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About this book

The Great Irish Famine of 1845-51 was both one of the most lethal famines in modern history and a watershed in the development of modern Ireland. This book - based on a wide range of little-used sources - demonstrates how the Famine profoundly affected many aspects of Irish life: the relationship between the churches; the nationalist movement; and the relationship with the monarchy. In addition to looking at the role of the government, Kinealy shows the importance of private charity in saving lives. One of the most challenging aspects of the publication is the chapter on food supply, in which Kinealy concludes that, despite the potato blight, Ireland was still producing enough food to feed its people. The long-term impact of the tragedy, notably the way in which it has been remembered and commemorated, is also examined.

Table of Contents

1. Remembering the Famine

Abstract
Few commemorative events have captured the public, private and political imagination as did the 150th anniversary of Ireland’s An Gorta Mhór, the Great Hunger or Famine.4 Significantly, Blair’s address provided an open admission that the Great Famine was as much a part of Britain’s history as Ireland’s. The same point had frequently been made in Ireland. In 1995, the well-respected broadsheet, the Irish Times, had declared that ‘the Great Famine was the most culpable episode in the troubled rule of Britain and Ireland’.5 Yet, despite the general acceptance of the awfulness and significance of the Famine, it was rarely taught in Irish schools or universities and little had been published on it. Instead, the dominant school of thought within Irish history, known generically as revisionism, had argued that the Famine was not a significant event in modern Irish history, but that it merely acted as a catalyst for changes which were occurring anyway.6 Moreover, the Famine was depicted as inevitable and it was suggested that the British government could have done little more than they did to save lives.7 This interpretation had dominated academic discourse since the 1930s, with varying degrees of intensity. One of its key purposes was to revise the traditional nationalist or popular interpretation of the Famine, whilst claiming that it had no political purpose of its own.
Christine Kinealy

2. The Government’s Response to the Crisis

Abstract
In 1843 an unfamiliar blight was observed on the potato crop in America. Within two years it had spread to Europe, appearing in Belgium, France, Germany, Switzerland, England, and eventually Scotland and Ireland. The new disease was first noticed in Dublin at the end of August 1845 and within a few days isolated instances were being reported throughout the country, especially in the east. The high dependence of the Irish poor on potatoes meant that its appearance in the country was regarded with alarm. The September issue of the Gardener’s Chronicle posed the question: ‘Where will Ireland be in the event of a universal potato rot?’1
Christine Kinealy

3. Philanthropy and Private Donations

Abstract
A feature of famine relief that has received relatively little attention is the role of private charity. Yet public and private assistance coexisted and they frequently complemented each other. In England, despite the existence of a long-established Poor Law, organized philanthropy continued to be important; by the 1840s, for example, the expenditure of the various philanthropic bodies exceeded state expenditure on poor relief.1 A common feature of state and private aid was that the administrators of both systems viewed religious and social welfare as being closely linked.2 Charity was an integral part of all Christian denominations, and private benevolence was usually attended by the desire to promote thrift, frugality and self-help amongst the poor. These values also underpinned both the British and the Irish Poor Laws.
Christine Kinealy

4. Food Supply and Trade

Abstract
One of the most polarized and controversial aspects of Famine historiography relates to the issue of food production, export and distribution. The popular understanding has tended to believe that large amounts of food left Ireland whilst the people starved. This interpretation has its roots in the writing of the radical John Mitchel. In his Jail Journal, published in1854, he presented the Famine as starvation in the midst of plenty, the blame for which he unequivocally attributed to ‘English’ rule.1 Mitchell further developed this theme in The Last Conquest of Ireland, published six years later which included the much-quoted phrase, ‘The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the Famine.’2 Mitchel’s interpretation has been frequently criticized for being simplistic and politically motivated.3 One historian has suggested that as a consequence of Mitchel’s accounts, ‘by a masterly stroke of propaganda, the tragedy became harnessed to the bandwagon of Irish nationalism’. Moreover, those who have supported the idea that the Famine was neither inevitable nor caused simply by food shortages have similarly been tainted with political or nationalist motivations.4 But over-reliance on Mitchel as a source (significantly by his detractors) has served to obfuscate the complexity of the issue of food supply.
Christine Kinealy

5. Riot, Protest and Popular Agitation

Abstract
Throughout the Famine, many reports on the condition of the destitute emphasized the passivity and resignation of the poor.1 Writing at the end of the nineteenth century, the nationalist Michael Davitt condemned such compliance, describing it as ‘the wholesale cowardice of the men who saw food leave the country in shiploads, and turned and saw their wives and little ones sicken and die, and who “bravely paid their rent” before dying themselves’.2 However, the sustained food shortages between 1845 and 1849 resulted in a period of extraordinary disorder and protest, whilst riot and theft were integral parts of the crisis. The high incidence of agitation was not surprising given the prevalence of rural protest, or ‘outrages’, in Ireland before 1845 and the longevity of the crisis triggered by the blight. The character of the agitation changed after 1845. Much pre-famine agitation had been local, rather than national, and conservative, in that a primary objective was frequently to resist change or modernization. The pre-famine protests were often associated with Catholic secret societies such as the Whiteboys or Molly Maguires, who were known generically as Ribbon Societies. The growth of Ribbonism and its various offshoots had generally been in response to local grievances, although they increasingly aspired to an independent Ireland. In the north of the country, secret societies tended to be more overtly political and sectarian.3
Christine Kinealy

6. Religion and the Churches

Abstract
The role of the various churches in Ireland throughout the Famine, especially Protestant churches, has been largely untold.1 An exception is the work of the Society of Friends who not only left a record of their part in providing relief, but who were almost universally praised for their commitment and non-partisan approach to relief.2 The role of religious organizations has also been tainted by the attempts of some evangelical groups to proselytize, popularly referred to as ‘souperism’. Despite their relatively small success rate, the folk memory of using the hunger of the people as an instrument to win converts has been long and bitter.3 The controversy attached to proselytism also tended to overshadow the wider contribution of the various churches in providing relief. Moreover, in the post-Famine period, it was seen as being a particularly Catholic grievance against the Protestant Church and the larger Protestant establishment, with little distinction being drawn between the various denominations within Protestantism.4
Christine Kinealy

7. Repeal, Relief and Rebellion

Abstract
On the eve of the Famine the Irish population was one of the most politicized in Europe, largely due to the activities of Daniel O’Connell, a Catholic barrister and MP who had dominated Irish politics since the 1820s.1 Involvement in the parliamentary process, however, was recent and small scale. Catholics had only gained the right to vote in 1793, but continued to be barred from sitting in parliament. O’Connell’s role in securing Catholic Emancipation in 1829, which gave Catholics throughout the United Kingdom the right to sit in Westminster, marked a significant victory against the British government. But the achievement of Emancipation was counterbalanced by a simultaneous reduction in the Irish franchise. As a consequence of the Emancipation Act, the county franchise in Ireland was raised from 40 shillings to ten pounds for freeholders, thereby disenfranchising many of O’Connell’s supporters. The size of the electorate continued to decrease after the Reform Act of 1832, despite the rapid growth in population. This was partly due to the reluctance of landlords to grant long leases, hoping to maximize their income through shorter-term lettings. By the 1840s, less than one in every 116 county dwellers had the vote, compared with one in 24 in England.2
Christine Kinealy

Epilogue

Abstract
The prospects for a healthy and abundant harvest in 1849 created a spirit of confidence that had not been evident for a number of years. The Times asked:
Can it be that there is a ‘good time’ coming? … a feeling of hopefulness is beginning to spring up, while the sense of utter despondency which seemed to have overpowered all classes is gradually giving way to a more healthy course of action, in the (perhaps over-sanguine) belief that the ‘crisis’ has passed and there is still sufficient stamina in the country to recover from the shock of a three years’ famine.1
Christine Kinealy
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