In the famine years of 1845-52, Ireland lost a quarter of its population. An estimated 1 million people died of hunger and disease, while another million immigrated to places like Boston, New York, and Liverpool.
In “The Famine Plot,’’ renowned Irish journalist and historian Tim Pat Coogan (“Michael Collins”) argues that these 2 million did not suffer simply because of a natural disaster, but because of a policy of not-so-benign neglect by England, which then governed the island nation. Coogan, who notes that Irish historians traditionally have been reluctant to explore England’s role in the tragedy, lays blame for much of the suffering at the feet of England’s half-hearted relief efforts, which were managed by a government official named Charles Trevelyan.
Backed up by impressive research, Coogan shows that many of Trevelyan’s decisions sprang from two pillars of laissez-faire economics: (1) a firm belief that providing government relief would promote dependence on government, which is an evil, and (2) that feeding the Irish with state-subsidized food would have interfered with free market forces, something no government should do.
A fervent devotee of Adam Smith’s free market economic theories (and seemingly ignorant of Jonathan Swift’s satire), Trevelyan put the matter bluntly in an 1845 letter: “permanent advantages will accrue to Ireland from the scarcity [of food],” and, best of all, famine would “teach the people to depend upon themselves for developing the resources of the country, instead of having recourse to the assistance of the government.”
Coogan opens his history by setting the historical, cultural, political, and economic contexts. In short that Ireland in the 19th century was mostly poor, largely agrarian, Catholic, and living under the thumb of its centuries-long Protestant masters, many of whom viewed the Irish at best as lazy and ignorant and at worst as little better than animals.
Once the potato blight emerged — a significant part of the population was dependant on the potato for food — the fate of the Irish was entirely in the hands of English leaders.
Coogan notes that English economic ideas came inextricably entwined with moral ones — “straightforward anti-Catholic prejudice, and the view that the laws of commerce were the laws of God.” As Coogan puts it, the Victorian attitude was that “poverty was a self-inflicted wound incurred through bad habits.”
Coogan describes in horrific, heart-breaking detail how the famine struck hardest in the west of Ireland, where mass evictions led small farmers, who generally paid their rent with potatoes, to choose among begging, slowly dying, or emigrating. But this was not bad news for all. Coogan describes how Ireland’s absentee landlords, many living in London, were happy to have their numerous Irish tenants forced off the small plots they farmed, so land holdings could be consolidated, enhancing their market potential.
Even the inadequate relief efforts organized by Trevelyan were marked by a punitive, stigmatizing intent aimed at forcing the starving to fall back on their own resources. As Coogan makes clear, receiving public relief in Ireland was utterly inconsistent with maintaining the slightest shred of human dignity, as state-operated workhouses were overcrowded, disease-ridden, and highly-unwelcoming places by design. “Life inside the workhouses was made as unpleasant as possible . . . to encourage paupers to speedily’’ leave, Coogan writes.
Coogan bemoans that so many historians treaded so gingerly around England’s responsibility for the death and suffering, even after Prime Minister Tony Blair’s 1997 official apology for the famine. Coogan’s insistent examining of the moral dimensions of that nation’s policies, and how they fueled the horrors on the ground, represents his greatest contribution to the voluminous scholarship on the Irish famine, and is this book’s greatest strength.
Chuck Leddy, a freelance writer who lives in Dorchester, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.