“That Coming Storm”: The Irish Poor Law, Colonial Biopolitics, and the Great Famine
AbstractThe potato blight, Phythophthora infestans , was first recorded in Dublin in August 1845. Over the next five years the Irish potato harvest failed four times, triggering mass hunger and disease on a magnitude the European continent had not endured for centuries. During this period, over one million Irish perished and a further two million fled the land, never to return. Thus, in a relatively short period, three million people were dead or gone. The purpose of this article is to situate this story of human deprivation and suffering within the context of an evolving “colonial biopolitics” aimed at regenerating Irish society. Although recent writings demonstrate an interest in the regimes of power that produce famine, there has been little attempt to connect such arguments to the theory and practice of colonialism, especially its investments in the liberal goals of development and social improvement. Building on the perspectives of Michel Foucault, particularly his discussion of “biopolitics,” I argue that the Great Famine was shaped by a regulatory order willing to exploit catastrophe to further the aims of population reform. The article draws particular attention to the development of an Irish Poor Law system, arguing that this legislative debate exposes the growing perception that agricultural rationalization, fiscal restructuring, and population clearances were necessary to “ameliorate” and “improve” Irish society. This twining of relief and development facilitated dangerous distinctions between productive and unproductive life and allowed the colonial state to apply its own sovereign remedy to Irish poverty.