“Those who governed in London at the time failed their people through standing by while a crop failure turned into a massive human tragedy. We must not forget such a dreadful event.”
Tony Blair, British Prime Minister
From the Greek word for tribe (or race), genos, and the Latin term -cide, the word genocide refers to the extermination of the peoples of a nation (or religious group) carried out by an organization, usually a government. Such is the case when discussing the British treatment of Ireland during the potato blight; treatment which was based in the history of Ireland. William Makepiece Thackcray wrote:
“…It is a frightful document against ourselves…one of the most melancholy stories in the whole world of insolence, rapine, brutal, endless slaughter and persecution on the part of the English master…There is no crime ever invented by eastern or western barbarians, no torture or Roman persecution or Spanish Inquisition, no tyranny of Nero or Alva but can be matched in the history of England in Ireland.” (Metress, 2)
A famine did not truly exist. There was no food shortage in Ireland evidenced by the fact that the British landowners continued to have a varied diet and food stuffs were exported. This was not the first failure of the potato crop in the history of Ireland. The starvation (and genocide) occurred as the British carried on their historical exploitation of the Irish people, failed to take appropriate action in the face of the failure of the potato crop, and maintained their racist attitude toward the Irish.
The Penal Laws, first passed in 1695. were strictly enforced. These laws made it illegal for Catholics (Irish) to own land, and required the transfer of property from Catholics to Protestants; to have access to an education, and eliminated Gaelic as a language while preventing the development of an educated class; to enter professions, forcing the Irish to remain as sharecropping farmers; or to practice their religion. In addition, Catholics (Irish) could not vote, hold an office, purchase land, join the army, or engage in commerce. Simply put, the British turned the Irish into nothing better than slaves, subsisting on their small rented farms.
The exportation of wheat, oats, barley, and rye did nothing to help the financial status of the poor farmer. The produce was used to pay taxes and rents to the English landlords, who then sold the farm products for great profit. These profits did nothing for the economy of Ireland, but did help the English landlords to prosper. The Irish farmer was forced to remain in poverty, and reliant on one crop, potato, for his subsistence.
The potato became the dominant crop for the poor of Ireland as it was able to provide the greatest amount of food for the least acreage. Farming required a large family to tend the crops and the population grew as a result of need. Poverty forced the Irish to rely upon the potato and the potato kept the Irish impoverished.
As the economic situation worsened, landlords who had the legal power to do so, evicted their Irish tenant farmers, filling the workhouses with poor, underfed, and diseased human beings who were destined to die.
A caption under a picture shown in The Pictorial Times, October 10, 1846, best describes the circumstances of the great starvation, and the nature of the genocide:
“Around them is plenty; rickyards, in full contempt, stand under their snug thatch, calculating the chances of advancing prices; or, the thrashed grain safely stored awaits only the opportunity of conveyance to be taken far away to feed strangers…But a strong arm interposes to hold the maddened infuriates away. Property laws supersede those of Nature. Grain is of more value than blood. And if they attempt to take of the fatness of the land that belongs to their lords, death by musketry, is a cheap government measure to provide for the wants of a starving and incensed people.”(Food Riots, 2)
It is time for the world to stop referring to this disastrous period in Irish history as the Great Famine, and to fully realize, and to acknowledge, the magnitude of the crime that systematically destroyed Irish nationalism, the Irish economy, the Irish culture, and the Irish people. It was genocide.