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Star of the Sea : A Postcolonial/Postmodern Voyage into the Irish Famine

Why the British Relief Measures Failed

The British government made attempts at some sort of assistance throughout the Irish famine, but they failed to solve the problem of the Irish famine. First of all, the main problem was that it did not start out as a famine. Originally, the problem was a series of potato crop failures, which affected the population further by the British exporting all Irish crops. Therefore, the British turned it into a famine by not helping the situation with valid relief measures or discontinuing the crop export. When they finally did start giving famine relief, they did not take into account the fragile situation the Irish were in.

Robert Peel was the first one who attempted to help the famine situation, and was known as “having been generally effective in curbing famine mortality in the first season of the crisis” (Gray, “British Relief Measures” 77). However, most of the policies were short-lived due to its great number of flaws. Peel did not plan for a long-lasting famine, and therefore only repaired the situation for a little while. His secret purchase of the Indian corn was a good idea, but it would not last a long time and was difficult to distribute to the Irish. Further, he did not take into account that some areas were worse off than others and therefore needed more corn.

Another failure was the relief committees that were established in the beginning of the famine years. While they were created with the best intentions, it received plenty of criticism. According to Cormac O’Grada, an inspector claimed that the relief committees were “a decided curse to the country and the service… an area of interested motives and debating societies” (53). This inspector is partly right, because the relief committees were able to pick and choose whom they wanted to help. They were the ones that sent the list to the British government, and the ones that were in charge of distributing help. The British had created the relief committees to calm down the chaos, but instead created more chaos susceptible to corruption.

One of the main problems on the question of relief was that the British government did not utilize all their resources for saving their colony. They were more concerned with staying out of it as much as possible, which is evident through Charles Trevelyan’s non-interference policy. Peter Gray states that: “Relieving suffering was never the sole concern of many politicians” (The Irish Famine 39). All they were required to do was to save face in front of the world, and therefore they were constantly looking for ways to push the problem away from them and onto the Irish population. Therefore they came up with the solution of emigration. Emigration solved the entire problem for the British government simply because it sent the problem away. But they never took into account the physical ramifications on the Irish population of traveling a far distance.

After the Whig administration took over, there was plenty of criticism towards the Peel administration. However, there was also a lot of criticism going the other way. Sir James Graham was the former Home Secretary under Peel, and was vocally open with his criticism towards the Whig administration. He believed that they did not realize how large the crisis was and how insufficient their policies were. According to Christine Kinealy, he confided to Robert Peel that: “The real extent and magnitude of the Irish difficulty are underestimated by the Government, and cannot be met by measures within the strict rule of economical science” (This Great Calamity 80). The famine had gotten worse by the time Russell came into power, but their relief measures did not reflect this. They were mostly focused on saving money and getting rid of the problem.

Criticism only got worse towards the end of 1847 as the public works system was failing. It was apparent that the system was greatly inadequate, and mismanaged by both the British government and the Irish population. There had been little value created by the Irish working, and had only weakened the little strength they had left. Peter Gray stated that the little labor that had been accomplished “had been diverted from cultivation, and masses of the rural poor were dying or physically incapacitated” (The Irish Famine 51). All the public works had done was to weaken the famine victims and divert them from taking care of their own families.

The British government operated on a cash economy, which meant that they let supplies be available to the Irish, but only for money. However, the problem was that “the poor did not have the means to purchase the provisions that were offered to them” (Nally, Human Encumbrances 136). In Britain this system had worked, but implementing it in Ireland during a famine was impossible. If the Irish had a bad financial situation before, then Britain made it decidedly worse by their relief measures. According to Helen Litton, “a labourer would have to earn twenty-one shillings per week to support an average family” (39). But the problem was that an average Irishman would make only six or eight shillings, even if he was working on public works. With such a difference, the Irish population would have extreme difficulty in purchasing any of the relief measures from the British government. Britain had failed in saving the Irish population because they were too busy trying to not lose any resources or money.

Works Cited
Gray, Peter. “British Relief Measures.” Atlas of the Great Irish Famine. Ed. John Crowley, William J. Smyth, Mike Murphy. New York: New York University Press, 2012. Print.

----------------. The Irish Famine. New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc. Publishers, 1995. Print.

Kinealy, Christine. This Great Calamity: The Irish Famine 1845-1852. Ireland: Gill & MacMillian, 2011. Print.

Nally, David P. Human Encumbrances: Political Violence and the Great Irish Famine. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame, 2011. Print.

O’Grada, Cormac. Black ’47 and Beyond: The Great Irish Famine in History, Economy, and Memory. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999. Print.
Researcher/Writer: Ellen-Marie Pedersen
‚ÄčTechnical Designers: Derek Rachel and Amanda Lundeen

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