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Lessons from the Famine

The Famine led to land-clearance and an unhealthy fetish for livestock, beef and milk, as well as for sugar, white bread and tea, a new book reminds usFrank Armstrong 

We live with the Great Famine’s legacy, manifest in many ways we still do not understand. One question that fitfully emerges is: who was to blame?  The ‘Atlas of the Great Irish Famine’ takes on the old question. We may accept the detached assessment of the American economic historian Joel Mokyr, made some years ago, that “Ireland was considered by Britain as an alien and even hostile country…the British simply abandoned the Irish and let them perish”; but we should not ignore how many Irish Catholics profited from this great rupture in our history, which led to a population reduction of over two million.

Irish people at the time were treated as second class citizens by their government; relief for desperate, hungry victims was not a statutory right under the Irish Poor Law, as it was in its English equivalent. Successive failures of the potato crop during 1845-50, caused by the blight phytophtera infestans, did not lead to market intervention as it occurred where grain harvests failed in England. Irish grain continued to be exported and insufficient cheap maize was purchased on the international market to make up for it. Moreover, the infamous Gregory clause of the Irish Poor Law denied relief to tenants holding more than a quarter acre unless they surrendered their tenancy, which turned it into a charter for land clearance and consolidation.

But in emphasising the inaction of remote authorities in Westminster we overlook the gains made by Catholic Irish farmers holding substantial farms above 20 acres. In his contribution to the Atlas, Kerby A. Miller writes: “an unknown but surely very large proportion of Famine sufferers were not evicted by Protestant landlords but by Catholic strong and middling farmers, who drove off their subtenants and cottiers, and dismissed their labourers and servants, both to save themselves from ruin and to consolidate their own properties”.

A commitment to laissez faire, as well as a belief in Providentialism that cast natural occurrences as part of a divine plan, informed the thinking of the leading British policy-makers at the time, foremost the Assistant Secretary to the Treasury, Charles Trevelyan who was responsible for relief measures. He concluded of the Great Famine: “The result in Ireland has been to introduce other better kinds of food, and to raise the people, through much suffering, to a higher standard of subsistence”. To the enduring chagrin of the Irish nationalist he was knighted for his services in 1848.

The brutal response of British authorities illuminates the general shift in imperial policy and the ongoing Agricultural Revolution, as a result of which: “Farming changed from being an occupation primarily concerned with extraction from the soil into one involving the purchase of raw materials which were processed to produce a saleable product”.

The repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 was the great triumph of laissez faire. In contrast to most European states where a degree of protection was afforded to farmers, agriculture in the ‘British Isles’ was thrown open to the free market.

Those who derived wealth from industry rather than land would henceforth guide British policy. Free trade would drive down the cost of food in the ‘workshop of the world’. With the development of steam ships, regions of the Empire could specialise in the production of commodities for sale on the international market. In contrast, in the same period in France a high proportion of production continued to be consumed on the farm or within the locality.

Politically, the occasionally benign paternalism of the landed aristocracy would no longer pertain. The first editor of The Economist, James Wilson, answered Irish pleas for public assistance with the claim that “it is no man’s business to provide for another”.

Within this constellation Ireland would supply beef and dairy for its near neighbour; so tillage and horticulture, particularly carried out by peasants at a subsistence level, would be abandoned. By 1901 pastoral farming dominated as never before. It hardly mattered that a succession of Land Acts (1869-1904) had transferred ownership to former tenants. Those independent farmers would continue to generate ‘saleable products’ for the market.

An old way of life died for good as a result of the Great Famine. Subsistence peasant communities, Clacháin, were wiped out. Granted, Irish peasants were unwitting architects of their demise: plentiful potatoes allowed for early weaning which generated exponential population growth – to almost 9 million Irish at the eve of the Famine.

Parts of Ireland had some of the world’s highest population densities at that time, but according to Mokyr the country was not overpopulated on the eve of the Great Famine. It was the switch to pasture that made it so. Fernand Braudel observes: “If the choices of a society are determined solely by adding up calories, agriculture on a given surface areas will always have the advantage over stock-raising; one way or another it feeds ten to twenty times as many people”.

Perhaps improvement in education levels, especially the advent of free primary education in 1831, could have led to a degree of family planning and improved employment prospects. A more ordered transition to modernity might have occurred instead of the fearful flight to cities such as Liverpool, Glasgow and New York. But this would have required a government committed to the welfare of the population, and a settlement of the land question by which the gross inequalities, and the legacy of seventeenth century conquest, were extinguished. However, Kerby observes that even: “Catholic nationalist (wealthy farmers and townsmen) as well as the overwhelming majority of the Catholic clergymen, were much too conservative to countenance a peasant assault on Irish property relationships”.

A genuine revolution in land-ownership might have achieved this, but the demise of the cottier class of smallholders made the eventual Land War of the 1880s a battle for the spoils of the Great Famine.


Exploring these ‘what ifs’ is counterfactual history, but it is important to recognise that the Great Famine was not inevitable and that the system of land-usage dominated by livestock for the international market that endures to this day is a recent innovation. One observer, a Protestant landowner, commented in the 1850s: “the extermination of humans and the substitution of brute animals for the human race on the soil of Ireland, is not an improvement grateful to my mind”.

Before the Great Famine Irish peasants were comparatively healthy. Irishmen’s heights were greater than those of equivalent Englishmen in a variety of occupations and situations; and life expectancy was greater than for elsewhere in Europe except Denmark and England.

Rural Irish people had a sparse diet relying primarily but not exclusively on the potato; it actually constituted only one third of the land under tillage in the 1840s. They also consumed oats, especially in Ulster; vegetables; a little wheat and barley; buttermilk; and whatever could be foraged in the form of seaweed, shellfish, berries and nuts. For most, meat was a rarity. With a settlement of the land question diets would have become more varied based on the these various locally-sourced ingredients, with less reliance on the potato.

The second half of the nineteenth century saw a dramatic shift in diet, away from what was produced locally; beef and dairy were only for the tables of the well-off in Ireland. Between 1859 and 1904 sugar consumption rose tenfold and with it came an increasing mortality from diabetes. Baker’s bread became the staple, and sugary tea the succour of the poor. This was Trevelyan’s idea of a “higher standard of subsistence”.

In an article written in 1913 George Russell (A.E.) observed of the transition: “There is no doubt that the vitality of the Irish people has seriously diminished, and that the change has come about with a change in the character of the food consumed. When people lived with porridge, brown bread and milk as the main ingredients in the diet, the vitality and energy of the people was noticeable, though they were much poorer than they are now… When one looks at an Irish crowd one could almost tell the diet of most of them. These anaemic girls have tea running in their veins instead of blood. These weakly looking boys have been fed on white bread”.

It is worth considering the effect of colonisation on the eating habits of the Irish who accustomed themselves to a diet that was a product of colonisation, a taste that has continued. As Homi Bhaba puts it: “Although colonised subjects endeavour to imitate or mimic the behaviour of the coloniser, the mimicry is always imperfect – ‘almost the same but never quite’” .

In response to colonisation we invented sporting codes, but because our colonisers had a stunted gastronomic culture we did not invent one for ourselves. But as this emerged in Britain in recent times there has emerged a pallid mimicry: our versions of Nigella and Jamie are neither as sultry nor as charming.

A self-respecting Irish gastronomy would hark back to the tradition of the Clachán, instead of the present models of taste that favour the livestock produce of land clearances. The food of the Clachán was light, wholesome and ecologically sensible. it should appeal to contemporary gastronomes.

Moreover, recent research by Goodland and Anhang has shown that up to 51% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions emanate from livestock farming. It may be a sad irony of history that Irish livestock-farming will indirectly contribute to famines in the Third World as climate change brings drought and ecological catastrophes, across the globe.


‘The Atlas of the Great Irish Famine’ (2012) is edited by John Crowley, William J. Smyth and Mike Murphy. Cork University Press, 728pp, €58