Following "Black '47," the worst year of the Great Famine in Ireland (1846-1851), William T. Thornton proposed a solution that would, he believed, at one and the same time end the famine, eliminate widespread poverty, diminish the threat of violence and rebellion, and establish a native "middle class" in Ireland. This was A Plea for Peasant Proprietors, published in London in 1848.
Thornton's proposal was relatively simple and straightforward. From the perspective of the Just Third Way, the "plea" might almost be viewed as a precursor of Abraham Lincoln's Homestead Act and Emancipation Proclamation a decade and a half later.
The basic problem was that in Ireland most of the people did not own any capital, whether in the form of land or otherwise. The land they rented was in sub-economic plots as a result of the prevalence of "rack renting." Rack renting was a seemingly endless process of subletting that ensured plots would be as small as possible, and rents as high as possible.
Only the potato made it possible for people to survive even marginally on such small plots of land. Consequently, not only was poverty widespread, the country was subject to all the dangers of a one crop subsistence economy. In 1826 Dominic Corrigan, a Dublin physician, was warning the government of the dangers of a one-crop economy, and predicting that "a pestilence and disease of unprecedented magnitude will befall us" unless some means was found to diversify crops and provide new sources of food. These warnings increased in frequency in the early 1840s, as the reform movements sweeping through Europe, and that culminated in "the Year of Revolution" — 1848 — engendered an increasing level of protest over conditions in Ireland.
In September 1845 disaster struck. A blight that had affected the potato crop all across Europe finally reached Ireland. Where the failure of the crop had caused hardship in Europe, in Ireland it caused almost instant disaster. By 1851, a population that has been estimated as being between 6 to 12 million prior to 1845 was reduced to less than 4 million, of which approximately 1 to 2 million were believed to have emigrated. The rest died from starvation or starvation-related disease.
Ironically, there was more than enough food grown in Ireland to stave off the famine, just as in other parts of Europe where other crops were able to take up the slack when the potato crop failed. Unfortunately, most of the Irish did not own the land on which these other crops were grown, and most of the food was shipped out of the country to generate cash income for the largely absentee landlords. Consequently, the most obvious step in any famine — prohibiting the export of food — was not taken, ostensibly for fear of interfering with the free market, even though this had been one of the first steps taken in the 1780s (over the protests of the merchants) when crops failed.
As John Mitchel (1815-1875) of the "Young Ireland" movement (and mentioned in William Butler Yeats's poem, "Under Ben Bulben") commented in his pamphlet, The Last Conquest of Ireland (Perhaps) (1861), "The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the Famine." Mitchel had published similar comments during the Famine, culminating in his being charged with sedition in 1848.
Following a confused line of reasoning by the court, Mitchel was convicted of treason by a packed jury under a new "Treasonous Felony Act." This Act appears to have been rushed through parliament in order to convict Mitchel. He was sentenced to 14 years transportation to Bermuda. As Mitchel's defense Counsel, Robert Holms, reported the outcome,
"The foreman of the Grand Jury, gentlemen, having been asked if the jury had found bills against the prisoner — replied — 'Oh yes, we find him guilty of sedition.' 'Gentlemen,' said the officer of the court, 'he is not indicted for sedition.' 'Well,' said the foreman, 'we find him guilty of treason.' 'But, gentlemen,' again interrupted the officer, 'the charge against Mr. Mitchel is for felony.' 'Oh, no matter!' said the foreman, 'sedition, treason, or felony, it is all the same to us.'"
Whether or not the Famine was engineered as Mitchel and many others claimed, however, the fact remains that the so-called "free market" that allegedly justified the lack of measures taken by the government was far from free. Not unnaturally, this datum did not seem to occur to the Powers-that-Be. When the vast majority of the population was not free to own capital, whether in the form of land or technology, and the bulk of the marketable goods and services did nothing to increase the wealth or wellbeing of the country in which they were produced, the Irish could only be described as subsisting within a system in which they were burdened with "a yoke little better than that of slavery itself." (Rerum Novarum, § 3)
Mitchel, in fact, aroused fury in the United States when he came out in defense of slavery in the South. He claimed that black slaves in the United States were better treated and better fed than most of the ostensibly free Irish. In his opinion, the Northern abolitionists were hypocrites for championing the rights of slaves while ignoring the barbarism of the system the English imposed on Ireland.
It is no wonder, then, that the cause of Irish nationalism and socialism came to be so intertwined. The evils of agricultural and, later, industrial capitalism had kept the Irish in a state of complete economic subjugation. The problem was that, whether capitalism or socialism, ordinary people were powerless before the economic and political power of the elite, both private and State.