Blighted lives

19th May 2006 at 01:00
ou can live well on Lumpers. The Irish flourished on their favourite variety of potato for decades in the 19th century. A Donegal peasant might get through 14lb in a day.

You can live well on Lumpers - until they get the blight, which famously struck Ireland in 1845. Up to a million died wretchedly and another million emigrated. The fungus was to blame, of course, but so were the disastrous policies of the occupying English government. It boiled down to the philosophy of laissez-faire, the belief that nothing must interfere with the market-place. When the famine struck, the English thought it right to do as little as possible to help a people they regarded as lazy, immoral, rebellious and, God forbid, Catholic. Food aid was not allowed.

Prime Minister Robert Peel, who secretly sent two ships loaded with cheap corn to Ireland, was forced to resign. When supplies ran out, Charles Trevelyan, the civil servant in charge of the relief effort, refused to send any more.

Soup kitchens were reluctantly opened, but only until the next harvest. The soup made people ill. Then the harvest failed, but the kitchens shut anyway. Exports of Irish grain carried on, however, while the people who cultivated it starved.

Business must continue, ruled Trevelyan, or private enterprise would be paralysed. He decided laissez-faire would permit people to be employed doing useful things paid for by the people themselves through taxes. So, in 1847, 700,000 hungry men, women and children were busy building roads that went nowhere, but not earning enough to feed themselves, let alone pay tax.

Landlords exported their penniless tenants in "coffin" ships to Canada.

Thousands fled to England, which outraged the politicians who enacted vicious new poor laws.

Trevelyan declared there would be no more help from Britain. Ireland must become self-sufficient. Instead, by the winter of 1848, it was bankrupt, its people starving and diseased. Cities and towns were abandoned, peasants lived in holes dug in the hillside, families fell apart. In the misery, the flame of Irish independence began to burn, fanned by the economic blundering of the English.

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