The Graves Are Walking: The History Of The Great Irish Famine
By John Kelly, Faber and Faber, 397pp, £16.99
In June 1845, Phytophthora infestans decimated Europe’s potato crop. This fungus then spread to Ireland, where the potato was the main food for most of the island’s roughly nine million people. The crop was larger than usual that year and the blight destroyed about a quarter of it.
In the face of this catastrophe, the administration of the prime minister, Sir Robert Peel, imported and sold maize – or Indian corn, as it was called – cheaply, as well as doing one or two other things. Although hunger wasn’t eliminated, it was partly alleviated.
In 1846 Peel fell, Lord John Russell (bright but inclined to dither) became prime minister and the blight returned to Ireland. This time six-sevenths of the crop was destroyed. As in 1845, the chief secretary at the treasury, Charles Edward Trevelyan, was put in charge of the Irish relief programme, but whereas the year before, under Peel, he was checked, under Russell he wasn’t. This meant he was free to use the relief programme to transform Ireland from an inefficient country of smallholdings, worked by peasants who bartered, into an efficient country of large holdings worked by farmers who were part of a cash economy. This was a programme that he believed was in Ireland’s long-term interest.
Partly as a result of Trevelyan’s finagling between October 1846 and June 1847 (“the dead heart of the Famine”), about a million men, women and children died of starvation and disease (typhus, relapsing fever, dysentery, cholera and scurvy) and, in addition to the deaths, a further 116,000 people fled Ireland.
In 1847, Ireland’s recovery, which was never going to be easy given its underdevelopment, was made even less likely by Trevelyan’s extended Poor Law. In theory, this legislation, which made landlords responsible for paying the Poor Law rate of every tenant, was supposed to shift the burden of supporting Ireland’s destitute from the treasury to Ireland’s landowners; in practice, all it did was to make “eviction an efficient way for a landowner to lower his poor rate”, because every tenant shed saved a landlord money.
In 1847, after an initial scare, the blight did not return. However, memories of 1846, a spike in evictions and the willingness of landlords who didn’t want to evict to pay their tenants’ passages out of Ireland led to the emigration of 215,000 men, women and children to North America and 150,000 to Britain. And, unlike in earlier periods of emigration, it wasn’t just the prosperous who left; it was also the Gaelic-speaking peasantry of the south and west, who, until then, had no real tradition of emigration.
In 1848, 1849 and 1850 the blight returned, drastic estate clearance continued and about two million people emigrated from Ireland; or, put another way, in the decade 1845-1855 Ireland’s population dropped by about a third.