An Irish family during the famine.
Public domain via Smithsonian.mag.com.

[ 22 September 1846 ]

On 22 September 1846, an editorial in The Times admonished those appealing to London to intervene to ameliorate the catastrophic potato famine in Ireland. Some might go hungry or starve, but this was a necessary evil, which would correct Irish indolence and their indisciplined attitude to work and self-reliance. ‘For our part,’ it explained, ‘we regard the potato blight as a blessing,’ adding that ‘when the Celts once cease to be potatophagi, they must become carnivorous. With the taste for meats will grow the appetite for them. With the appetite, the readiness to earn then. With this will come steadiness, regularity and perseverance.’1

The editorial condemned even the limited amount of British government aid, which allowed small numbers of the destitute access to workhouses or hard labour construction projects,  as a ‘ruinous beneficence,’ declaring that ‘the government provided work for people who love it not.’  It was the victims who were to blame for their plight by their ‘self complacent poverty.’  The population preferred to ‘live on a small gratuity rather than large or regular earnings… Alas ! The Irish peasant has tasted of famine and found that it was good.’2

The trickle of aid from Britain came to a virtual halt. As the famine worsened, some victims attempted ‘to break into gaol.’ Others scavenged the countryside for berries, nettles and even the bark from trees. In some villages, almost the entire population had become ‘famished and ghastly skeletons.’3  The British government and the press continued to blame the ‘low, vulgar, lazy wretches, who prefer beggary to work.’4  Nothing was allowed to interfere with the supposed remedy of market discipline, so even as thousands starved, ships were loaded at Dublin with Irish corn for the English market, while the same vessels returned not with much needed supplies, but instead with soldiers to crush the protests.   Over the six years of the crisis, from 1845 to 1851, historians estimate that approximately one million died either from starvation or from diseases related to acute malnutrition, while a further 1.5 million were forced to emigrate.5


  1. The Times cited in The London Evening Mail, 23 September 1846, p. 4
  2. Ibid.
  3. Piers Brendon, The Decline and Fall of the British Empire 1781-1997, Jonathan Cape, London, 2007, p, 119
  4. Cited in Piers Brendon, The Decline and Fall of the British Empire 1781-1997, Jonathan Cape London 2007, p. 121
  5. Ibid pp. 118-119.

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© 2020 Alisdare Hickson All rights reserved

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