Starvation, 1845-1851

From The Historic Case for Irish Independence by Darrell Figgis

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36. In 1845, what has been called a Famine broke out in the land. It has been wrongly so described.

The exports of corn during that year, and the years before, and the years thereafter, were considerable. There was food enough grown on Irish soil to sustain the Irish nation. But that nation had not known the taste of corn since the extinction of its polity. The food grown on Irish soil went for the payment of rents to the Ascendancy then planted in the country, and those rents were spent in England, where that Ascendancy had now removed. Moreover, since the beginning of the century, although after the European war the condition of agriculture had become infinitely worse, rents had increased by three and four, and in some cases five, hundred per cent. through persisting rack-renting. All holdings were small, though vast tracts of the best land were held by landlords as grazing farms, supporting cattle for export instead of maintaining the nation as it once had done. On an average it took a man 250 days of the year to clear his rent. In the best of years this meant that the people could only live on such of their potatoes as were unmarketable so long as they lasted, with, in the better parts of the country, occasional supplies of milk. When the potatoes were finished, there remained the herbs of the field and blood let from the living cattle. In bad years the people starved in their miserable cabins, too proud to beg. There was no employment to which they could turn, for since the Union every industry in the country had been killed, and English traders were without the rivals whom they had once so hated and feared.

Starvation was, as English Commissions have proved, an habitual thing in the country. But now it reached colossal proportions. A bed or a blanket had been an inconceivable luxury; now a morsel of food was to become an equal luxury. For a blight came on the potato crop, and the people lay in their wretched cabins, or along the roads, and died in their thousands. Some dug up and ate the diseased potatoes; and pestilence stalked abroad. Others ate the diseased corpses of asses and horses. Yet all the time food passed steadily out of the country, to pay for the luxuries of those whom Conquest and Confiscation had placed as jailers over a starving nation. The scenes that Spenser described at the beginning of the period when one nation was placed on the neck of another, became a little thing by contrast with the scenes enacted in the day when that submergence achieved its finest and most characteristic flower. With famine and pestilence stalking through the land, the people fled in terror. They fled to America, and England, realising the opportunity to be rid of the Irish nation, organised and encouraged their passage. Herded into the holds of ships, they died there; but they began an emigration that became a habit and drained the nation of its best. Relief works were undertaken, but these were so prosecuted that they could never be of any use to the nation. That was deliberately so ordered by the English Government. During 1846 not less than 300,000 persons died from hunger or pestilence, to say nothing of those who left the country. The year after, this increased to 500,000.

During Cromwell's wars over 600,000 people had perished, mainly by the sword. Between 1846 and 1851, under the more refined process of the nineteenth century, a million and a half perished from starvation and its resulting pestilence, while another half million fled the stricken country. Subscriptions were raised all over the world to relieve a state of affairs directly attributable to the obliteration of one polity by another and the submergence of one nation by another. A few years thereafter England rocked with fierce denunciations of the monstrous inhumanity of the Sultan of Turkey; but she forgot that that potentate had sent a considerable sum to relieve the result of her conquest in Ireland, whereas she herself, in granting outdoor relief, disentitled all persons in possession of more than a rood of land from its receipt while she was content to grant moneys in aid of emigration.

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