“The Graves are Walking” by John Kelly, a historian and popular science writer, is an engrossing narrative of the famine, vividly detailing Victorian society and the historical phenomena (natural and man-made) that converged to form the disaster. The decimation of the potato crop in the 1840s brought on the danger of mass starvation, but it was the British response that perpetuated the tragedy. The hand of nature, as illustrated in both books, caused only part of the problem.The Irish famine: Opening old wounds (The Economist)
Both authors describe the folly and cruelty of Victorian British policy towards its near-forsaken neighbour in detail. The British government, led by Sir Charles Trevelyan, assistant secretary to the Treasury (dubbed the “Victorian Cromwell”), appeared far more concerned with modernising Ireland’s economy and reforming its people’s “aboriginal” nature than with saving lives. Ireland became the unfortunate test case for a new Victorian zeal for free market principles, self-help, and ideas about nation-building.
Ireland still functioned as a basic barter economy—few hands exchanged money and the peasant population relied on their potato crops, which had failed. But rather than provide aid and establish long-term goals for recovery, Trevelyan and his cohorts saw a chance to introduce radical free-market reforms. As Mr Kelly notes, Trevelyan sent his subordinates to Ireland equipped with Adam Smith’s writings, like missionaries sent to barbarian lands armed with bibles. One absurd project to introduce a money economy was part of the public works scheme. Peasants were hired to build unnecessary roads in order to earn money to buy food. But wages were often not enough to match the high food prices enforced by Trevelyan as a measure to attract imports to Ireland, especially from America.
The belief that the famine was God’s intention also guided much of Britain’s policy. They viewed the crop failures as “a Visitation of Providence, an expression of divine displeasure” with Ireland and its mostly Catholic peasant population, writes Mr Kelly. Poverty was considered a moral failure. Within a few years Irish immigrants flooded the port cities of Liverpool in England, Montreal and Quebec in Canada and New York. The emigrant was considered an object of horror and contempt, as Mr Kelly writes: “pedestrians turned and walked the other way; storekeepers bolted the door or picked up a broom; street urchins mocked his shoeless feet, filthy clothing and Gaelic-accented English.” Throughout the book, Mr Kelly bemoans the tragic effects of human folly, neglect and Victorian ideology in causing the famine and its aftermath.
You don't hear so much about that, do you? Ireland is one of the only places in the world that has less people today than in the 1800's. But the release valve of immigration is less of an option today. And the elites then , exactly as now, demonized the poor for being shiftless and lazy:
His most compelling argument for British negligence is in the final chapter, in which he recalls the xenophobic images and words commonly used to caricature the Irish in Victorian England. Trevelyan and other architects of the famine response had a direct hand in filling the newspapers with the “oft-repeated theme that the famine was the result of a flaw in the Irish character.” And Punch, a satirical magazine, regularly portrayed “‘Paddy’ as a simian in a tailcoat and a derby, engaged in plotting murder, battening on the labour of the English workingman, and generally living a life of indolent treason,” explains Mr Coogan. The result of such dehumanising propaganda was to make unreasonable policy seem more reasonable and just.And Crooked Timber notes that The Economist itself was one of those magazines engaged in dehumanizing the victims of famine to justify free market policies. Here is one quote they dig up:
… the people, rapidly increasing, have been reduced, by acts for which they are chiefly to blame, to a sole reliance on the precarious crop of potatoes. It would be unjust to Ireland – it would be a neglect of a great duty which is imposed on us at this time – if we did not point to this calamity, assuming as it does this aggravated form, as in a great measure the natural result of that crime which has precluded the people from other available resources. That the innocent suffer with the guilty, is a melancholy truth, but it is one of the great conditions on which all society exists. Every breach of the laws of morality and social order brings its own punishment and inconvenience. Where there is not perfect security, there cannot be prosperity. This is the first law of civilization.Sounds a lot like the 47 percent doesn't it? Not to mention books like Charles Murray's Coming Apart. The date and the crisis always changes, but the tactics never do. It's also a refutation to those who think peak oil and austerity will affect everyone equally.