The Great Hunger

In 1840, the population of Ireland was over 8 million[1]The Great Irish Famine Was a Turning Point for Ireland and America. Today it is 5 million[2]Ireland Population. Between 1841 and 1850 one million died during the Great Hunger and another million emigrated. 

During the 150th commemorations of the Famine, Britain’s Prime Minister Tony Blair expressed expressed regret over England’s role, but stopped short of making a full apology[3]Past as Prologue: Blair Faults Britain in Irish Potato Blight.

Charles Trevelyan the British bureaucrat responsible for handing affairs during the famine was given a knighthood in 1848, and became governor of Madras and finance minister in India in the 1850s and 1860s[4]The truth about Trevelyan: Sir Charles Edward Trevelyan and the Great Famine.

Trevelyan’s ancestor, Laura Trevelyan, has admitted that Trevelyan’s role “could merit compensation”[5]Ancestor’s Irish famine role could merit compensation, says Laura Trevelyan.

Trevelyan was notoriously ambitious[6]The truth about Trevelyan: Sir Charles Edward Trevelyan and the Great Famine, and this made him the perfect scapegoat. His political overlord, Lord John Russell who came into power on 29 June 1846 was the person who drove the laissez-faire policy that turned a crises into a catastrophe, and then celebrated the result as a success. Much like today’s British government have done with Brexit, and the handling of the Covid pandemic.

In the early 1800s, the impoverished and rapidly-growing rural population of Ireland had become almost totally dependent on one crop, the potato. It was the only produce that could give enough food to sustain families farming the tiny plots of land the Irish peasants had been forced onto by British landlords[7]The Great Irish Famine Was a Turning Point for Ireland and America.

The problem had already started in September and October of 1845 when a fungus infected the potato plants, which withered with shocking speed. When the potatoes were dug up for harvest, they were found to be rotting.

The same happened to the 1846 crop. People were beginning to starve, and there were food riots. The British sent in troops[8]The Great Hunger.

During the earlier crop failure, Sir Robert Peel’s government had sent in Indian corn to feed the Irish. Trevelyan claimed that aiding the Irish brought “the risk of paralysing all private enterprise.” He ruled against providing any more government food. He believed Peel’s policy of providing cheap Indian corn meal to the Irish had been a mistake because it undercut market prices and had discouraged private food dealers from importing the needed food. 

The winter of 1846-47 was the worst in living memory as one blizzard after another buried homes in snow up to their roofs. Trevelyan’s solution was to create public works, so that the Irish could earn their way out of their (in his opinion[9]The Irish Crises) self-made crises.

Trevelyan’s opinion of the Irish is left in little doubt in his essay on the Irish crises where he describes men as ignorant and indigent and the Irish woman of the peasant class in the West of Ireland, “whose culinary art does not exceed the boiling of a potato”[10]The Irish Crises.

The result was the Great Famine. 

I entered some of the hovels, and the scenes which presented themselves were such as no tongue or pen can convey the slightest idea of. In the first, six famished and ghastly skeletons, to all appearances dead, were huddled in a corner on some filthy straw, their sole covering what seemed a ragged horsecloth, their wretched legs hanging about, naked above the knees. I approached with horror, and found by a low moaning they were alive — they were in fever, four children, a woman and what had once been a man. It is impossible to go through the detail. Suffice it to say, that in a few minutes I was surrounded by at least 200 such phantoms, such frightful spectres as no words can describe, [suffering] either from famine or from fever. Their demoniac yells are still ringing in my ears, and their horrible images are fixed upon my brain. 
Nicholas Cummins, the magistrate of Cork

The British saw the famine as an opportunity to clear the land of the poor, develop commercialised agriculture, and make the Irish economy more modern[11]The truth about Trevelyan: Sir Charles Edward Trevelyan and the Great Famine

It’s no wonder that Trevelyan was knighted.