In 1900, Irish activist Maud Gonne referred to Queen Victoria as the ‘Famine Queen’. This nickname stuck as Irish Nationalism, and a quest for independence from the United Kingdom gained traction. Before this, while British laissez-faire capitalist policies were often blamed for the extent of the devastation felt during the famine, the Queen herself had not been so widely and outrightly blamed for it. In this article, we are going to take a brief look at what happened during the Great Famine in Ireland and at why the British Government and Queen Victoria are often blamed for the sheer number of famine related deaths.
Ireland in the 1800s was no stranger to famine. So, when potato blight struck in 1845, it was widely believed by politicians in Westminster that the issue would soon blow over. However, this did not happen, and the Great Famine destroyed Ireland between 1845 and 1852. A quarter of the population died or had no choice but to emigrate in a mass exodus which left the Irish population in decline for almost a century. Even today the population is less than the pre-famine figure.
Ireland in this time was part of the United Kingdom and was ruled from Westminster. Though Ireland was represented in a way by Irish MPs and Lords, they often lived in England and were out of touch with the Irish people. The land was owned by the English or wealthy Protestants by the time of the Great Famine, meaning the majority of the Catholic population had to rent small plots of land from these wealthy absentee landlords. Land rental was expensive, and the plots were small and so Irish tenant farmers often relied on crops like the potato to survive. On top of this, there were a large number of landless labourers who had to find farm work when they could or sublet smaller plots.
Despite the failure of the potato crops over a number of years, there were some larger farms which did produce foods during the famine, but these were grains that were often sold abroad as the Irish people could not afford to buy them. The Irish blamed the Queen and her ministers for allowing precious oats, wheat and cattle to be sold overseas especially to the English. The government at the time were very wary of interfering with the free market and so allowed the food to be sold while people starved to death rather than subsidising the cost of the food for the poor. Here we can see that the Irish anger at the British was understandable.
By the time the British government took notice of what was happening and tried to intervene, people were already dying in droves. There were many different schemes which aimed to help the Irish, with varying results over the years. The Queen and her cabinet were often blamed when the schemes failed or when no help was provided to certain regions. Due to a largely agrarian economy and a lack of government presence in Ireland, people relied on aid and intervention from England and from their Protestant landlords who owed allegiance to Queen Victoria.
Robert Peel, the Prime Minister, did try to help as much as possible in the early years of the famine. He introduced Public Works to allow the landless poor to do jobs to earn a small amount of money, and he also imported corn from America for people to eat. Under Peel’s government, the Corn Laws were repealed in and aimed to bring down the price of bread and grains for the people, but Peel’s weak government soon fell. With the loss of Peel also came the loss of any progress that was being made by the British government to help the starving Irish. People often had to turn to charities to receive food from soup kitchens which could never meet the demand, or if all else failed, people piled into the diseased workhouses which were at ten times their usual capacity.
Peel, the charities and the workhouses are seen as the things that at least tried to help the Irish people during the famine even if they often failed. Peel’s successor Lord John Russell and the civil servant and Treasurer Charles Trevelyan, however, are often seen as purposefully holding back help from the Irish. If these men who were Queen Victoria’s Prime Minister and Treasurer were seen as so badly failing the people during the Irish famine, then how can the Queen be blameless?
Under Russell’s government, the Public Works did continue for a while, but they were poorly managed. Charles Trevelyan, it seems had no wish to help the Irish people, he said the famine was “a direct stroke of an all-wise and all-merciful Providence”. Here he reflected the view of many British politicians that the famine was sent by God to get rid of the poor Irish who were a burden on the state. In 1846, Trevelyan stopped many of Peel’s relief programs, and the Labour Rate Act was introduced, meaning help was only given to the very worst affected areas, and it was never enough. Trevelyan blamed the Irish gentry and landlords for the devastation caused and convinced the government that the Irish should deal with the problem themselves. This brought a lot of aid to a standstill during the worst of the famine years.
From letters, it is clear to see that although Queen Victoria did visit Ireland four times during her reign, she had little interest in Ireland and felt disconnected from her Irish subjects. Historian Christine Kinealy says of Queen Victoria “There is no evidence that she had any real compassion for the Irish people in any way”. We also know that the Queen only campaigned for funds to be raised for Ireland after Russell told her to do so. The Queen did not donate money herself until 1848, and when she did donate £2000, it meant to nobody else could donate more money than she had done. This meant that when foreign rulers tried to send large sums of money, they were not allowed to do so.
It is unfair to blame Queen Victoria for the extent of the deaths and emigrations caused by the Irish famine. However, it is not acceptable to say that she and her government completely innocent. It is clear that the Queen did not care much for her Irish subjects and that on many occasions, her government was negligent. During the famine, The Times reported that Ireland was “a mass of poverty, disaffection, and degradation without a parallel in the world.” Queen Victoria clearly knew what was happening, and without a doubt, she could have done more, and if the famine had struck England or Wales instead, there would have been a very different outcome.