The food riots are one of the most significant and, outside of Ireland, studied protests of deliberate crowd protest. This inspired EP Thompson, the great English historian and nuclear disarmament activist, to conclude that it was a manifestation of what he called a “moral economy”. According to Thompson, a moral economy existed when, first, those who engaged in protests riots – either to directly access food, or to reduce the prices of food to a price they deemed appropriate or to prevent its movement out. of a region – perceived that they had the right to intervene in this way to ensure access to the basic necessities of life. Second, the authorities recognized this by refusing to apply all the sanctions at their disposal, which they unhesitatingly appealed to to suppress other rioting behavior.
Since it was first proposed, the concept of “moral economy” has been applied by historians, anthropologists, sociologists and others present. It was invoked on occasion in reference to Ireland, but guided by Thompson’s assertion that Ireland did not have a moral economy because “there was no political space ( as in England) ”whereby those he called“ the plebs ”meaning the poor and marginalized“ could put pressure on their leaders ”, no attempt was made to trace the history of the food protests in the country .
Indeed, it was generally argued, following Thompson, that the hunger riots pattern was not only intermittent, but weak and short-lived. It is no longer tenable. Closer engagement with available sources than has been attempted previously shows that Ireland supported a model of food protest that spread for over a century and a half, starting in the early 18th century.
This may not conform, except occasionally, to the “moral economy” developed by Thompson. But it does indicate that, like the population of England in the 14th century, the peasantry of France, Spain and Germany in the 19th century, and the hard-pressed peoples of Egypt, Morocco, Yemen, Tunisia and Elsewhere in 2007-08, the Irish people in the 18th and early 19th centuries continued an active tradition of food riots in an effort to alleviate their plight in times of potential distress.
In keeping with the clear link that has been established between food shortages, high prices and food protests, it is not surprising that the most intense moments of the food protests in Ireland coincide with the food crises. But that was not all. The food riots were not triggered by food shortages alone. It was also based on urbanization and marketing – and more specifically on the trade and sale of food, and its transfer from the countryside where it was produced to the cities where it was consumed by city dwellers. These conditions did not exist in Ireland, or at least in a sufficiently developed form, before the 18th century, which explains the lack of recognizable food protest before 1710.
Food riots are first identifiable in Ireland, in the Munster port towns of Cork, Youghal, Limerick and Waterford, and in the inland towns of Clonmel and Carrick-on-Suir in the early decades of the 18th century. The riots were then concentrated in these towns because of the role they played in the sale and dispersal of foodstuffs and because of the dependence of those who lived there on the purchased foodstuffs, and they were more visible in times of crisis, which is why peaked in the 18th century during the famine years of 1729 and 1740-41, and the subsistence crises of 1756-7, 1766 and 1783-4.
But that was not limited to Munster, as food riots were also identified during these decades at the main east coast ports of Wexford, Dublin, Drogheda, Dundalk and Belfast, and in inland locations. such as Kilkenny and New Ross. In addition, as urbanization and commercialization took hold more firmly, the number of places where food riots took place increased accordingly. The movement of goods along the Grand and Royal Canals was particularly noteworthy in encouraging rioting interventions aimed at inhibiting the movement of food from the Midlands.
But it was the combination of population growth, commercialization, and poverty that transformed the hunger riots from a predominantly east and south coast phenomenon that it was in the 18th century to a predominant pursuit of the west coast and from the Midlands in the early 19th century.
It is also more and more influenced by agrarian contestation, so that it manifests a greater propensity to violence, which accelerates the alienation, already initiated, from the honest. One of the consequences was the greater intervention of the authorities. This was most evident during the Great Famine, and the years 1846-7 in particular, when Ireland suffered the most intense period of food protest in its history. This is highly significant because it goes directly against the long held perception that the Famine years were “ostensibly for their quiet”. Admittedly, the food protest was not evenly distributed across the country at this time; it was more prevalent in Munster, southern Leinster and Connacht, and rarely encountered in the counties of Carlow, Dublin, Antrim and Derry, but a reconstruction of the practice during these difficult years presents a new and revealing perspective on the impact of the Great Famine.
More importantly, it highlights the unrecognized fact that the urban poor and the rural land poor were not unlucky interests who accepted their plight. The tradition of food protest indicates that they had a vision of how society worked, as well as a repertoire of protest strategies that they used when they did not. Their approach, let alone their actions, do not fit most accepted definitions of political activity. This suggests, however, that the concept of popular politicization being applied may be too narrow and too representative system-centered and that it is time to move the crowd from the periphery to the center and recognize that the food, and ally, them. protests were a form of political expression.
Either way, the story of the food riots provides an opportunity to broaden the historical narrative to further encompass the voiceless and, in so doing, provide a revealing and integrated new perspective on the 18th century. and 19th centuries, and, above all, on how we engage and interpret the Great Famine.
James Kelly is the author of Food Rioting in Ireland in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centurys: the ‘Moral Economy’ and the Irish Crowd (Four Courts Press, € 45)