famine.

Had they spread waste water from the smelting factory over all the fields, the blight would have been killed and the severity would have been much less.

Instead, the government made as many errors as possible, many of them due to the stinginess of England’s treasurer  Charles Trevelyan, and his withholding all relief and aid that he could in the treasury.

The first thing he did was to stop the shipments of grain that were ordered by Sir Peel, where the owners of the ships delivering the grain sent him a letter congratulating him on not needing food for the Irish, and that they were glad the Famine was averted. If only that had been the case.

Quite unfortunately, this was all during the second year of the Famine.  This was when things were just starting to get really bad.  This was the time when the Irish tenant farmers were totally out of food, having eaten everything the year prior, along with ‘hocking’ everything they possibly could.

This included every possession they had, every piece of clothing they had, and anything that wasn’t nailed down or of immediate usefulness.  Even fishing nets and pots and pans necessary to cook food were sold for a day’s meal.

They had also not planted as much in the second year, in expectation of crop failure. In the third year, the expectation changed to being one of a season such as that in the second year, relatively dry.  Instead, the third year was much like the first year of the Famine, and blight flourished and crops failed.

It led to a situation in which there were many references to Irish people as ‘the graves are walking.’

The lower class people in Ireland had several things going against them.  They were not allowed to have their own businesses without British partners.  So they couldn’t, let’s say, have a fabric business where they could make clothing and sell to the markets.

Native Irish were not allowed to own land by themselves without a British partner*.  This was in order to eradicate the Irish from their lands, in order to later take their land.

There is actually evidence, shared in the books mentioned above, that those in the British government were hoping for a famine to push along their eradication of the Irish Catholics.

Letters and documents where it was mentioned by those in government that they were hoping for a famine to allow Britain to modernize agriculture in Ireland exist in some quantity to demonstrate this.

The Hazards Of Mono-Crop Farming

However, it gets worse.  For reasons of poverty and cost, most of the Irish peasants farmed potatoes.  The seeds were cheaper and the care was easier and less costly than other vegetables.

They also had a financial system among the peasantry of barter, rather than buying things with money.  This made the recipe for a perfect storm, as they had a mono-crop system among their lower income residents.

These low income people were farmers. They didn’t have jobs outside of farming their own fields, most often as tenants.  Once their only crop failed, their whole system and way of life collapsed.

In the first year of the crop failure, it rained every day for the entire day, the whole planting and harvest season.  This caused a proliferation of mold on the potato roots, but there was little indication in many cases that the potatoes were having a problem until the harvest.

The second year of the Famine, they planted less as they had less money and fewer viable seeds.  This was a choice they later regretted, as the second summer of the Famine was picturesque weather, and the blight was not so strong.

Then in the third year, the Irish peasants sold everything they had to have seeds for planting.  But this year was the same as the first year, and blight was rampant yet again.  This led to even greater despair, as many thought this situation would never end.

The Work Relief Programs

The next failure was the work relief program. At the point where it was instituted, the majority of the Irish were starving and looking for work.  In England there was a very robust work relief program, with policies and procedures to help the poor with at least some degree of efficiency.  However, at the time of the Famine, the work relief program was nonexistent in Ireland.

This required the building of “workhouses,” the institution of work relief programs, and the building of places where people could be fed. There were multiple charities who stepped up in order to feed the poor masses.

The workhouses became known as places of death.  They were severely underfunded, and didn’t have enough food or money with which to pay the workers who lived there.  As a result, the workhouses themselves became a place of severe disease and death.

Feeding The Starving

The food provided by charities wasn’t enough, and the government refused to provide further assistance.  The soup kitchens instituted by the government itself were closed prematurely, perhaps * in the second or third year of the Famine.

The Famine was declared over well before it actually ended.  It actually lasted about five years, but all aid was ended by the third year.  And this aid was quite limited to start with.

At first, there were food distribution centers, where anyone could come and get food, barely enough for each single person.

Some of the Irish would then switch children with others, in order to get more food with which to barely feed their family.

A person attempting to take shelter in his torn down house.

A person attempting to take shelter in his torn down house.

When the treasury got word of this, they made it much harder for the people to get food.  This was a ridiculous exercise in cruelty.  The Irish were starving, literally appearing as skeletons and swollen from starvation, and they were left to die.

The Native Americans Try To Help

There is is one particularly poignant story that illustrates this cruelty.  There was a town of people who were told that they would receive food aid if they walked to a certain location, which was quite far.

The route they had to take was treacherous, including picking their way over rocks and cliffs along the sea.  The group that traveled thusly were described as being dressed in rags and appearing incredibly gaunt.

When they finally reached the destination, they were told that they had to come back the next day, that there was no food left.  The people who were there were having a fine dinner inside, and dismissed this group, sending them home.

Many of the people in this group perished on the return trip. It is thought they fell into the sea as they would have certainly lacked coordination due to their starvation.

Regarding this particular group of people, and the suffering of all the Irish,  the Choctaw tribe of Native Americans heard about their plight.  Being of moderate means themselves, and suffering from oppression in America they managed to raise and send to that town one hundred seventy dollars ( equivalent to tens of thousands of dollars).

Since 2015, there is a sculpture in Ireland, in Bailic Park, in Midleton, Co Cork, commemorating this kindness.  Every Irish person should be aware of their solidarity with Native Americans and should extend kindness to them, as the Irish and Native Americans have suffered similar types of oppression for the SAME reason and by the SAME people (the British wanted their land, caring nothing for either group of people).

Public Works Programs Gone Wrong

While this food assistance catastrophe was going on, the misguided public works program was also instituted. The issue with the public food assistance programs was that the government kept ending them.

So Trevelyan would start a food relief program, and food would be distributed for free.  But then the government would complain about the money being spent, and the soup kitchens would be shut down.

This happened again and again, because the Irish were seen as lazy and unworthy of help.   The public assistance program was a joke, and has been pointed to as further evidence of the coordinated attempted genocide of native Irish that the Famine has been called.

Another piece of evidence was the public works program. Notwithstanding the ridiculous nature of the program’s design, with roads that start and end nowhere, with no plan or reason to the building, the way they were run was silly in itself.

First, the programs were supposed to offer jobs that paid something to these poor starving Irish.  In practice, they were a logistical and paperwork nightmare.  The rules laid out by the treasurer (Charles Trevelyan) required that every bit of work had to be calculated precisely, and payments could NOT be released until the calculations were complete and correct.

The payments were meager, but the biggest problem was that the Irish workers could wait weeks or months to get paid.

Keeping in mind that there was a famine, and the people were literally starving, this paperwork requirement led to even more suffering.  A person who is starving is not going to make a very good worker.  Many of them would faint or collapse, and large numbers died waiting for payment so they could buy food.

This caused suffering not only for the workers though.  Children are particularly sensitive to famine in general, and many more children than adults died in the Famine.  Since many Irish, especially the peasants, had large families (numbering 6-12 children each), the lack of food and prevalence of disease caused many deaths among the young.

Forcing people to wait for payment for weeks and months  when they’re starving just adds more credibility to the argument that the Famine was an intentional genocide.

The Incredibly Inhumane Property Laws In Ireland

Everything discussed thus far is bad enough, but only scratches the surface in terms of cruelty and unkindness.

Britain, and by extension Ireland, had at the time the most inhumane property laws possible.  Basically, if a landlord decided on a Tuesday that he wanted to convert his farm into some other kind of farm (a cattle farm is one example), they would notify the government.  That same week, perhaps on a Thursday or Friday, the British guard would march to that person’s land.

A village that had been torn down with no notice and no refuge for the displaced.

A village that had been torn down with no notice and no refuge for the displaced.

Often, the land was tenanted by fifty or more individual Irish farmers, each with a little shack and small plot of land.  They would pay rent to the landlord on time each month, but this didn’t matter.

The royal guard would march onto the land, force every tenant to stand outside their house, and proceed to tear down the whole house, except for one wall.

The tearing down was required by the tax law, so the landlords wouldn’t have to pay tax on the home. Just as in the US, the property tax rate,  called the “rate” in England, is much higher for land with a house on it than for one with no house.

There were rules that allowed them to do this, and tenants had absolutely no rights to live on the land they paid for, no right to be notified ahead of time, nothing.

There was an infamous example during this time of a woman named Mrs. Gerrard proprietress of Ballinglass. Due to the rising price of Irish beef in relation to Irish grain, she decided she wanted to make her farm into a cattle farm and get rid of all the tenants.

She was wealthy and unaffected by the Famine.   She did this in March 1846.

There was another famous example of evictions that took place in the midst of a major storm around Christmas, with the evictions taking place on Christmas Eve.  This eviction caused the local priest, Martin Meeham, to write a letter to The Nation, a local Dublin newspaper, as all of the tenants had paid their rents and were good people, with no crime against them.

In case you were wondering, the climate in Ireland is similar to that of the northeastern United States.  Dreadfully bitter cold winters and hot summers.

So, the people on these properties were cast out into the bitter cold with nothing but the rags they were wearing.  No possessions, no blankets, nothing.

Not only that, but these people weren’t allowed to remain on the land they’d been evicted from for even one night.  They were chased away from the land of their landlord, and some of them were killed by the soldiers.

There is a painting of a man whose family had just been evicted and they were outside exposed to the elements, with no shelter available to them.  This person so depicted unfortunately died, along with almost every member of his family.

A victim of eviction whose house was torn down. Image Credit - Tim Pat Coogan

A victim of eviction whose house was torn down. Image Credit – Tim Pat Coogan

There were stories, found by John Kelly, of good landlords in Ireland.  There was a woman named Elizabeth Smith in  County Wicklow who had several tenants on her land.

She traveled abroad during the beginning of the Famine.  When she returned, she was horrified at the state of her servants and tenant farmers.  Her reaction, unlike that of many of her neighbors, was to act with kindness and compassion.

She immediately ordered one of her stronger servants to go to market and buy food (at inflated famine prices), and she fed everyone in her household and on her land.  It is sad to say she was somewhat unique in this kindness.

Landlords Forcing Irish To Leave

Another portion of this story worth mentioning is that of the landlords themselves. Some were kind, many just wanted to steal land from the Irish.

Many landlords offered to pay passage to America, Australia, or Canada if the tenants would leave their land.  Many of the Irish took this offer rather than die of starvation.  The landlords did this to save money on the rate, as in most instances the Irish tenants no longer had any way to pay for the rent, in addition to being unable to buy food.

This resulted in many Irish people landing penniless on the shores of those three aforementioned countries.  A good number of these were indentured servants.

This topic will be covered in detail in a future article, but most people have a false, pastoral view of indentured servitude.

In British law, there was no legal difference between slaves and indentured servants. Neither group had any rights at all.  They were property.

They could be killed without consequence (which happened quite often), they could be and usually were beaten, raped, sold in the same markets as chattel slaves, and their testimony was completely worthless.

In fact, there were many Irish people  who were kidnapped, claiming they had never signed an indenture, and they took their ‘master’ to court in the colonies, where the legal system was still British. A few of them managed to go before a court to petition for their freedom.

In several court cases, the servants claimed they were kidnapped from their home, imprisoned on a ship for several days, and sent across the ocean to America.  Their masters often argued that they had signed an indenture, pointing to a handwritten ‘X’ on the documents as proof.  Needless to say, the Court sided with the masters, and ordered the servants to continue their term.

During the Irish Famine, many Irish sold their freedom for passage to America or anywhere else that needed slaves.  This was part of the genocide, however, in that most of these servants did not survive their agreed upon tenure.

The Irish who sold their freedom to escape Ireland were touched on only briefly in these books, and will be covered in greater detail with another historical review.

Henry Doyle, Emigrants leaving Ireland, 1868, engraving. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Henry Doyle, Emigrants leaving Ireland, 1868, engraving. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Staten Island Quarantine Destination

One of the final problems of the Famine, and what many have pointed to as further stark evidence of the attempted genocide, was the quarantine situation.

As in any famine situation, there are diseases of starvation. These are not caused by the famine itself, but rather the body’s reaction to starvation.  When a human body is starving, and has begun to sort of eat itself, the resistance to disease declines more and more as the starvation continues. This has more to do with the lack of essential vitamins from foods, such as vitamin c, which wreaks havoc on the immune system, than the diseases themselves.

"The Sketch of a Woman and Children" represents Bridget O'Donnell. Her story is briefly this: 'I lived,' she said, 'on thelands of Gurranenatuoha. My husband held four acres and a half of land, and three acres of bog land; our yearly rent was L7 4s; we were put out last November; he owed some rent. We got thirty stone of oats from Mr. Marcus Keane, for seed. My husband gave some writing for it; he was paid for it. He paid ten shillings for reaping the corn. As soon as it was stacked, one 'Blake' onthe farm, who was put to watch it, took it away in his own haggard and kept it there for a fortnight by Dan Sheedey's orders. The then thrashed it in Frank Leille's barn. I was at this time lying in fever. Dan Sheedey and five or six men cam to tumble my house; they wanted me to give possession. I said that I would not; I had fever, and was within two months of my down-lying (confinement); they commenced knocking down the house, and had half of it knocked down when two neighbors, women, Nell Spellesley and Kate How, carried me out. I had the priest and the doctor attend me shortly after. Father Meehan annointed me. I was carried into a cabin and lay there for eight days, when I had the creature (the child) born dead . I lay for three weeks after that. The whole of my family got the fever, and one boy thirteen years old died withwantsand with hunger while we were lying sick. Dan Sheedey and Blake took the corn into Kilrush and sold it. I don't know what they got for it. I had not a bit for my children to eat when they took it from me. . . . ' Image and caption credit - Illustrated London News

Bridget O’Donnell and her children Image and Credit – Illustrated London News

This lack of nutrition leads to diseases such as dysentery, relapsing fever, typhus, and others running rampant through the population.  Ireland’s Famine was no different in this regard.  As the Famine progressed, so did these diseases.

As a consequence, ships bound for America and carrying Irish were required to stop at the marine hospital on Staten Island known as “The Quarantine.”  However, this was not an ordinary quarantine.

The entire purpose of a quarantine is to keep sick people away from everyone else.  Logically speaking, the island should have been closed to all except the doctors, nurses, and the potentially sick Irish immigrants.

In a strange twist, lending even more credence to the planned genocide of the Irish theory, the Irish that landed there were allowed visitors from the mainland and New York City on a weekly basis.

So, what would you think would happen in this type of scenario? The Irish would spread the diseases to everyone else, including those who were not starving.  The diseases of famine are not exclusive to the starving.  Anyone can get them, and anyone can die from them, particularly in the mid 1800s, when sanitation was not very good and there were no medicines to treat them.

So the Irish were blamed for spreading these diseases, even though it was the policy of allowing visitors to a quarantine hospital that caused their spread.

Was It A Genocide Or Not?

It is my hope that I have shown how these two books offered a great deal of proof of the statement “God sent the blight but these British brought the Famine.” .

There have been many genocides in world history, some caused by political views, some by racist hatred, some by greed. The attempted genocide of the Irish seems to be the latter two, as British have been prejudiced against Catholics for centuries, particularly Irish Catholics.

The Irish Famine can likely be designated as an attempted genocide, and not a eugenics program, as the concept of eugenics appears to have originated with Charles Darwin. As Tim Pat Coogan states in his book, the Irish Famine meets all the requirements for a genocide laid out by the UN:

Page from The Famine Plot defining genocide according to the UN. Image Credit – Tim Pat Coogan

From the perspective of population, consider the following from Wikipedia:

Ireland’s population was less than 3 million in 1700, rising by 1841 to just over 8 million.  At the census following the Great Famine in 1851, the population was 6.5 million, dropping to just over 4 million by 1931. The most recent census shows that the population of Ireland has risen above 5 million for the first time since the Famine as of 2022.

 

Most of this was due to immigration, both during and for many years after the Famine, causing the Irish to be the largest group of immigrants to the US until they were surpassed by German immigrants.  For many years, particularly in the 1800s and early 1900s, Germans and Irish made up the largesse immigrant groups to the US.


 

Banner Image: “The Sketch of a Woman and Children” represents Bridget O’Donnell. Her story is briefly this: ‘I lived,’ she said, ‘on thelands of Gurranenatuoha. My husband held four acres and a half of land, and three acres of bog land; our yearly rent was L7 4s; we were put out last November; he owed some rent. We got thirty stone of oats from Mr. Marcus Keane, for seed. My husband gave some writing for it; he was paid for it. He paid ten shillings for reaping the corn. As soon as it was stacked, one ‘Blake’ onthe farm, who was put to watch it, took it away in his own haggard and kept it there for a fortnight by Dan Sheedey’s orders. The then thrashed it in Frank Leille’s barn. I was at this time lying in fever. Dan Sheedey and five or six men cam to tumble my house; they wanted me to give possession. I said that I would not; I had fever, and was within two months of my down-lying (confinement); they commenced knocking down the house, and had half of it knocked down when two neighbors, women, Nell Spellesley and Kate How, carried me out. I had the priest and the doctor attend me shortly after. Father Meehan annointed me. I was carried into a cabin and lay there for eight days, when I had the creature (the child) born dead . I lay for three weeks after that. The whole of my family got the fever, and one boy thirteen years old died withwantsand with hunger while we were lying sick. Dan Sheedey and Blake took the corn into Kilrush and sold it. I don’t know what they got for it. I had not a bit for my children to eat when they took it from me. . . . ‘ Image and caption credit – Illustrated London News


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One Comment

  • Magnificent Zero Magnificent Zero says:

    That was a thorough accounting of the story! I appreciate it. i think I am like 12% Irish, so it is personally relevant. So sad just thinking about how many times in the history of humanity, people just sucked.

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