Friday, 12 February 2021

Ireland's Malthusian Apocalypse

     If my great-grandfather had been born in 1846, as his obituary claimed, and not 1844, as he himself had claimed, then it is possible his parents had migrated to England because of the Great Irish Famine. You probably know the essential details: the Irish peasantry had become dependent on the potato - they lived on almost nothing else - and when the potato blight struck, famine and starvation ensued on a previously unimaginable scale. I myself had heard a lot about it, but it was only recently that I read Cecil Woodham-Smith's classic history, The Great Hunger, Ireland 1845-1849, and something leaped out at me which the author herself did not press, and few others have mentioned: the underlaying cause of the disaster was overpopulation. It was a classic case of the Malthusian limit being reached.
     First of all, a few statistics. The population of the island, as recorded in the 1841 census was almost 8.2 million, and it is generally accepted that this was an underestimate. The famine began in 1845, and only gradually petered out over the years, the worst occurring in the first five years. By the time 1851 came around, the census recorded a population of only 6.5 million - again, probably an underestimate. Taking into account the natural population increase, this represents a loss of approximately 2½ million, well over a quarter of the population. Not all of them died, of course; a huge number emigrated (but many of them also perished from disease.) Even more would have died had it not been for the British Government's admittedly inadequate and ham-fisted attempts to alleviate it, for at one point a million people were receiving supplementary feeding.
     To put this into perspective, the current population of both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Island is just under 7 million. Fifty years ago it was not much more than half of that. Where'd they all go? The famine didn't last that long. Of course, Ireland today, like everywhere else, possesses a much more efficient agriculture than 170 years ago, so we should make comparisons with the situation at the time. England, a much larger country, and the epicentre of the agricultural and industrial revolutions, had a population of almost 17 million in 1851 (an increase by an eighth in the previous ten years, believe it or not), and there was widespread poverty. Even the English farmers were moving on to a dependency on the potato, and only the onset of the potato blight in their own country prevented it. During the height of the famine, the British Government was faced with a financial crisis, and there were also crop failures and lesser famines throughout Europe. While philanthropists were collecting money for the starving Irish peasants, smaller collections were being undertaken for Scottish peasants.
      According to Disraeli, with respect to  arable land, the population of Ireland was denser than China's. We tend to assume that our way of running our lives represents the norm but, in fact, for hundreds of years the western European marriage pattern has been different from the rest of the world. West of a line from St. Petersburg to Trieste (the Hajnal line), marriages were relatively late, and a high proportion of the population never married. However, Ireland was an exception. For reasons which are obscure, in the 60 years between 1780 and 1840, its population expanded by 172 percent. As a result, land became at a premium. 93% of holdings were less than 30 acres - often much less. Subdivision became the rule, often without the landlord's consent. A farmer could hive off a section of his holding to his sons, and then to his grandsons. Farms got ever smaller. Eventually, many families were attempting to survive on only an acre of land, or even half an acre. And there was only one way to survive on such a small holding. To quote Woodham-Smith:
Sub-division could never have taken place without the potato: an acre and a half would provide a family of five or six with food for twelve months, while to grow the equivalent grain required an acreage four to five times as large and some knowledge of tillage as well. Only a spade was needed for the primitive method of potato culture usually practised in Ireland.
     Nevertheless, that method was well suited to the wet soil of Ireland, and could also be used on hillslopes unsuitable to the plough, and even in the bogs, where nothing else could grow. With a bit of extra land, the small tubers, unsuitable for humans, could be used to raise pigs, cattle, and chickens. In short, overpopulation had reduced the people to a complete dependence on a particular crop. But when the crop failed, a Malthusian apocalypse ensued.
     I can hear some objections. What about the oppressive social system, especially the landlords, who had been rightly criticized for more than a century, since the publication of Swift's Modest Proposal? The tenancy situation in Ireland was outrageous. Landlords were more often then not absentees, and possessed absolute discretion in the charging of rent and the eviction of tenants, who could not be compensated for any improvements made on the property. This being said, I cannot help feeling that, even in the absence of security, most people would attempt to improve their lot to the best of their ability. Be that as it may, visitors were constantly shocked at the sheer poverty of the Irish peasant. More than half of them dwelled in one-roomed, windowless mud huts, more often than not without a bed or chair, but shared with pigs, while the evicted and unemployed put roofs over ditches, or burrowed into the banks. It was something more to be expected in places like India or Africa, rather than Europe.
     The point, however, is that, to whatever extent the British establishment was responsible for their poverty, it was manifested in low level accommodation and the lack of creature comforts, not the reliance on potatoes, which was ultimately due to land shortage as a result of the population explosion. In other societies marriage is normally delayed until a family can be supported. Not so in Ireland, where people were content to live in squalor. Early marriage was the rule, even at the age of 16, on the basis that a hut could be thrown up very quickly, and all that was necessary to make a living was a spade - and a subdivision of your father's rented land.
     This doesn't mean that no other crops were grown. Typically, a plot of vegetables existed next to the house, and grain was produced for sale in order to pay the rent. It was a bone of contention to Irish nationalists that grain was still being exported while the famine was at its height, but it was not quite as simple as all that.
     At first sight the inhumanity of exporting food from a country stricken by famine seems impossible to justify or condone. Modern Irish historians, however, have treated the subject with generosity and restraint. They have pointed out that the corn grown in Ireland before the famine was not sufficient to feed the population if they had depended on it alone, and that imports must be examined as well as exports: in fact, when the famine was at its worst four times as much wheat came into Ireland as was exported, and in addition almost 3,000,000 quarters of Indian corn [maize] and 1,000,000 cwts. [50,000 tons] of Indian meal. 
    The maize and its derivatives were imported as part of the Government relief program.  But even then, there were difficulties in milling it. Mills were rare in the country, and in the areas where the famine was worst, the people did not know how to make bread or, indeed, how to do any cooking except boiling potatoes. Reliance on the potato had driven out all other foods before it.
      I mentioned that the Government's handling of the disaster had been ham-fisted and inadequate. Of course, nothing is clearer than 20/20 hindsight. Also, as our experience with the current coronavirus pandemic should have taught us, you cannot expect governments to come up with perfect solutions when faced with a crisis never before encountered. They deserve a bit of slack. This being said, there were a lot of better methods which could have been tried. The British Government was both hidebound by the doctrine of laissez faire, and woefully ignorant of the lack of infrastructure in Ireland, which prevented solutions which might have worked in England. Even so, it certainly saved a great many lives. However, the disaster was so vast, and so extensive, that no government could realistically take control of it. After all, the population of Ireland was fully half that of England itself.
     The Irish tend to speak as if British rule was somehow responsible for the famine. I've even heard the word, "genocide" bandied around. I'm sorry I have to disabuse them, but although the British establishment is open to a lot of valid criticism, this is one thing they cannot be blamed for.  Even before the onset of the potato blight, the country was approaching the limits of its ability to feed itself. If the disease had not arrived, and the population continued at the same rate, within a few decades some other crisis would have eventuated, and probably the only recourse would have been mass emigration.