Ireland in Five Easy Pieces I: Famine, Church and Society

Explaining modern Ireland must start with the impact of the Great Famine in the middle of the 19th century.  Certainly around the Irish countryside you will see a lot of remnants of older times, from the megaliths of the Boyne and tall Norman towers of the early medieval period to the squat late 18th Martello towers that dot all but the northeast coast to warn the British of any Napoleonic invasion.

However it is the Great Famine between 1845 and 1851 that laid the foundation on which modern Ireland was built socially, economically, politically and in many ways psychologically.

We start with Ireland on the eve of the Famine.  For the bulk of the population it was a tough but free wheeling existence, deeply rooted in its Gaelic language, culture and traditions.  The potato crop grown in small plots was nutritious enough to sustain a family.  That allowed early marriage and high fertility rates. It required repeated subdivisions of the land to accommodate and feed the growing population that would reach well over eight million by the eve of the Famine (the island’s population today is six million). By all accounts it was a healthy diet, providing strong bodies and many a stout recruit for the British Army.

Hedge schools convened outdoors by wandering schoolteachers, a tradition from Penal times when Catholic education was outlawed, provided much of the basic education.  The Gaelic peasants spoke Irish and enjoyed a rich oral tradition of songs, poems and Homeric-style tales from older, even ancient, times.

Wandering musicians, poets, story tellers and dancing masters, all orphaned by the loss of the Gaelic aristocratic courts since the Flight of the Earls in 1607, mixed and mingled with the peasants, earning enough to live on through sharing their lore and skills and recalling the great days when Gaelic chiefs ruled.

Old beliefs and superstitions founded on pre-Christian belief systems – sometimes disguised as Christian saints – still competed with Catholic orthodoxy.  The parish priest would have had to contend with this and without a clear social role would not have enjoyed great local authority or status.

The potato had proven an unreliable crop subject to over twenty recorded prior failures due to weather or disease.  One damp morning in 1845, the peasants awoke to a sickly sweet smell wafting from their potato drills.   This time the crop was struck by blight, a fungal infection, which had begun in North America, crossed to devastate the crop in Europe and had arrived in Ireland to a uniquely vulnerable population. Even tubers that were fine when freshly dug soon rotted. Reserves were used, even the seed potatoes held for next year’s crop; what goods were to hand were sold to buy food, for food was plentiful other than the potato.  Some who had money or capital sold up and sailed to England or America.

The following year, the crop failed again as it would for successive years.  By 1851, the pre-Famine population of eight million had lurched downward with one million dying of starvation and disease and another million leaving, most taking ship to England and America.  Those who crossed the Irish Sea flocked to cities like Liverpool, Manchester and London.  Those that survived the journey across the Atlantic disembarked malnourished and barely clothed, taking shelter in whatever base accommodation they could find in Boston, New York and other east coast ports. The soil of Ireland had let them down; they would make their new lives in cities.

The conveyor belt of emigration was now in train and would endure to this day as a response to poor economic opportunities at home.  By the 1950s, the population in the south of Ireland would fall below three million.

British culpability in turning an ecological event into a humanitarian disaster was clear enough; the economic ideology of the time was that market forces must rule supreme even if it meant exporting food at a time of starvation, that dependency on charity be avoided at all costs, that the system of peasant landholding was demonstrably unsustainable and that the population had to be allowed to crash to a new equilibrium.

Ameliorating actions were taken at various levels by landlords and charities but too little and too late. Would the callous adherence to ideology have prevailed if starvation stalked England? The Great Famine was for many Irish the confirmation of the evils of imperial rule, a belief seared deep into the hearts of those forced to leave.

As the immediate tragedy passed in the 1850s, its social and economic impact created new imperatives for land holding and marriage that would fundamentally reshape Irish society. The subdivision of land to provide a smallholding for the next generation came to end and small landholdings were consolidated into larger units.  Unsustainable holdings were cleared by death and emigration, consolidated often by the local Irish agents of the absent Anglo-Irish landlords, descendents of the English who had conquered Ireland in the 17th century.  The Catholic ‘strong farmer’ class was being born by the revolution in land holding.

It should be said that the actual impact of the Famine is a matter of ongoing debate amongst Irish historians. Changing patterns of landholding had begun to emerge well before the disaster. But in my view the disaster accelerated them catastrophically and the social trauma vastly reinforced their economic rationale and created the kind of shock that would reshape social mores like marriage and inheritance.

Affinity with the land (where virtually every knob and hollow in the landscape has a name), the extraordinary salutary example of what the famine had wrought amongst the landless, and continuing uncertainty about tenure under the landlord system, fused to created a virtual obsession with land possession.

The emerging strong farmer held the land in lease arrangements from the landlords but would use their increasing political greater leverage to look for better terms over the coming decades.  As successive generations deepened their hold on the land, they would wage a long battle – sporadically violent, mainly political – to secure ownership, culminating in the Wyndham Land Acts of the early 20th century that gave them title to their land and sounded the death knell of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy.

The Famine dealt a near fatal blow to the Irish language not just because many of those who died as a direct result of the failure of the potato crop were native Irish speakers but because speaking English became a skill for survival, advancement and, for many, emigration: the Irish language was now burdened with the stigma of failure. Census returns would show the children of Irish speakers becoming bilingual and their children monolingual English.

Beyond its demographic impact, the Great Famine shaped Ireland through its impact on landholding and inheritance. The imperative was now to pass the farm on intact to one son, not subdividing it between two or more. If the non-inheriting sons were lucky and well educated they could get a job in the civil service or the bank, become a teacher or even a priest in the newly elevated Church; become a barman or shop clerk; join the British Army. If not, the emigrant ship beckoned. Women faced reduced marriage prospects because marriage now depended on inheriting the farm. They had far fewer local economic opportunities than males.   No surprise then that in the last quarter of the 19th century more women than men would emigrate.

In Ireland, a new Irish piety emerged, reflected in the iconography of the landscape (Churches and statues), of the home (Sacred Hearts, images of Christ and the Virgin Mary) and of the person (rosary beads, miraculous medals, scapulars). Mass going, recitations of the rosary, pilgrimages and reverent observance of Holy Days would condition the rhythm of life, reinforcing submission to Catholic morality.

Obedience to the Catholic Church’s sexual ethics was fused with the imperative of preserving the integrity of the family farm; an unexpected pregnancy and forced marriage would upset the careful sequence of inheritance. Family and Church interests were now firmly forged together. The impact of the new pattern of inheritance on male-female relations had myriad personal, familial, psychological and cultural consequences.

For men with limited chances of marriage or marriage at a late age when the farm came under his control, social life was to be focused on the pub. Land possession, church and pub formed a solid and enduring triangle that defined the parameters of economic, social, cultural and political life.

When they emigrated to America, the Irish would recreate in their new communities a similar structure, rapidly sponsoring the building of Catholic Churches, associated schools and of course frequenting a local the pub established by one of their own. Their deep sense of social reciprocation – born in an Irish village but now a vital coping mechanism in the New World – would evolve into and shape local politics, leading to the eventual development of the famous machine politics of Irish America.

The important role of the priest in rural Ireland was reciprocated by the farming classes who provided the funds for the erection of the classic high-walled rural parish church and who politically supported the British Government’s co-option of the Church as a partner in the provision of education and health.

The Catholic Church then, backed by the strong farming class, emerged in the latter half of the 19th century as a key national institution, pre-dating independent Irish government by half a century, and accruing the kind of status and power that would influence (or intimidate depending on your perspective) the fledging native governments for most of the twentieth century.

Once the question of landownership was settled by the end of the 19th century, attention turned to the politics of sovereignty. The strong farming class combined with the growth of the Catholic middle class and the evolution of the ideology of romantic nationalism to forge a renewed effort to reset relations with Britain that had been defined by the Act of Union of 1801.

The cultural definition of Irish identity and the contest between parliamentary agitation and militant republicanism would shape the struggle for independence and with it many of the identifying features of independent Ireland. We’ll look at that in the second piece.

Eamonn McKee

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Filed under Anglo-Irish, Ireland, Ireland in Five Easy Pieces, Irish America

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