The Famine Plot

Mick Hall provides a taster of a recent debate on the Irish Famine Plot in which the author Tim Pat Coogan discussed the claims made in his book on the topic.

Irish famine: It's not a natural event if you evict a grandmother with her children, barefooted, starving and they die on the side on the road.

In his book The Famine Plot: England’s Role in Ireland’s Greatest Tragedy, Tim Pat Coogan lays the blame for the Great Famine which struck Ireland between 1845 and 1852 firmly at the feet of the British government who had responsibility for governing Ireland as it was part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Tim Pat goes further than many Irish academics, especially those who have a revisionist view of Irish history and who curry favor with British academic institutions by refusing to admit the British government's misrule during the great famine was planned, an act of genocide.

Tim Pat Coogan went where others feared to tread. The Famine, he says, was an early example of ethnic cleansing and one of the first acts of genocide.

When William Crawley asked Coogan on BBC NI radio:

What’s the evidence that this was an act of genocide?

Exasperated TPC replied:

A large number of graves for one thing, and an awful lot more people living in another country than should have been through forced emigration.

William Crawley replied:

A million dead and a million more ...

Tim Pat was having none of that:

Probably more, because modern scholarship points out to averted births and the [the fact that] families died and there was no one left to record the deaths. And anyway census-taking in the deserts of Mayo and people lived in bog caves and so on, it was nearly impossible to map how many people lived there in the first place. But probably it’s something nearer nine million than eight when the Famine broke out, and it came down to somewhere nearer six when the Famine was over in’51, and the Hunger continued, so probably a far greater impact. And you have to remember the impact on society was about nine million. Whereas you get these awful famines we see on television in Africa and it’s probably something in the order of 250,000 that die, a quarter of a million, and it’s a terrible loss but it comes from a population of 19 million.

The scale of this tragedy is best summed up by the fact there are fewer people living in Ireland today than before the famine.


There’s widespread agreement this was just an appalling tragedy, of course Tim Pat. Let’s go further than this, how we explain this tragedy.


The Act of Union had transferred the buzz and the government and the power to London and everyone of consequence had got out, the artist, the plumber, the politician, the poet, the publisher. There wasn’t a government. And there they were, on these tiny plots, living on potatoes, propagating, everything getting worse. When the blight came first, Peel, the conservative prime minister, tried to alleviate it and he actually, sub rosa, smuggled in grain, on ships, and symbolically the very first act of the Whigs who supplanted them was to turn the ships round, and Trevelyan, secretary of the Treasury and [who] became the architect of relief and had the ear of the cabinet, Charles Wood: he turned them round, and that was his attitude throughout. Famine relief, any kind of relief, had to have a repulsive element in it, as he called it. And they went from feeding them on soup and so on to shutting the food depots, to confining the relief to be paid on task work on roads, some of which would be under four foot of snow. You couldn’t work under those temperatures today, and people died before the work started. And the constant refrain, he coined a phrase, about natural causes, natural events, which became the mantra, and when, say, a humanitarian landlord like Lord Monteagle would complain about the effects of their policies they would say “We must leave it to natural events.” Well natural events are if you say evict a grandmother with her children, barefooted, in rags, no rain gear in a January gale, natural events would take care of the surplus problem of population very quickly.

William Crawley:

Does this add up to a deliberate policy of genocide in your mind?

Liam Kennedy an emeritus professor of history at Queen's University, Belfast then joined the debate.

Tim Pat:

Well I think what Mr Kennedy should have pointed out, by the way, from the start, was that one of my targets was the Irish academic historians, whom I say again, were guilty of colonial cringe, were largely trained in English universities, as Joe Lee has pointed out - Professor Joe Lee – and put this sort of emollient gloss on it that you’ve just heard. An even more eminent historian if there is such a thing possible, than Comrade Kennedy, was the late AJP Taylor, the English historian, who said that the Famine made Ireland a Belsen, a fairly strong term, and could not be termed other than a genocidal term in its import. I don’t know what he’s talking about new evidence. I have reproduced, I think, one of the most significant documents of the Famine, which is the article that caused Peel to fall out with Trevelyan. They had a very bad relationship for three years between 1843, when Trevelyan had visited Ireland for some six weeks, and came back, briefed to Peel, secretly, and then went out and published his findings in a quite hate-filled document, anonymously signed which showed a dreadful anti-Catholic, anti-Irish, anti-Celt bias. The last man you would have wanted to be in charge of Irish relief. But he was...


I don’t ... time.


May I finish my point?

All right go ahead.

Tim Pat:

The second point I make, which I haven’t seen our contestant advert to was that one of the most powerful men, Palmerston for example, in the English Cabinet, at the table, were huge Irish landlords, and Palmerston said flatly one day, to his colleagues, when there was some perturbation about what was happening. He said “Look, don’t we all agree that the solution to the land problem is to get the surplus population off the land?” and it is recorded that “with a shudder” they went back to other business. These were the people who imposed the Opium Laws on the Chinese at the same time in Hong Kong.
They were imperialists, they wanted to clear the land, to get rid of the people off the land, to bring on high farming and they wanted to instal cattle farming instead of the Irish pauper and peasant, and he hasn’t adverted at all to the publicity campaign they ran largely with the aid of the London Times to get public opinion round to that state of mind where they backed a policy which said – they welcomed the Famine –
“We look forward to the day when a Celt will be as rare on the banks of the Shannon as a red man on the banks of the Hudson.” Are you trying to tell me that that is an indication of benignity and trying to populate the land?

The debate rambled on with Kennedy attempting to justify the unjustifiable until Crawley left the last word to Coogan:

I want to make a point about the Victorian Cromwell. That wasn’t my description. That was the description of a very renowned American scholar. The facts are as I’ve set them out, they can’t be denied, I suppose our friend is saying they didn’t really die, they were hidden some place. They knew in England for several years, long before the Famine, that the land was overpopulated. They had these distress committees set up in the House of Commons. People as far back as O’Connell said what had to be done. When the Famine broke out they should have closed the ports. You haven’t talked about the way food was exported all the way through it. He wanted grain distilling stopped, grain retained in the country – the soup kitchens you boast about – they had them for one year, and then cancelled it and put them back on the roads.
They wanted once and for all to grapple with the overcrowding on the Irish land and behind the cloak. The records of the London Times are there that I quoted. And I think it ill behoves an Irishman, which Mr Kennedy presumably is, to be going on with that sort of rubbish. To this day, to show you the position that the Irish Famine has left and a lot of Protestants thought it was providential to clear the Irish off the land. To this day it wouldn’t be possible for the National Irish Famine Committee of which I was a member, the government commission, to hold the commemoration for the Famine north of the border, because of the feelings there. And we had an example of those feelings from Comrade Kennedy’s corner this morning

The Famine Plot: England’s Role in Ireland’s Greatest Tragedy, By Tim Pat Coogan
The full debate which took place on BBC Northern Ireland’s Sunday Sequence radio programme
can be heard here:

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Anthony McIntyre

Former IRA prisoner, spent 18 years in Long Kesh. Free Speech advocate, writer, historian, humanist, and researcher.

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