Home Rule & Government Famine Policy (Mullingar Workhouse)
Visiting the Mullingar workhouse provides an opportunity to explain how the two famines were “triggered” by different natural events (the phytophthera infestans blight in Ireland, an early winter frost in Finland), but also that such natural circumstances alone cannot create a famine – pre-existing societal structures and the response of the authorities must also be examined. Finland was in a different position from Ireland in terms of famine relief, in that it already possessed what many Irish demanded in the nineteenth century – Home Rule. This meant that relief polices for the 1860s famine did not emanate from the imperial capital, St. Petersburg, as London had imposed its rule on the Irish. Rather, senator in Helsinki undertook various measure for the relief of the people. Nevertheless, many of these measure were very similar to those seen in Ireland: workhouses, relief work, a demand for labour to be undertaken before providing relief meal. Canal and railway building was instigated on a national scale, as well as local public works. These sites in fact arguably caused higher mortality, as they were inundated by hungry people seeking work, congregating with highly contagious diseases. Moreover, the fact that Finland had floated its own national currency in the early 1860s made the Helsinki authorities extremely wary of damaging the commercial value of cereals. There is also evidence that some among the elite in Helsinki held similar attitudes to those in the Finnish countryside as the likes of Trevelyan are said to have held towards the Irish Celt – and that the famine was an opportunity to introduce “modernity” to the country. Unlike in Ireland, many of the temporary workhouses and hospitals were made out of wood (e.g. Lahti, below), and have not survived into the 21st century.
One of the main aspects of the Great Finnish Famine, which was particularly noticed in the international press, was the way in which Finns ate “the bark of the birch trees” in a desperate attempt to stave off hunger. Along with lichen bread, nettles and mushrooms, bark-bread is the most remembered “famine food” in Finland. This will form a key component of the forthcoming NÄLKÄ exhibition at Strokestown National Famine Museum in Autumn 2017. Although the picture presented often indicated Finns gnawing at tree trunks, the process of refining birch phloem into flour and then bread was well-established, and was a part of life in many parts of Finland. Nevertheless, as with food surrogates during the Great Irish Famine, this bread was low in nutrition and was hard to digest. The practice is depicted below, in a contemporary image from neighbouring Sweden, which also suffered famine in 1867. The man of the household is outside extracting bark phloem in an effort to alleviate the suffering of his family.