I continually find myself involved in an internal argument–how can I respect and appreciate Great Britain’s contributions to the world without despising the way the Empire was actually run? While the catalogue of sins across their colonies is infamous, nowhere was their cold calculation of empire’s management more appalling than their treatment of Ireland.
As Coogan demonstrates, the potato famine presented a golden opportunity for absentee landlords to rid their land of their least important asset–the people who actually created the wealth that gave landlords status. The spectrum of methods landlords used to accomplish this depopulation ranged from ‘merciful’ to monstrous. The end results were the same: the Irish were pushed from the homes they’d built, the work that gave their lives structure, the cottage industries that added to their meager income, the churches where they worshipped, and the graveyards where their history lay.
The famine opportunity was also a chance to put in place theories by Adam Smith, Thomas Malthus, Jeremy Bentham, and Edmund Burke. From drawing room discussions, British policy makers took the idea that markets seek their own level, that poor people should just stop reproducing, that selfishness is a virtue, and that interfering in business is a crime against God. Working behind the scenes as advisors to parliamentary ministers and wealthy landowners (often the same people), they managed to implement a system that deprived the peasantry of even life’s basic necessities.
Of course, they never went to Ireland to see people dead and dying along the roadsides, or working under brutal and humiliating conditions in the workhouses, or rendered homeless by the destruction of their cottages. Those who did–especially the Society of Friends–pleaded with all levels of government and with the English population as a whole for some form of assistance. Contributions also flooded in from around the world, including $170 from the Choctaw Indians in the United States, but the scale of the disaster was so great that even the Quakers gave up their efforts when it became apparent that only funding for food, housing, and work from a willing government could end it.
Tim Pat Coogan points an especially damning finger at Sir Charles Trevelyan, a bureaucrat working for the Home Secretary and Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel. His virulent anti-Catholic and anti-Irish bent combined with his adherence to Smith and Bentham enabled him to block relief supplies and use his position to steer public opinion onto his course. Under his instruction, others created workhouse and roadbuilding schemes so onerous that even those clinging to the last strand at the ends of their ropes didn’t qualify. At every turn, he frustrated even basic humanitarian acts and promoted the most monstrous of the depopulation schemes.
The end result of the famine was right in line with Trevelyan’s goals and those of whom he served. The generally accepted numbers show that between 1841 and 1852, the Irish population declined from 8.1 million to around 6.2 million. Whether from death or emigration, Ireland lost an enormous part of its population in a short period. While historians in the past have been somewhat passive in tracking causes, Tim Pat Coogan does not hesitate to search out and indict the people he places at the heart of a deliberate genocide.
Check the WRL catalog for The Famine Plot