England's Willing Executioners?

By Bew, Paul | The Spectator, June 7, 1997 | Go to article overview

England's Willing Executioners?


Bew, Paul, The Spectator


THE Irish historical debate about the Great Famine of 1845-50 - in which one million Irish people died, despite the expenditure of millions of pounds of British aid - is a rather curious one. In particular, how should the role of the British government be viewed? Forty years ago R. Dudley Edwards and T.D. Williams of University College, Dublin in response to a proposal by Taoiseach Eamon De Valera -- edited the first academic history of the famine (The Great Famine: Studies in Irish History, Dublin, 1956).

The verdict finally arrived at in The Great Famine was a carefully wrought judgment: `Human limitations and timidity dominate the story of the Great Famine, but of great and deliberately imposed evil in high positions of responsibility there is little evidence. The really great evil lay in the totality of that social order which made such a famine possible and could tolerate, to the extent it did, the sufferings and hardship it caused by the failure of the potato crop.'

There is an echo here of one of the principal Irish school textbooks, Stephen Gwynn's The Student's History of Ireland (1925), which attacked British emotional distance but added, `Yet, this has to be said. No native government could have prevented famine from following on a loss of the potato crop. The worst failure of government lay in allowing such a state of society to grow up as existed in 1845.'

When the famine actually was a living memory it was a painful, ambiguous one for those who lived in Ireland. There were many who effectively denounced the British government from the start, but all the political implications were not so clearcut. In 1880, W.E. Forster was appointed Gladstone's Chief Secretary in Dublin. Forster struggled unavailingly with a new upsurge in nationalist agrarian radicalism; yet, as a young man, he had played a key role in the magnificent Quaker relief effort during the famine. In ironic contrast, the police records mutter darkly about prominent anti-government activists who benefited directly from the famine clearances or the post-famine transition to pasture in general.

From the foundation of the Irish Republican Brotherhood in 1858, almost up to the transformative and modernising Whitaker Report of 1958, Irish nationalism was afflicted by a central contradiction: officially the most successful political movements - the Fenians, the Land League, the United Irish League, Sinn Fein and then Fianna Fail - were committed to a policy of agrarian radicalism, `undoing the work of the famine'. This implied land redistribution and a more labour-intensive agriculture. Yet, although the Anglo-Irish landlords were defeated, this never happened on any significant scale, because too many Irish farmers had benefited from the post-famine transition to pasture.

With independence, the promised return to pre-famine levels of population did not happen. Indeed, 2.97 million citizens in 1926 dropped to 2.88 million in 1966; whilst the 1950s levels of emigration exceeded those of the last phase of British rule. The scholars who produced the Great Famine were for the most part products of this world, hence perhaps its 'dehydrated' quality - to employ the term used wryly in the diary of one of the editors. While there was no failure to criticise the simplistic, ruthless, even pseudo-moral adherence to market laws of the Whig government, there was a clear avoidance of presentation of harrowing scenes distressing material which is hard to avoid for anyone who does serious work on the famine.

In the context of the present AngloIrish tensions arising out of the `northern troubles' since 1968, the need for something more emotional soon asserted itself. The most obvious indication was the huge popular success - both at elite and mass level - of the emotive Famine Diary of Gerard Keegan, which continued even after the publication of a vigorous article in the scholarly Irish Review, arguing that this work - which appears to have been perceived as fact - was a fiction prepared in the 19th century by, ironically, a Canadian Orangeman. …

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