The most virulent and rancorous debate during the Great Irish Famine concerned the role of the state in economic affairs, with the ‘science’ of political economy, the authoritative official discourse, decreeing a policy of laissez-faire. Long regarded as either ignorant or neglectful of its principles, the Irish, from the 1830s, were the focus of systematic economic evangelism. During the Famine, officialdom and its powerful institutional allies defended the ‘laws’ of political economy then under unrelenting popular attack. According to one authority ‘the providing food for sale in all districts, and under all circumstances, should be left to the foresight and enterprise of private merchants’. The laws of commerce were the laws of God and demanded unswerving obedience. But others argued, overwhelmingly in moral terms, that in the cataclysmic Irish circumstances these laws should be either modified or even completely disregarded, maintaining, like Bishop Hughes of New York, that ‘the rights of life are dearer and higher than those of property’.
Ireland was seen as economically backward, being over-populated, lacking industry, and being almost totally dependent on a grossly inefficient agricultural sector. The modernization of Irish agriculture entailed the substitution of capitalist farming for the cottier system, resulting in the consolidation of small farms into larger holdings and the general replacement of tillage with pasture. The ultimate cause of the Famine was held to be not so much the palpable economic state of Ireland but the more mediated and intangible agency of Irish character, the cause rather than the effect of poverty. Irish character, lacking steadiness, prudence, and foresight, needed externally-imposed discipline, the character-forming rigour of competition in free markets with the central discursive role being taken by political economy.