'An tOcras Mór' The Great Hunger.



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Forum Home > General Discussion on "The Great Hunger" > Learning the Wrong Lessons: Governments, Hunger and the Great Irish Famine By Gareth G Davis

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(Copyright: Gareth Davis)


(This is a draft- not for quotation without

the author's express written permission.

Full version of this paper appeared in

"Reflections", the journal of the Edmund

Burke Institute, Dublin.)


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March 16, 2011 at 9:47 AM Flag Quote & Reply

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We live in the shadow of the Great Hunger. The famine and the events

which accompanied it are the single most important influences in

shaping modern Ireland. A century and a half later, this event continues

to stir emotions ranging from grief for its victims to venomous anger

at the alleged (and long dead) perpetrators. It is scarcely surprising

that the impact of the Great Hunger, an event which killed one tenth of

the Irish and from which we are separated by a mere five generations,

has reverberated through the work of Ireland's social thinkers.


Today the deep imprint which the famine made on Irish consciousness

can be seen in the current attempt by many commentators to equate

the horror of the Irish Famine of the 19th Century with contemporary

tragedies in the Third World. The leading, if one of the most

restrained, proponents of this view has been President Robinson

who stated at the opening of the Strokestown Famine Museum that

"the past gave Ireland a moral viewpoint and an historically

informed compassion on some of the events happening now."1


Needless to say others have been quick to express this view in

much more forceful and starkly political terms. Consider for

example the language of Justin Kilcullen writing in the January

5th 1996 edition of the Irish Times to attack the Irish

government's failure to drastically increase its aid to the

third world:


"During the 1840s, poverty, injustice and sheer indifference

killed a million of our own people. Much of the widespread

hunger and malnutrition in today's world is caused by the

same factors. At a time when we are remembering those who

perished in the Famine, we have a duty as a nation to speak

and act on behalf of the poor of our own time who look to us

hopefully. If we are to be heard, we must underpin our concern

with genuine compassion."

March 16, 2011 at 9:51 AM Flag Quote & Reply

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Under this paradigm, famine in the modern world is

held to be a direct counterpart of what happened in

Ireland in the late 1840s. World hunger, like the Irish

Famine, is held to be phenomenon which somehow reflects

the "dangers" of "unrestrained" capitalism and

"doctrinaire" laissez-faire .


Implied in this view is the belief that we, especially in

Ireland which has a special "moral viewpoint", are presented

with a choice. We in the first world can easily avert these

tragedies by following a set of socialistic policy prescriptions

which range from massively increasing aid budgets right up to

following the vague imperative to "redistribute the world's

resources on a more equitable basis." It is implied that a

failure on our behalf to take these steps renders us in some

way as morally indictable as such villains as Lord John Russell

and Charles Trevelyan.


Despite the rhetorical eloquence and obvious sincerity

with which these sentiments have been expressed they

are based on three fundamental assumptions which are

false. Firstly the Great Irish Famine is not a

generalised illustration of the dangers of "unrestrained"

capitalism, rather it was a freak natural occurrence that

was in many ways exacerbated by flawed government policies.

Secondly, the Irish Famine was very different from the

tragedies which have recently being witnessed in Sub-Saharan

Africa. Thirdly, the fundamental cause of famines in the late

twentieth century is not Western "injustice" and "indifference"

but are rather the actions of third world governments and their

armed political competitors.


Irish Economic Consciousness and the Famine


It is perhaps one of Ireland's greatest misfortunes

that the philosophy of economic freedom was largely

ntroduced into Ireland by of Archbishop Richard Whately.

An Englishman and formerly Professor of Political Economy

at Oxford University, Whately was a man unashamedly and

openly afire with the belief that free market ideology

(or theology as he saw it) was the ideal means of

rendering the Irish lower classes quiescent in the face

of the existing status quo of British rule, established

church and entrenched social privilege.2


March 16, 2011 at 9:52 AM Flag Quote & Reply

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In the Westminster parliament of the time however,

Classical Liberalism was represented by the philosophical

radicals; a group of which Daniel O'Connell was a

prominent member.3 This group, inspired by Smith,

Hume and later thinkers such as Cobden and Bright,

subscribed to an ideology of free markets and free

individuals that was very different from Whately's

view of classical economics as the opium of the underclasses.


The radicals shared Adam Smith's deep hostility towards

imperialism and colonialism as oppressive relics of

mercantilism, they opposed protectionism and government

intervention in the economy and they fought the

feudalistic and sectarian laws which created monopolies

of social, religious and economic privilege.


Predictably Whately's brash efforts in Ireland invoked a

hostile reaction from nationalist and radical intellectuals.

However it was the great famine which was to irreversibly

fix the hostility of the Irish intelligentsia to economic

liberalism. At the nadir of the crisis, British administrators,

stung by rightful charges of incompetence and in many cases

motivated by an ugly racialist and religious prejudice, used

the vocabulary of laissez-faire to deny requests for greater

humanitarian aid.4 Their language, like Whateley's all too

obvious proselytism, had the inevitable effect on the attitude

of Ireland's intelligentsia and political activists towards free markets.


The effects of the famine on contemporary social and political

thought are well documented if not widely appreciated. The

personification of this sea change was of course the young

Isaac Butt who was transformed from a young conservative

Orange Tory into a quasi-nationalist (complete with hard core

protectionist views).5 The mild romanticism of the Young

Irelanders was hardened into rabid hostility towards free

markets and classical liberalism in general . John Mitchell

is perhaps the archetype, writing of Ireland as a "nation

perishing of political economy."6


March 16, 2011 at 9:52 AM Flag Quote & Reply

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Maynooth literature professor Christopher Morash has

recently documented the traumatic impact of the famine

on Mitchell and the wider body of Irish nationalists

and radicals.7 The emotional result of this horror was a

turning away from the universalism and emphasis on

individual liberty that was born in the enlightenment.

From the famine onwards, Irish thinkers would form what

Marxist commentator Terry Eagleton characterises as an

"archaic avant-garde";8 rejecting modernity and emphasising

more the glories of the past, stressing less the rights

of the individual and more the "group rights" of the "Irish

nation", putting less emphasis on the brotherhood of all men

and more on nationalist solidarity. Carlyle and Hegel, not

Hume and Locke, would set the tone of this journey and their

road can be followed from the Young Irelanders through to

the whole cultural nationalist movement of the late 19th

and early 20th century.


The economic content of this movement was added to by

successive figures such as John Mitchell, Isaac Butt,

William Dillon, Arthur Griffith, Tom Kettle and Patrick Pearse

and its chief feature comprised the creation of

tariff barriers and other forms of government intervention

in order to foster domestic industry and Irish self-sufficiency.

The economics of the new Irish nationalism that developed can

be neatly characterised in the words of Thomas Boylan and

Timothy Foley:


"All versions of nationalism attacked free trade,

laissez-faire, the doctrine of the sanctity of the market

mechanism and the utilitarian philosophy which underpinned

political economy. More radical versions challenged the

sacredness of contract and of private property especially

of land."9


The dominant economic paradigm of Irish nationalism

on the eve of independence can be gleaned in "The Economic

History of Ireland from the Union to the Famine" (1922),

the book from which most of Ireland's post-1922 administrative

and ruling classes learned their economic history. Written

by George O'Brien, holder of the Chair of Economics at UCD,

this described Irish economic failure since 1800 as the

result of British perfidy and in particular the "imposition"

of free trade. The nationalist ideology's prescription of

protectionism was implemented under Fianna Fail from the

1930s through to 1960s. It is reflected in the 1937

Bunreacht na hEireann, a document full of interventionist



Indeed Irish distrust of free markets and the deep belief

in the need for widespread government intervention runs

across the political spectrum and has encompassed both

social conservatives and radical revolutionaries; stretching

from the Roman Catholic Hierarchy to the far left. It

has motivated figures as diverse as Eamonn De Valera

and James Connolly. Indeed Irish nationalist intellectuals

were willing to cling to the interventionist components

of their platforms even at the cost of alienating the

industrial north-east of Ireland. At least one distinguished

historian has concluded that nationalist insistence on

protectionism "formed an insurmountable obstacle to any

compromise between Protestant Ulster and the South."10

March 16, 2011 at 9:53 AM Flag Quote & Reply

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The continuity of this mistrust of economic liberalism

can also be seen in the extremely enthusiastic (if belated)

adoption of full scale Keynesian social planning in Ireland

during the 1970s. While no one would argue that the Ireland

of the 1990s is a bastion of Marxist radicalism, few would

dispute that the country's intellectual and political life

constitute an extremely hostile environment for free market

economics. Given the traumatic context of the famine and

the nature of the language used by the then English ruling

classes, this Irish backlash against laissez-faire is

understandable from an emotional perspective. However

there is little doubt that the ideology which resulted

has extracted a heavy price on the Irish economy and

body politic. It is perhaps even more tragic that much

of this world-view is based on an inaccurate picture of

what occurred during the famine


Government Policy and the Famine


On a superficial level the proximate cause of the famine

can be readily identified; the fungus phytophthora infestans

which destroyed a large portion of Ireland's potato crop

over the period 1845-9. Indeed it has been convincingly

shown that the pre-famine Irish economy did not contain

the seeds of its own destruction and that there was

nothing inevitable about the famine had the potato blight

not occurred.11 The famine was an unpredictable ecological

freak; in words of the Dutch historian and scientist Peter

Solar it was a case of "Ireland as having been profoundly

unlucky"12 rather than being the inevitable product of market

forces run wild (or of unrestrained population growth).


Traditional nationalist orthodoxy sees blame for the Irish

Famine as lying at the door of the British government.

Certainly the British government of the day can be held at

least morally culpable if money and rhetoric can be used to

gauge their level of concern for Ireland. Just a few years

after the famine, and in contradiction to the classical

liberal rhetoric with which they had justified the meagre

9.5 million pounds that was spent on Irish Famine relief,

the British government spent $69.3 million on the futile

and imperialistic Crimean War.13 However the shock of

the potato blight to the food production system and economy

was so catastrophic that hundreds of thousands would have

died regardless of the actions of any government. In the

words of economic historian Mary Daly "greater sympathy

with the Irish cause would (not) have guaranteed a

dramatically reduced mortality level."14


Indeed the events of the famine actually serve to

reveal many of the dangers of even well-intentioned

government intervention. While no sane commentator

would today argue, as English economist Nassau Senior

did in the 1849 Edinburgh Review, that government

intervention was the primary cause of the great famine,

it does seem apparent that the bulk of the state

intervention which took place served to harm rather

than help the famine victims.


In 1845, the first year of the famine, Prime Minister

Peel bought food on the world market, stockpiled it

and later sold it cheaply. This policy had the effect

of driving down food prices in late 1845 and early 1846.

While on balance these measures may have saved some

lives in the first year of the famine, it was a policy

which could only have been implemented in one year and

which had negative long-run consequences.


The immediate victims of this policy in 1845-6 were

Irish food importers who incurred losses because

Peel's actions had driven Irish food prices below

what the merchants had themselves paid for food on

the world market. The result was that from 1846

onwards these Irish merchants were extremely reluctant

to import food. Indeed Peel's policy of 1845-6 had

only succeeded because the government had been able

to shroud their preparations to distribute cheap food

in the utmost of secrecy.15 Irish importers would have

halted all of their import activities at the first

sign of government preparations to distribute cheap

or free food supplies. Indeed they declared this intention

in public.16 The elimination of private imports would

have left the British government as the sole source

of food imports for a country of 9 million people;

a frightening prospect given the nature and capacity

of the 19th century government bureaucracy. Peel's

policies during the first year of the famine also

had the result that private merchants imported

less food than they would otherwise have done

during the remainder of the famine.


March 16, 2011 at 9:54 AM Flag Quote & Reply

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In 1846-7, the British government did not

import food but set up public works schemes

which employed famine victims in return for

a cash wage. This policy boosted cash incomes

and thus increased the demand for food.

However the supply of food in Ireland was relatively

fixed over the short-and medium term. Imports

from North America once ordered took many months

to arrive and in any case potential private merchants,

having been burnt once in 1845-6, were reluctant

to make arrangements to buy foreign food.


The inevitable result of the government's policy

of boosting purchasing power, while the supply of

food remained relatively fixed, was to increase

food prices. These higher prices made it much

harder for the more vulnerable groups in society

(such as the old, sick, children) to acquire food.

These groups, unlike the able-bodied, could not

earn a cash income by working on the public employment

schemes but were still forced to pay prices for food

which had been inflated by the government's policies. 17

Even more disturbing is recent evidence that much,

maybe even most, of the extra income/purchasing

power generated by the public works scheme accrued,

not to the starving, but to the well-off. 18 One

historian has recently shown how the local-level

administration of the public works schemes was

extremely corrupt and skewed to benefit the

influential and affluent. Among the abuses of

the schemes were the many non-existent "ghost"

workers on their payrolls and the numerous

large payments to large farmers, businessmen and

landlords for various "services".


The public works not only acted to redistribute

food away from many of the needy but also served

to reduce the overall supply of food which was

available. It is tragically ironic that in 1847,

the worst year of the famine, the potato crop

did not actually fail. Food shortages occurred

because very few seed potatoes had been planted.

This was largely, but not exclusively, due to

the fact that during the Spring planting season

of 1847, much of the able bodied agricultural

labour force had been employed on the government

relief schemes while potatoes remained unplanted.

These programs, by congregating large numbers of

hungry people in one spot, also accelerated the

spread of the deadly contagious fevers which

killed most famine victims.


Even the government-run soup kitchens which

replaced the public works in mid-1847 have

not escaped criticism. According to the analysis

of modern nutritionist Margaret Crawford these

kitchens, which fed watery soup to the empty

and bloated bodies of famine victims, served

to decrease rather than increase the survival

chances of recipients.19


From 1848 onwards almost the entire burden

of relief was thrown onto the Irish Poor Law

system, a system of workhouses funded from

local taxation and set up almost immediately

before the famine to serve as a welfare safety

net. This system has been severely criticised

by historians because, in the words of

economic historian Joel Mokyr, "there is

reason to believe that the Irish Poor Law

might have made matters somewhat worse".20



March 16, 2011 at 9:54 AM Flag Quote & Reply

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The Poor Law System was financed on a

local level by taxes (or "rates") on land

and a landlord was held liable for the rates

of his or her small tenants. As the crisis

worsened these rates were vastly increased;

a factor which was to lead directly to mass

evictions. Even when a landlord did not

receive his or her rent from a tenant, he

or she was still liable for that tenant's

rates. The astronomical increase in the

tax burden which was required to pay for

the workhouses made it impossible for many

near-bankrupt landlords to bear the presence

on their land of famine-stricken tenants

who could not pay rent. A vicious circle

developed as these evicted tenants flocked

to the workhouses, which further increased

the tax-burden and led to more evictions.

The workhouses, like the Public Works, also

helped to spread the contagious diseases

which killed most of the majority of famine



Despite the evidence that the Great Famine is

a tale of the harm wrought by government

intervention, the one million or so victims of the

famine have been posthumously recruited by interventionists

to demonstrate the "dangers" of unfettered markets and

the "need" for the state to play a large role in the economy.


Famines in the Modern Third World


A critical examination of the claim that the great

Irish Famine is paralleled by current events in the

world's poorer countries and in particular Africa

reveals that it is deeply flawed. These famines

generally represent the outcome of avoidable and

artificial factors; namely policies the of governments

and other armed groups which trample on the economic

and political freedoms of their people. These

tragedies are completely avoidable in a way in which

the Great Irish Famine was not. The interventionist

prescriptions laid out by the orthodoxy that currently

pervades Irish discourse on the Famine fails to

properly address the problems faced by these people

and indeed if implemented would act to increase hunger.


The role and power of governments ,and the economic

and political tyranny which they can exercise over

their citizens, lie at the heart of understanding

mass starvation in the 20th century. The most vivid

and frightening demonstration of the power of the

state to induce hunger can be seen in two of the

most deadly famines of the twentieth century. The

Chinese Famine which occurred during Chairman Mao's

"Great Leap Forward "of the late 1950s-early 1960s

has remained almost unknown and purposely unstudied

by the mostly socialist gurus who act as the self-appointed

consciences of the first world. Jasper Becker's recent

book "Hungry Ghosts" reveals in horrific detail the

extent of this "silent" catastrophe. At least 30 million,

and possibly up to 50-60 million, Chinese died as the

Marxist regime centralised and collectivised agricultural

production, seized control of food distribution and

denied rations to millions of "enemies of the people".21

The 1932-3 famine in the Soviet Union killed a quarter

of the population of the Ukraine in one year; a total

death toll of 5-7million. These people died needlessly

as Stalin used the state to wage economic warfare on the

rural peasant classes. Indeed most people who have

starved to death since 1917 have died in Marxist

centrally-planned economies; from the Russian Famine

of the early 1920s through to the Ethiopian famine of

the mid-1980s.



March 16, 2011 at 9:55 AM Flag Quote & Reply

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It is perhaps trivial to observe that such

atrocities as occurred in China or the Ukraine

are impossible in a decentralised capitalist society

of property owners, where trade between millions of

self-interested individuals will circumvent the

whims of a tyrant or bureaucrat. On the other hand,

where an entire population depend on a state-controlled

food production and distribution system, governments

can, and regularly do, single out their enemies for

starvation or use denial of nutrition as an instrument

of utopian social engineering. Those who argue that

increased government control of the economy was the key

to Ireland avoiding hunger would do well to consider the

comments of the contemporary and influential would-be

social engineer, Nassau Senior, who during the famine

once publicly bemoaned the fact that "a million deaths

would scarcely be enough to do much good."22 The

thought of such a man gaining access to the vast power

provided by a centralised state-controlled economy

is surely a frightening one. Capitalism is also the

only economic system which provides the proper incentives

and co-ordination to generate the food necessary to

conquer malnutrition and hunger. One need only look

at the fact that Chinese food production has grown at

an annual rate of 12% in the wake of the replacement of a

gricultural central planning with a more or less free

market in 1977 or at the sad plight of the USSR's

agricultural sector in the final days of communism

to realise the essential truth of this principle.23


In recent decades, TV pictures of famine in

the regions of Biafra in Nigeria, Ethiopia, the

Sudan, Rwanda and Somalia have evoked great sympathy

among many in the Western World, and in Ireland

in particular. However viewers are generally left

uninformed of the underlying political and economic

circumstances. Sometimes along with the sympathy

that is generated, comes a sense of guilt or anger

at the supposed indifference of developed countries

and a feeling the hunger is the result of an "unfair"

Capitalist system.


The fate of Africa is a chilling lesson in the

dangers of replacing free markets and free

individuals with the power of the state. In all

of the cases listed above, the proximate cause of

hunger was a civil war between rival groups

seeking control of the government which disrupted

food production and distribution. Ireland in 1845-9

was at peace. In Ireland the proximate cause of

famine was a natural phenomenon, the potato

blight, and government intervention was only a

subsidiary factor. It is also the case that modern

Africa is an area rich in natural resources unlike

early 19th century Ireland. For example it has been

estimated that only 160 million of Sub-Sahara Africa's

potential 700-760 million hectares of arable land

are presently under cultivation.24 This situation

differs immeasurably from immediate pre-famine

Ireland where land-hungry cottiers were desperately

trying to extract subsistence from tiny patches of

land in the depths of the Bog of Allen or on rock

strewn mountainsides.


It was perhaps the case of the Ethiopian famine in

the mid-1980s which generated the strongest reaction

in the West. This hunger occurred as a drought added

to the effects of Ethiopia's brutal civil war and

set off a frenzy of charitable and political activity

in the West that included the Band-Aid and Live-Aid



However it would appear that very few understood the

roots of this crisis which have been clearly documented

by Lord Bauer, the eminent development economist. In the

decade before the crisis, Bauer records how the

Marxist-Leninist government set about systematically

destroying the traditional exchange and property based

agricultural sector in Ethiopia. A massive price control

system was set up which artificially cut the price of food

received by producers in order to benefit the urban

elite from which the government received its support.

Individual farmers and villagers were expropriated and

enslaved into collectivised farms which were run by

party officials in the name of "land reform". There

were mass forced population movements and the compulsory

usurpation of traditional methods of food production

with state-prescribed methods in the name of

"modernisation". Western governments can hardly

be accused of indifference or lack of sympathy either;

in the four years before the beginning of the famine in

1984 they pumped over $1.3 Billion in development aid

into Ethiopia.25


March 16, 2011 at 9:56 AM Flag Quote & Reply

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An recent study of the Sudanese famine by Oxford

Economist David Keen also illustrates the negative

role generally played by Third World governments.26

Keen demonstrates that famines, such as that which

devastated the Dinka of Sudan in the 1980s, often have

powerful beneficiaries within the affected nation,

especially among the political elites. Famine in the

Sudan was not an apocalyptic natural disaster according

to Keen, but was rather "actively promoted by powerful

interests within the Sudanese government." Elements of

the Sudanese government not only obstructed the

operation of relief efforts but also channelled them

to their own advantage and used the famine as an

opportunity to expropriate and politically neutralise

the Dinka ethnic group. For the most part, international

donors and relief agencies fail to counteract these

processes or speak up on behalf of those who lack

political influence in their own society. Unfortunately

this inability or willingness to criticise the statist

policies of Third World regimes (and not Western callousness)

as the primary cause of famines is a feature shared by

most contemporary Irish "Third World advocates".


Sadly the Ethiopian and Sudanese cases are typical of

Sub-Sahara Africa (SSA), a group of countries that are

mostly run by governments which can be accurately

characterised as mere large-scale predatory bandits

which exploit and extort their citizens at will.

Throughout almost all of Africa farmers are forced

to sell their produce to huge state-run "marketing

boards" in return for a fraction of the price which

they would receive in a free market.27 The government

then either sells the food at market prices and thus

extracts a surplus or distributes it at artificially

low prices to politically-favoured urban dwellers. As

in Ethiopia, collectivisation and expropriation have

been commonplace across the continent. The results

have been sadly predictable. Between independence and

the end of the 1980s, per capita food production in

Sub-Saharan Africa fell by 25% according to the UN's

FAO as farmers responded to these exploitative policies

by reducing their production.28 It is also very

noticeable that the elements which surface during

famines in order to heap blame onto Western governments

have long maintained a deafening silence on the abusive

and destructive policies of African governments in the

period before the famine.


Despite these facts, the problem of African hunger

is usually presented by the politically correct as

a problem of over-consumption by the greedy West.

However children in Africa do not go hungry because

we in the West over-consume, rather it is because of

the disastrous socialistic policies of their own

exploitative governments which serve to keep food

production in these societies far below its potential.

Coupled with the ability and willingness of well-armed

governments and guerrilla groups to use denial of food

for purposes of warfare or social engineering, it is

these policies which cause famine in the today's

underdeveloped world.


Learning the Right Lessons from the Famine


Given the varying circumstances faced by mid-19th century

Ireland and by Lesser Developed Countries in the modern

era it is perhaps necessary to ask if anything at all

from the Irish experience can be instructive. Despite

the distance in space and time, cautious inferences can

be drawn that can be generally applied.


Perhaps the most obvious lesson for modern policy-makers

from the famine is that the dichotomy, usually

suggested by left-wing theorists, between "social"

or "human" needs (such as life expectancy or infant

mortality) and economic goals is a false one. As

Joel Mokyr's statistical work illustrates, the death

rate across different regions and countries during

the potato blight is strongly negatively correlated

with levels of per capita income.29 Thus Ireland, as

the poorest nation in North Western Europe (and the

only one which during the 19th Century experienced

"de-industrialisation") had a uniquely high death

rate when the famine struck. Likewise Holland

suffered a much higher death rate than that the more

industrialised and richer Belgium and Scotland did

much better than less industrialised Ireland. Within

Ireland, Mokyr finds that higher death rates are

strongly correlated with measures of per capita

income across the 32 counties during the famine.

Indeed differences in income explain differences

in death rates to a much greater degree than factors

such as an area's degree of dependence on the potato

or population density.


March 16, 2011 at 9:56 AM Flag Quote & Reply

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Put simply higher income levels and a more

industrialised economy would have increased the

ability of the Irish economy to absorb the shock

of the potato blight. Richer societies had fewer

people in vulnerable positions and more income with

which to buy alternative sources of food. As Mokyr

puts it "Ireland's experience in the first half of

the 19th century represents a grim reminder of the

costs of failing to industrialise." 30


Secondly the Irish experience gives a vivid

illustration of the limitations of state intervention

as a means of promoting human welfare. The role

of the state during the famine of exacerbating

the situation through its relief efforts has

already been dealt with. On the eve of the famine

Ireland, despite being chronically poor had one

of the most advanced and extensive public sectors

in Europe. Its public health system was excellent

and according to R.B. Mc Dowell "the Irish poor

enjoyed better medical services than their fellows

in wealthier and healthier countries".31 Vast resources

for such a poor country were also expended on the

educational system. Ireland in 1841 had 17 school

teachers per 10,000 people compared to a figure of

11 for Austria and 14 for Prussia (which had a much

vaunted school system).32 In 1845 Ireland also had

a Poor Law System that was remarkably modern and

extensive given the level of the country's development.

During the early and mid 1800s Ireland had an excellent

transportation infrastructure, including one of the finest

and most elaborate road systems in Europe.33 The Irish

civil service was relatively honest and very extensive

for its context, indeed Mokyr notes that "Long before

Britain, Ireland was run by professional, well-trained

and generally conscientious administrators".34


This, of course contradicts, the traditional view

of pre-famine Ireland as a land where laissez-faire

ran riot. Indeed the opposite appears to have been the

case. Roy Foster for example finds that in the century

before the famine Ireland had extremely interventionist

governments. Commenting on its economic and

commercial policy Foster notes that "the Irish

political culture was one where state interference

in the economy and elsewhere was common practice,

grants tariffs bounties and centralisation were

accepted..... Government had in this sense a higher

profile than across the Irish Sea" and later writes

of the post-1800 economic policy that "the most

notable post-union development built upon the established

tradition of intervention in areas like education,

public health and emergency public works where intervention

became more decisive and more extensive than in

contemporary Britain." 35 Indeed another historian

has recently argued that the pre-famine administration was

probably "the most advanced and interventionist in Europe"


In one sense the preponderance of the state reflects

Ireland's history over the centuries before the famine.

Unlike in England, the British state's recognition

of even the most basic rights of the citizenry was a

comparatively recent event for the great majority of

the population. In 1840 the penal laws against

non-Anglicans had been gone for less than 50 years

and while the Dublin Castle regime of the Victorian

era was ostensibly more benevolent than that of

Cromwell's, it still retained powers and controls

over economic and political life that stretched beyond

anything that existed in England.


Thirdly, Ireland's famine experience draws attention

to the need for a widely-supported political system

which upholds and is seen to uphold legitimate private

property rights. The British administration of

Ireland by its nature (and by implication a large

proportion of the property rights which it enforced)

was not perceived as legitimate by most Irish people.

Ireland could be accurately described as a land held

by military force alone. Investors and potential

entrepreneurs knew that the country was liable to

political convulsions and even the likelihood of

violent revolution and expropriation. Indeed prior

to the famine Ireland was already accounted a

"remarkably violent place," largely on account of

the violence generated from the landlord-tenant

disturbances and from the tithe wars.37 The created

a crisis in investor confidence regarding Ireland

causing British investment, and indeed Irish investment,

to be largely diverted elsewhere. The words of a

contemporary businessman reflect this expectation:


"The real problem was that Ireland was considered by

Britain to be an alien and even hostile country.

The economic effects of this hostility were important.

English and Scottish capital shied away from Ireland.

One contemporary states that "as long as the statue

law of the country treats four-fifths of the population

as persons who are dangerous to the state and ought

not to be trusted, there will exist a distrust on the

part of English capitalists which will prevent then from

investing capital (in Ireland)". True, some British

entrepreneurs did go to Ireland, but many more went

to France, Belgium, and Prussia"38



As we have seen the key factor which made Ireland

vulnerable to famine when the blight occurred was its

poverty and the key reason for Ireland's poverty was


failure to accumulate capital, a failure that was

due in large part to the fact that property rights

were considered to be insecure. As Joel Mokyr concludes

after his exhaustive study:


" A variety of causes for Ireland's lack of

resilience have been identified, and most of them,

in one way or another directly led to increased

poverty through the single mechanism of reduced

capital formation. Whether we look at agriculture,

fisheries, transportation, housing or human capital,

the same picture returns time and again: productivity

was low because labour lacked the non-complementary

inputs it needed"39


The effect of the lack of capital in Ireland was not

merely academic. It meant that in 1841 the 30,000 or

so rural inhabitants of the rural inhabitants of the

barony of Gweedore in Donegal had only one plough

between them. It meant that Mayo coast dwellers fished

the barren water close to shore for want of a larger

boat while a few miles out to sea the ocean teemed

with fish. It meant that dozens crowded onto tiny

patches of land while nearby boglands went unreclaimed

for want of tools. It meant that when the Belfast's

linen industry flourished it could only do so by

draining capital from the Ulster cotton industry,

killing the cotton industry in the process. In short

it was the primary underlying reason that Ireland

was in such a vulnerable position when the potato

blight struck in 1845-9.


The lessons of the Irish famine for developing

countries are stark. Countries which unable to

accumulate capital, develop a secure and widely

accepted set of economic rights and nurture a

strong private sector to act as the engine of

economic growth make themselves vulnerable to

tragedies such as mass starvation. In this respect

even heavy investment in public and social

infrastructure offers little or no protection.




As we have seen the impact of the famine upon Irish

economic and social thought has been considerable

and has taken the form of hostility towards free

markets. More recently there has been a tendency

to equate Modern Africa and 19th Century Ireland

as the twin victims of "heartless" and "indifferent"

capitalism. However an examination of both the

Irish Famine and the experiences of more recent

events in Africa reveals that the expansion of the

state's role does not necessarily bring about

improvement, indeed in most cases its expansion

serves to do harm.


On a more positive note, experience has also

taught that capitalism and the market offer

the potential for the economic growth and

increased incomes, which in the long run offer

the only escape from hunger and scarcity.

However it is almost certain that such insights

will not form part of the discourse of those

who will use the occasion of the famine's

anniversary to advance an agenda which has

more to do with the vested interests of today

than with the lessons of the past.




This petition seeks your support for a campaign to:

* Persuade relevant authors, editors and website content providers to stop using the word ‘Famine’ for what took place in Ireland between 1845 and 1850, and start using terms such as, "The Great Hunger" or 'An tOcras Mór

PETITION LINK- TO CHANGE THE WORD FAMINE http://www.petitions24.com/when_famine_became_genocide_ireland_1845_-_1850

March 16, 2011 at 9:57 AM Flag Quote & Reply

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