The language used today to justify cuts to welfare benefits and health care are much the same as the British government used when they failed to aid the victims of the Irish famine


By Joan Walsh

Taking a break from 24/7 politics after the election, I finally read John Kelly’s troubling  “The Graves Are Walking: The Great Famine and the Saga of the Irish People.”  
Our problems feel small. Ireland lost one in three people in the late 1840s.
At least a million died in the famine and its related illnesses; another two million fled for England, Canada, the United States or other ports of refuge.

But I kept coming back to U.S. politics anyway. Hauntingly, Kelly repeats the phrase that drove British famine relief (or lack of it): they were so determined to end Irish “dependence on government” that they stalled or blocked provision of food, public works projects and other proposals that might have kept more Irish alive and fed.

The phrase appears at least seven times, by my count, in the book. “Dependence on government:” Haven’t we heard that somewhere?
Trevelyan 1848

In fact, the day after finishing Kelly’s book, I found  Salon’s Michael Lind writing about the Heritage Foundation brief ,The Index of Dependence on Government.” It could have been the title of a report by famine villain Charles Trevelyan, the British Treasury assistant secretary whose anti-Irish moralism thwarted relief, but of course it was written by well-paid conservative Beltway think tankers. 

The very same day PBS aired a Frontline documentary revealing that our fabulously wealthy country has the fourth highest child-poverty rate in the developed world, just behind Mexico, Chile and Turkey.
And I couldn’t help thinking: we haven’t come far at all.

I don’t believe in appropriating epochal tragedies and singular cruelties for modern political use. Genocide, slavery, famine, the Holocaust; rape, incest, lynching, those terms mean something specific.  A recession, or even a depression, can’t be equated with famine, let alone genocide. Nor can rampant child poverty: we fend off starvation pretty successfully with food stamps, government help and charity today. 

We still have poverty programs, even though we slashed them in an anti-dependency backlash Trevelyan might have approved.
A Democratic president, Bill Clinton, acting at least partly on Ronald Reagan’s insight that “we fought a war on poverty, and poverty won,” eliminated Aid to Families with Dependent Children in 1996 and replaced it with a time-limited, work-incentive program that cut its rolls by 58 percent in the last 15 years.
One in five children was poor in 1996; the exact same percent are poor today  (Among black children, the rate is almost 2 in 5). 
Whether we’re fighting a war on poverty or a war on the poor, what we are doing isn’t working.
But instead of digging in to find solutions to growing poverty in the midst of plenty, and increased suffering even among people who aren’t technically poor, Republicans spent the last year recycling theories from the Irish famine era.
They’re best expressed in  Mitt Romney’s remarks about the 
“47 percent, the people who see themselves as ‘victims’ and are dependent upon government.” 
Romney’s job, he told us, 
“is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”

Of course, now conservatives are very worried about “those people:” Supposedly, they re-elected President Obama. 

An increasingly crazed Bill O’Reilly  says Obama and Democrats have created
“a social free-fire zone that drives dependency and poverty.” 
Obama voters 
“want stuff,” 
he continued,
”big spending on government programs,”
they’ve rejected robust capitalism and self reliance.” 
Sean Hannity says Obama’s strategy was 
“to encourage Americans to be dependent on the government.” 
February 24, 1849. An English labourer struggles under the weight of a grinning Irish peasant, carrying a sack with £50,000, the amount of a relief grant recently given to Ireland 
Of course, it’s not just the Irish: Charles Krauthammer agrees.
“The more you make more people dependent, the more you have your constituencies, the more they re-elect you,” the eternally sneering righty said on election night.

At least once a generation, we have to fight the idea that the poor and struggling are to blame for their own hardship.

But it’s harder to fight it if we can’t see it. 

I’m grateful to the modern GOP for making its prejudice plain.
While that prejudice hits black people and Latinos hardest, it stunts opportunities for all Americans, particularly the poor, whatever their color.
A lot of people who aren’t “dependent” on government voted for Obama; sadly, a lot of people who are dependent voted for Romney. Mitt’s “47 percent” is by far majority-white and at least a quarter are senior citizens, but Romney won the white vote, and the senior vote, overwhelmingly.

I find myself particularly puzzled by my people, the Irish Catholics in that group. 

I hope they all get John Kelly’s book for Christmas.

Book review. The Graves Are Walking by John Kelly.


Narrative history is a tricky business, fitting all those recalcitrant facts into the form of communication human beings love best. 

A good narrative needs a protagonist — the answer to that shrewd editor’s question, “Whose story is this?” — but it needs an antagonist as well.
A villain makes things easy; one of the reasons World War II history remains so popular is that it has an archvillain in Hitler, a genuinely bad person pursuing a wicked agenda justifying himself with evil ideas and attitudes.
But the antagonist can also be time, society, change — even the weather.

So what sort of story is the great Irish potato famine of the late 1840s, a catastrophe that killed a million people, drove over a million more from their homeland and permanently transformed the way the Irish people view themselves?

It’s a tragedy, obviously, but does it feature an antagonist comparable to Nazi Germany, as some Irish historians have claimed? Or, to use modern geopolitical terminology, was the Great Famine a form of genocide?
Calling it that gives the carnage a label commensurate with the trauma Ireland suffered, but history, like justice, seeks more than just emotional truths.

John Kelly, author of the new book “The Graves Are Walking: The Great Famine and the Saga of the Irish People,” does not think the famine constituted genocide.

Citing an Irish nationalist author who accused Britain’s Assistant Treasury Secretary Charles Trevelyan of infecting Irish children with a special “typhus poison” in a government laboratory, he writes that the man “should have stuck to the truth. It was incriminating enough.” 

The story Kelly tells in “The Graves are Walking” is indeed damning, a shameful, bloody blot — and far from the only one — on the history of the British Empire. But calling it a genocide, however satisfying that pitch of moral condemnation may be, only acts to obscure the chilling contemporary relevance of Ireland’s 19th-century agony.

Kelly, whose previous book, “The Great Mortality,” offered an account of the plagues that devastated Europe in the Middle Ages, recounts the progress of the famine chronologically. 

It began with a mysterious blight that struck the potato crops of Flanders in 1845.
The blight, which scientists of the time mistakenly believed to be caused (rather than merely fostered) by damp weather, was a fungus that could destroy a field of plants overnight and turn seemingly healthy potatoes into black, slimy lumps.
The blight afflicted England and Scotland as well as Northern Europe, but its effect on Ireland was particularly dire because the economy there was entirely dependent on the labor of peasants whose compensation consisted of permission to cultivate small parcels of land. Potatoes, which grow quickly and are highly nutritious, were the only crop with a high-enough yield per square foot to feed them.

The colonial nature of the Irish economy exacerbated the food shortage. Most of the landowners were Anglo-Irish, and many of these were absentee landlords who really identified as English. (The Duke of Wellington, born in Dublin, reputedly responded to someone who called him Irish by saying, “Being born in a stable does not make one a horse.”)

They visited their Irish properties infrequently (or never) and regarded them solely as a source of funding for a lifestyle that, as Kelly puts it, showed “a preference for conspicuous consumption over agricultural investment.” Whatever the faults of England’s own class system, the landed gentry were seen to have a paternalistic obligation to care for their tenants, especially in times of need.

The political, economic and humanitarian failure of England’s response to the famine amounted to — no joke intended — a game of hot potato between the British government and Irish landowners over who was responsible for aiding the poor. 

The now archetypal tableau of Irish grain being loaded onto ships bound for England as Ireland’s starving masses watched speaks of the landowners’ indifference to anything but their own income.
The refusal of the British government to act decisively to stem the crisis early on arose from its determination to make Ireland “independent” (if only there were a way to make those scare quotes extra ironic).
Both sides were ignorant and shortsighted, confident in their stereotypical notion of the irresponsible, fanciful and lazy “Irish character” but oblivious to all the ways that rural subsistence economies cannot be expected to start functioning like England’s more developed agricultural one overnight.

Kelly, like most historians, places the brunt of the responsibility for this fiasco on the shoulders of Trevelyan. 

As the policy leader of the famine response program, Trevelyan was not a Mengele-style mad scientist but a civil servant known for his “unbending moral rectitude and personal intensity.”
Unfortunately for the Irish, the faith he embraced was a fusion of Moralism, “an evangelical sect that preached a passionate gospel of self-help” and the laissez-faire economics of Adam Smith and Edmund Burke.
At several key points in the evolution of the catastrophe, when strategic intervention might have fended off thousands of deaths, Trevelyan refused, maintaining that there was no greater evil than interfering with market forces.
When a subordinate protested, he would send him a copy of Burke’s “Thoughts and Details on Scarcity.”

The Irish economy was backward and precarious, but for Trevelyan the failure of the potato crop presented not a life-or-death crisis but an opportunity to forcibly modernize it. 

He agreed to a limited public works program (in which out-of-work laborers were paid a pittance to build roads to nowhere) because he believed it would break the peasant class of its reliance on barter and subsistence farming.
The idea was to sell them corn imported from overseas because the grain couldn’t be cultivated in Ireland, thereby accustoming them to using money.
However, when Ireland’s mercantile men objected to the price-depressing effects of government-funded grain, Trevelyan vowed not to sell it too cheaply, claiming that high prices would promote foreign imports.

These strategies amount to the 19th-century version of what Naomi Klein has dubbed the “Shock Doctrine”: an attempt to force economic reforms on a population reeling in the aftermath of a disaster.

Kelly intersperses the nitty gritty of the shifting Irish economic situation with horrific glimpses of its human toll: streets jammed with gaunt, half-naked wraiths who had sold their clothes for food, families gathered mutely in miserable cottages to die, unburied corpses by the roadside, entire hamlets razed by landlords seeking to evict “dead weight” tenants they’d otherwise have to help. 

If only these unfortunates could have sought comfort in “Thoughts and Details on Scarcity”!

Recognizing that the British handling of the famine was “parsimonious, short-sighted, grotesquely twisted by religion and ideology” rather than deliberately genocidal is important because while powerful, paranoid, racist madmen like Hitler are relatively rare, our own time is replete with men like Trevelyan. 

The Moralists saw the famine as a combination of divine judgement on the Irish people and the market working itself out in accordance with God’s plan, an equation of brutal capitalism with pseudo-Christian piety that can be just as destructive as outright malevolence.
That version of the story may not be as satisfying dramatically and morally as the one with the evil, homicidal Englishman, but it does do what history does best, which is to show us how not to repeat it.

Laura Miller. 

Organised Rage

5.0 out of 5 stars A Parable of Contemporary Life, August 23, 2012
This review is from: The Graves Are Walking: The Great Famine and the Saga of the Irish People (Hardcover)


I’m having trouble understanding why some reviewers are so outraged that the great famine is not branded “genocide” in this book and believe that Kelly goes too easy on the British.

To my mind, Kelly puts the blame squarely where it belongs–on the British–but shows in chilling detail how abstract moralism/social philosophy can have devastating real-world consequences.

It is horrifying to see so many lives sacrificed to social “principle” and to the British determination to shed responsibility for Irish serfs.

As this book makes clear, in the British colonialist mind, the Irish were subhuman pawns, simply collateral damage.

Who cared how many died if Britain’s political/economic aims were fulfilled?

This attitude is just as frightening as if the British had targeted the Irish as “evil” and set about killing as many as possible, as perpetrators of genocide do.

In fact, it’s all the more heinous for being so cold-blooded. 

Iain Duncan Smith doesn’t care that his reforms killed Brian McArdle. He’s proud of himself and Brian’s just ‘collateral damage’ in his ‘war on welfare’:
You can read all about Brian McArdle R.I.P. at ; ;
Here is the clip of IDS BRAGGING ON BBC QUESTION TIME in response to being hauled up over Brian’s death by Owen Jones. SHAMEFULLY the idiotic and ignorant SHEEP, fed on a diet of govt. & tabloid lies and propaganda to the point where they can no longer think for themselves or distinguish truth from fiction bleat and clap in approval.
‘Iain Duncan Smith Losing His Temper With Owen Jones’
When will the nation awake and arise???
How many more must DIE???

Self-justifying indifference to death and suffering is frankly scarier than outright malice.

More chilling still, as Kelly spelled out explicitly in a Daily Beast piece, the British mindset has striking parallels in American politics today.

This is a gripping, well-told, and painstakingly researched work of history, a parable that can’t help but resonate with any thinking observer of our fragmented world.

See also: 

So let’s ask the question again, was Charles Edward Trevelyan, was he a hero of the people or self-righteous genocidal villain? 

Article first published here

3 thoughts on “The language used today to justify cuts to welfare benefits and health care are much the same as the British government used when they failed to aid the victims of the Irish famine

  1. Humanity2012 says:

    The Irish Genocide by Starvation was a Cold Blooded Act of Murder and Murder by
    Poverty is Still Murder

    Charles Trevelyan was a Creep a Monster and a Murderer and like other Genocidial
    Maniacs should be Held in Disgust like Adolf Hitler Joseph Stalin and Chairman Mao
    as Well as Pol Pot

    There is No Justification for Health and Welfare Wrecking because those who are
    Poor and in Poor Health have a Necessity of Requirement of Proper and Adequate
    Help and Provision

    We Must Not go Back to the Horrible Days of Dickensian Time Destitution and Human
    Suffering whilst ” Queen ” Victoria had her Palaces and Get Aways like Osborne House
    and Balmoral

    This Present ” Secretary of State For Work and Pensions ” Really Needs to Resign
    or be Sacked his Attitude is Ignorant and Abysmal at the Very Best Not to mention
    Dammed Well Arrogant

    As For Silly Sheep Fed upon Tabloid Propaganda they Need to Bloody Wake Up
    and Open their Eyes to Human Suffering otherwise they are Not Fit to be Called
    Human Pure and Simple

    It is Not For Nothing that I can See that the Oblivion Box of TV and it’s Propaganda
    Diet of Programmes is the Idiot Box

    We Need to Have a Line in the Sand Drawn Not the Continual Heads in the Sand
    of Far too Many

    Shame upon the ” Conservatives ” Really Destructives and Shame upon those Ignorant
    Enough to Vot e For Them

    Make the Rich Pay they are the Hotshots with All the Money if Not Always Morality

  2. jefflph says:

    IS NOT IDS A CHRISTIAN,oh sorry i forgot creatin,oh by the way he has a degree from italy he never when there for more than 2 ids degree in crimes most vile
    ids-dcmv crime most vile .. jeff ..

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