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The Irish Famine and British Financial Crisis

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Scholars have substantially characterized British government policy during the Irish famine as dictated by an ideological belief in the benefits of ‘laissez-faire’ and implemented by unsympathetic civil servants with a racist disregard for the suffering of the Irish poor.

By reassessing the papers of British policymakers and the financial intelligence policymakers would have received from the markets, this paper investigates the causational links between financial crisis in Britain and policy change in Ireland during this period. It argues that the sources clearly show that laissez-faire ideas were not the main driving force behind government policy during the famine period.

Laissez-faire ideas did not change policy but were relied upon, in desperation, to re-orientate the Irish economy away from subsistence and towards employment, which was hoped would ensure the Irish could feed themselves when the resources and options of central government were believed to be limited. This suggests that British economic policy in the nineteenth century may have been affected more by the immediate practicalities of coping with financial crisis in Britain than they were by abstract laissez-faire ideology.

This talk is part of the Financial History Seminar series.

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