Comment: RTÉ documentary failed to address Irish politicians’ pitiful response to the Famine

In The Hunger, the Westminster government was criticised strongly for not halting food exports, yet in August 1847 the issue received little or no mention in Irish election candidates’ addresses

17th December, 2020
Comment: RTÉ documentary failed to address Irish politicians’ pitiful response to the Famine
The enormous tragedy of the Great Famine was commemorated in RTÉ documentary The Hunger

A fascinating two-part documentary, The Hunger, aired on RTÉ in recent weeks to mark the 175th anniversary of the Great Irish Famine. Many valuable insights were given into this enormous tragedy, but examination of the political response to events was wanting: there was virtually no mention of the Irish political reaction at the time.

Ultimate responsibility for dealing with the Famine lay with the Westminster parliament and the British government. Nonetheless, we should remember that Ireland returned 105 MPs to Westminster at the time. In fact, a general election occurred in August 1847, during ‘Black 47’, right in the middle of the Famine. The evidence from this event, which was not addressed in the programme, is that at this critical point, when important changes could have been made, Irish politicians and electors failed to respond to their ongoing crisis in a meaningful way.

At the time the electorate was very restricted, and in many constituencies candidates were returned unopposed. Still, we may note that in the past the Repealers – who wanted the repeal of the Act of Union between Ireland and Britain – under Daniel O’Connell had won nearly 40 seats. It was not uncommon for Irish constituency elections to be uncontested, as in 1918. Election meetings were opportunities for many people, not only electors but also non-electors, to be involved in debate on political issues.

In 1847 a total of 140 candidates stood for 66 constituencies. Contemporary political priorities are revealed in the candidates’ printed addresses and nomination speeches. Earlier in the year there had been plans for Irish politicians to come together to deal with the Famine. This did not happen, however, and politicians fought the election over their traditional goals. For most politicians, it seems that their main concerns continued to revolve around questions of the constitution, repeal or civil and religious liberty.

In some places the Famine received little or no mention. For example, in Cork city, where three Repeal candidates, Daniel Callaghan, Alexander McCarthy and WT Fagan, contested two seats, the Famine was ignored totally in election addresses and lengthy nomination speeches. The contest revolved around personal rivalries and the question of whether or not to accept government positions.

Elsewhere more attention was paid to the Famine, although rarely was it the main subject. Politicians expressed grave concern about the “awful and critical times” and “many sorrows and lamentations”. Some candidates referred to the good harvests and talked about the “past famine”, although others did refer to the ongoing crisis. It is amazing that only a few individuals gave warning of the small quantities of potato crops planted.

Politicians made proposals to improve conditions. In some cases these involved emphasis on their main principles of Repeal or backing the Liberal government. They often advocated long-term measures, such as land reform and industrialisation, rather than short-term fixes. Many Repealers were more restrained than Conservatives in their criticism of the Westminster Liberal government because in a range of policies, besides famine relief, they preferred a Liberal government to a Conservative one.

Some omissions are remarkable. There was very little reference to the Gregory ‘quarter acre’ clause – which forced starving families on holdings of a quarter-acre or more to abandon their tenancy in order to avail of relief – and its potential danger. In Dublin city, where Sir William Gregory was one of the outgoing Conservative MPs, he was challenged by a Repealer over the clause, but on the grounds that it “must have the effect of swamping Dublin and the other large towns in Ireland by the paupers from their rural districts”, rather than from concern about its effects on smallholders.

Another rare example of expressed concern for the Gregory clause occurred in Co Clare. Charles O’Connell was a maverick individual who, after falling out with both Repealers and Confederates, announced his own intention to stand. In early August he issued a very uncommon warning that this clause would “drive our poor unprotected fellow creatures to despair” by compelling those with over a quarter acre to yield up their holdings and homes to qualify for relief.

O’Connell then withdrew from the contest and supported, with speeches in Irish, the Conservative landlord candidate Sir Lucius O’Brien, who was elected. O’Brien was chair of Ennis Union and when instructions were issued that government-funded soup kitchens across Ireland must close in August, he protested and won an extension. On August 18, the Limerick Chronicle reported that O’Connell’s house at Liscannor had been “maliciously demolished” for his support for O’Brien.

Most expressions of concern involved farmers’ and tenants’ rights, and rarely was there comment on the plight of landless labourers or small cottiers. Some candidates deplored conditions aboard emigrant ships, but none appear to have advocated specific reforms of navigation laws. Shockingly, there was very little discussion of the decision to close in August the successful government-funded soup kitchens.

In The Hunger, which was narrated by Liam Neeson, the government was criticised strongly for not halting food exports. We can note that in August 1847, not a single candidate in an election address or nomination speech advocated a food export ban. This probably arose from contemporary fears that such a ban would collapse internal markets with consequent damage to food imports.

Clearly, Irish politicians in mid-1847 could have responded much more effectively to the Irish Famine. Party policies and proposals in relation to the crisis were seriously wanting. Also, the chance was lost to bring a single, multi-party approach of 105 Irish MPs to the Famine and to pressurise the government over its mishandling of the situation.

Due to ideological and party constraints, Irish politicians were unable to think outside the box, to operate outside existing alliances or ways of thinking.

The result of the general election was 34 Repealers, two Confederates, 29 Liberals and 40 Conservatives. In Great Britain the liberals won just 269 out of 551 seats which meant they could only form a minority government.

On other occasions Irish parties have used such a situation to their advantage, as they did in 1885 and 1911. Recently with Theresa May’s government the DUP used their votes in Westminster to great benefit.

No such influence was brought to bear on the government after the 1847 general election, however. Irish MPs could have refused to attend, as Sinn Féin did in 1918, but they did not.

RTÉ’s The Hunger gave us valuable insights into the Famine. Unfortunately, coverage of its political aspects was very inadequate and partial. Most attention focused on English politicians and parties. There was brief mention of the forlorn efforts of the Young Ireland supporters of William Smith O’Brien (brother of Lucius O’Brien, one of the real heroes of August 1847). Otherwise, there was virtually no discussion of the Irish political response to the Famine in August 1847 or indeed at any time during those years. This was a disappointment.

Brian M Walker is Professor Emeritus of Irish Studies, Queen’s University Belfast. He is author of ‘Politicians, elections and catastrophe: the general election of 1847’ in Irish Political Studies, vol. 22, no. 1 (March 2007), pp1-34. He is editor of Parliamentary Elections in Ireland, 1801-1922 (Royal Irish Academy, 1978). His recent book is Irish History Matters: Politics, Identities and Commemoration (History Press, 2019).

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