Monday, November 29, 2010


Tyler Cowen links to this fascinating paper by Edward O'Boyle on the Great Irish famine, in which maybe a million or more people died.

One of the things that stood out was O'Boyle's descriptions of how food exports from Ireland to England continued throughout the famine:
Under the circumstances, it was necessary to provide English military escort to assure the flow of food exports to England. In April 1846, for example, food was shipped from Conmel in Ireland to England protected by 80 infantrymen and 50 cavalrymen (Woodham-Smith, p.77). Sheehan (p.8) confirms the shipment of wheat, barley, and oats as rent payments to landlords in England by Irish peasants who, failing those payments, risked eviction from the land. The prevailing view within the English government was that nothing should be done to bring harm to an already fragile retail system. Kinealy, who 150 years after the Famine was the first to check the shipping records on food shipments from Ireland during the famine years, stated that in 1847 alone 4,000 ships sailed from Ireland carrying food shipments (Sunday Business Post, p.30). In late 1848 it became necessary to enlist the military to protect rent collectors (Nowlan, p.177).

Further proof, if you needed it, that famines are more complex than you might think.

I am in general a strong supporter of the British Imperial project, but it's hard not to see the Irish famine as evincing appalling negligence and indifference on the part of English leadership, both political and civil. As John Dolan noted about William Wordsworth:
I remember sifting through the elderly Wordsworth’s letters looking for any comment at all on the Great Famine which was extirpating the Irish, and finding only one remark, in which the great moralist earnestly prays that England will not weaken, ie provide any aid whatsoever. It’s one of the curiosities of English literary history that you’ll never find the least particle of compassion for the Irish in “moral” poets like Wordsworth.
Sad but true, that many of the history's giants have feet of clay. Washington owned slaves, and Wordsworth couldn't give a rat's @$$ about a million dead Irish.

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