Desmond's Concise History of Ireland
By Jerry Desmond
(c) Copyright 1998, 1999
Irish Troubles - the Plantations

    Under these Plantations -- the Ulster Plantation (1609), the Cromwellian Plantation (1652) and the Williamite Plantation (1693) -- 81% of the productive land in Ireland was confiscated from the native Irish (Gaelic-Irish and Norman-Irish alike, but invariably Catholic), and transferred to new immigrants (invariably Protestant) from Scotland and England. The Plantations impacted Ireland in two major ways. First, they introduced into Ireland a new community -- eventually 25% of the populace -- which differed radically from the natives not only in religion, but also in culture, ethnicity, and national identity. Second, in Ireland's overwhelmingly agrarian economy -- where land equaled wealth and power (and vice versa) -- the Plantations caused a massive transfer of wealth and power to non-native landlords, whose backbreaking rents then thrust 85% of the natives into crushing poverty and degradation. The Plantations are the root cause of the class warfare (rich landlord versus poor tenant) and religious/cultural clashes that have plagued Ireland since 1610. Plantations were the medieval equivalent of "ethnic cleansing" in that -- in theory at least -- all occupants of confiscated land were to be evicted and resettled in Connacht where they would be less of a military threat.  Anti-Catholic animus played a role in the Plantations, but other motivations were more important. For the new immigrants, the principal motivation was fertile land at bargain rents. For the Crown, Plantations would deprive dissident Irish lords of the land that was their only real source of power; and further, there would be established within Ireland a loyal non-Irish minority which would served as an unpaid police force to keep dissident Irish in check. Halfhearted attempts at plantation had been made under Mary in the 1550s, and under Elizabeth in the1580s, but neither had instilled the pro-English mind set sought by the Crown. But after the "flight of the earls" the time seemed right for a serious plantation program. Although nominally directed at the aristocracy, the Plantations also devastated peasants, who suffered the loss of their property rights under the ancient Gaelic law of gavelkind* which previously had virtually guaranteed them a decent living from the soil. It turned out that peasants were needed for hard labor, so many of them, despite the original "resettlement in Connacht" plan, were allowed to remain as farm laborers or tenant-farmers, but at low wages or backbreaking rents that thrust them into abject poverty. Predictably, both in resentful peasants and in their Gaelic lords, there developed a 285 year obsession -- sometimes violent, sometimes political -- to overturn or modify the confiscations via "land reform", a term which (depending on time and place) might mean anything from a complete reversal of the confiscations to a modest improvement in tenants' rights.

    The first 17th Century plantation (the "Ulster Plantation") involved confiscation of three million acres (about 30% of the island), all in six counties in west and central Ulster. The Ulster confiscations were directed almost exclusively at the Gaelic lords and their supporters who had been defeated at Kinsale: O'Neill, O'Donnell,O'Reilly, O'Hanlon, O'Doherty and others. The official plantation indirectly encouraged the much heavier unsponsored migration of working class Presbyterians from Scotland to Counties Down and Antrim. These migrations permitted eviction of native Catholics in favor of new Presbyterian settlers, whose descendants remain dominant in Northern Ireland even today**. The Ulster Plantation has been described as England's only successful colony in Ireland.

    There ensued the third and final wave of 17th Century plantations (the "Williamite Plantation"), which reduced Catholic ownership of land from 22% to 14%.   Short term, the plantations were enormously successful for England. In 1603, before the Battle of Kinsale, about 95% of land in Ireland was owned by Catholics; by 1701, less than a century later, only 14% was owned by Catholics, an aggregate transfer of 81% of all productive land in Ireland. Further, the percentage of non-Irish in the population had been increased from 5% to 25%. It is possible that the Crown expected the Irish and British cultures to merge eventually (the Crown would have expected English culture to predominate, naturally), but of course this did not happen. Instead, the Plantations divided Ireland, apartheid-like, into two hostile camps, a socio-economic tinder box virtually certain to eventually explode.   --In one camp was 75% of the populace: Poverty stricken, landless, ethnically Irish (Gaelic-Irish or Norman-Irish), Gaelic speaking, Catholic, and powerless; these descendants of pre-17th Century natives thought of themselves as Irish, not English, and were more hostile than ever before towards their English conquerors.   --In the other camp was 25% of the populace: Affluent landed gentry, ethnically British (English or Scots), English speaking, Protestant (Anglican [10%] and Presbyterian [15%]), and politically dominant; these immigrants thought of themselves as the Crown's colony in Ireland, not as Irishmen (although within a few generations they began to regard themselves as a "Protestant [Irish] nation").   "Catholic versus Protestant" has been the convenient shorthand to describe divisions within Ireland, but this is overly simplistic. The important dividing line was between a conquering people (who happened to be British, English speaking and Protestant) and a vanquished people (who happened to be Irish, Gaelic speaking and Catholic).

    The conquerors then confiscated the land and wealth of Ireland, thus creating the class warfare which has long plagued Ireland: rich landlord versus poverty stricken tenant. No one would deny that religion, ethnicity, language and culture were and still are important components in the mutual antagonism -- particularly in segregating an individual into one of the two camps -- but the sheer longevity of these hostilities is attributable to enduring disparities in power and wealth.

    The holocaust formerly called "Potato Famine" was not a genuine "famine" at all, because only the potato crop was affected, while the vast majority of farmland was planted to other crops and foodstuffs which were grown in sufficient quantities -- or at least nearly sufficient quantities* -- to feed the populace. Hence the human tragedy -- one million dead -- is now more accurately called the "Great Hunger" ("An Gorta Mor" in Irish/Gaelic). Whatever it is called, the disaster resulted from (1) the fungus that totally ravaged the potato crop in 1845, 1846 and 1848, and partially ravaged it in 1847, and (2) government indifference. The Hunger not only devastated the Irish people of 1845-49, it had profound long term effects on Ireland, effects that remain to this day. Specifically:   What is shocking about the famine is that throughout this entire four year period of starvation, Ireland was exporting enormous quantities of food. Indeed, up to 75% of Irish soil was devoted to wheat, oats, barley and other crops which were grown for export, and which were actually exported, all while the populace starved.

    The problem was that about half the population -- all wretchedly poor --worked on farms not for cash wages, but for the right to grow potatoes on tiny plots. They lived on a subsistence diet consisting almost exclusively of potatoes and milk, with a herring once or twice a year. When the potato crop failed, these peasants had neither food for their families, nor cash to buy other food***. Initially, only the poor died, victims of starvation. Then as typically happens in conditions of starvation, epidemics of typhus and cholera broke out, felling the affluent along with the poor. In toto, about one million died.

    When the first signs of the crop failure appeared in 1845, Britain's Tory government under Prime Minister Robert Peel took modest initiatives to alleviate the distress. It paid half the cost of jobs for about 140,000 family heads on public works, which (to protect English business) were required by law to be non-productive, and it matched local voluntary contributions to hunger relief. It also imported large quantities of Indian corn and meal from the United States; incredibly, however, the government refused to distribute this food free, instead placing it on the market at low prices to prevent artificial increases in food prices.   Peel firmly opposed more radical measures. The starvation very likely could have been averted entirely by legislation prohibiting the export of food from Ireland; and any hardship on growers could have been avoided by legislation authorizing purchase of their grain using borrowed money, with repayment to be made over a period of years from increased agricultural taxes. But feeding the populace by interfering with exports was never seriously considered by Peel's government, in part because the expense might fall on the growers and/or the public treasury. Instead, Peel used the famine as an opportunity to push through his favored but controversial proposal: Repeal of the protectionist "corn laws", which imposed stiff tariffs on grain (including but not limited to corn) brought in from outside the United Kingdom. Repeal of the "corn laws" reduced food prices (as Peel intended), but did nothing to alleviate the hunger, since the starving poor could not afford food whatever the price.   The controversial repeal of the "corn laws" helped topple Peel's Tory government in June 1846.

    The Tories were replaced by an even less compassionate Whig government under Lord John Russell, who delegated the potato blight problem to Charles Trevelyan, the career civil service Head of Treasury. At this point, although people were hungry, no one yet had died. But the Whigs (and Trevelyan personally) were committed to the trendy Manchester school of economics, which regarded the suffering of the poor as part of the natural order of things, and prohibited government meddling in the operation of otherwise free markets. The Whig government decided that in the event of another crop failure, there would be no direct relief from the British treasury; instead, relief would be limited to public works jobs funded entirely by Irish self-taxation.   There was indeed a second failure, in autumn 1846, and this time it was complete. Making matters worse, the winter of 1846-47 was the harshest in living memory. Now the dying began. The suffering reached its peak in February 1847, when hundreds of thousands of homeless, freezing and starving peasants left the farms for the towns, hoping for employment in public works, which already had hired 500,000 family heads. Cholera and typhus then broke out, and some died from disease, some of starvation, and some froze to death, hundreds of thousands in all. Finally, the Whig government was forced to relent and extend some direct aid through the "Soup Kitchen Act" providing free soup to the starving. This was augmented by charity from the Quakers and other private groups. The aid was too little and too late, as hundreds of thousands more perished, and Ireland literally ran out of coffins.

    When sailing weather arrived, panic emigration started in earnest.   Blight hit less hard in the autumn of 1847, but this simply furnished the British government with a convenient excuse for closing down the soup kitchens. Trevelyan wrote: "The only way to prevent people from becoming habitually dependent on the government is to bring operations to a close" [1846] and "too much has been done for the people. . . we must now try what independent exertion can do" [1847]. He announced that the government had already done everything it was going to do, even if blight and starvation returned.   Blight indeed did return with the harvest of October 1848, and it destroyed virtually the entire potato crop. And with no government assistance at all, 1848-49 proved to be just as bad, if not worse, than 1846-47. Hundreds of thousands more perished, routinely falling dead on the streets; and in the extreme conditions of starvation and illness, their bodies sometimes were left unburied for weeks at a time. One road inspector reported burying 140 corpses scattered along his route. The magnitude of fatalities was so overwhelming that authorities were unable to record the precise number of deaths, but fatalities certainly approached one million.

    Finally, with the 1849 harvest, the potato blight and the famine were over. But Irish culture would never be the same. Long standing animosity towards England/Britain now became a genuine hatred (called "Anglophobia" by some commentators). Further, a grim "never again" mentality, similar to that of Jewish survivors of Auschwitz a century later, took root among famine survivors who felt embarrassment over a culture that allowed family members to die passively rather than forcibly expropriate food grown on Irish land which (prior to the British) was the common property of society. In the century that followed, otherwise law abiding Irishmen found themselves supporting anti-British terrorist groups, such as the IRA.

     In retrospect, no one can be blamed for the potato blight itself, which like earthquake or flood, was a natural disaster; but the British response was wrongheaded, indifferent and utterly devoid of common sense and compassion. The tragedy likely could have been avoided entirely by appropriate legislation which fed the populace with food grown for export. Some commentators have equated the government's non-action with genocide, but a better analysis would be a callous indifference towards an unsupportive ethnic group long perceived as less than 100% human, coupled with an unwillingness to spend taxpayer money on such undeserving and ungrateful people.

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