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By Jason Michael

AN GORTA MÓR – the Irish for the Great Famine of 1845-49 – is Ireland’s version of the well-known but seldom discussed family secret. Generations of Irish emigrants in Britain, North America, and Australia didn’t talk much of the reasons their forebears left their homes in search of new lives abroad. In Ireland itself, with the exception of a handful of books on the subject and its brief coverage in the national education curriculum, the Famine isn’t exactly front and centre in the present day telling of the nation’s story. Until the opening of Epic in Dublin’s docklands, a museum of sorts dedicated primarily to Irish emigration, the deaths of over a million people and the eviction and flight of millions more were marked only by a bronze sculpture of a starving group of people away from the centre of Dublin and a small, well-hidden whitewashed memorial stone at St James’s Hospital – once the South Dublin Union Workhouse.

More recently, at Strokestown in County Roscommon – one of the worst affected parts of the country during the Famine, the owners of Strokestown House opened The National Famine Museum. This isn’t much of a museum, and there is something off in the fact that it is housed in the stables of Strokestown House, the great manor home of the Mahon family – an English settler family that enthusiastically evicted hungry Irish peasants from its estates and profited from their expulsion and the export of their crops. Quite understandably, Ireland doesn’t like to remember the traumatic events of the Famine. Modern Ireland presents itself to the world and to itself as a nation awoken from the nightmare of its past and looking to the future.

Years of economic prosperity and deepening diplomatic bonds with the United Kingdom, especially after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, have made Ireland and Irish people reluctant to talk about the Great Famine. No one wants to be seen to be rubbing their nearest and largest trade partner’s nose in the sins of its past. This makes sense, and few in rural Ireland have wanted to revisit a period in which survival often meant sharing in the guilt – doing what it took to survive in the most desperate and awful circumstances imaginable. Until perhaps the last twenty years, the Famine was something most felt was best left obscured behind the better stories of 1916, the War of Independence, and the transformation of the Irish Republic into an economic miracle.

But skeletons in the cupboard have a way of making themselves heard. Modern Ireland is really only now coming to terms with the horrors of the more recent past; the wholesale enslavement of women and girls in hellish Magdalene laundries for ‘fallen women,’ years and years of clerical sex-abuse, and the physical and mental abuse of children and vulnerable people in industrial schools, and the discovery of mass graves for babies and infants at Mother and Baby Homes. Before the advent of ‘Catholic Ireland’ priests and religious were held in great esteem by the people of Ireland, they were often the educated class who stood up with and for the helpless victims of British imperialism in Ireland. But this has all changed, and it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that many of the sins of the Church in Ireland find their origins in the darkness of the Famine and the workhouse; a past Ireland and Irish people have not yet overcome.

Brexit – Britain’s decision to leave the European Union – has once again changed Ireland’s relationship with the United Kingdom. Again, anti-Irish propaganda has become a feature of the British media. The British government blames Ireland for attempting to derail Brexit over the question of the Irish border, unleashing from behind the veil of polite British society centuries of contempt. Daily, English tabloids and news reports cast up the spectre of the IRA and the Troubles, using Britain’s media-distorted memory to breathe new life into an ancient hatred – all to the service of London’s neo-imperialist agenda; using Ireland for England’s ends.

Yet, behind the memory of the Troubles – something Ireland remembers quite differently from Britain – there are still older ghosts, the reasons. The Irish Republican Army didn’t resume its war against Britain in the 1970s just for the craic. It was a response to the British Army’s massacres of Irish people in Belfast and Derry – Ballymurphy and Bloody Sunday. These were repeats of previous outrages perpetrated in Ireland by Britain, and the response of the IRA was rooted in a longer historical struggle against Britain reaching back through the War of Independence, back through Easter 1916, back through the Republican Brotherhood, through the Fenians, the Ribbon Men, and the Land League, all the way back to a primal act of British aggression in Ireland – the Famine.

Britain didn’t cause the blight. That was the work of an airborne pathogen that worked its way across northern Europe, Britain, and Ireland from 1844 to 1845. The failure of the potato crop was not Britain’s doing, but the Famine was. Since 1801, with the Act of Union of Britain and Ireland, the British government in London had systematically reduced the economy of Ireland and destroyed its native industries in order to reduce competition. Union with England makes countries poorer because union with England has always been to England’s benefit. Ireland was no exception. The purpose of the United Kingdom – created in 1801 with the Act of Union – was to, as Tim Pat Coogan explains:

…provide England with a tranquilised, non-threatening neighbour who would supply her with an inexhaustible supply of cannon fodder for her armies and an equally inexhaustible supply of cheap food for her citizens.

By 1845, when the blight struck, the greater part of the Irish population was utterly dependent on the potato. The British ascendancy landlord class – which was, almost to a man, absent from Ireland – controlled the production and export of the cereal crops and the livestock. When there were no potatoes, when masses of people were lying dead and rotting in the ditches of country roads, the export of food to England and Britain’s overseas markets continued. Rather than taking pity on the people they had so impoverished, the British ruling class saw hunger in Ireland as Providence; that God himself – an English Protestant god – had looked down on the drunkenness and laziness of the Gaelic Irish and pronounced his judgement. The imperialist mindset saw the starvation of Ireland as a simplification of matters, it had taken care of overpopulation and the need to clear the land as they would soon do in Scotland – making space for more profitable animals.

Even Queen Victoria believed that helping her worthless Irish subjects would be acting against the will of God, and her government in London and her loyal servants in Ireland set about a malicious programme of exacerbating the conditions of the poor in Ireland. The Queen and her government refused to stop the export of Irish-grown food from Ireland, they cut off all assistance, and actively resisted aid efforts from other countries. At the height of the Famine Ireland was nothing but a massive open-air prison in which the inmates were being deliberately starved to death. And at every step, as a million and more died, everything that happened followed the designs of the British government and its chief civil servants who believed in their hearts that it was their divine duty to ruin the island of Ireland and exterminate its native population.

There was great hunger in Ireland, but there was never a famine – there was never a shortage of food in Ireland. Irish people starved because Irish food was being stolen to feed and enrich England. From even the most famine ravaged towns and counties, food was carted under armed guard to the ports from where it was shipped to England. The hungry were made to gather in the harvest, and they were made to load the ships.

There was great charity, to be sure. The English never operated a death camp without furnishing it with a Bible and a black-souled clergyman. The problem with Ireland, as far as the British saw it, was that it was Catholic. The Catholic clergy were always making a nuisance of themselves; defending the rights of tenants against greedy landlords, publicising the results of British colonisation in Ireland abroad, and providing the people with a locus of resistance to British rule. The Catholicism had to be kicked out of Ireland, and the Famine gave Britain the chance to do just that. In an effort to rip the Irish from their priests, the ministers of the English church arrived with watery soup – always starvation rations – offering a mouthful to the dying in exchange for their souls; ‘renounce the Church of Rome and be fed.’ And so the dim light of Britain’s Victorian god-spell spread in Ireland, as it would across India and Africa.

The years of hunger ended and Ireland, famished and diseased, was broken. In ten years – from 1841 to 1851 – the population of Ireland had fallen from over 8 million to about 2 million, and over the next century Ireland’s chief export would be people and not grain. But all of this, this deliberate and malicious cull of the Gaelic Irish – this genocide, was only the first phase of England’s hammering of the Irish Gael. More was to come, and it was to come in the form of the Poor Law and the Workhouse, the most feared and dreaded institution Britain ever inflicted on Ireland. And given the nightmarish shadow it cast over this country, it is little wonder we talk so little about it.

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The Great Irish Famine: Remember Skibbereen


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11 thoughts on “Britain’s Famine in Ireland

  1. It’s hard to find words that can convey my disgust at this horrific episode.
    Britain, it seems is actually the worst imperial power of all and I for one will celebrate when this despicable construct collapses finally into the dust.
    With luck very soon.
    Cruel, inhumane, intentionally genocidal.
    We know who taught the Nazis now, don’t we?
    And some Scots still think it’s funny to march around and play little ditties on their tin flutes about it.

    Like

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