Popular on British and American TV screens, the series ”Victoria” about the reign of Queen Victoria, starring Jenna Coleman, is a great way to become familiar with the history of England without reading books. Only a small percentage of the population reads history books, and even there, some issues are not fully covered. For many British viewers it was the first they had learned about the horrors of the 1840s Irish Famine, arguably the biggest social upheaval in Europe of the 19th Century. Viewers were often unaware of the death of at least one million and emigration of a further million in the worst period of Irish history; they were shocked at the brutality of the Great Hunger. Those who do know that people died, and others emigrated, often don’t know why.
Little is taught in American schools either about the course or the causes of the Irish Famine. Many are aware of the Irish after their arrival in America, and understand they came at first because they had been hungry in Ireland. Some know that Irish laborers existed on a diet of 8 lbs of potatoes a day and little else. People cultivated the potato as a filling crop to feed themselves and were totally reliant on the potato until the blight which removed their principle source of food. The crop failure in Ireland affected only the potato, while other food production was robust. While other crops thrived, why did people starve?
I did know something about the suffering in 19th century Ireland, partly because my mother’s parents were both born in England of Irish immigrants, surnamed Tobin and Higgins. I was raised a Catholic and Eileen is an Irish name. As a child I heard my grandmother (born 1878) speak with passion about “The dirty Orangemen,” (the Protestants influenced by William of Orange) and memorably telling me in my teens that her “father was a land steward and had his house burned down in front of him.” (Landowners who wanted to evict their tenants sometimes set their cottages on fire, reducing them to desperate deprivation, wandering homeless as well as hungry.)
My mother and grandmother regarded themselves as totally Irish, as they were genetically, although my grandmother was never in Ireland and my mother only visited twice in her lifetime. Now living in Ireland, I hope to trace my ancestors who came from Bandon, near Cork, but many church records were lost in the unrest.
The farms belonged largely to British landlords, often absentee ones. They were less interested in farming, than in collecting the rents of the people living in hovels on their land and profiting from their labor. During the first winter of famine, 1846-47, while about 400,000 peasants starved, landlords exported 17 million pounds sterling worth of grain, cattle, pigs, flour, eggs and poultry, food that could have saved the people from starving.
Who was responsible for the famine?
- The British landlords, demanding rent and exporting other produce?
- The British government, which allowed these exports and offered little aid to Irish peasants?
- The Anglican Church, which failed to criticize the landlords or to act on the people’s behalf?
- The system of monoculture, which caused overdependence on one variety of potato, which failed with disastrous consequence?
Screenwriter of the drama series Daisy Goodwin has been praised by critics for not shying away from the unpalatable role played by British landlords and the government in the disaster. There was not much English compassion for the Irish people at the time. But some historians are questioning the extent to which the queen was concerned as portrayed in the drama. They think the queen is described too sympathetically in her attitude to Ireland.
Historical records show that Queen Victoria did little to aid the Irish, even though called upon by her Prime Ministers Peel and Russell to help. In January 1847 she issued a Queen’s letter asking Protestants to raise money for the Irish. In January 1848 she made her own donation (to a British agency) of £2,000. Not only did the queen fail to protect the Irish, she and her ministers prevented an offer of £10,000 by the Sultan of Turkey; the British Ambassador advised the Turkish authorities that it would offend royal protocol to give more than the monarch, and the offer was reduced. The Turkish offer would be worth $1.7 million today which would have been of great benefit to Ireland.
Prime Minister Peel helped to prevent mass death in Ireland in the first year of the famine, but his successor Lord Russell was not so successful and in 1846 mass mortality began. I have read accounts of people starving at the gates of wealthy landowners while the servants inside served food in abundance. One landlord described the surviving tenants as “famished and ghastly skeletons.” The British meanwhile had little compassion and distributed recipes on how to make soup from the inedible, putrid, blighted potatoes.
Queen Victoria wrote to her uncle, the King of Belgium, in April 1845 “I am sure poor Peel ought to be blessed by all Catholics for the manly and noble way in which he stands forth to protect and do good to poor Ireland. But the bigotry, the wicked blind passions it brings forth is quite dreadful, and I blush for Protestantism!”
In 1849 the queen, accompanied by her children, visited Ireland for her first official visit, touring the east coast of the country where the worst of Irish famine was over. She didn’t see the dire conditions in the west. She visited Ireland four times in her lifetime, the last as an old lady in 1900, when the nickname of The Famine Queen was applied. The queen deserved some of the blame for approximately one million deaths.
In Dublin last year the Epic Exhibition opened on the banks of the River Liffey, describing graphically with videos, interactive exhibits, life-size photographs and other innovative displays, the Famine and consequent Irish Diaspora. I commend this excellent museum to all who visit Dublin.
Before we condemn, this failure to respond to famine is echoed today when we produce more food than ever before, yet more than one in ten people on Earth are hungry. What are we doing about it? The hunger of 800 million coincides with an historical first, being outnumbered by one billion people on this planet who are overweight.
As an Englishwoman living in Ireland today I am not surprised at glimpses of the lingering chagrin in a population whose forefathers were subject to British rule and exploitation for centuries, and the wonder to me is that they are so forgiving. The Republic has been independent for a hundred years, but the Northern Irish are still adamant in belonging to the United Kingdom. The “Troubles” are largely the result of the British government’s historic resettlement of Scottish farmers in Ireland with their Protestant background, which disrupted Irish society.
Unlike the Welsh who still do not hide their resentment towards the English for their past sins, the Irish are too polite and amiable to reproach the English today, but I glimpsed the undercurrent when a cheerful builder in my house told me that whenever England is playing soccer or rugby, he always cheers for the opposing team, never mind where they come from. As we laughed I felt the tug of my Irish roots.