The Great Famine, also known as an Gorta Mór in Irish Gaelic, is regarded as one of the greatest tragedies in Irish history, involving a number of natural and societal factors. The period of mass starvation, disease and emigration lasted for about seven years, from mid 1840s to the early 1850s, causing the population of Ireland to drop by 25%. To this day it's a very sensitive and controversial issue for many historians. When dealing with a localized disaster of such magnitude, it is tempting to demonize one particular group of people. In this particular case the finger is pointing at the Anglo-Irish absentee landlords.
John Mitchel, one of the leaders of the Young Ireland Movement during the 1840s, referred to the disaster as "artificial famine". In his own words, "The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the famine." Being a fervent nationalist, naturally Mitchel was a little biased in distributing the blame. But there is a strong component of truth to his allegations. The landlords may not have manually introduced the parasite that destroyed the potato crops, but their harsh treatment of the tenants and reluctance to cooperate with those providing relief contributed considerably to the casualties. And there was no shortage of sympathy for the famine victims on both sides of the Atlantic. Unfortunately, history tends to recognize only those endeavors that bring results. Somehow, the voices of advocacy got muffled amidst the deadly groans. Indeed, if you review the numbers, they do not look inspiring. According to Peter Gray, Professor of Modern Irish History at Queen's University Belfast, the British government had spent a meager £7 million for relief in Ireland between 1845 and 1850, which accounted for less 0.5% of the British gross national product. It does look like the ones holding the Empire's purse strings were not terribly concerned about the situation in Ireland. Hence, the oversimplified belief that "the English engineered the famine to purge the land of indigenous Celtic population".
The Exterminator Lord
George Bingham, 3rd Earl of Lucan (1800 – 1888) is an extreme example of an intolerant absentee landlord. Military history buffs, especially those who take an interest in the Crimean War, are well acquainted with the political and personal conflicts between Lucan and his brother-in-law James Thomas Brudenell, 7th Earl of Cardigan (1797 – 1868). The quarrels between the two men have been the subject of many acrimonious comments by historians. They are the Tybalt and Mercutio of Victorian era aristocracy. Cardigan is considered responsible for the for the disastrous Charge of the Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaclava (25 October 1854), but some of the blame falls on Lucan as well. Historians focus on the damage these two incompetent military leaders have done to the men in their command. Not many people remember that before recklessly destroying many soldier lives in the Crimea, Lucan had destroyed many more civilian lives in Ireland. The western province of Connacht got hit the hardest. Lucan had estates in County Mayo, and he ordered mass evictions from villages like Ballinrobe. As many as forty thousand deaths were attributed to his neglect. Unsurprisingly, he earned bitter hatred of the Irish people and was nicknamed the Exterminator. The painting of him as a fourteen-year old is very illustrative of his character. It is hard not to notice the cold, vacant blue eyes.
|George, Lord Bingham, aged 14|
Curiously enough, his firstborn son George (1830 – 1914) who went on to inherit the title, was his total opposite. The 4th Lord Lucan, who accompanied his father to the Crimea, was sweet-tempered, modest and compassionate. As a devoted family man and philanthropist, he made a lot of effort to improve the lives of the surviving tenants on his father's land in Mayo. He never spoke ill of his father, but he did endeavor to reverse some of the damage his father had caused.
Sir Robert Gore-Booth, 4th Baronet - murderer or philanthropist?
Another controversial figure from that era is Sir Robert Gore-Booth, 4th Baronet (1805 – 1876), an Anglo-Irish politician, whose Lisadell House was located in County Sligo. He was the paternal grandfather of the famous Constance de Markiewicz, nee Gore-Booth, a legendary Anglo-Irish feminist and nationalist, who took part in the Easter Rising in 1916. W.B. Yeats had frequented the Lisadell estate and spent a lot of time with Constance and her sister Eva.
The stories surrounding Sir Robert's behavior during the Great Famine are contradictory. Some sources depict him as a tyrant, who evicted his starving tenant farmers and packed them into coffin ships. Other reports claim that he actually mortgaged his estate to help the tenants, and supplied them with provisions and refused to accept rents during the famine. It is hard to imagine that truth lay somewhere in the middle. Either way, the stories from the Great Famine era contributed the formation of Constance's character and deepened her concern for the poor. As she became more involved with Irish nationalism, she made the well-being of Irish workers her number one priority.
The land of opportunity much closer?
To a struggling Irish farmer, pre-Civil War America looked alluring and promising. (The unsavory component of African slavery went over their heads, as most Irish people had never seen an African person. To them, Africans were mysterious and otherworldly creatures that existed in fairy-tales.) If only they could reach the blessed shores in one piece! Since the cross-Atlantic ships were launching out of Liverpool, the famine survivors had to take a step back and travel eastward across the Irish Sea first before embarking on a much longer and harsher journey. Many of them, after seeing the conditions on the vessels that were referred to as "coffin ships" for very good reasons, started questioning their decision to move to another continent. The odds of them arriving in New York alive were rather slim. The odds of them dying and being thrown overboard were much stronger.
Furthermore, upon arrival in Liverpool they were presented with new opportunities. With the industrial revolution being in full swing, with new railroads being built all over England, there were new employment possibilities. Recruiting agents would camp out on the docks, singling out able-bodied Irishmen and Irishwomen, enticing them with promises of security and employment. Of course, there was a learning curve. Former peasants, who were used to functioning in a rural setting, had to cultivate new skills that would be applicable in an urban setting. And yes, there were many cases of exploitation and abuse, where Irish immigrants would be assigned to the most dangerous tasks and compensated less than their English coworkers. But there were also success stories. Many of the famine refugees went on to adjust well to a life in an English city.
There was an element of resentment from the native English population. Some felt that the Irish were taking away their jobs. Others welcomed the newcomers into their communities. The influx of Irish immigrants affected the urban dynamics. As more Irish settled in England, more Catholic parishes were established. Celtic music and folklore became incorporated into the Victorian urban culture.
The ethnic, religious and political conflict between the English and the Irish has received plenty of coverage over the centuries, but the camaraderie, solidarity and reciprocation often gets overlooked. As Victor Hugo, the definitive figure in French Romanticism pointed out, "rags have no gender, no race, no religion".
|Emigrants leave Ireland - engraving by Henry Doyle|
[All images in the public domain, except - Lissadell House: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lissadell_House#/media/File:Lissadell_House_Copyright_Nigel_Aspdin.jpg]
Marina Julia Neary spent her early years in Eastern Europe and came to the US at the age of thirteen. Her literary career revolves around depicting military and social disasters, from the Charge of the Light Brigade, to the Irish Famine, to the Easter Rising in Dublin, to the nuclear explosion in Chernobyl some thirty miles away from her home town.
Her debut thriller Wynfield's Kingdom was featured on the cover of the First Edition Magazine in the UK and earned the praise of the Neo-Victorian Studies Journal. After writing a series of novels dealing with the Anglo-Irish conflict, her recent releases include Trench Coat Pal (Crossroad Press) and The Gate of Dawn (Penmore Press)
All this week, until Sunday 18th September 2016 at midnight, Marina is giving away an e-book copy of her novel Wynefield's Kingdom. For a chance to win, leave a comment HERE