A Purgatory of Misery by Frank Parker and Pat Lillis – Stave #14
Chapter 13 – Summing Up
The use of first person singular in this chapter acknowledges that what follows are the personal views of Frank Parker, not necessarily shared by his co-author, Patrick Lillis.
I remember discussions with Irish acquaintances shortly after my arrival in Ireland in which I had the effrontery to respond to criticisms of the way the Irish were treated by the British in the past. My view, back then, was that it was wrong to lay the blame collectively at the British. Rather, it was the ruling classes, the aristocracy, who were to blame, and that those same people, or their fellows, treated ordinary British citizens just as badly. They had children working in the mines and mills; the lower classes worked long hours for little reward, living in awful conditions in slums in the industrial cities, or in tied farm cottages with inadequate facilities in rural areas.
Reading about the famine I am forced to revise my opinion. I think differently now, too, about the stone walls that surround so many Irish properties. I cringe when I recall the crass remark I made to my Northern Irish brother-in-law about the Irish ‘loving their stone walls’. He did not retort, as he might have done, that many were built by destitute men whose families would have starved to death had they not been provided with such labour. On my Sunday morning cycle rides, when I come across a wall that seems to go on for miles, I wonder about its builders and the conditions under which they worked. Did they provide their labour in lieu of rent? Did the land owner provide the work in what he would have deemed to be an act of generosity, ensuring the recipient enjoyed the dignity of work when the alternative was the degradation that accompanies the act of begging for food? Did the land owner pressurise the administrators of the public works scheme to carry out the work on his property?
I now know that the conditions the Irish had to endure were far worse than those experienced by the majority of ordinary English, Scots or Welsh men, women and children. This book has been an attempt to understand why, and to convey that understanding to as many as are minded to read it. It’s sub-title, implying, as it is intended to do, that Liberalism played a crucial part in the tragedy, is part of the answer. And it is one that it is painful for me, a life long Liberal, to admit.
The words ‘colonisation’ and ‘violence’ frequently occur in Irish accounts of the period. The first is used pejoratively by people who see the process of occupation and attempted assimilation of the native Irish by the English as inherently evil. I hope I have succeeded in demonstrating that that process, whilst setting the context for the disaster, was not a cause of it. It was, after all, a process that had been on-going for 8 centuries before the arrival of potato blight. Many of the descendants of invading occupiers regarded themselves as Irish and still do. We have seen how, following the repeal of the penal laws and the restoration to Irish Catholics of the right to practice their religion, it was sometimes Protestant land owners who provided the land and the funds to enable the building of Catholic churches in many communities, including in Belfast.
The reality of the Williamite success in the Battle of the Boyne, far from being, as some of Northern Ireland’s Protestant community would have us believe, a victory of Protestant over Catholic, was celebrated in the Vatican with a thanksgiving mass, demonstrating that the motives of its leaders had far more to do with pan-European politics than with religion.
We can see that organisations like Young Ireland were led by Protestant as well as Catholic men. The Irish Tricoleur is meant to represent the two religious traditions linked by a desire for peace between them. So it is wrong to suggest – as many English politicians and officials did at the time and Irish Republicans do today – that the Irish are a different race from the English.
The truth is that, Britain’s planned exit from the EU not withstanding, we are all Europeans.
And the truth of the Great Irish Famine is that it was mostly to do with attitudes to poverty.
But, whilst ‘colonisation’ is, in my view, an inappropriate word to use in connection with the causes of Ireland’s suffering, ‘violence’ certainly is not. In fact, I would argue that the famine represents one of the most violent and painful manifestations of the transition from a subsistence economy to a cash economy, a transition which had already taken place across much of the rest of Europe.
The cottiers and small-holders who worked for farmers and their landlords, on those occasions when labour was needed, in return for the right to occupy a small plot on which to grow potatoes, needed little cash beyond what was required to purchase seeds and the materials to make some rough clothing. A modern trading economy requires people to earn a regular income with which to purchase the products of industry. The transition from one to the other, however achieved, is bound to leave some individuals behind, prominent among them the weak and the poorly educated.
Another word that occurs frequently in accounts of the famine is ‘improvement’. Whilst not used pejoratively, there often seems to be in some Irish versions, an underlying suggestion that improvement, in the context of agrarian reform, is not necessarily a good thing. The concept of improvement lies at the heart of Liberalism. To achieve the greatest good for the greatest number is its ultimate objective. The realisation of this objective, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, was perceived to lie in the peaceful transformation of lives and livelihoods through the application of scientific discoveries, accompanied by social reorganisation. Incomes could be increased by increasing productivity through mechanisation of manufacturing processes on the one hand, and drainage and cultivation of the land on the other. Hand in hand with this went the belief that education, equipping people with knowledge and skills, was the key to lifting people from subsistence into greater affluence.
But we have seen how mechanisation of textile production deprived home based spinners and weavers of their livelihoods and how the introduction of more profitable crops and livestock necessitated the removal of small holders and cottiers from the land. This was, of course, accompanied with the belief that encouraging such individuals to leave Ireland for new lives in North America or the Antipodes would provide them with the opportunity of a better life in those new lands.
The belief that the proprietors of Irish land were the true villains, taking rents, using the land as security for loans, used not for investment but to indulge in all manner of selfish pursuits, from gambling to the ‘buying’ of political favours, was,, and remains, widespread on all sides. But, whilst many land owners did indeed bleed their estates dry, there were others who not only provided work and accommodation for tenants in the years leading up to the famine, but continued to do so throughout the famine.
To Liberals, however, from those like the Young Irelanders who sought the repeal of the Act of Union in order to secure a fairer distribution of land, to the Quakers who espoused a form of Christianity in which every man had the right to an equal share of the product of his labour, it was axiomatic that any landlord who had become so indebted that he was unable to shoulder his share of the burden of relieving the suffering of his tenants ought to have that land taken from him. In the words of Charles Trevelyan, quoted in chapter 11: landlords should improve their estates under the Land Improvement Act and at the same time pay the increasing burden of rates, “or dispose of their estates to those who can perform this indispensable duty”.
Introducing such measures, however well intended, would bring about suffering for some at the best of times, as they did elsewhere in Europe, often becoming the spark for revolution. To impose them in the midst of a famine of unprecedented proportions was a recipe for disaster. And that disaster was further exacerbated by the imposition of conditions for the receipt of relief that sought to distinguish between the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor.
It is a distinction that we continue to make 170 years later in our attempts to address poverty. We no longer force people to endure the hardships of the workhouse, but we do expect people to actively seek employment in order to receive benefits. And we have, throughout the developed world, a sizeable bureaucracy dedicated to weeding out those claimants in receipt of benefits to which the rules of the system dictate that they are not entitled.
The statement in Chapter 7, that anyone in receipt of the fruits of another’s labour has a duty to expend an equivalent amount of his own labour in return, is a truism. But, if the economic system is unable to provide opportunities for that exchange to take place, that system is broken and needs to be mended. The custodians of the system in nineteenth century Britain recognised, not that the system was broken, perhaps, but that it was not yet fully developed. Their remedy, the taxing of supposedly wealthy individuals the majority of whom lacked the capacity to pay, failed to achieve the desired end.
Another word that appears frequently in Irish Republican discourse about the famine is ‘genocide’. The United Nations defines genocide as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” To fit this definition to the disaster inflicted on Ireland in the mid 1800s requires two things: intent, and an acceptance that those who suffered were different, as a group, from the rest of the inhabitants of the British Isles. It is certainly uncontestable that the government’s intention was to evince a reduction in the population of Ireland. It’s destruction, even in part, was not, I believe, intended. Destruction in part was undoubtedly a by-product of misguided policies but it was not their aim.
The portion of the population that endured the greatest losses was of a particular religious group is undeniable, as is the fact that certain Protestant preachers sought to convert as many as possible to what they regarded as the ‘true faith’, sometimes making it a condition for the receipt of relief. But many protestants suffered also. Followers of the ‘old’ religion were not deliberately singled out for destruction. So the accusation that the famine was a deliberate act of genocide cannot be sustained by the available evidence.
It is unreasonable to condemn the Russell government’s response to the famine without offering suggestions as to alternative courses of action. The suspension of brewing and exports of grain and other food products, proposed by O’Connell and others, was rejected at the time because the government was averse to anything that would interfere with the natural working of markets. It is worth pointing out, too, that not only would it have produced food shortages in mainland Britain, it would have put many Irish people out of work, depriving them of the ability to purchase any additional food that became available as a result.
One of the lessons learned since the second world war, if not before, is the importance of extensive state support for agriculture. The most successful of the measures introduced in Ireland during the famine were those by the Quakers, and certain enlightened landlords, that encouraged and enabled farmers to grow alternative crops. The second thing that has been practiced effectively in recent decades is the one advocated three millenia ago in the Old Testament: the storage of surpluses from good years to ensure a continuing supply in times of poor yields. One of the perceived benefits of a union of nations, whether the supposedly United Kingdom of Britain and Ireland in the nineteenth century, or more recent organisations like the European Union, is the ability to tax the more successful regions of the union in order to support the economic development of the less successful. That did not happen in the UK at the time. Instead the burden of relieving Irish poverty fell almost exclusively on the owners of Irish land.
The extent to which such a combination of measures might have helped the situation, if adopted by Russell’s government, can only be speculated about. The taxing of Irish land owners and confiscation of those estates with unsustainable debt burdens did achieve long term benefits for many of the famine’s survivors. Certainly in the short term there was great suffering. But in the years following the famine the break up of large estates and the expansion of medium sized holdings by the acquisition of small holdings abandoned by emigrants did contribute to an increase in the prosperity of many Irish families. And many of those migrants did find better lives in their new homelands. But the existence of poverty alongside affluence continued everywhere and is as prevalent today.
The fundamental problem identified by Malthus has not been solved. Certainly he never envisioned the possibility of the world’s population reaching 7.5 billion¹, nor would he have been able to imagine that it would be possible to grow sufficient food to feed such a number. Not only are we now able to produce enough food, we waste vast quantities. But, in doing so, and in transporting it across the oceans, we are slowly destroying the planet. We can grow food in tunnels beneath the ground; we can ‘farm’ insects; both are being done in Britain today. But unrestrained population growth must inevitably outpace food production. The planet is finite. Malthus’s predictions may not have come true yet, but one day they must.
That day may be closer than we think. Famine still stalks parts of Africa. It still follows wars that continue to rage with the same intensity as in the past. Whereas, in the past, wars were the result of disputes between members of the aristocracy over the right to occupy land, often disguised behind claims that one religion was superior to another, today the aristocracy has been replaced by great corporations, the acquisition of land by control of resources. And, still, religion is often the false pretext.
Unless and until we can find a way both to conserve resources and to distribute them more uniformly among the people, unless we can end the relentless increase in population which continues despite the depredation of wars and famines, we can never achieve that dream of the “greatest good for the greatest number” beloved of Liberals the world over. I am reminded again of Charles Woods’s words which gave this book its title and which looked forward to the possibility of “quiet and prosperity” following a period of “misery and starvation”. For all too brief a period after the second world war it might have seemed that ideal had been achieved, at least for the majority of those of us fortunate to live in the developed world. Looking at the state of the world today, it is evident that many are still experiencing a purgatory of misery. It is the duty of progressive politicians everywhere to develop and implement compassionate policies towards such people wherever they are.