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The Irish Great Famine


The Great Famine was a period of mass starvation, disease and emigration affecting Ireland between 1845 and 1852. It is estimated that approximately 1 million people died and a million more emigrated from Ireland. The immediate cause of the Great Famine was the potato blight fungus. Although this microorganism decimated potato crops throughout Europe and the Americas during this time, its impact was most severe in Ireland because the Irish population was poor, populous and heavily dependent on the potato with few alternative staple foods.

Matthew had warned of the possibility of an Irish famine as far back as 1839, on pp.67-9 of his book Emigration Fields, and this warning had been deemed of sufficient interest that this passage had been reprinted in newspapers like the Sherborne Mercury in November 1841 – indeed, this is the only printed excerpt from Matthew’s Emigration Fields that I’ve found so far in any British newspaper. Matthew had written clearly of the danger of a “deficient crop” on Ireland’s “greatly over-abundant population”, and had recommended a pre-emptive policy of mass emigration to deal with it (Matthew had suggested emigration to Texas, partly for political reasons). Matthew wasn’t the only person to foresee a disaster in Ireland. Woodham-Smith (1962) notes that there had been 114 commissions and 61 special committees enquiring into the state of Ireland between 1801-1845, and that “without exception their findings prophesied disaster; Ireland was on the verge of starvation, her population rapidly increasing, three-quarters of her labourers unemployed, housing conditions appalling and the standard of living unbelievably low”.

When disaster did come, Matthew immediately wrote two open letters to the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel, in September and October 1845. Matthew first speculates on the possible causes of the blight, considering not only the likely “animalcule” nature of the infection itself but also other possible contributing causes such as “climatic influence”. Matthew also places much blame on the likely weakened nature of the crop being attacked, a consequence of it being cultivated rather than wild (this is a general observation regarding domestication that he also makes in On Naval Timber and Arboriculture). But the main purpose of these letters is to consider how best to ameliorate the condition of the Irish, irrespective of the causes of the famine. Matthew urges the Prime Minister to stop the “bonded” export of food from Britain, to repeal the Corn Laws imposing high duties on imported food, and to start planting other crops in Ireland instead (Matthew suggests the turnip).

Matthew wrote another open letter to the Prime Minister, Lord John Russell, a year later in October 1846. By that time, Peel had indeed repealed the Corn Laws, but the issue had so divided his party that his government had fallen and a new government under Russell had taken over. In Matthew’s letter to Russell, he once again considers the biology of the disease. He believes that the disease has spread to other crop species (he was wrong in this – the potato blight was only a threat to potatoes and tomatoes). Matthew is so concerned that he wonders whether the blight might “threaten to blot out the human race from the earth”. Matthew then, as before, urges Russell to prevent the “bonded” export of grain from Ireland, and to reduce the high duties on imported grain (the Corn Laws had been repealed by this time, but this was gradually phased over three years, and Matthew writes that in the short term import duties had actually gone up, not down). Matthew predicts that social unrest would inevitably follow unless the government acted decisively (recounting his experiences of mass hysteria during the 1842 Great Fire of Hamburg as an example).

In the event, Russell’s government failed to react properly to the deepening crisis in Ireland, and they even halted Peel’s public works program that had been set up to provide much needed employment and capital for the Irish economy. As Matthew predicted, the continued export of grain from Ireland during the Great Famine, along with the heavy-handed response to the resulting public unrest, proved to be a continuing and festering source of resentment between Ireland and Britain in the decades that followed.

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