In the 40 years leading up to the Great Famine, Ireland had been governed as an integral part of the UK.
Executive power lay in the hands of the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, appointed by the Crown. Ireland sent over 100 MPs to the House of Commons and 28 peers to the House of Lords. This legislature was completely unrepresentative of the country as 70% of the membership was landowners.
Unsurprisingly, successive British governments encountered numerous, intractable problems in governing Ireland. These included a starving population; an absentee landlord aristocracy; an alien, established church; the legacy of the 1798 Rebellion; and a weak, feeble executive.
Indeed, between 1800-1845 there were numerous commissions and countless special committees inquiring into the state of the country. All, without exception, prophesied disaster. Sections of the impoverished Irish peasantry were perpetually on the verge of starvation.
Risks included Ireland’s archaic and inefficient system of agriculture and land tenure, high unemployment rates, over dependence on the potato crop and rapid population growth. The potato blight famine was simply an accident waiting to happen and the British had little idea how to deal with it.
Two further toxic issues complicated the British response to this crisis.
The Whig/Liberal coalition was fixated on the doctrine of laissez-faire economics and believed that the market could cure all problems and should operate without state intervention. However, it remains a mystery how this unregulated market could provide food to landless, unemployed peasants with no income to purchase these provisions.
This misguided policy bizarrely led to the export of food from Ireland when the population was starving and a reduction in charitable donations. Evidently the market was sacrosanct and human life expendable.
There was also the question of divine providence - the idea that the famine was God’s retribution on the “feckless Irish”. Astonishingly, Lord Trevelyan, chief administrator of the British relief programme, proclaimed that “the judgment of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson … that calamity must not be too much mitigated". It is instructive that neither he nor the PM John Russell expressed any contrition or remorse for their culpable negligence in failing to prevent the deaths of over one million people in the famine.
However, most reputable historians absolve Britain of genocide in relation to its incompetent, chaotic and ineffectual response to the famine. This exoneration is based on the scale of its relief programme and its public works measures which, although totally inadequate, did not demonstrate any deliberate intent to eliminate the peasantry. But the callous words of Lord Trevelyan still cast a long shadow over British motives in responding to this disaster.
The plaintive refrains of the Fields of Athenry will be drifting across the Irish terraces during the ongoing rugby world cup ... hopefully in response to Irish victories. This unofficial rugby anthem ensures that the heartless, malevolent Lord Trevelyan will never be forgotten.
George Workman, Donabate, Co Dublin