The Great Famine in Ireland from 1845 to 1852 constitutes the most nightmarish chapter in Ireland’s history. Karl Marx once wrote that the famine ‘killed poor devils only’, and this is absolutely correct. The Famine was considered a god-send – quite literally! – by the English ruling class.
From their point of view, the bigger the famine the better. The English elites wanted to clear the Irish ‘riff-raff’ from their estates in order for agriculture to be revolutionised.
Landlords were keen to clear out the poor from their land. They wanted to raise more livestock and exportable food produce to increase their profits – whatever the cost. This resulted in an exodus of Biblical proportions; over one million deaths; and left a permanent scar that radicalised generations to come.
The landlords and food traders took enough cattle, sheep, pigs and cereal crops out of Ireland to feed the entire population twice over. The food exporters and importers of Ireland and England were profiteering while Irish women and children starved. And yet we are told to believe it was natural calamity; of which no side is to blame!
The British ruling class saw the Irish as loathly creatures. Many were influenced by the ideas of Thomas Malthus – who’s theories of overpopulation were nothing short of genocidal. One representative at the time complained that the death toll may not be enough!
It was these cynical calculations and economic motivations that led to the tragedy that befell the people of Ireland.
Even before the famine, the ma- jority of the Irish dwelled in mud huts, living on a diet consisting primarily of potatoes. The surplus potatoes went to- wards the rent for the grim hovels they lived in. Very often there was a life-or- death scramble to survive – where even a partial crop failure could result in families being turned out onto the road.
In 1845 there had been serious crop failures, but many managed to survive on whatever scraps they could salvage. Relief measures were also brought in by Robert Peel’s Tory government, with public works schemes being made available. It was in 1846 that the potato famine arrived, affecting every part of the soil – and hell came riding on its back.
Though the Tory PM Robert Peel was deeply unpopular in Ireland, the worst was yet to come. The Whigs came to power in 1846 under the com- mand of John Russell. Russell thought that the best thing the state could do is stand back, and leave the ‘free’ market to work its ‘magic’.
This laissez faire approach resulted in the public works coming to an end. The policy that Ireland should deal with its own poverty reflected the mood of the English elite.
In total, 13% of the population was lost. Starvation was not the only fate visited upon the long suffering Irish masses: diseases such as typhus and cholera preyed upon their weakened bodies. Evictions were wholesale, leav- ing the punitive workhouses brimming with entire communities. If workhouses weren’t bad enough already, they became breeding grounds for disease.
The choice was between death or emigration. It is no surprise that between 1845-55, over two million emigrated in hope of a better standard of living. But even this did not prove a panacea. The ships carrying the Irish were known as ‘coffin ships’, since mor- tality rates of crossing the Atlantic stood at roughly 30% due to disease.
In 1848, in the midst of all this un- bearable human misery, the heartless Trevelyan, a senior representative of the ruling class, claimed the Irish were ‘suffering from an affliction of God’s providence’. So there you have it – God was lending capitalism a hand by rid- ding the world of the ‘morally evil’ Irish!
As the great Irish revolutionary James Connolly later reflected, “Had socialist principles been applied to Ireland in those days not one person needhave died of hunger”.
Ultimately, this whole catastrophe occurred in order for the capitalists and landlords to increase their bottom line. In order to put an end to hunger and famine – which still afflict the world today – we must put an end to this capitalist horror show once and for all.