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For over five hundred years before the Great Hunger of 1845-49, famine was a relatively frequent occurrence in Ireland. Widespread shortage of food crops, due mainly to severe weather conditions, occurred regularly between the 14th and 18th centuries. However, the period of unprecedented apocalyptic disaster which commenced in 1845 – often referred to as the worst tragedy to befall any European nation during peacetime and which is commonly, but in the opinion of many, disingenuously described as ‘the Famine’ or ‘The Great Famine’, was very different to other periods described as such in Ireland’s history. In his book Boomerang: Travels In The New Third World, Michael Lewis describes what occurred in Ireland in the mid 19th century as “the single greatest loss of population in world history”.

Skibbereen 1847 by Cork artist James Mahony (1810–1879), commissioned by Illustrated London News 1847Now, the standard dictionary definitions of the word ‘famine’ specify widespread shortage of food, but during this period record amounts of so-called ‘surplus’ food were exported from Ireland as millions of Irish peasants starved and the governing British Treasury refused adequate aid. Many historical observers still contest the use of the word ‘famine’ as attempted whitewash and consider this more as an act of genocide by Britain against the people of Ireland.

Those who disagree should consider the words of the Assistant-Secretary for the British Treasury at the time, the infamous Sir Charles Trevelyan, who declared that this was “God’s punishment on the lazy, indolent Irish… (who) would never resort to honest industry if they were provided with free handouts of food at government expense”. Trevelyan further justified his callous indifference and openly racist slurs by citing policies of laissez-faire, insisting that Ireland must solve its own problems. His attitude might have been marginally more acceptable if Ireland’s problems were of their own and not so much of British making. However, regardless of policies such as laissez-faire, if a government claims to rule a country – as Westminster did Ireland – there is an unavoidable moral responsibility for the welfare of the ‘subject’ people.

There can be no doubt that, to their eternal shame, the British government – at the time the richest and most powerful in the world – failed utterly in their responsibilities to the Irish.  This disgraceful neglect of duty and responsibility was finally officially recognised a century and a half later by British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s admission that “Those who governed in London at the time failed their people by standing by while a crop failure turned into a massive human tragedy. We must not forget such a dreadful event”.

Blair’s apology notwithstanding, we should be mindful of the fact that on the eve of The Great Hunger, Ireland’s population stood at an all-time high of over 8 million people. Once again in The Irish In Ontario, Akenson offers a cautionary reminder not to jump to possibly inaccurate conclusions: “it is clear that during the eighteenth century and the first half of the nineteenth century, population in the British Isles grew at a rate as fast as that which presently holds for many ‘third world’ countries and which we now view as a portent of inevitable disaster for the nations involved”. In other words, circumstances in a rapidly changing world had as much to do with causing the disaster which followed as the actions of any politicians and landlords.

As the situation grew worse in 1846, following the more widespread second bout of the potato blight, Irish peasants began to flee the country at an alarming rate. The most common destinations were other English speaking countries: the British mainland, Australia, America and Canada. Some emigrants sailed directly from Irish ports, but by far the most popular route was to ferry from Queenstown in Cork (now Cobh, pronounced ‘Cove’ and also known as The Harbour Of Tears) to Liverpool where large lumber ships with subsidised fares sailed regularly for Canada.

Because of its proximity to Ireland, there had been considerable trade between the Lancashire area and the Irish east coast since prehistoric times. However, it was not until the end of the 18th century that an Irish colony of any great significance appeared on Merseyside. Following the Industrial Revolution, the rapidly expanding seaport of Liverpool desperately required an increase in the labour force to work the docks. By the beginning of the 1840s approximately 20% of the entire Irish population of England and Wales had settled in Liverpool or ‘East Dublin’ as it is often jokingly referred to by the Liverpool Irish. In his book The Irish In Britain, John Denvir wrote:  “Liverpool contains next to London, the largest (Irish) population of any town in Great Britain”. He goes on to quote A.M. Sullivan’s famous declaration that in Liverpool he felt as if he was “not out of Ireland at all, but on a piece of the old sod itself…  it is not without some justification that some consider it the Irish capital of England”.

Credits: ~CD Notes, Forgotten People, Ron Kavana, http://www.aliasronkavana.com/#!the-great-hunger/c7nl

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