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Indolence and Malnutrition: Cause or Effect??

For me there is a mystery at the heart of the story of the famine that devastated Ireland during the years from 1845-52. Why did those who suffered not fight back more vigorously? There certainly were incidents of theft, often punished severely. There were demonstrations outside the premises of merchants. There was a small rebellion by a group calling themselves “Young Ireland”, all of whom were comparatively wealthy. But accounts of such incidents are rare when compared to the numerous tales of people dying in their homes, succumbing to a dreadful apathy and resignation.


George Nichols by Ramsay Richard Reinagle, Image from Wikkipedia

It was not only during the famine that Irish paupers were observed to be exhibiting such attitudes. George Nicholls, Poor law commissioner, noted more than a dozen years before the potato blight struck. “If you … endeavour to reason with and show them how easily they might improve their condition and increase their comforts, you are invariably met by excuses as to their poverty”. Words that are revealing not only in the prejudice of the observer that they clearly indicate.

It is tempting to suggest that religion was to blame for this. The belief that the conditions the people endured were providential, that they were inflicted upon them as punishment for supposed sins, was certainly expressed in many quarters. The notion that prayers could provide the answer to a person’s problems, central to both Catholicism and Protestantism, encourages the idea that God will provide. And there is ample evidence that proselytising elements within Protestantism took advantage of the situation to preach the need for conversion to what to them was the “true faith”.

Modern science

I think, however, that modern science provides us with a much more rational answer. To fully understand the impact of this it is helpful to recall that famines, or near famines, caused by crop failure were frequent occurrences in the century or more that preceded the mid-nineteen-hundreds

Whilst there is evidence that the highly nutritious potato diet ensured that young men joining the British armed forces or working on English infrastructure projects were on the whole taller and stronger than their English counterparts, it is not unreasonable to assume that these individuals left Ireland to take up such employment before the annual summer dearth, the period following exhaustion of last years stock and before the new harvest was available. Those whom they left behind, principally women and children, would have endured 2 to 3 months of near starvation before the new crop was ready to harvest.

Neuroscience is a comparatively modern discipline. Some of its practitioners have carried out studies aimed at identifying the impact of diet and nutrition upon the development of the human brain. Many of these are aimed at assessing the value of various dietary supplements administered to pregnant women and infants. What they demonstrate inter alia is that there is a strong link between inadequate nutrition and impeded pre- and post-natal mental development.

It is, surely, not unreasonable to conclude that any child born during the ‘waiting months’ of July and August, or one or two months after that, would have his or her mental development impaired as a result of the absence of certain nutrients from their diet, or that of their mother in the final semester of pregnancy.

Furthermore, the periodic famines and food shortages that occurred in the years leading up to the years of potato blight, would suggest that there were many years during which a significant number of births were so affected.

And what, precisely, are those effects? In March 2013 the journal Frontiers of Neuroscience published a review of published papers on the subject (The role of nutrition in children’s neurocognitive development, from pregnancy through childhood, Anett Nyaradi, Jianghong Li, Siobhan Hickling, Jonathan Foster, and Wendy H. Oddy). Some of the conclusions reached are interesting:

  • Since rapid brain growth occurs during the first 2 years of life (and by the age of 2 the brain reaches 80% of its adult weight), this period of life may be particularly sensitive to deficiencies in diet
  • studies of infants with vitamin B12 deficiencies reported a variety of abnormal clinical and radiological signs, including: hypotonic muscles, involuntary muscle movements, apathy, cerebral atrophy, and demyelination of nerve cells
  • severe iodine deficiency during pregnancy may cause “cretinism” in children
  • most observational studies on iodine deficient children found some degree of cognitive impairment
  • malnourished children have less energy and interest for learning that negatively influences cognitive development
  • even mild but persistent malnutrition in early life (i.e., during the first 2 years of life) negatively influences reasoning, visuospatial functions, IQ, language development, attention, learning, and academic achievement

What does all this mean? I think the key point is that, whereas Nicholls and other English officials held the belief that the Irish were responsible for their condition because of an innate indolence and lassitude, the truth is the opposite: it was their condition that caused the observed behavioural deficiencies.

Given repeated shortages of food over several generations, there can, surely, be little doubt that important minerals and/or vitamins were often lacking and that, as a consequence, pregnancies entered into during or shortly before such periods had a high likelihood of producing individuals with less than optimal subsequent mental development.


Community vs Individualism

The post from Felicity Sidnel about cohousing that I re-blogged recently reminded me of something I read whilst researching the Irish famine of 1845-51. Prior to this traumatic event there existed in parts of the North West of the island a system of communal land occupation and cultivation known as rundale. It had remained unchanged for many centuries¹. It continued even though legal ownership of the land might be vested in a landlord with ties to the British mainland.

The people resided in a cluster of homes called a clachan. The adjacent land radiated out from the cluster and was farmed communally. The right to grow crops on individual plots rotated among the members so that each had the opportunity to use the best land. In some such communities plots were re-assigned every 3 or 4 years by the casting of lots.

Not that any of the land could be described as ‘good’ by comparison with the fertile soils of the Midlands and South East of the island. It was, however, capable of producing crops of oats and barley or rye, as well as grazing cattle. These uses would be rotated around the plots, the period when a plot was used for grazing providing a chance for the soil to regenerate, assisted by the manure deposited by the animals.

Cattle grazing uplands. © Copyright Andrew Hill and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Cattle grazing uplands. © Copyright Andrew Hill and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

In many clachan‘s, it was common practice to take the animals to high ground, beyond the cultivated fields, to graze uplands that were incapable of being tilled. In some cases families would have a second, albeit rudimentary, home in the hills for summer occupation by younger members in charge of the herd. In my readings about rundale, I have yet to discover what their diet consisted of in this period. I can imagine they might have taken a supply of oats with them. I think it probable, also, that they would have cooked and eaten edible wild plants such as dandelion and nettle. They may even have caught and cooked small wild animals like rabbits, squirrels and hares.

Open field

Rundale has some similarities to the system of open field cultivation practiced right across Britain and Europe from medieval times. A key difference is that at the centre of each open field community was the manor house. The rest of the community were subservient to the Lord of the Manor. Otherwise, the rotation of holdings and of crops between plots was the same. The plots, however, took the form of long, narrow, strips. This system continued in some parts of Europe until late in the nineteenth century. In mainland Britain it ended with the enclosure movement which gained popularity with landlords (though not necessarily with the peasantry) throughout the eighteenth century.

In the West of Ireland, the arrival of the potato changed this pattern. The potato is a highly nutritious food that is easy to grow on poor soil so long as manure and/or seaweed is available to feed the plants. Such reliance on a single crop was, however, dangerous. There were failures of the crop in some years before 1845. The famines that accompanied such failures were short-lived because potatoes were grown in sufficient quantities the next year.

Repeated crop failure

It was repeated failures of the potato crop over a five year period that created the circumstances in which the Great Famine happened. By then, the same pressures that led to the enclosure movement in England were in operation in Ireland also. Rundale was being replaced by the re-allocation of land to single family holdings.

It is debatable whether such communal systems of agriculture are more or less efficient than single farm holdings. One factor that is very clear is that community based systems like rundale and the open field system are highly regulated. There may not have been a Lord of the Manor to manage the rotation of crops and the allocation of plots in rundale. There was, however, a hierarchy with a leader known as An Ri, or King. It was this man who supervised the casting of lots and organised such communal tasks as the mending of fences.

There is evidence that rundale continued in use in at least one Mayo parish until the end of the twentieth century. The open field system is still practiced in the Nottinghamshire parish of Laxton in England.


A typical cohousing development. copyright UK Cohousing Network

A typical cohousing development. copyright UK Cohousing Network

How do either compare to cohousing as described in Feicity Sidnel’s post? According to the website of the UK Cohousing network “Most cohousing communities have a common house, with shared facilities such as cooking and dining spaces, meeting and playing areas, laundries and guest rooms. Shared outside space for childrens’ play, parties and food growing (my emphasis) can feature in a cohousing project.” This is in addition to individual homes.

However, “The community is governed in a non hierarchical way.” But the item goes on to point out that: “Some communities also require residents to undertake a set number of hours work for the community.” Suggesting that a degree of regulation is needed, just as in rundale and the open field system.

¹Not everyone agrees about the origin of rundale. See Yager, Tom. “What Was Rundale and Where Did It Come From?Béaloideas 70 (2002): 153-86. Web.

Final Solutions: the road from Scapegoat to Genocide

A recent article in the Irish on-line newspaper, reporting on calls for the annual commemoration of the 19th century potato famine to have a fixed date, drew an inevitable spate of comments pointing out that this event was really an example of genocide. Are such claims fair?

The starting point for my response is to look at motives. If you believe that the responsibility for the economic and/or social problems being faced in a particular place or time can be laid at the door of a specific group of people you are embarking on a journey that certainly can end in genocide. It has happened many times in history, not just in 1930s Germany.

Blaming immigrants, people of colour, the rich, the poor, the members of a religious group or of a profession – politicians, bankers, the police force – is always too easy as well as dangerous. But the question is where do you draw the line when it comes to proposing solutions. Do you stop at calls to ‘control our borders’? At demands to ‘send them home’? (These latter relating to immigrants). Do you insist on restricting the movements of those you regard as the source of the problem, or their forced removal to some other place – ‘transportation’? Or do you embark on a declared policy of rounding them up and imprisoning them, to be followed by a covert but systematic process of industrial scale murder?

There can be no doubt that the last of these qualifies as genocide1.

But what if nature presents an opportunity to bring about a cull of those you regard as blameworthy and you refuse to provide the kind of assistance that could prevent the natural tragedy? You are, arguably, not directly responsible for the many deaths that take place. You can claim that providence is to blame, that God’s punishment is being wreaked upon the victims – both claims made by British officials and politicians at the time.

You are surely guilty by virtue of your inaction. Is that genocide?

If not, is there a word in the English language that describes such a crime? And it is worth pointing out that it is a crime that continues to this day, when we turn refugees away from our borders, just as it did a century and a half ago when death by disease and starvation was permitted to run largely unchecked in what was then a part of the United Kingdom.

Moral Restraint

Thomas Malthus: propounded the theory that increasing population was bound to lead to starvation.

The man most frequently blamed for government policy towards the Irish at the time is Charles Trevelyan. Surprisingly few historians have made what to me is an obvious connection between those policies and the fact that Trevelyan was a student of Thomas Malthus. It was Malthus who first pointed out that population growth is geometric whilst that of food production is arithmetic. Sooner or later increasing population leads to increasing poverty and, eventually, famine.

The methods he proposed to overcome this problem included ‘moral restraint’ and delayed marriage, both with the aim of reducing the birth rate. The opening up of new colonies in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa also presented an opportunity to reduce the local population by immigration. Troublesome subjects from both islands were sentenced to ‘transportation’, their removal to one or other of these far off lands, manacled in the bowels of ships.

In the fifty years preceding the famine the population of Ireland had doubled. An important cause of this was the arrival of the potato, a highly nutritious food that could be grown above

Women working on ‘lazy beds’ the traditional method of growing potatoes in Ireland

the soil, on land unsuitable for other crops, the tubers simply covered in a mixture of peat, straw and seaweed or manure, providing a healthy diet and increased prosperity. With greater health came increased survival of infants and a naturally increasing population. This brought about a dramatic reduction in the area of usable land available to each person.

Widespread crop failure

Potato blight first struck in Ireland in the autumn of 1845. Over night the whole field turned totally rotten. The stink of the tubers caused the air to be fouled. The same happened to varying degrees in each of the next 5 years. It was not only in Ireland that this phenomenon took place. Parts of mainland Europe and the Western seaboard of North America were also afflicted.

The spread of potato blight in North America, 1843 – 1845

The spread of potato blight across Britain and Europe, autumn 1845

Yet it was only in Ireland that the effects were so devastating. This was in part due to an over-dependence in Ireland on the potato as the principal food. The average consumption by 1845 was 14 lbs per person per day. An acre of land would yield up to 12 tons per anum and a family of man, wife and four children consumed 5 tons leaving an adequate surplus to feed a pig and a few chickens.

In the Midlands and East there was less dependence on the potato. Here the fertile soil was used to produce wheat and barley, most of which was exported to the mainland. These exports did not cease when the potato crop failed. They were, after all, an important source of food for that land’s occupants, as well as profits for the aristocratic owners of Irish lands. With such a dramatic reduction in the potato harvest people became undernourished or starved. Undernourished people are susceptible to disease. Sanitation in these times was inadequate to prevent the spread of typhus, cholera and dysentery, diseases which killed many.


There were attempts at relief. Against government opposition, Robert Peel imported maize from the USA. Trevelyan insisted that the Irish landlords should bear the brunt of any relief, but many were incapable of doing so. How can you provide assistance from rents received when the very people who require the assistance are the same people who pay the rent?

The construction of roads leading nowhere, an early form of ‘workfare’ in which poor relief was provided in return for labour.

An early form of what today is called ‘workfare’ was introduced, with a range of public works instituted to provide employment in return for meagre wages. This often entailed the construction of roads to nowhere, the heavy work often carried out by women and children too weak from lack of food to produce enough to earn the price of a day’s nourishment.

Workhouses imposed rules which meant that one had to have literally nothing in order to qualify for admittance. Men, women and children were segregated once admitted, splitting families (but enforcing the ‘moral restraint’ Malthus advocated as a way of preventing population increases).

Some evangelising protestants made the aid they provided conditional upon the conversion of Catholics away from their preferred religion.

At the same time, it is important to acknowledge that not all land owners were impervious to the needs of their tenants. Nor did all of those with religious motives impose conditions on the recipients of assistance.

The Quakers were the first to introduced soup kitchens

In particular, the Quakers established the first soup kitchens, financed fisheries and agricultural improvements, including the distribution of seeds, and funded industrial development.

But it is clear from the records of the time that the authorities, with their poor opinion of the Irish as a rebellious and ungrateful body of people, welcomed the opportunity that nature had presented. Does that add up to genocide – or simply guilt by omission?

Is it fair to liken it to the Nazi’s persecution of Jews and others with a programme of deliberate extermination, or with more recent events in Rwanda or the former Yugoslavia? Probably not. But it most certainly ought to serve as a lesson in where the scapegoating of those who differ from us in some way can lead.

1Footnote: According to the United Nations: [G]enocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

The word did not exist before 1944 and the above definition was established in 1948.

Desperate to Escape

One of the many radio programmes I remember from my childhood began with the announcement ‘Once again we stop the mighty roar of London’s traffic to bring you the stories of people who are IN TOWN TONIGHT.’ I used that memory in my recently completed novel. I imagined a young woman hearing those words in the stifling surroundings of an English provincial town in the freezing early months of 1947 and making up her mind to escape to the capital. London in 1947


I imagined, too, how a quarter of a century later she would be able to empathise with another young woman caught in the trap of pregnancy in the same provincial town; how she would help her to escape and find a new life in 1970s London.

Scars of war

The London of the twenty-first century, with its glass and steel towers, would be unrecognisable to my character arriving in a city still pock-marked by the scars of second world war bombing raids. Its lure, however, is as great, if not greater. Its attractions, broadcast 70 years ago, by radio, the length and breadth of the UK, now transmitted via television and the internet to the furthest reaches of the planet.

The world’s population has increased almost five-fold since the end of world war two, despite the numerous wars, revolutions, genocides, famines and natural disasters that have destroyed millions of lives throughout those years. Who among us could fail to empathise with those wishing to escape the ravages of civil wars and famines, of over-crowded slums and poverty?

Long trek

My character had only too endure a three-hour train journey to reach her destination of her dreams. The migrants encamped in their thousands in Calais have journeyed for many days, on foot or in the backs of assorted vehicles, to reach the north coast of Africa before embarking on some un-seaworthy vessel to cross the Mediterranean before undertaking another long trek over land to reach the French port.

Another memory that comes to me, this time from 1970, is of crossing the Irish Sea in an over-crowded ferry. All flights into Dublin were cancelled because of fog. The regular ferry had been temporarily taken out of service. Hollyhead was inaccessible because of the activities of Welsh Nationalists. The only available route was via Heysham on an ancient mail boat.

Some passengers were issued with bed-rolls and invited to sleep in the cargo hold. I remember the stevedores loading the mail downed tools for two hours whilst the stewards marshaled the passengers to keep them clear of the hatches. I spent the night roaming the decks, stumbling over the feet of people sprawled in the corridors and on stairways, listening to the cries of children as Irish families returned home from holidays with relatives in England.

Perhaps that experience makes it a little easier for me than for someone reading this to understand what it might be like to be crammed with dozens of others into the stinking hold of a no-longer sea-worthy fishing vessel. Listening to the stories of members of what David Cameron referred to as ‘a swarm’, it is impossible not to feel empathy. But it is equally impossible to imagine a practical solution to a problem that is the result of the combination of inexorably rising world population and those continuing wars, famines and disasters.

Cameron appears to be pinning his hopes on something I campaigned for 30 years ago and which successive British governments refused to do until recently, namely meeting the UN’s target for foreign aid which has been 0.7% of GDP since 1970. Britain is one of only a handful of nations to do so. Other British politicians are happy to condemn his language whilst offering little in the way of a practical solution.

For 25 years the Berlin wall and the heavily guarded frontier between the old Soviet Union and the rest of Europe was maintained by the Soviet government to keep its people in. Another 25 years have passed and a former Soviet republic, now part of Europe, is erecting a barrier to keep foreigners out.

Welfare cuts

The concerns of ordinary Europeans – housing crises, austerity, cuts in welfare – pale into insignificance when viewed against the terrors and travails that are the daily experience of a multitude of African and Middle-Eastern citizens. To the extent that the conditions of their existence are influenced by the decisions our politicians and business leaders take on our behalf, we are responsible for what becomes of them. Exactly what we can do about it is a question for which I do not have the answer. Who does, I wonder?

It seems to me that it is a tide that is bound to swamp us. The conditions the migrants are fleeing from will not be improved any time soon by so inadequate an aid effort. We are no more able to prevent the inevitable than was Cnut a thousand years ago.