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07-09-2018, 17:50   #1
Snickers Man
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An "all-wise providence"

I came across this weasel phrase yesterday while engaged in some amateur research into the effects of the Great Famine. I was so incensed by it that I did a search on it on this website to see if it was in fact a well known phrase with which others might have been familiar and it seems that indeed it is.

Many posters attribute it to Alexander Trevelyan, chief secretary for Ireland during the Great Famine, as his explanation for how the population came to be doubly decimated in the 1840s on his watch, as it were.

I use the phrase doubly decimated in the literal sense: decimation is the killing of one in 10; double decimation is the killing or at least the removal of two in 10. And that is the fate that befell the Irish population in the 10 years between the censuses of 1841 and 1851.

The total population of the island, as measured by the census of 1841 was 8,175,124; in 1851, the population had dropped to 6,552,385.

Do the maths, as they say (6552385-8175124)/8175124 = -19.8%, or in round terms a drop of 20%. Double decimation.

The report of the 1851 census is available online and two very interesting pages are this one and the subsequent page which contains the tabulated data.

Spanning the two pages is this wonderful phrase, written presumably by the Commissioners to whom was delegated the task of collating and analysing the data.

"The numerical decrease of the inhabitants between 1841 and 1851, amounted to 1,622,739 or 19.85%; but this.....conveys but very inadequately the effect of the visitation of famine and pestilence, with which it has pleased an all-wise Providence to visit Ireland."

The author was probably William Donnelly, the Registrar-General of Marriages, who had been appointed to "superintend the enumeration of the population of Ireland" although he was assisted by an Assistant Commissioner, one William R Wilde of Westland Row and one Edward Singleton acting as secretary.

Wilde? Westland Row? That rings a bell

Never mind the Fag on the Crag; this guy was the **** at the Count.
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07-09-2018, 19:16   #2
pedroeibar1
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I came across this weasel phrase yesterday ......
Spanning the two pages is this wonderful phrase, written presumably by the Commissioners to whom was delegated the task of collating and analysing the data.

" .......the effect of the visitation of famine and pestilence, with which it has pleased an all-wise Providence to visit Ireland."

The author was probably William Donnelly, the Registrar-General of Marriages, who had been appointed to "superintend the enumeration of the population of Ireland" although he was assisted by an Assistant Commissioner, one William R Wilde of Westland Row and one Edward Singleton acting as secretary.

Wilde? Westland Row? That rings a bell

Never mind the Fag on the Crag; this guy was the **** at the Count.
It’s no big ‘find’, it’s been common knowledge for a long time. Nor is it a ‘weasel phrase’ as you describe it, it is ‘civil service speak’ of the day and in that vernacular it meant ‘Providence allowed ….to visit Ireland.’ Like it or not, Providence was granted considerable respect, blame and deference in the 19th century.

Apart from being a ‘seriously serial womaniser’, Wilde senior was a polymath, greatly respected internationally. He was a highly qualified / experienced / traveled ophthalmologist who also studied overseas after his training in Dublin with the likes of Colles, Graves (he of the Disease) and Stokes. Those men were leading practitioners at a European level. In Ireland he was appointed oculist to the Queen and was much admired by the labourers in the West where he performed many operations gratis and was known by them as ‘An Doctúir Mór’.
Wilde was an advisor on the Census for several decades and it was for that service he received his knighthood ; his work on Irish antiquities gained him honours from several Continental universities.
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07-09-2018, 19:40   #3
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......"The numerical decrease of the inhabitants between 1841 and 1851, amounted to 1,622,739 or 19.85%; but this.....conveys but very inadequately the effect of the visitation of famine and pestilence, with which it has pleased an all-wise Providence to visit Ireland."
I merely enjoy reading history, but I'm no historian. Others here like pedroeibar1 can give you more educated and informed answers than me. The way I see it is quite simply....that's the way they spoke in those days. It doesn't necessary mean the famine actually gave pleasure to any person, any being, or any deity. If you and I travelled back in time they probably wouldn't be able to understand a word of either our Irish or English language!
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09-09-2018, 14:52   #4
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It’s no big ‘find’, it’s been common knowledge for a long time.
Well congratulations on being more familiar with a topic than others but I suspected the phrase was well known, as I said in the OP. Although a trawl on what people have said on this message board would suggest that it was a phrase normally attributed to Secretary Trevelyan. It was clearly also used by the Census Commissioners.

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Nor is it a ‘weasel phrase’ as you describe it, it is ‘civil service speak’ of the day and in that vernacular it meant ‘Providence allowed ….to visit Ireland.’ Like it or not, Providence was granted considerable respect, blame and deference in the 19th century.
Of course it's a weasel phrase. (one definition of weasel as used in this context in my Concise OED is "get out of obligation"). It's blaming Providence, or God if you like, for the inevitable consequence of human actions. Or inactions.

And why did you insert the word "allowed" into the quote provided? The original quote from the census report (link provided so you can check) says that "an all-wise Providence.....was pleased..to visit..pestilence and famine" on Ireland.

Pleased?

That clearly claims that God/Providence didn't just "allow" the catastrophe; he approved of it. It even suggests that interfering with His divine will might be inadvisable, if not downright sinful.

"Nothing to do with us, mate. It's what God wants, innit?"

How can you say these are NOT weasel words?

The great Irish famine, like all famines, was caused by human actions. Sometimes these are deliberate, such as in siege situations when the intent is to starve an enemy into submission; more often, as was the case here, by economic mismanagement. I don't believe, as some do, that it was deliberately engineered as an agent of genocide by malevolent imperalists in London, but the disastrous land and food policies that were followed in Ireland led inexorably to the catastrophe. And causing a fifth of the population to disappear in 10 years, with further flight continuing for about a century, only to be partially reversed in the last 50 years or so was effectively, if not intentionally, a form of genocide.

Still, as long as it was all God's fault......

Last edited by Snickers Man; 09-09-2018 at 14:56.
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09-09-2018, 21:52   #5
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I doubt any answer here will be what you are looking for. You are reading into what you want. I'm out.
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10-09-2018, 10:52   #6
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I doubt any answer here will be what you are looking for. You are reading into what you want. I'm out.
Er, I actually read, and posted, what was there. Sorry to have mentioned it.
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10-09-2018, 20:18   #7
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Apologies if I misunderstood you. These words looked like your own:

"The original quote from the census report (link provided so you can check) says that "an all-wise Providence.....was pleased..to visit..pestilence and famine" on Ireland.

Pleased?

That clearly claims that God/Providence didn't just "allow" the catastrophe; he approved of it. It even suggests that interfering with His divine will might be inadvisable, if not downright sinful.

"Nothing to do with us, mate. It's what God wants, innit?"


It looked to me like you had already made up your mind.
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10-09-2018, 22:48   #8
pedroeibar1
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It looked to me like you had already made up your mind.
The issue actually is the OP's agenda. Zone in on one ‘idiom’, then take its language out of its historic context and try to build a case to prove a point. Ignore and then deny the fact that the language of the day was couched in such phraseology. Be unaware that the Commissioners were supervisors of the project, like a board of directors at a distant remove, that there was a full-time Secretariat headed by Wilkie, who in all probability was the Report's author. Then overlook some of the most interesting findings of the Report . That says it all……...
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23-09-2018, 16:24   #9
Snickers Man
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The issue actually is the OP's agenda. Zone in on one ‘idiom’, then take its language out of its historic context and try to build a case to prove a point. Ignore and then deny the fact that the language of the day was couched in such phraseology. Be unaware that the Commissioners were supervisors of the project, like a board of directors at a distant remove, that there was a full-time Secretariat headed by Wilkie, who in all probability was the Report's author. Then overlook some of the most interesting findings of the Report . That says it all……...
Oh FFS!

Now you're guessing at my "agenda"? I, er, don't have one. It's not the idiom that disgusts me, it's the evasion.

A 20th or 21st century bureaucrat might not have made such a specific allusion to an "all-wise providence"; they might have used another weasel phrase such as "factors beyond the government's control" or "adverse climactic conditions" or "aftershocks from an international monetary crisis". The intent is the same: not our fault.

And they're all weasel phrases.

Now you might quite reasonably say that it is the job of a Census Commission merely to count the numbers and present the data, not to apportion blame or responsibility for such a catastrophic drop in the population--20% decline in a decade, but then why put the phrase in at all?
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23-09-2018, 23:52   #10
pedroeibar1
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Oh FFS!

Now you're guessing at my "agenda"? I, er, don't have one. It's not the idiom that disgusts me, it's the evasion.

A 20th or 21st century bureaucrat might not have made such a specific allusion to an "all-wise providence"; they might have used another weasel phrase such as "factors beyond the government's control" or "adverse climactic conditions" or "aftershocks from an international monetary crisis". The intent is the same: not our fault.

And they're all weasel phrases.

Now you might quite reasonably say that it is the job of a Census Commission merely to count the numbers and present the data, not to apportion blame or responsibility for such a catastrophic drop in the population--20% decline in a decade, but then why put the phrase in at all?
FFS indeed. Why do you refuse to accept that you are using a 21st century mind-set to judge the mid-19th C language, moral code, ethics, sensibilities and beliefs of educated Victorians?

In that era God and Providence along with their favourite Church, the ‘Established Church’, to which the ruling class belonged, had a major role in daily life. This dated back to the Puritans and earlier. Even in death it had a financial input - until 1858 many wills had to be proved/probated by the Established Church’s Prerogative Courts. 'Providence' was regularly invoked, by parliamentarians, by the newspapers, in philosophy and even had a role in scientific debate. In the early 1800's Daniel O’Connell was no stranger to quoting Providence, saying it was watching over the American people when they were fighting for their independence. Even in Free State Ireland the Constitution had a bit about all lawful authority coming from God and thence to the people and an early High Court judgement said that anything coming from the Oireachtas had to conform to ‘this ultimate Source’ or be repugnant to Natural Law. Simply put, it was quite normal/acceptable to blame or credit Providence for all sorts of stuff until relatively recently.

Google ‘Victorian Science and Providence’ or the ‘role of Providence in Victorian England’. That’ll keep you occupied and save me time.
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23-09-2018, 23:56   #11
Franz Von Peppercorn
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I merely enjoy reading history, but I'm no historian. Others here like pedroeibar1 can give you more educated and informed answers than me. The way I see it is quite simply....that's the way they spoke in those days. It doesn't necessary mean the famine actually gave pleasure to any person, any being, or any deity. If you and I travelled back in time they probably wouldn't be able to understand a word of either our Irish or English language!
Of course it means that they thought it was a just retribution by a vengeful God on a backward people.

If we can’t condemn attitudes in the past we can say nothing bad about slavery, imperialism or famine. Which I suspect is part of what is going here - a Niall Fergusson view of the benign nature of the Empire.

Last edited by Franz Von Peppercorn; 23-09-2018 at 23:59.
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24-09-2018, 00:07   #12
pedroeibar1
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If we can’t condemn attitudes in the past we can say nothing bad about slavery, imperialism or famine. Which I suspect is part of what is going here - a Niall Fergusson view of the benign nature of the Empire.
It is perfectly normal to condemn slavery, imperialistic excess, etc. but in doing so it is a requirement that the outlook and social fabric of that era is used to assess and place in context the views of those who were participants.
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