The issue of food exports during the Famine has fuelled an on-going debate in the historiography of the crisis. The traditional, popular view has considered the export of food to be a major contributory factor to excess mortality, symbolising a triumph of doctrine over humanitarian considerations. The opposing interpretation has argued that even if all the food had been kept in Ireland, it was not sufficient to compensate for the shortfall resulting from the blight. Furthermore, it is argued, by 1847 grain imports to Ireland exceeded exports.
The debate has tended to juxtapose John Mitchel’s emotive assertion regarding ships laden with food leaving Ireland against Austin-Bourke’s pioneering and frequently cited tabulation of the Irish grain trade in the 1840s. Whilst the former is impressionistic and anecdotal, Bourke’s statistics are based on contemporary government returns. The latter is used as evidence of the net inflow of grain in 1847 and thereby dismisses Mitchell’s claims. More recently, Jim Donnelly amongst others has refined this argument, suggesting that grain imports only really became significant after the spring of 1847 (HI 1.3, Autumn 1993). In the months prior to this there had been a shortfall in food imports which contributed to a ‘starvation gap’ in Ireland.
Thus far, however, the debate has been conducted within narrow parameters. For example, it has focused almost exclusively on national estimates with little attempt to disaggregate the data by region or by product. The debate has confined itself to grain and thus the wider issue of food exports has been ignored. Also, the net inflow of grain into Ireland in 1847 has to be viewed against the poor grain harvest, especially oats, in 1846. This meant that the volume of grain available for both home consumption and exports was reduced. Moreover, in looking at the issue of food exports, the role of ideology has been emphasised whilst the financial motivations which underpinned the desire for non-intervention in the food trade have been underestimated. Consequently, the role of Irish farmers and merchants, both individually and collectively, has been neglected.
Inadequate official data
The official returns compiled by the British government of grain imports and exports are flawed. This was acknowledged by the Inspector of Imports and Exports at the time. Apart from mistakes in computation and weight conversion, they are an under-representation of food exports from Ireland. Consequently, Bourke’s estimates are based upon inadequate official data which underestimated the volume of grain leaving Ireland during the Famine. Therefore, they cannot provide an accurate gauge of food (or calorific) losses. Furthermore, the importance of import/export data can only be totally assessed in relation to home demand and total agricultural production (which only become available from 1847).
The unreliability of the official data was a consequence of the Act of Union: Ireland was increasingly absorbed into a free-trade zone and there was little financial or fiscal necessity to keep accurate data of food imports from Ireland to Britain. Although overall estimates were made of grain imports from Ireland—upon which the British working-classes relied so heavily—the returns were not comprehensive. Since 1825 the recording of all other foodstuffs by the central government had been discontinued, although records of live animal imports were kept intermittently. This lack of central attention makes research into the local records even more important.
Significant amounts of food were leaving Ireland during the Famine years. In 1847 alone, the worst year of the Famine, almost 4,000 vessels carried food from Ireland to the major ports of Britain, that is, Bristol, Glasgow, Liverpool and London. Over half of these ships went to Liverpool, the main port both for emigration and for cargo. Shipping returns for all of these vessels and full details of their cargoes have survived, although they have been little used (similar records for Ireland have not survived). Food was also exported to smaller ports such as Preston and Runcorn, although their records were not kept systematically. A search amongst the surviving port records throws new light on the question of food exports during the Famine. It also provides an insight into the nature of the Irish economy in the 1840s.
It is generally accepted that by the 1840s, Ireland had become the granary of Britain, supplying the grain-hungry British market sufficient to feed two million people annually. Grain was not the only major food export to Britain: the data suggests that at the time of the Famine the population of Britain depended heavily on Ireland for a wide range of foodstuffs, and not just grain. At the same time, large quantities of other merchandise were exported from Ireland. In the twelve month period following the second failure of the potato crop, exports from Ireland included horses and ponies (over 4,000), bones, lard, animal skins, honey, tongues, rags, shoes, soap, glue and seed. This vast export trade suggests the diversity of the Irish economy during these years and how disease and starvation existed side-by-side with a substantial commercial sector.
The port of departure of the vessels transporting food from Ireland is in the surviving records. Their pattern of origin demonstrates that the food cargoes were coming from ports throughout Ireland, not just on the east coast. Ports situated in some of the most famine-stricken parts of Ireland were sending cargoes of foodstuffs to Britain: Ballina, Ballyshannon, Bantry, Dingle, Killala, Kilrush, Limerick, Sligo, Tralee and Westport. In the first nine months of 1847, for example, seventy-five ships sailed from Tralee to Liverpool, most of which were carrying grain. In the same period, six vessels sailed from Kilrush in County Clare (which suffered acutely during the Famine) to Glasgow carrying a total of 6,624 barrels of oats. Throughout 1847 also, both Indian corn and potatoes were exported from Ireland.
The question of free trade during a subsistence crisis lay at the heart of an on-going ideological battle within British politics. This was most evident in the decision not to close the ports, a change of policy in response to food scarcity. It also demonstrated the political muscle of interest groups, but especially merchants, within both Britain and Ireland. Closure of ports was a traditional, short-term response to food shortages. In had been used to great effect during the subsistence crisis of 1782-4 when, despite the opposition of the grain merchants, ports had been closed and bounties offered to merchants who imported food to the country. During the subsistence crisis of 1799-1800, the government had placed a temporary embargo on the export of potatoes from Ireland. In 1816 and 1821, the British government had organised the shipment of grain into areas in the west of Ireland where there were food shortages. The grain was then sold on at low prices. Similar intervention and market regulation occurred in Britain. For example, following the poor grain harvest in 1773, the bounty on wheat exports was removed in an attempt to keep grain in the country.
By the 1840s, this level of intervention was viewed by the government as being ideologically inappropriate as they preferred to leave food exports unhampered. In 1845 and 1846 there were calls from the corporations of Belfast, Cork, Derry, Dublin and Limerick for the ports to be closed in an effort to keep food in the country. At the same time, local and central governments throughout Europe were responding to food shortages in their own countries by closing their ports as a short-term expedient. The Dutch government also repealed their Corn Laws in 1846 in an attempt to facilitate the import of cheap grain.
Repeal of the Corn Laws
Sir Robert Peel had alienated his protectionist colleagues through his support for the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846. He had also angered many Irish merchants by his decision to import Indian corn into Ireland following the first appearance of potato blight in 1845. A key aspect of Peel’s relief programme had been that £100,000 of Indian corn from America was imported into Ireland in the spring and summer of 1846. The purpose of importing this corn was not primarily to provide food to the destitute, but to regulate and stabilise food prices within Ireland. This policy was successful and there was no excess mortality 1845-46. The fall of Peel’s government in the summer of 1846 brought the Whigs under Lord John Russell to power. The Whigs were even more divided on this matter, although the free-trade lobby within the party was very influential, especially following the 1847 general election.
A more controversial aspect of the policy of the Whig government in 1846 was their decision not to continue Peel’s policy of importing Indian corn to Ireland but to leave food importation to market forces, despite the fact that the shortfall in food supply was far higher than in the previous year. This decision was due to a mixture of ideological and practical considerations. Peel’s intervention in the market place in 1845 had angered many merchants and grain producers. One of the first actions of the new administration was to assure this powerful interest group that only a limited number of government food depots would be opened in the west of Ireland. Instead, food imports were to be left to the workings of the market. Inevitably, merchants were tempted to seek high profits outside Ireland and the food shortages in the rest of Europe, including Britain, ensured that there was a ready market for their goods.
The destitute, whose existence depended on the vagaries of the free market economy, were untouched by the rising profits of the Irish merchants. This fact was recognised privately by a number of members of the government. At the beginning of 1847, when excess mortality was at its highest, the Lord Lieutenant, Bessborough, criticised the actions of the merchants. He believed that their behaviour and desire for high profits had contributed to the suffering as they had ‘done their best to keep up prices’. He went on to reflect that:
I cannot make up my mind entirely about the merchants. I know all the difficulties that arise when you begin to interfere with trade, but it is difficult to persuade a starving population that one class should be permitted to make 50 per cent profit by the sale of provisions whilst they are dying in want of these.
Livestock exports increased
At the end of 1845, exports of potatoes from Ireland increased, especially to England, Belgium and Holland, all of which had experienced the potato blight. The reduction of potatoes in the Irish markets caused some concern within Ireland, although overseas demand for Irish potatoes diminished when some of them arrived at their ports of destination diseased with blight. The export of livestock to Britain (with the exception of pigs) also increased during the Famine. Whilst the export of pigs decreased, the export of bacon and ham increased from 930 cwt. in 1846 to 1,061 cwt. in 1847. In total over three million live animals were exported between 1846-50, more than the number of people who emigrated during the Famine years. In 1847, 9,992 calves were exported from Ireland to Britain, which represented a thirty-three per cent increase on exports on the previous year. Some of these cattle were then re-exported to Europe. Overall, during the Famine years, food exports to Europe from Britain increased. Irish food exports, however, went much further afield than Britain or even Europe. In the summer of 1847, a New York newspaper noted that imports of grain from Ireland were even larger than usual.
A wide variety of other foodstuffs left Ireland apart from livestock—vegetables and pulses (particularly peas, beans and onions), dairy products, fish (especially salmon, oysters and herrings) and even rabbits. In February 1847, 377 boxes of ‘fish and eggs’ and 383 boxes of fish were imported into Bristol alone. The butter export trade was particularly buoyant. In the first week of 1847, for example, 4,455 firkins of butter (a firkin equals nine gallons) were exported from Ireland to Liverpool. In the following week, this had risen to 4,691 firkins. Large quantities of butter were exported from Cork to all parts of Britain. For example, in the first nine months of 1847, 56,557 firkins of butter were exported to Bristol and 34,852 firkins to Liverpool. During the same period, 3,435 poultry were exported to Liverpool and 2,375 to Bristol.
Alcohol was also a major item of export. Although the foundation of Father Mathew’s temperance movement in 1838 had damaged the Irish alcoholic drink industry, it remained an important sector of the economy both for internal and external consumption. In 1847, six million gallons of grain spirit were consumed within Ireland. Exports were also high, mostly in the form of ale, stout, porter, and whiskey. These products were derived from grain (barley and malt or, to a limited extent, potatoes) and thus represented a disguised export of grain. In the first nine months of 1847, for example, 874,170 gallons of porter were exported from Ireland to Liverpool. During the same period, 278,658 gallons of Guinness were imported into Bristol. Whiskey exports were also substantial and 183,392 gallons of this spirit arrived in Liverpool. This aspect of the export trade was criticised within Ireland. The prohibition of distillation during a subsistence crisis was a traditional response by governments. In both 1845 and 1846, there were calls for distillation to be outlawed. This included requests from the corporation of Dublin and the Lord Lieutenant, Lord Heytesbury. These entreaties were refused.
In spite of the apparent commitment of both Peel and Russell’s governments to free trade, imports and exports continued to be hampered by the Navigation Acts, which restricted the ability of foreign ships to carry goods to ports in the United Kingdom. At the same time, freight charges were imposed on goods imported into the United Kingdom. These charges were highly volatile and, after the disastrous harvest of 1846, rose to three times their usual rate. This body of legislation and the continuation of freight charges hindered the free movement of goods into Ireland, especially during the critical months in the winter of 1846-47. This was recognised by Isaac Butt, former Professor of Political Economy at Trinity College. In 1847, he identified the paradox of expecting free trade to supply the Irish market whilst trade continued to be hampered by various restrictions. This led him to pose the rhetorical question:
If ministers resolved to trust the lives of the Irish people to private enterprise, was it not common sense and common justice to them that private enterprise should be unencumbered by any restrictions in the execution of the task of supplying, at the notice of a few months, provisions to five million people.
By January 1847 it was obvious that the relief policies introduced by the Whig administration only a few months earlier had failed. In an attempt to ameliorate the situation, the government announced that the public works were to be replaced by soup kitchens. Furthermore, the Navigation Acts and all duties on foreign grain were temporarily suspended. These measures undoubtedly facilitated imports into Ireland in the spring and summer of 1847, when grain imports began to rise sharply and food prices to fall. This legislation coincided with the closing of the public works programme and their replacement with government soup kitchens, which were highly successful. However, these measures were too late to help the hundreds of thousands of people who had died in the preceding winter months when there had been a clear starvation gap for the destitute of Ireland. During these months, deprivation and starvation co-existed with a thriving export trade and high profit margins, demonstrating the duality of the Irish economy.
The second failure of the potato crop in 1846 left many people without access to their usual supply of food. The Whig government’s decision not to intervene in the market place but to use public works as the main means of providing relief was disastrous. In many instances, the wages paid on the relief works proved to be too low to purchase food in a period of ‘famine’ prices, forestalling and hoarding. At the same time, large amounts of food continued to leave Ireland and it was not until the following spring that food imports became substantial. Consequently, during the winter, there was a ‘starvation gap’. The size of that gap is best measured, not in calorific values or in terms of the volume of food exported, but in the amount of excess mortality and suffering during those months. Whilst official mortality statistics were not kept, the local Irish constabulary provided an unofficial estimate that 400,000 people had died due to a lack of food in the winter of 1846-47.
The belief that the British government had abandoned the Irish destitute to market forces was not confined to nationalists such as John Mitchel. The Earl of Clarendon, who had succeeded Bessborough as Lord Lieutenant, confided to the Prime Minister at the end of 1847 that:
No-one could now venture to dispute the fact that Ireland had been sacrificed to the London corn-dealers because you were a member for the City, and that no distress would have occurred if the exportation of Irish grain had been prohibited.
Christine Kinealy is a Fellow of the University of Liverpool.
P.M. Austin-Bourke, ‘The Visitation of God’?: The Potato and the Great Irish Famine (Dublin 1993).
C. Kinealy, ‘A Death-Dealing Famine’: The Great Hunger in Ireland (London 1997).
P. Mathias, The First Industrial Nation: The Economic History of Britain 1700-1914 (London 1990).
The author wishes to acknowledge the assistence Jo Jones, Sean Egan, Hugo Flynn, Ruth Peel and Jack Worrall.