Guest Author - Tony King
The Act of Union, passed in 1800 was a drastic and far-reaching political decision that for all intents and purposes, formed a new country which would be called "The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland". This Act united England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland and established the Union Jack as the “new“ British flag.
Under the new laws, local and regional parliaments were abolished, and the new union was ruled from a centralized government in London. For most of the localized counties and states throughout Britain and Ireland, there was no practical difference in the lives of the people, except for the inconvenience of having to have even minor laws passed and approved by the London politicians, who often either refused passage or granted it on the whims of their lackies or sycophants.
The penal laws which were still in force in Ireland in the early 1800s discriminated against non-Anglicans, especially Roman Catholics and Presbyterians. It had been promised that the Anglican-favoring laws would be abolished with the Act of Union. However, as is often the case, this “election promise” was conveniently forgotten and the dreaded laws remained in force until Daniel O'Connell lead a campaign for emancipation that inspired even the English public and led to the repeal of the Laws in 1829.
During the 1800’s the majority of Irish landlords were Anglican Protestants since the law forbade Catholics (and in some cases, members of other Protestant denominations) from owning land. The Irish peasants from these affected groups lived almost exclusively on a diet of potatoes since land was scarce and potatoes were an easily grown product.
Then, in 1845 the potato blight struck and destroyed almost one-third of the potato crop in Ireland. It doesn’t take much imagination to envision the effect this “famine” had on the Irish nationals throughout the whole country.
By 1841, the population of Ireland was just over 8 million (consider that today’s population is within the same range) .By 1846, the potato supply was non-existent and the starvation effect of the famine began to be seen.
To its credit, the new British government offered the assistance of shipments of maize from America to feed the peasants, and this helped prevent mass death for the first year of the Famine. However, the crop of 1846 also failed with the resulting catastrophe of thousands of people starving to death, particularly in rural areas. Many others died from the diseases which commonly follow famine ----typhus, scurvy and dysentery.
While the British government set up soup kitchens and workhouses to relieve the stress of the disaster, they drastically underestimated the problems they were facing, and much of the said relief failed to reach it’s intended victims.
The problem was then exacerbated by greedy landlords who evicted the rural peasant farmers for non-payment of rent and these disenfranchised families added to an already out-of-control problem.
It was at this stage that the great “Irish Emigration” (especially to America) began.
Sadly for many, the dream of a new life turned to a horrible nightmare as hundreds died on the overcrowded and poorly provisioned ships which became known as 'coffin ships'. By 1851, the country’s population had fallen to 6 million and when the emigration “fad” finally slowed down around 1900, only about 4 and a half million people were counted in the population.
This brought a different but equally troubling problem to the “gentlemen farmers” who owned much of the Irish countryside. Large, expansive acreages of land lay abandoned and useless and even today, large areas of derelict farmland can be seen in several areas on the West Coast.
While there had always been anti-English sentiment in Ireland, much of the population believed that the new British government could have done more to ease the burdens of the peasant farmers. The Irish both at home and abroad quickly developed their now famous “chip on the shoulder” against the English and their Irish supporters.
However, in all honesty, some blame for the Irish famine disaster must also be attributed to the over-reliance of the rural Irish on a single food crop and on the lack of communication between the governmental leadership in Ireland and their counterparts in the English Capital. Indeed, there were many English who were completely oblivious to what was happening in rural Ireland.
The Act of Union was an attempt to both subdue the national Irish peasantry and to establish a leadership corps more loyal to the English crown. Unfortunately, the unforeseen events of the Irish potato famine intervened and set in motion a series of circumstances that could be said to be the root cause of much of what troubles Ireland today.
Sadly, Irish modern history proves once again that men fail to learn for history and the mistakes of the past. Let’s hope that all those involved in resolving these “troubles” can do so before some new and more ferocious natural disaster completes the work for them.