Irish Times narrative can’t negate the facts the Great Hunger visited on Ireland

Perhaps only in Ireland do we have an elite that is significantly comprised of people whose mission, it would appear, is to blame Irish people for stuff that has nothing to do with them, and minimise the actual harm visited on the country by centuries of colonialism.

Their Pavlovian reaction to almost any grotesque act – as we are once again witnessing – is to place a part of the responsibility on the parts of the Irish psyche and heritage they dislike. They are excluded from this criticism, of course because, well – like the subject of Peadar Kearney’s ballad from a century ago when the peasants were revolting – they have become “neat and civilized”.

Mother England is not surprised, nor even notices their existence much anymore despite their generations of service in D’Olier Street and elsewhere and the continued financial support of the Home Office for the anti-national left, but He/She/Them is only over the fecking moon over how well they have scrubbed up, and done their best to drag the rest of us backward yokes into modernity and civility.

The intellectual wing of the elite is particularly alert to any insinuation that anything bad that ever happened to Irish people in the past is in any way comparable to bad stuff that happened to others. We got that during the BLM/Antifa election campaign in the States when woe betide anyone who suggested that Irish people as a whole, today, do not share in the collective “white” crime of African slavery, or that maybe even some Irish people themselves had been slaves, or next door to it at least.

It is really just a few obsessive extremists on the left who remain so fixated on the whole “white supremacy” claims regarding this country. For them, Ireland remains obviously as racist as post-bellum Mississippi, and the NGOs and the corporate and state funded racial left are minting that for all it is worth.

The war in Ukraine, however, has triggered the spidey-senses of some of the older sections of the Anglo-centric camp who have been quick to poo-poo any suggestion that the generous response of the Irish people to the victims of that war is somehow related to minor events in Irish history – like the Great Hunger. Perhaps it was not a “great” hunger after all, they say, but a “moderate” hunger?

When the silly Irish are wandering into dangerous unsupervised waters, no better boys and girls than The Irish Times to set them straight. Thus, earlier in the week the redoubtable Professor Liam Kennedy was once again summoned to tell us how millions of Irish people starving to death in the 1840s was nothing at all, at all like the starving to death of Ukrainians during the famine caused by socialist collectivization in the 1930s.

By all means, open the country and your homes to the Ukrainians but don’t be starting to think now that you might have anything in common with them from an historical perspective. Because, as the bould Liamo tells us, there are “dangers in conflating two very different historical experiences.”

Mind you, he does not tell us what they are, but based on this chap’s earlier forays into reconstructing the collective consciousness and folk memory of the Irish peasantry, we would have to assume that it might be to do with engendering bad thoughts about the past. He hints at this when he refers to “the tendency within some strains of nationalist thought to appropriate imaginatively the sufferings of others.”

That is quite an interesting admission on Kennedy’s part as it suggests a subliminal dismissal of the actual “sufferings” which required no comparison. Did any of the millions of people who died during the Chinese famines of the 1950s wonder whether it was as bad or worse or maybe not as bad as the Holomodor? If they decided it was not actually, did that make them feel better about their own plight? “Jaysus, at least we’re not living in Ukraine, what?”

Or maybe when the descendants of black slaves in the Caribbean got up of a morning to cut the sugar cane, they thought that they would have been far worse off if they’d been slaves in Babylon.

Yes, Kennedy concedes that if you look at trivia such as mortality rates – the sort of things some historians of famines pretty much use as their baseline – then the Irish and Ukrainian famines were similar. The difference was of course that the people who owned and controlled Ireland did not mean it to happen, and that they tried in their own bumbling and loveable fashion to get people into workhouses and road gangs in exchange for their land.  Which is what happened in fact.

The Kennedy line is at least an advance on the now laughable attempts by some of the retro Great Hunger revisionists who were wont in the 1980s to blame the Catholic Church and there being too many Irish children for the whole thing. The apple does not fall far from the tree does it, when you consider the response, and the provenance of that response, to current events?

Kennedy concludes with the smart arse jibe that one supposes is meant to put all of this comparing Ireland to Ukraine to bed, and no doubt earned a few spluttered guffaws over the Fairtrade coffee: “In the one case the oppressor marched with guns and drums, hotfoot from the imperial capital. In the other the then unnamed but deadly invader (phytophthora infestans) came out of the biosphere.”

But here’s the thing – and this was pointed out a long time ago by a proper historian of the Great Hunger Cormac Ó Grada – the whole of western Europe was visited by the potato blight. The 1845 potato yield was down by between 20% in France and 87% in Belgium. The Irish crop was “only” down by 30% that year. The blight similarly reduced yields over the following years.

The question is then, as illustrated by the table below, why was the scale of death so high in Ireland compared to say Belgium where between 40 and 50,000 people died due to hunger from a population of around 4.2 million, or France where an estimated 10,000 starved to death from a population of over 30 million?

 

The answer is of course that none of those countries had been colonised and in none of them was the ownership of the land almost entirely in the hands of the descendants of those colonisers. The invaders and murderers and thieves sent from the “imperial capital” and referenced by Kennedy had come a long time before the 1840s.

Nor were the 1840s the first time that the Irish people had suffered catastrophic population losses as a consequence of that, and the ongoing waves of land expropriation, plantation and terror. Genocide if it happens to anyone else. A minor thing to be sniffed at if it took place in Ireland, it would seem.

It is also an historical fact that the Great Hunger was used by British landlords as an excuse for land clearance – forcing at least a million starving and desperate people off the land, many of whom died in coffin ships or at the side of the road. The Gregory clause, deliberately inserted into the Poor Law Act that became law at the height of the starvation, meant that families on small holdings would be denied famine relief, and refused admittance to the workhouse, unless they abandoned their tenancies. Better to forget these facts, one supposes, in case we seem ungrateful.

There are few echoes of An Gorta Mór in the Irish tradition it seems. Then again, how do you attempt to remember something that terrible? The samples of writing in Irish collected by Seán De Fréine in Croí Cine are sparse for that period, and some of it is from the work of later exiles of the diaspora like Micí Mac Gabhann whose recollections contained in the book Rotha Mór an tSaoil are from the subsequent mass emigration from Donegal to Scotland and America.

One contemporary piece of writing is by Máire Ní Dhroma who lived through An Gorta Mór in Baile na nGall in Waterford and who whose poem Na Prátaí Dubha survived in the tradition thanks to the singing of Nioclás Tóibín and others.

 

Tá na bochta so Éireann ag plé leis an ainnise,

Buairt is anacair is pianta báis,

Leanaí bochta ag béiceadh is ag screadadh gach maidin,

Ocras fada orthu is gan dada le fáil.

 

The poor of Ireland truck with misery

With the pain of death and the weight of grief,

Little children scream each morning

From hunger pains, with no bite to eat.

 

If only the screaming children had been able to put it all into perspective….

 

Nioclás Tóibín – Na Prátaí Dubha

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