Beginning in 1845, potato blight destroyed a significant proportion of Ireland potato crop, ultimately leading to the deaths of more than 1 million individuals and the emigration of another 1-million plus.
Many today place blame for the tragedy on the British government of the 1840s, namely its adherence to a combination of laissez-faire relief efforts, trade laws that curtailed importation of grains that would have helped offset dwindling potato stocks and a general indifference to the fate of poor Catholic Irish by ruling Protestant British.
But, as Stephen Davies of the Foundation for Economic Education points out, the underpinnings of the Irish Potato Famine began at least 150 years before Phytophthora infestans first began attacking Irish potato crops.
Following the defeat of England’s last Catholic king, James II, by Protestant forces led by William of Orange in the Glorious Revolution in the late 17th century, a series of “penal laws” were passed by the Irish Parliament, which was dominated by the Protestant minority who had supported William.
The first law, passed in 1695, took away the right of Catholics to bear arms, while another forbade Catholics to leave the island for education and prohibited them from teaching or running schools within Ireland.
“The most important, however, was the Act to Prevent the Further Growth of Popery (1704),” according to Davies. “This prevented Catholics from buying land or inheriting it from Protestants, or from leasing land for more than 31 years. At about this time the potato was introduced as a major crop. The combination of the legislation and the new crop was ultimately disastrous.”
Taken together, the penal laws, together with other legislation, created a set of powerful and perverse incentives, Davies added.
“Because Catholic tenant farmers could not own land or hold it on anything but short-term leases, with little or no security of tenure, they had no incentive to improve their land or modernize agricultural practice,” he writes. “All the benefit would go to the hated alien class of Protestant landlords in higher rents or more expensive leases.”
On the other hand, the potato proved to be a miracle crop for poor Irish. It was a nutritious plant that made it possible to support a family on a very small plot of land.
However, with no ability to purchase land and no incentive to improve land, poor Irish grew increasingly dependent on the crop, repeatedly subdividing parcels and focusing almost exclusively on growing potatoes.
By 1841, 45 percent of all holdings in Ireland were less than five acres and 5.5 million out of a population of approximately 8 million were totally dependent on subsistence agriculture.
The lack of capital and the restraints on the Catholic majority meant that Irish commerce and manufacturing were non-existent. This lack of economic diversification would ultimately extract a heavy toll.
Another nail in the coffin for many of Ireland’s poor were the Corn Laws introduced by Parliament in 1815.
These were trade laws designed to protect cereal producers in the United Kingdom against competition from less-expensive foreign imports. This had the effect of preserving the flawed Irish farming system, according to Davies.
In the end, simple bad luck compounded the problem. In 1845 the Irish potato crop became infested with the blight, causing a partial failure of the crop that year.
Unusually wet weather resulted in a total harvest failure the following year, and again in 1847 and 1848.
Ultimately, British relief efforts teetered between inept and inane.
Recognizing Ireland’s widespread crop failure in the autumn of 1845, Prime Minister Robert Peel purchased £100,000 worth of maize and cornmeal secretly from America, However, weather kept the first shipment from arriving in Ireland until February 1846.
Later that year, Peel moved to repeal the Corn Laws, which ultimately split his party and led to the collapse of his ministry.
Peel’s successor, John Russell, proved utterly inadequate to the challenge as the Famine worsened. Russell’s ministry introduced public works projects, which by December 1846 employed some 500,000.
However, Charles Trevelyan, charged with administration of government relief to Famine victims, limited assistance because he thought “the judgment of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson.”
In addition, public works were “strictly ordered” to be unproductive – that is, they would create no fund to repay their own expenses. Many hundreds of thousands of “feeble and starving men” were kept digging holes, and breaking up roads, with no real goal in mind.
Also, to continue receiving relief, hundreds were instructed to travel many miles in bad weather, with a significant number perishing on the journey.
Russell’s Administration then halted government food and relief works, leaving many hundreds of thousands of people without any work, money or food.
In January 1847, with the Famine in full swing, the government turned to a mixture of “indoor” and “outdoor” direct relief; the former administered in workhouses through the Poor Law, the latter through soup kitchens.
The costs of the Poor Law fell primarily on the local landlords, who in turn attempted to reduce their liability by evicting their tenants.
One clause of the Poor Law prohibited anyone who held at least one-quarter of an acre from receiving relief.
This in practice meant that if a farmer, having sold all his produce to pay rent, duties, rates and taxes, should be reduced, as many thousands of them were, to applying for public outdoor relief, he could not receive it until he had first turned over all his land to his landlord.
Davies writes that more than 3 million Irish either died or emigrated during the Famine.
More than 160 years later Ireland’s population still hasn’t reached its pre-Famine levels: There are 6 million people in Ireland today, compared to 8 million in 1841.
Davies adds that a key point to realize from the Irish Potato Famine is that laws that affect economic choice can have far-reaching and frequently perverse results.
“In particular, actions and laws that create the wrong kind of economic incentives can be truly disastrous and produce effects that are hard to reverse,” he writes. “The laws passed by the vengeful Protestant minority after 1690 created a set of institutional incentives in Ireland that continued to work for over a hundred years until they culminated in a disaster that was by then probably unavoidable.”
Davies concludes with a cautionary note for contemporary policymakers.
“Many people today are foolish enough to advocate the deliberate support of traditional subsistence peasant farming in many parts of the world and resistance to measures such as free trade, which would lead to modern commercial farming,” he writes. “’Five acres and independence’ may seem an inspiring slogan. Ireland in the 1840s shows that it is a recipe for eventual catastrophe on a terrible scale.”
(HT: Coyote Blog)