Commentary Magazine

Hunger and Ideology

As every schoolboy knows, the Irish famine is one of the capital disasters of history. It broke upon a people who had been dominated by a foreign power for seven hundred years, and who lived in almost bestial servitude, poverty, misery, ignorance, and helplessness. The accounts of contemporary travelers uniformly attest to the extremity of Ireland’s condition: one witness asserted that “no mode of life in Europe could seem pitiable after one had seen Ireland . . . the poorest among the Letts, the Esthonians and the Finlanders, lead a life of comparative comfort”; another wrote that “the Negro in his chains” suffered less misery. Subsisting under conditions of systematic exploitation and classic peonage, the Irish peasants had been reduced to living off a single crop, the potato. Indeed in certain back areas of Ireland “cooking any food other than the potato had become a lost art.” And yet, as if to demonstrate the ghastly truth of Malthus’s theory, the population of Ireland had been steadily increasing. The calamity began with the blight of the potato crops in 1845 and 1846. A variety of public and private schemes for relief were undertaken, but such measures soon proved inadequate as the famine extended through the following years and began to take cumulative effect. Hunger was succeeded by disease, primarily by an epidemic of typhus, but bacillary dysentery, hunger oedema, scurvy, and cholera were also general. The vegetable blight was thus followed by human blight; the lightning-like reproduction, spread, and infestation of the spores of the potato fungus were equaled only by the rapidity with which typhus propagated itself. “A brush in passing was enough to transfer the fever-transmitting louse or its dustlike excrement to a new victim, and one fever-stricken person could pass on infection to a hundred others in the course of a day.”

Hunger and disease were followed by emigration, the third great agent in the depopulation of Ireland, and “historically the most important event of the famine.” More than a million emigrants from Ireland left the unspeakable conditions of their homeland, journeyed under unspeakable conditions across the Atlantic, and were treated unspeakably when they arrived in North America. An even larger number crossed the Irish channel to take up existence in Liverpool, Glasgow, and the ports of South Wales. Ireland was more than decimated by the famine; according to the best estimates—which are very rough—between 25 and 27 per cent of its population was in one way or another lost.

These are some of the gross facts of the famine, as they are retold in Cecil Woodham-Smith’s The Great Hunger,1 a week by week account of the long disaster and a work of unrelieved grimness and horror. Mrs. Woodham-Smith goes in neither for picturesque detail nor comic-pathetic diversions and almost never generalizes. Fact after relentless fact falls on the mind, but they do not deaden perception. In Mrs. Woodham-Smith’s hands, abstract statistics come alive as human beings, as she paradoxically undoes the usual effect of statistics, which is to impersonalize, average out, and distance our response to concrete experience. The Great Hunger is a work of unusual distinction, informed at every point by the knowledge that facts alone do not amount to history unless we include among them the fact of consciousness.

As the historian G. M. Young once remarked, “the real, central theme of History is not what happened, but what people felt about it when it was happening.” The Irish famine itself occurred at a time in which consciousness was in the course of dramatically shifting. If we compare it, for example, with the Black Plague of 1348—1349, the differences are instructive. That earlier event is the worst catastrophe of this millennium of European history; modern authorities estimate that about one third of the population of the Continent perished. But how was the plague interpreted at the time of. its occurrence? According to one scholar, Norman Cohn, it was regarded “in normal medieval fashion, as a divine chastisement for the transgressions of a sinful world.” And the religious excesses, such as the flagellant processions, which then sprang up were “in part an attempt to divert the chastisement.” After reading such accounts, the reader must conclude that these attitudes and practices were, to adapt a sociological term, “legitimate” responses to the situation—that is to say, they corresponded both to the means or resources then available for dealing with that situation, and to the furthest spiritual and intellectual stage of development to which society had then attained. At the time of the Irish famine, however, a similar attitude no longer elicits our assent. When Charles Edward Trevelyan, the Treasury official in charge of all the programs for Irish relief, gives voice to such sentiments, the reader detects in his pieties not only indifference and hard-heartedness but flummery as well. Mrs. Woodham-Smith dryly observes that, “The thought that famine was the will of God was a consolation to him, and he hoped that the Catholic priests were making this clear.” And Trevelyan himself wrote: “It is hard upon the poor people that they should be deprived of knowing that they are suffering from an affliction of God’s providence.” A number of considerations converge to make this reference to Providence morally unacceptable. In the first place, means had been developed and were at hand to deal with and alleviate both famine and plague, but they were not fully employed. In the second, the religious argument or explanation is at this moment serving a classic ideological function—it is being used to screen other interests and motives, and as a partial extenuation of the British government’s failure to provide adequate relief to the starving Irish. And third, at the time Trevelyan was writing, a humane consciousness had already come into existence which challenged the validity of his assumptions and the necessity of his conclusions.

The discrepancy between Trevelyan’s attitude and what had become an authentic moral possibility at that moment in history leads us to note that death itself is relative and historical. Death as a fact is absolute, of course, but as civilization’s control over nature advances, the number of morally legitimate or acceptable forms of death or dying steadily decreases. (In our culture today, for instance, death in a nuclear war seems on the verge of ceasing to exist as a moral possibility.) One of the things that makes the Irish famine an episode of large historical significance is that we can detect in it just such a shift in consciousness—it is in all likelihood the first disaster of its kind in history which was widely responded to, and continues to be thought of, as a moral outrage.

Still another kind of consciousness can be felt to exist in Mrs. Woodham-Smith’s book. And this is the consciousness of our own time, of World War II, concentration camps, and race-murder. The charge has been brought against the British government that its treatment of the Irish people during the famine amounted to genocide, and it “has been accused, and not only by the Irish, of wishing to exterminate the Irish people . . . as Hitler wished to exterminate the Jews.” As a historian, Mrs. Woodham-Smith is properly wary of such tempting analogies, and remarks that the 1840′s must not be judged by today’s standards ; moreover, she adds, “whatever parsimony and callousness the British Government displayed towards Ireland, was paralleled seven years later by the treatment of their own soldiers which brought about the destruction of the British Army in the Crimea.” Such disclaimers to the contrary notwithstanding, Mrs. Woodham-Smith’s book was written in our time and could not have been written before it; the very form of the narrative, the choice of significant details, the emphases and shadings are all in some measure dictated by that fact. Just as in literature a classic work renews itself by impersonating a modern one, so also, as Philip Rahv once remarked, “the past retains its vitality in so far as it impersonates the present, either in its aversions or ideals.” Indeed, on a strict definition, history can only be a study of the present, the past itself being merely one mode which the present takes. The Great Hunger would not be so interesting and important a work did it not offer this peculiar historical relevance, or if one were unable to feel that the past was being revealed in it as a genuine mode of the present.



It is in the scenes of mass horror and death that the impersonation of modernity can be felt most strongly. If the natural calamities of blight and plague were bad enough by themselves, the treatment of the Irish by their landlords and by the British government, that is to say by other human beings, was terrible in the extreme. The terror, of course, has to do with the fact that they weren’t being regarded or treated as human beings, that their humanity was being denied. One of the first results of the blight, for example, was the mass eviction of Irish tenants from off the land. Troops and police would move in and demolish the tenants’ houses on the spot. “The scene was frightful; women running wailing with pieces of their property, and clinging to door-posts from which they had to be forcibly torn; men cursing, children screaming with fright. That night the people slept in the ruins; next day they were driven out, the foundations of the houses were torn up and razed, and no neighbour was allowed to take them in.” Homeless in their own homeland, alienated by official decree from their brothers, the evicted sought refuge “in what was called a ‘scalp.’ A hole was dug in the earth, two to three feet deep, roofed over with sticks and pieces of turf, and in this burrow a family existed.” It is almost as if they were preparing graves for themselves beforehand; yet when these living dead were discovered in their holes in the ground, they were “remorselessly hunted out.”

The scenes of mass starvation and death endlessly follow: of human beings dying alone, deserted, forgotten, abandoned by their very families; of bodies lying unburied and unknown along the roads and in ditches; of corpses of persons who died of starvation being eaten by cats and rats who were themselves skeletons. The island had become a vast death-camp, an emerald Golgotha, a green and pleasant pit of despair. Out of a multitude of such reports one will have to serve as representative of the rest. Here are the Irish children.

The worst sufferers were the children; starving children were skeletons, many too far gone to be able to walk. The skin over the chest-bones and upper part of the stomach was stretched so tight that every curve of the breast-bone and ribs stood out in relief. . . . Starvation had affected the children’s bones; the jaw-bone was so fragile and thin that a very slight pressure would force the tongue into the roof of the mouth. In Skibbereen, Elihu Burritt met children with jaws so distended that they could not speak; in Mayo the starving children had lost their voices. Many were in the stupor characteristic of death by starvation. Sidney Go-dolphin Osborne visited workhouses, infirmaries and hospitals and never heard a single child utter a cry or moan of pain—“in the very act of death still not a tear nor a cry. I have scarcely ever seen one try to change his or her position . . . two, three or four in a bed, there they lie and die, if suffering still ever silent, unmoved.” . . . By April, 1847, children were looking like little old men and women of eighty years of age, wrinkled and bent . . . even the babies were “aged.”

A curious phenomenon was the growth of hair on starving children’s faces. The hair on the head fell out and hair grew on the face. . . .

The descriptions of the Irish sufferings during the plague, of what they endured at the hands of the shipping agents and aboard the emigrant vessels, and of what further degradation awaited them on their arrival in Canada and the United States are more of the protracted same. Upon all of which direct comment is almost bound to prove inadequate. In Past and Present, an extraordinary book written in 1843, Thomas Carlyle addressed himself to the “condition of England”—which was bad enough. At one point he introduces the anecdote of a poor Irish widow in Edinburgh, who “went forth with her three children, bare of all resource, to solicit help from the Charitable Establishments of that City.” She was refused by all, helped by none, until, exhausted, she sank down with typhus, died, and infected her lane with fever so that “seventeen other persons died of fever there in consequence.” It is a very curious matter, Carlyle observes. “The forlorn Irish Widow applies to her fellow-creatures, as if saying, ‘Behold I am sinking, bare of help: ye must help me!’ They answer, ‘No; impossible; thou art no sister of ours.’ But she proves her sisterhood; her typhus-fever kills them: they actually were her brothers, though denying it! Had human creature ever to go lower for a proof?” It is a very impressive piece of writing, and yet one wants to ask if even this is adequate to the reality of the experience, or if anything could be.



One of the more striking implications of Mrs. Woodham-Smith’s account has precisely to do with the consciousness of the witnesses of the famine, with the disparity that existed between what was happening and their understanding of what was happening, or between experience and their ability to respond to, much less master it. The constant refrain of those who observed the famine is, “It cannot be described.” “The scenes which presented themselves were such as no tongue or pen can convey the slightest idea of. . . .” “It is impossible to go through the detail. . . .” “Believe me, my dear Sir, the reality in most cases far exceeded description. Indeed none can conceive what it was but those who were in it.” The modern reference seems apposite again; the refrain recalls the statements made by witnesses when the concentration camps were opened at the end of the Second World War. Reality itself had grown so monstrous that human consciousness could scarcely conceive or apprehend it; reality overwhelmed the human capacity to respond coherently to it. The relations between reality and consciousness are, it goes without saying, inexhaustibly complex, but it may be said that some time during the middle of the 19th century the disparity I have been outlining began to be sensed or felt. One of the chief causes which brought about this development was the growth among the British middle classes of an awareness of what the life of the poor, of the urban and industrial working classes, was like.

If we turn to literature, that part of an age in which we expect consciousness to exist in its fullest and most precise reach, the disparity is even sharper. Dickens was the one novelist of the period who was anywhere near remotely strong enough to grasp directly and imaginatively this order of experience. Indeed he was regularly accused from various sides of “exaggerating” the facts of social distress. Yet if anything emerges clearly from a work like The Great Hunger (as it does from other similar documents of the age), it is, as Dickens himself often protested, that his art was a mild representation of what was actually happening. It was mild not by intention but because reality wholly outstripped the capacities of art, the capacities of consciousness, to encompass it. And it is during the Victorian period that an important modern truth begins to emerge—that however mad, wild, or grotesque art may seem to be, it can never touch or approach the madness of reality.

But the statements of the observers that Mrs. Woodham-Smith cites, or of men like Dickens and Carlyle, represented only one segment of British opinion. Had more men been capable of such sentiments, the Irish distress would not have been so enormous. But in fact the dominant British consciousness at the time remained fixed at an opposite pole. This attitude was compounded of several elements. To begin with, there was a strain of sheer Podsnappery among the English; there were large and frequent denials that any such thing as a famine was actually occurring, or that the potato blight was anything but a false alarm and “the invention of agitators.” To profess a belief that the blight existed, wrote one reliable contemporary, “was as sure a method of being branded as a radical as to propose to destroy the Church.” And if at last it ceased to be possible to deny the blight and the famine, then the suffering of the Irish was their own fault. Ireland was a disturbing thought to the English, Mrs. Woodham-Smith writes, and “it was therefore a comfort to be able to believe that the Irish were not starving or, if some of them were, the depravity of the Irish was such that they deserved to starve; and to treat Ireland’s desperate appeals . . . as merely another whine from a professional beggar.”

The belief in the economic theory of laissez faire was undoubtedly the controlling influence in England’s treatment of Ireland during the famine. The ideas which combine to make this theory—such as the sacred rights of property, complete liberty of enterprise, the laws of the market and of supply and demand, and of government non-intervention in the economic sphere—were held with fanatical, religious intensity by the largest majority of British politicians and authorities. Any plan for the relief of the Irish was preconditioned by the requirement that private enterprise was in no way to be interfered with. Most of the time this naturally led to no relief. For example, during the first year of the famine, the British government bought certain small amounts of Indian corn with which it both hoped to keep market prices on grain down and to feed a few of the Irish. Since no trade in Indian corn existed in the United Kingdom, this was not construed as an interference with private enterprise. But the scheme, of course, failed: you cannot keep prices down in a market where food does not exist because prices themselves cease to exist. Moreover, the British might as well have purchased stones or rock salt for all the relief the Indian corn provided. Corn was unknown as a food in Ireland; the special facilities needed for milling it did not exist, and so the corn went unground. Inspired with divine ignorance, the authorities then suggested that the Irish eat it unground—in which state Indian corn is not merely indigestible but downright dangerous. Luckily, however—if such an expression in this situation has any meaning—most of the corn remained in warehouses, since the British had, in addition, neglected to supply a way of distributing it to the people. The vaguely lunatic atmosphere of this episode recurs throughout the other operations of relief: from the recipes for soup, composed by Alexis Soyer “the famous French chef of the Reform Club,” which “created a sensation in London,” to the projects for public works which succeeded in ruining the roads of Ireland, it is all nightmare, impotence, and disaster.



The point is that the English did not really want to relieve the Irish; they did not believe it was morally right, and from the standpoint of economic theory it was unsound and “unnatural.” One of the diagnostic attributes of any culture is its attitude toward poverty, and one can read the economic, social, and moral history of England in the history of its Poor Law. Confronted with eight million starving Irish, Charles Edward Trevelyan could write: “dependence on charity is not to be made an agreeable mode of life.” Trevelyan was not simply unaware of the almost demented irony of this statement; in it he was expressing doctrines altogether typical of the British governing classes. On the one hand, poverty was an inevitable part of the economic system; the workings of this system were identified with laws of nature and so were not to be tampered with; on the other, poverty was the result of improvidence on the part of the poor for which they were not to be rewarded but punished. One of the results of such thinking is that by the 19th century in England poverty had come to be regarded as a kind of crime, and the poor were treated as criminals—if relief were made as “unattractive and difficult to obtain as possible,” then the poor would presumably not be so willing to seek it. This more or less insane solution was applied wholesale to Ireland, but it too did not work. When it was proposed to allow destitute able-bodied men to receive relief by entering the workhouse, it was discovered that the workhouses had to be emptied first “of the aged and the infirm, of widows and children.” Apart from producing still more suffering, this measure came to nothing since it proved difficult or impossible to carry out: in the immense work-house at Tralee the inmates could not be turned out because they had “no clothes to put on and no shelter to which to return, for landlords customarily took advantage of destitute persons being forced to enter the workhouse to pull their cabins down.” In the end nothing worked.

In the end nothing worked, and Ireland was left, according to Trevelyan’s suggestion, to the “operation of natural causes”—which is to say that it was abandoned. These causes were not only the workings of supply and demand and providence but the causes enumerated in Malthus’s theory as well, mass death from starvation and disease. Nassau Senior, the political economist and adviser on economic affairs to the British government, remarked that he “feared the famine of 1848 in Ireland would not kill more than a million people, and that would scarcely be enough to do much good.” The Irish sickened, suffered, fled, and died in their millions; whether enough of them died to do much good is difficult to determine.

What becomes evident, then, is that the Irish people were as much the victim of ideas as they were of nature’s indifference to humanity. They were the victims of intellectual error, and the Irish famine is an unsurpassable instance of the effects of ideology in its purest sense. For the doctrines of political economy and of Malthus were unadulterated ideology; they were laws of society pretending to be laws of nature—or as Marx was to phrase it, they represented the “bourgeois relations of production as eternal categories.” And even though this ideological thinking worked to the material advantage of the British ruling classes, they too, we now can see, may be counted among its victims. For they were condemned to live in falsehood, and falsehood is always corrupting. Out of the intellectual falsehood in which the British ruling classes were steeped and the spiritual corruption which was its consequence sprang the enduring horror of the Irish famine—the unforgivable selfishness, indifference, and brutality with which the English permitted themselves to treat the Irish. That this treatment was sanctioned by what was then thought of as “scientific” and enlightened principles, and that the English administrators of this inhumanity were sincere in their beliefs and convinced of the advanced and even the benign nature of their views serves only to compound the desperate pathos of the event. But it serves as well to emphasize in that event what is exemplary in a modern way.

For these horrors were perpetrated by the most enlightened and civilized nation in the world during one of the greatest periods of its history. The Victorian period is universally and correctly thought of as the “age of reform”; during that time an unparalleled series of intellectual, scientific, social, and political advances took place in England. The spirit of humanity was abroad then as it has rarely been in human history; the literature of that period, the great novelists and the great Victorian critics, is in sum an incomparable contribution to our humanity and provides an incomparable humane heritage. To be sure, it was also a time of enormous social injustice; but what one usually feels in this regard is that during the Victorian period men had for the first time come into full possession of the consciousness of what social injustice is and means, that they were trying to do something about it, and that the reforming spirit, given enough time, would work successfully toward amelioration. And yet it is also a fact that Victorian England was directly and irretrievably responsible for the incomparable monstrousness of the Irish famine. The lessons for modernity to read in this are self-evident.

Whether these lessons will be read is something else again. For we, too, are by both temperament and tradition a reforming society confronted by problems whose solutions reform alone probably cannot bring about. And we, too, are an enlightened civilization bound in by ideology of which we are largely unaware and by contradictions with which we can scarcely cope. Whether we consider domestic problems—civil rights, unemployment, the farm problem—or international ones—the cold war, aid to underdeveloped areas—the difference between what might possibly be done and what will actually be done, is actually being done, is staggering. This difference, this gap between resources and performance, is in considerable measure a result of ideology, of thought which is socially determined yet unconscious of its determination. Since all political and historical knowledge, as Karl Mannheim has demonstrated, is ideological in the sense that it is inseparable from the particular values and position of a thinking subject and a social context, we cannot in such matters hope to attain some kind of absolute or transcendent truth. We can, however, enlarge our awareness of the truth that the ideas of all groups, including our own, are socially determined, that we as well as our adversaries think in ways or styles which are limited by our concrete social and historical situations. Only in this way can we reduce to a minimum the tendency toward self-apotheosis which is so characteristic of political and social ideas and so fatal in its consequences. The British in 1845—1849 were unable to do this, and the black record of the Irish famine was the result. If we today prove equally unable, the outcome is likely to be even worse.



Famine seems to be the last, the most dreadful resource of nature. . . . The vices of mankind are active and able ministers of depopulation. They are the precursors in the great army of destruction; and often finish the dreadful work themselves. But should they fail in this war of extermination, sickly seasons, epidemics, pestilence, and plague, advance in terrific array, and sweep off their thousands and ten thousands. Should success be still incomplete, gigantic inevitable famine stalks in the rear, and with one mighty blow, levels the population with the food of the world.

Thomas Malthus




1 Harper & Row, 418 pp., $6.95.

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