Let’s Begin with Sinead O’Connor’s haunting rendition of “Skibbereen,”
… Oh it’s well I do remember, that bleak
The landlord and the sheriff came, to drive
Us all away
They set my roof on fire, with their cursed
And that’s another reason why I left old
St Patrick’s day might be a good time to reflect on the economics of austerity in the midst of plenty that the Irish had to endure. Neoliberals who advocate ‘austerity’ measures while poor countries teeter on the brink of economic collapse might pay a bit of attention, too. The so-called Irish “famine” has a few useful lessons for everyone nowadays. First, although a potato blight is commonly blamed for the Irish famine from 1845 to 1852, it might be more accurate to blame an economic system that demanded payment–and food exports– from the Irish peasantry even as their own subsistence crop was rotting on the vine.
Thomas Gallagher points out that during the first winter of the Irish potato famine, as many as 400,000 Irish peasants starved while landlords exported 17 million pounds worth of grain, cattle, pigs, flour, eggs, and poultry—food that could have prevented those deaths. Throughout the famine, there was an abundance of food produced in Ireland, yet profit hungry landlords forced exports to markets abroad.
Like latter-day American Republicans, the Whig administration in England, influenced by the doctrine of laissez-faire capitalism, believed that the market would provide the food needed and refused to intervene against these food exports to England. To top it off, the Whig administration then halted the previous government’s food and relief efforts, leaving hundreds of thousands of people without any work, money or food.
According to Peter Gray, in his book The Irish Famine, the government spent £7,000,000 for relief in Ireland between 1845 and 1850, “representing less than half of one percent of the British gross national product”, considerably less than what they provided to slave owners in the West Indies. Irish Nationalists John Mitchell famously wrote, “I have called it an artificial famine: that is to say, it was a famine which desolated a rich and fertile island that produced every year abundance and superabundance to sustain all her people and many more. The English, indeed, call the famine a ‘dispensation of Providence;’ and ascribe it entirely to the blight on potatoes. But potatoes failed in like manner all over Europe; yet there was no famine save in Ireland. The British account of the matter, then, is first, a fraud; second, a blasphemy. The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the famine.”
Mitchel was convicted by a packed jury under the newly enacted Treason Felony Act and sentenced to 14 years in the then Irish prison colony of Bermuda. The English policy of exporting food from Ireland while the Irish died of starvation by the thousands continued until 1852 with the engineer of this policy, Charles Trevelyan describing the Famine in 1848 as “a direct stroke of an all-wise and all-merciful Providence”, which laid bare “the deep and inveterate root of social evil.” The social evil Trevelyan is referencing is Ireland’s overpopulation. The Famine, he affirmed, was “the sharp but effectual remedy by which the cure is likely to be effected [the ‘cure’ was reducing Ireland’s overpopulation]. God grant that the generation to which this opportunity has been offered may rightly perform its part…”
But, alas, in the end, just under a million people died while around 2 million Irish were forced to emigrate, as Nassau Senior, an economics professor at Oxford University had sadly predicted. At the time, Nassau wrote that the Famine “would not kill more than one million people, and that would scarcely be enough to do any good.”