Sunday, 27 September 2015

Writing - Elitism and the Irish Potato Famine

A riot took place in London on 26th September in which 200 or more people damaged 'The Cereal Killer' cafe and a nearby estate agents. The riot was described as an anti-gentrification demonstration.

Image result for the cereal killer cafe
The Cereal Killer Cafe

As always there was a criminal element within the mob that threw objects and daubed paint on shop windows. The thing is, as with many such groups, there is an element of justifiable anger within the protest. One spokesperson commented that they were engaging in a protest about the lack of availability of affordable housing in the area whereas there were such places as the cafe selling cereal at £4.50 a bowl. It actually goes deeper and raises questions of community as well as the selling off of property in London to the super rich which is then left empty.

Sadly the capitalistic government we have  allows this to happen without thought to the consequences for ordinary people.

Image result for potato famine 1845

The Potato Famine of 1845 in Ireland had similar disturbing trends but on that occasion led to the deaths of a million people. It was caused by a potato blight that seemed to begin in the USA then spread to Europe. By October it was plain there would be a total crop failure but that was when things went awry. Scientist blamed a damp summer causing rot but when a fungus was suggested as the cause the scientific community ignored the idea and as a result it was 30 years later that a cure was produced.

The first year of blight, while harsh, saw relatively few deaths from hunger. Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel bought in maize from America and sold it at cost price to the poor. They tolerated this ‘yellow meal’, but few found it a palatable alternative to the potato. A system of public works was designed to give employment to the destitute – but malnourished people struggled to undertake hard labour on roads and stone walls. Discontent grew. Everything depended on the next potato harvest.

Image result for potato famine 1845

The conservative government of Peel resigned and was replaced by a Whig government led by Lord Russell and a year on there was a food deficit in Ireland. However, the economic hardliners objected to what they saw as Ireland's 'cancer of dependency' and did not believe in providing free or subsidised food to the hungry. Russell's promise to alleviate the famine proved  hollow.

By 1847 soup kitchens were legislated for and fed three million people but when the potato crop did not fail that year the famine was declared over. However, people continued to starve and in the end many turned to the workhouses for support. In December 1847, with the destitute poor far outnumbering the capacity of the workhouses, the authorities allowed food to be given to people ‘out of doors’. But there were harsh conditions, those deemed ‘able-bodied’ were obliged to break stones for up to 10 hours a day.

Image result for potato famine 1845 workhouses

A leaflet 'The Irish Crisis' produced by Charles Trevelyan, Assistant Secretary to the Treasury, suggested that the crisis was over and insisted that any further “extraordinary” assistance to Ireland was unjustified and likely to prolong dependency on aid. Trevelyan saw the Irish as lazy and feckless. He sought to justify his own ideological commitment to forcing them into “self help” during a crisis he believed sent by God for Ireland’s improvement.

It doesn't take much imagination to translate this position into the policies adopted by the current government. In this time of austerity everyone in the UK has suffered excepting those with over £1 million in there banks who are £40 000/yr better off because of tax cuts for the rich.

Image result for 1845 Irish scalp

In 1848 it was declared that over half the potato crop had failed and the death rate in work houses was running at 52 000 each week. There was little aid by this time.

Image result for 1845 Queen Victoria
Queen Victoria

During the years of the famine various foreign aid had been forthcoming. Pope Pius IX, various American and English charitable groups and the Queen made contributions. The Queen was still popular in Ireland and had sent £2000 of her personal funds but when she visited the country in 1849 she was shown the recovering east but not the forgotten west.

A census carried out in 1851 reported that the population was 6.5 million but it was estimated that it should have been closer to 9 million.

God Bless