Some people claim that the Great Famine was an act of genocide committed by the British Empire against the Irish people. This theory is most popular among Irish-Americans (who strangely enough are more nationalist than people from Ireland) and on the internet, though it has little if any credence in Ireland. It has been booted out of conspiracy theory land after one of the most respected Irish historians; Tim Pat Coogan supported the allegation in his new book, The Famine Plot.
The Great Famine (or Great Hunger as it is also known) was the most cataclysmic event in Irish history. Sparked by the failure of the potato crop (due to blight) it led to roughly one million deaths and roughly another million people to emigrate. Considering the pre-famine population was 8 million it was proportionally one of the worst famines in modern times. The population of Ireland has never reached that level again, making us one of the few (if not only) countries to have the same population that we did in 1820. It was the largest factor in the destruction of the Irish language and culture. It began a process of mass emigration that would drain the country of all vitality for the next 150 years as the best and brightest left.
The argument is that this famine was not a natural disaster but rather deliberate plan by the British authorities to destroy the Irish people. The famous 19th century Irish revolutionary John Mitchell famously said “God sent the blight, but the English sent the Famine.” What he meant was that despite the failure of the potato crop there was still enough food in the country to feed the population. Instead the cruel and greedy English exported the food leaving the Irish to starve. Reference is made to disgusting bigotry and anti-Irish prejudice in Britain at the time, particularly of the infamous Punch cartoons which compared the Irish to apes. The allegation is that the British deliberatively neglected the starving Irish in order to destroy them and clear the land.
The most controversial issue in Anglo-Irish affairs is the allegation that food was exported during the Famine. This was first claimed by Irish nationalists as a reason to end British rule and the Famine certainly put an end to the idea that Ireland would be a part of the United Kingdom for good. However, it is extraordinarily difficult to prove the claim true or false, and to my knowledge no one has. Records of exports simply weren’t kept or have since been lost. It is certainly true that some food was exported, but there is no way of knowing how much or if it would have prevented the Famine. Food was also imported, though again, it is unknown where this outweighed the food that was exported. The starving Irish had little money so merchants naturally (in their mind) sold it abroad where they could get a better price. Had a ban on exports been put in place, lives would have been saved, but how many is unknown.
Let’s take a moment to reflect on what genocide actually means. According to the United Nations Genocide Convention:
“Any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life, calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; [and] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.” (emphasis added)
The crucial question in whether or not it is genocide comes down to intent. Did the English government intend to destroy the Irish people? The answer is no. They were heartlessly negligent, but neglect is not the same as murder. There was never any plan to wipe out the Irish nor any actions that could be viewed as such. The government didn’t directly kill anyone nor did they deliberatively destroy any food. In fact the relief aid, pathetic as it was, does damage the genocide argument. After all, why would the government set up soup kitchens if it wanted the Irish to die?
It was not murder or genocide that killed so many, but neglect. The government believed in laissez-faire economics or what would now be called free market fundamentalism (I have a post on the issue here). They believed that the government should not interfere with the market or it would only make the situation worse. They believed (like many today) that aid to the Irish would only make them lazy and dependent on handouts. They believed Ireland was over-populated and welcomed emigration to America. There was certainly a lot of racism, but I believe the larger motivator was aristocratic disgust for the poor. The government didn’t believe that poor people should be helped no matter how desperate their situation or what their nationality was. This, and not some genocidal master plan, was why so little was done during the Famine.
(It is worth pointing out that historians have criticised Coogan’s book. Having read it, I must agree that it lacks thoroughness and fails to back up its claim that the Famine was genocide. Little evidence is given and there are surprisingly few sources used.)
The Famine was the greatest calamity in Irish history. People needlessly died due to cold-hearted indifference and the elevation of the market above the lives of people. Nowhere near enough aid was given as prejudice won out over compassion. Laissez faire turned into Leave them to die. But this was a crime of neglect, not genocide. There never was intent to destroy the Irish. Had the government really wanted to exterminate the Irish, they would have done more than let natural disasters run their course. The claims by Coogan and others, while passionate, simply do not have enough evidence to support themselves.