Chapter Three cont’d

The 19th century saw two crucial changes in Irish-English relations: first, organized non-violent Catholic resistance to British rule; and second, the first signs of a return to armed and violent insurrection. In the midst of this occurred the greatest disaster in Irish history, the Great Famine of 1845-49.

The drive toward Catholic Emancipation–giving Catholics the right to hold high government and legal offices, and to sit in Parliament for their own country–was led by another now-legendary Irish figure, Daniel O’Connell, “The Liberator.” O’Connell was horrified by the violence he observed first in the aftermath of the French Revolution and then in the Irish insurrection of 1798. Possessed of great oratorical and organizational skills and a master of political maneuvering, he gained a reputation as a champion of Catholic popular causes. Through his leadership, the bill for Catholic Emancipation passed into law in 1829, marking a decisive civil rights victory for the Irish Catholics. O’Connell attempted to follow this victory up with a repeal of the Act of Union, but this fight was unsuccessful. The British Empire was at its zenith at this time, controlling much of the globe throughout Africa, Egypt, India, and the Middle East, and had no thought of surrendering any part of its dominion.

Daniel O’Connell

O’Connell’s great contribution to the development of Modern Ireland was that he virtually created and organized mass opinion as a political force in Ireland; he taught the Roman Catholic majority to regard itself as the true Irish nation; and he contributed further to the foundations for Irish Nationalism, which would be the dominant force in Irish politics for the next 100 years.  His example of organized non-violence would have a powerful influence in the next century on Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Civil Rights movement in the North of Ireland.

View “Daniel O’Connell.”

This was also the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, which began largely in England. The effect on Ireland was a sharp decline in the value of its agricultural produce–so much of which was now available through the British mills and factories–and a subsequent drop in the value of land. Due as well to England’s unfair protection laws which made Ireland dependent only on English trade, Ireland became almost wholly subsistent on a single crop, the potato. In the late summer of 1845, a new fungus appeared in Ireland that produced a potato blight, turning hard potatoes into green mush and destroying the crop for three of the next four years. The typical Irish peasant, who existed in a tenant farming system on very small holdings, could not pay his rent if the potato crop failed.  Thus he was evicted and his holding gobbled up by the landlord in most cases.  The impact on Ireland was staggering: 2,000,000 Irish died from starvation or disease, and another 2,000,000 emigrated, largely to the United States, England, and South America. Thus in a five-year period, Ireland lost nearly 40% of its population, largely in the rural, undeveloped west–meaning also that the largest concentration of Irish speakers was decimated, a blow from which the language has still not recovered.

The response of the British was insufficient, to say the least: current laissez-faire economic thought resisted providing government relief, feeling that the economy and market forces should be relied upon to remedy the problem.  Consequently, in 1846 the government instituted the Public Works Schemes, whereby food would be distributed to starving Irish only if they worked a full day on a government project.  This led to the construction of the infamous Famine Roads, roads in the Irish countryside that lead nowhere, but were built only to employ Irish so they could “earn” their bread and soup.  (View Famine Roads.)  Indeed, the Government refused to place an embargo on the export of grain from Ireland; thus during the famine parts of Ireland were actually exporting food.  In 1847 food kitchens were established, providing up to 3 million meals each day; but soon the government ended this practice, insisting that further relief come from the workhouses and through the Poor Law. (Intriguingly, the Poor Law and Workhouses were established in 1838, well before the emergence of the Potato blight.)

It is likely that British resentment of the Irish further blunted English response. In addition, Anglo-Irish and British landlords, many of whom ruled their estates in absentia, increased their rate of evictions of tenants who could not meet the escalating rents–estimates range to nearly ½ a million peasant Irish evicted during the period. Landlords then bought up and consolidated estates, so that the number of large estates tripled during this time, and the number of small, family-owned farms was reduced from over 300,000 holdings to only 88,000–a staggering transformation of the traditional Irish countryside.

Family Eviction during the Potato Famine