THE IRISH FAMINE:
INTERPRETIVE & HISTORIOGRAPHICAL ISSUES

Dr. Dan Ritschel ritschel@umbc.edu
HIST 726B: “TEACHING HISTORICAL RESEARCH ON THE INTERNET”
CENTER FOR HISTORY EDUCATION
Department of History
University of Maryland, Baltimore County
 


The most important historiographical debate revolves around the issue of British responsibility for the Famine. (4) Irish nationalist have long charged the British with the crime of genocide. Among more recent examples of such views, the New York-based Irish Famine/Genocide Committee commissioned in 1996 a report by F.A. Boyle, a law professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which concluded that
 

Clearly, during the years 1845 to 1850, the British government pursued a policy of mass starvation in Ireland with intent to destroy in substantial part the national, ethnic and racial group commonly known as the Irish People.... Therefore, during the years 1845 to 1850 the British government knowingly pursued a policy of mass starvation in Ireland that constituted acts of genocide against the Irish people within the meaning of Article II (c) of the 1948 [Hague] Genocide Convention. (5)
 

Although this account has long been the orthodoxy of Irish nationalism in both the 19th and 20th centuries, only one modern Irish historian, Cecil Woodham-Smith, can be said to have endorsed this position. (6) Most historians find it impossible to sustain the charge of deliberate genocide, since there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that the famine was planned or deliberately prolonged by the British with the intent of destroying the Irish population.
 

On the contrary, a generation of "revisionist" historians in Ireland itself argued in the 1950s and '60s that the Famine was at most a natural catastrophe, which no individuals or institutions could have either foreseen or prevented. They sought to minimize the significance of the event in Irish history, suggesting that it was but an acceleration of long-term economic and demographic problems which would have played out even if the potato blight had not struck. On the issue of inadequate British aid to Ireland once the Famine broke out and the state-sanctioned evictions of starving peasants, the revisionists pointed to the massive challenge facing both the British authorities and the Anglo-Irish landlords in, first, their attempts to reform inefficient Irish farming practices and, later, their efforts to alleviate the famine. From this perspective, evictions were less a brutal act of callousness by the landlords than an economic necessity. Faced by a starving peasantry, diminishing rental income and untilled fields, the Irish landlords could not but turn to evictions in order to restore their estates to the sort of prosperity that would make future famines unlikely. Similarly, according to the revisionists, the British government had little reliable knowledge of the situation in Ireland and lacked the funds and the administrative infrastructure necessary for meaningful relief efforts. The little that it accomplished was portrayed as quite an herculean effort which, though inadequate in the face of the catastrophe, was unprecedented in the history of public policy and not equalled until the Great Depression of the 1930s. (7)
 

A more sophisticated variant of this argument has suggested that the British were not so much deliberately callous as they were in thrall to their own ideological preconceptions of classical liberalism. Firmly convinced that charity only bred further poverty and dependence, and that industry and independence were the only paths to prosperity, they could not but be reluctant to provide adequate aid to the Irish. To do so would have meant only a painful prolongation of the conditions and attitudes in Ireland which had led to the Famine itself. The English would have had also to abandon the classical liberal ideological principles which they had recently embraced and applied with great ruthlessness in Britain itself (New Poor Law of 1834)! (8)
 

However, more recent "post-revisionist" scholarship has again lent support to the charge against the British, if not of deliberate genocide, then at the very least of culpable neglect: that the famine was due to centuries of deliberate civil and economic repression of the Irish, designed to strip the population of land and power in their own country, culminating in a disastrous, arguably even willful, failure to provide sufficient aid at the height of a crisis brought about partly of their misrule. The laissez-faire economic ideology which others have treated as an "external" constraint on English relief policy, is now interpreted as a dogmatic effort to rationalize English refusal to help the Irish. In a telling statistical anecdote, Peter Gray has pointed out that in 1833, the government had spent more to compensate West Indian plantation owners for the freeing of their slaves that it did in the entire six years of famine in Ireland! Historians' explanations for this criminal neglect vary, with older explanations based on religious and cultural prejudice now being supplanted by those which stress the element of English racism towards the Irish. (9)
 

WAS ENGLISH RACISM A FACTOR?

The recent work by L.P. Curtis and Liz Curtis has suggested that the English response to the famine was shaped by their long-standing racist perceptions of the Irish as a lesser people. (10) Strong evidence for this interpretation may be found both in contemporary literature and the cartoons in the satyrical journal, Punch (available on-line!). (11)
 

Though he essentially endorses this view for the late famine period, Ed Lengel has suggested that the historical picture is far more complex. In analyzing English attitudes before the famine, Lengel identifies a long-standing gender-based view of the Irish as the "female"(and therefore weaker) partner in the marriage with "male" (and hence dominant) England. This view implied a patronising and tutelary perspective of the Irish, which deemed them in need of guidance and protection by the English. The English role in this "marriage" was to educate and civilize their more backward bride by their enlightened rule! Lengel finds that this gendered view of the Irish was only supplanted during the famine itself, and especially after the Young Ireland uprising of 1848, by the more explicitly racialist attitude, which came to see the Irish as a racially primitive and incorrigible breed of humans. Unable or, perhaps, unwilling to help their tragic Irish bride, the English came to see the Irish as an inferior race responsible for its own misfortune! (12)
 

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4. See some of the historiographical arguments outlined in "The Great Irish Famine Curriculum" at http://www.nde.state.ne.us/SS/irish_famine.html, 97-105.

5. Francis A. Boyle to Owen Rodgers, May 30, 1996, reproduced on the website of the "An Gorta Mor Commemoration and Education Committee",http://www.irishfamine.com/history.html . Note that Boyle reproduces in his report the Article II of the genocide Convention.

6. Cecil Woodham-Smith, The Great Hunger: Ireland, 1845-49 (1962).

7. See R.D. Edwards and T.D. Williams, eds., The Great Famine: Studies in Irish History, 1845-1852 (1956); R.F. Foster, Modern Ireland, 1600-1972 (1988).

8. T.P. O'Neill, "The Organization and Administration of relief, 1845-1852" in Edwards and Williams, eds., The Great Famine: Studies in Irish History, 1845-1852 (1956), 209-259.

9. Peter Gray, Famine, Land and Politics (1999), 333. For other important "post-revisionist" historians, see Cormac O'Grada, Black '47 and Beyond: The Great Irish Famine in History, Economy, and Memory (1999); James S. Donnelly, "'Irish Property must Pay for Irish Poverty': British Public Opinion and the Great Irish Famine", in C. Morash and R. Hayes, eds., Fearful Realities: New Perspectives on the Famine (1996), 60-76. Cf. the works of C. Kinealy.

10. L.P. Curtis, Apes and Angels: The Irishman in Victorian Caricature (1996); Liz Curtis, Nothing but the Same Old Story: The Roots of Anti-Irish Racism (1984)

11. http://vassun.vassar.edu/~staylor/FAMINE/Punch/Punch.html

12. Ed Lengel, "A "Perverse and Ill-Fated People": English Perceptions of the Irish, 1845-1851" Essays in History 38 (1996) in http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/journals/EH/EH38/Lengel.html