The Great Famine, or Great Hunger, in Ireland

By Matthew Downhour
image: wikipedia St. Patrick’s  Day

The Great Famine, or Great Hunger, in Ireland, which afflicted its people from 1845-49, set off a cascade of Irish immigration to the United States that continued until well into the 20th century. While arriving in most cases with almost no physical capital and little experience with industrial life, Irish immigrants quickly formed powerful political organizations to defend their interests. The celebration of St Patrick’s Day in the United States has historically been a commemorative focal point of this community, and the commemoration of the Great Famine has long been a poignant part of these festivities. This annual, organized commemoration almost certainly affected the difference in opinion between liberals in the United States and those in the United Kingdom about the Famine.

English liberals, John Stuart Mill most prominent among them, were quick to explain the famine in Malthusian terms, while less charitable commentators ascribed it to Irish laziness, Catholicism, or other inferred national traits. In the United States, the Famine was seen from early on as primarily caused by British imperial policy. Among the most forceful and prominent of those with this view was Henry George.

George categorically opposed all explanations for the Famine that were based on population growth. The view that human misery was generally a consequence of there being too many people in a given area can largely be traced to Thomas Malthus. For George, this was a poor excuse that absolved the oppressive landlords and imperialists of their responsibility for creating conditions that led to famine. While much of George’s greatest work, Progress and Poverty, draws approvingly, in many instances, on the work of John Stuart Mill, on the question of population, George breaks with him dramatically.

In no uncertain terms, George asserts: “there is not a single case in which the vice and misery can be traced to an actual increase in the number of mouths over the power of the accompanying hands to feed them; but in every case the vice and misery are shown to spring either from unsocial ignorance and rapacity, or from bad government, unjust laws or destructive warfare.” George eloquently analyzes three ostensible cases of famine due to overpopulation, in India, China, and Ireland respectively. All three cases had been used to support Malthus’s theories; in each case, also, British imperialism had in actuality contributed to the 19th century destitute conditions of the people in these countries.

Image: wikipedia Irish potato famine Bridget O’Donnel

After a systematic examination of each of these three cases, George concludes that “the famines of India, China, and Ireland can no more be credited to over-population than the famines of sparsely populated Brazil.” The last years of George’s life were spent in New York, where he gained a strong following among Irish Americans there. This occurred during the same time that St Patrick’s Day celebrations and other expressions of Irish culture were growing increasingly nationalistic and marked by a condemnation of British imperialism. George’s wife Annie was herself an Irish Catholic. Perhaps because of this, George’s most eloquent denunciation of Malthusian theory––and imperialist landlordism––came in his discussion of Ireland.

George proclaims in Progress and Poverty that “I know of nothing better calculated to make the blood boil than the cold accounts of the grasping, grinding tyranny to which the Irish people have been subjected.” Other prominent liberals had denounced the economic system in Ireland; even Mill had called for a radical re-ordering of the tenancy system to encourage the Irish to improve their land and diversify their crops. However, other calls for reform suffered a fatal handicap, in that they believed that the root of the problem was too many Irish on the island. To them, then, emigration from Ireland was a welcome reduction in overpopulation, not an effect of how badly misgoverned Ireland had been.

George suffered from no such misconceptions. He postulated instead that food production actually became more efficient with rising population, as a larger labor pool and market encouraged diversification and labor specialization, which ultimately allowed farmers to produce more food with less labor (an observation in direct contradiction to Malthus, Mill and others who held that food production would always grow more slowly that population). George’s conclusion has been vindicated by the experience of the last 150 years. 

The problem George described in his writings was not overpopulation of Ireland, but under utilization of its resources and labor. He noted that poverty is the inevitable result of a system of excessive rents, in which the land monopoly is able to oppress labor and stunt capital growth. He wrote: “No matter how sparse the population, no matter what the natural resources, are not pauperism and starvation necessary consequences in a land where the producers of wealth are compelled to work under conditions which deprive them of hope, of self-respect, of energy, of thrift[?]”  

George argued that the Irish peasants themselves could not be expected to increase the efficiency of their agriculture, by investing in capital improvements, as long as it was certain their landlords would simply gobble up the additional profits. To George’s mind, the problem was obvious, and it lay not with nature, but with manmade institutions. His response to those who would blame natural laws of population and food growth for what was happening to the Irish was ardent. He asked: “Is it not impiety far worse than atheism to charge upon natural laws misery so caused?”  

Ireland never recovered its pre-Famine population; emigration continued even after food supplies were restored, leaving the country less densely population today than it was in 1840. Elsewhere though, the 20th century seems to have vindicated George’s take on population: the Earth has more than quadrupled its population since 1900, whereas malnourishment worldwide has been halved in the same period. 

What’s the best explanation for this?  The changes that have occurred include the near extinction of European imperialism, the spread of Democracy, and important economic reforms. In many of the countries that made the most rapid transition, land reform to weaken the sting of land rent was an important part of their transition. However, it is still fashionable to blame poverty on the poor, just as the Irish were blamed for their starvation. The comfortable and well-off today will often argue that the fecundity or laziness of impoverished people are the cause, and not the effect, of their poverty.

St. Patrick’s Day, therefore, is an appropriate time to reflect on this fallacy and to emphatically correct and replace this mistaken belief with a more accurate one; namely, that societal poverty is caused by societal injustice and oppressive structures, and especially by those related to rentier practices which disproportionately sap the produce of labor and capital of the many for the benefit of a few.

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