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FAMINE RELIEF POLICY IN COMPARATIVE PERSPECTIVE: IRELAND, SCOTLAND, AND NORTHWESTERN EUROPE, 1845–18491 PETER GRAY irish historians may, perhaps, be forgiven for neglecting the comparative dimension of the Great Famine of 1845–1850. The extremity of the catastrophe in Ireland, leading to the death of approximately one in eight of the country’s population and to the emigration of a further one-eighth in six years, made it central to the Irish historical experience in the nineteenth century. No peacetime European social crisis since the seventeenth century , with the possible exception of the Ukrainian famine of the early 1930s, has equalled it in intensity or scale. The case for an Irish historical particularism—a Sonderweg grounded in the repeated experience of catastrophe—has recently been argued by Brendan Bradshaw.2 Such a reading of Irish history may have much to recommend it, but it runs the risk of insularizing the historical vision by narrowing the parameters of debate to Ireland and the Anglo-Irish relationship . It is with this perspective in mind that this article will approach the question of the comparative dimension of European response to famine in the 1840s. Pioneering work in the field has been done by Joel Mokyr, whose interest in Ireland began as a point of comparison in his analysis of the industrialization of the “low countries” and the costs of retarded economic development. His subsequent work on the problem of poverty in earlynineteenth -century Ireland and the causation of the Great Famine has been central to the revived debate on the subject since the early 1980s. One of FAMINE RELIEF POLICY IN COMPARATIVE PERSPECTIVE 86 1 An earlier version of this paper was read to the International Conference on Famine, New York University, in May 1995. 2 Brendan Bradshaw, “Nationalism and Historical Scholarship in Modern Ireland,” Irish Historical Studies 26, no. 104 (November 1989): 329–51. his most significant contributions has been to remind Irish historians that the famine was a part—albeit by far the most extreme and costly part—of the general European agricultural and industrial crisis of the later 1840s. Outside Ireland this crisis was most acute in the Netherlands and in Belgium , where the term “famine” is also warranted by the high levels of excess mortality for 1846–47. Famine conditions were also threatened in the Scottish Highlands, although the worst consequences were largely averted in that region.3 In France, Germany, and other parts of western and central Europe, poor harvests combined with industrial depression to produce serious strain. Although not as uniformly severe as the general European crisis of 1816–17, the upheavals of the 1840s have been described by one historian as the last great subsistence crisis of the ancien régime économique.4 The failure of potato crops resulting from the attack of the fungus phytophthora infestans, which was previously unknown in Europe, was a common thread linking the regional and national crises of western Europe from 1845. Failures of grain crops, particularly in 1846, compounded the catastrophe in many regions. These natural exogenous shocks to agricultural economies varied with climatic and soil conditions over time and area, and their impact was determined locally by the degree of structural vulnerability existing within each economy. Agricultural crisis provoked, and was complicated by, commercial and industrial fluctuations. In many regions the agrarian catastrophe delivered a coup de grace to rural domestic industries already in long-term decline. By the mid-1840s the proto-industrial sectors of the economy had largely collapsed in most of Ireland and in the western Highlands and islands of Scotland , a collapse leading to the impoverishment of large and vulnerable populations , now thrown almost exclusively on to potato subsistence for survival .5 The domestic textile industries of Flanders and Silesia were also virtually eliminated in the course of the 1840s, as they too fell victim to the mechanization of production in the core industrial areas of Europe. The agricultural crisis also provoked a sharp downturn in the commercial and “modern” industrial sectors of several economies already unstable due to FAMINE RELIEF POLICY IN COMPARATIVE PERSPECTIVE 87 3 Joel Mokyr, “Industrialization and Poverty in Ireland and the Netherlands,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 10, no. 3...


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