Food Supply and Economic Ideology: Indian Corn Relief during the Second Year of the Great Irish Famine (1847)

By Harzallah, Mohamed Salah | The Historian, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

Food Supply and Economic Ideology: Indian Corn Relief during the Second Year of the Great Irish Famine (1847)


Harzallah, Mohamed Salah, The Historian


THE GREAT IRISH FAMINE (1845-51) had devastating effects on the Irish population. The horrors of Famine mortality, evictions, and the coffin ships produced turmoil and despair. About a million people perished from hunger, disease, and inadequate policies. Another million fled to distant destinations including the United States, Canada, and Australia. (1) Although the event happened in the 1840s, it represents an integral part of the Irish collective memory today. Academic studies, poems, novels, lyrics, personal reflections of Famine immigrants, folklore, the opening of Famine Museum in Roscommon, memorials, the inclusion of the Famine in the public school curricula in New York and New Jersey, and the establishment of the Famine Committee in Boston all emphasize the desire to know what really happened in the 1840s. The direct cause of the Great Irish Famine was the tragic failure of the potato crop in 1845 because of the attack of a fungus, Phytopthora infestans, known as the potato blight. The appearance of the potato disease destroyed the staple food of the peasants and created a significant lack of provisions in the market. Apart from the destruction of the means of subsistence of the peasants, the failure of the potato crop meant that a large number of small farmers and farm laborers became unemployed.

Thus, it followed that the British government had to play a vital role in mitigating the suffering of the paupers. Yet, the laissez-faire ideology of senior relief officials repeatedly hindered local efforts to provide relief to the famine-stricken Irish. This study examines the effect of this ideology on the actions of those officials.

When the Famine broke out in 1845, the British Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel, reacted promptly to the impending tragedy. He quickly set up the Scientific Commission in order to inquire into the extent of the destruction of the potato crop and established the Relief Commission in order to supervise the provision of temporary relief to the paupers. Apart from the operation of the Poor Law, which provided a permanent form of relief, he introduced temporary measures, which consisted of Indian corn (maize) relief and public works. In order to facilitate the importation of food to Ireland and pursue his ideological convictions, Peel repealed the Corn Laws in June 1846. Consequently, Peel lost the support of his party members and was quickly ousted when an Irish Coercion Bill was defeated in Parliament. After the fall of Peel's government, Lord John Russell, the leader of the Whig party, became the new prime minister. (2)

Russell's government became responsible for the alleviation of destitution in Ireland for the rest of the Famine years. In the autumn of 1846, the blight reappeared in Ireland. Unlike in the previous year, the potato disease quickly spread to most of the localities. (3) Russell and his colleagues addressed the situation with a view that the blight was an act of Divine Providence and that the government should interfere as little as possible. (4) Their perception of the tragedy meant that the Irish had to rely on themselves in order to tackle the Famine. Consequently, Russell's policy bad a disastrous impact on the people in Ireland. (5)

The effects of the Famine and the efficacy of the measures adopted to relieve the destitution of the paupers have motivated historical research. There has been a controversy over the way in which the Famine should be portrayed. The interpretation of the events of the 1840s takes on political colors. The historians who insist on the government's culpability for the loss of human life and the suffering inflicted on the people are known as "nationalists." Historians who oppose this view are known as "revisionists." The "nationalist" interpretation of history attributes the high mortality during the Famine years to the cruelty of both the British government and the landlords. This interpretation of the Famine began with the works of John Mitchel (1815-75), an Irish revolutionary, who wrote Jail Journal of Five Years in British Prisons (1854) and The Last Conquest of Ireland (perhaps 1860). …

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