The Irish Genocide
- As Earl Grey, a member of Peel’s Conservative cabinet, declared, Ireland was a disgrace, the great blot on the British Empire. The coming of the Whigs to power a few months after Grey’s utterance, made the blot deeper and wider.
When the Whigs took power, under the premiership of Lord John Russell, party discipline had been ravaged by the ferocious parliamentary war over the dismantling of the Corn Laws and there were far bigger beasts than Russell sitting around the Cabinet table – Palmerston, for example. Moreover, Ireland had been ravaged also by successive conquests and by the effects of the Act of Union, which obliterated the Irish parliament and, on paper, made Ireland a part of the United Kingdom exactly as were Scotland and Wales.
Following the closure of the Irish parliament an exodus of both capital and talent took place from Ireland, accentuating the trend towards absenteeism among the landlords, who spent their rents from Ireland in London and Paris, not on improving their estates. If the tenants improved their holdings their rents went up. “Middlemen” who leased land from the landlords rented it out in plots of ever-decreasing size and ever-increasing rent.
American observers described the lot of Irish peasants as being worse than that of American slaves. The reality was that there were nearly three million Irish peasants living in mud cabins, utterly dependent upon the potato, who were encouraged to depart or to die as expeditiously as possible when the blight struck. It is not known how many did die. Modern scholarship suggests it may have been two million, with another million emigrating in floating “coffin ships” wherein fever took a death toll which, it was remarked, would have allowed a person to walk dry shod across the Atlantic.
The strange, disturbed figure of Charles Trevelyan, assistant secretary of the Treasury and in effect the head of the British civil service, devised a relief policy which imposed such stringent tests on destitution and relied heavily on road works – paid for by task work – which could not be carried out for much of the year because of bad weather conditions.
With the failure of the potato crop there came widespread evictions. Starving men, women and children, the baby in arms and the aged, were turned out to face the elements in whatever rags they possessed.
“Natural causes” was how Trevelyan described the outcome of this solution to overpopulation. A better and more accurate description would have been genocide.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir Charles Wood, swallowed the “natural causes” formula whole and Palmerston and a group of other powerful fellow Cabinet members who, like himself, had vast estates in Ireland closed their eyes to the shutting of food depots and the export of food all through the famine. With the aid of a powerful segment of the Church of England, which was enraged by Catholic Emancipation and by an increase in the grant to the major Irish seminary of St Patrick’s, Maynooth, a successful PR campaign was mounted against spending money on Irish relief.
“Irish property must pay for Irish poverty” became the watchword. The promulgation of the belief that Divine Providence had sent the famine was another. The greatest single motor force behind the campaign was the Times, which apart from explicitly welcoming the famine looked forward to the time when “a Celt will soon be as rare on the banks of the Shannon as the red man on the banks of Manhattan”.