Oh father dead I oft times hear you speak of Erin's isle
Her loft scenes her valleys green her mountains rude and wild
They say it is a lovely land wherein a prince may dwell
Oh why did you abandon it the reason to me tell
“Throughout England’s long history, her most troublesome colony was the one closest to her.”
For this post I am parting with my usual sarcastic and mildly (or wholly) inappropriate look at the past and instead focus my gaze on a subject that is near and dear to my heart and to the hearts of many of my fellow Americans of Irish Descent. (I prefer this term to Irish-American since I was not born in Ireland.) That is to say the reason why we are here in the first place. Yes, I am going to discuss what is mistakenly called the Irish Potato Famine. The term used in Ireland, the Great Hunger, or An Gorta Mor, is more appropriate. As you will see, Dear Readers, the famine in Ireland was not because of the hand of God but the hand of the British government. While I do not think that there was ever a law passed during these years that said “Eradicate the Irish,” indeed, no evidence has ever really existed to support that notion, by the same token, certain government officials seized the opportunity to try and accomplish what they really wanted and that was the destruction of the Irish culture, if not the Irish people.
Before I begin, I will first give some definitions that will give us a framework with which to work. First off, a handy google search gives a dictionary definition of the phrase genocide as “the deliberate killing of a large group of people, especially those of a particular ethnic group or nation.” I think to that you could also add cultural or religious reasons as well. Following the end of World War Two, the new United Nations also tried to set forth a definition for what genocide is. They define it as “any of the following acts committed with the intent to destroy a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group as such.” It goes further to define what the prohibited actions are. Under letter “c” we will find the focus of my discussion today. It says “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.” Keep these definitions in mind as we go forward.
Oh son I loved your native land with energy and pride
Till a blight came over all my crops my sheep and cattle died
The rent and taxes were so high I could not them redeem
And that's the cruel reason why I left old Skibbereen.
I remember lecturing about this subject one day and I had a student ask why the Irish and English didn’t like each other since they both were white. That brings me to another important preliminary point. Here in the United States we are seemingly fixated on matters of race/color. We use terms like Hispanic or Latino to refer to all people who come from Spanish speaking countries when, in fact, a Mexican is not the same as a Cuban. A Cuban is not the same as a Puerto Rican. We use the term “black” or “African-American” to anyone we perceive as being of that racial group but in Africa Hutus slaughtered Tutsis in the Rwandan Genocide and both of those groups would be considered black here and Americans did not understand, at the time, why people who they thought looked identical could kill each other. For this same reason, I find it personally offensive when a person refers to me as being “Anglo” or “Anglo-Saxon.” I am white and I have no problem being called that, but to use the term “Anglo” to describe a person who is not descended from the Anglo-Saxon tribes of Germany (and later England) is historically incorrect and rather presumptuous. Ethnically and Irish person of the 1840s was slightly different than an English person. Culturally they were worlds apart.
From that issue of culture we must naturally turn towards religion, that great divisive force in Irish History. Thanks in part to the lasting impact of the Penal Laws, the poor Irish tended to be overwhelmingly Catholic while the upper classes were mainly Protestants. The English know how difficult the question of religion in Ireland can be. To that end they used (and continue to use) religion as an instrument to divide rather than unite. This is comparable to the manner in which race was used as a dividing factor in the post-Civil War South when poor whites were told that they were superior, by virtue of skin color, to the former slaves. The plantation aristocracy did this as a way to keep themselves in power because if poor white and blacks realized they had more in common with each other than they did with the ruling classes, the elites would be overthrown. The same can be said for Ireland. As long as England could keep Catholics and Protestants at each other’s throats, then they would be too busy fighting each other to kick John Bull out once and for all. (The one exception to this was the short lived United Irishmen of the 1798 Rebellion who set aside matters of religion to focus on the true threat to Ireland.) The Wolfe Tones said it best when they wrote “Twas the policy of the government of England over centuries to keep Ireland divided by religions of God. For if ever the Catholics and Protestants united, they’d surely lose Ireland, the jewel in the Crown.”
And well do I remember the bleak December day
When the landlord and the sheriff came to drive us all away
The set my roof on fire with their cursed English spleen
And that's another reason why I left old Skibbereen
The reasons for the “Famine” need not detain us here as they are well known. Going back to Elizabethan times, a system was imposed on Ireland so that gradually Catholics lost the right to own land, vote, speak their own language, etc. This systematic attempt to eradicate what makes the Irish well, Irish, was an attempt at cultural genocide, but that is a matter for another day. By the time of the Great Hunger, Irish peasants (predominantly Catholic) were forced to rent land from absentee Protestant landowners. They worked the land for the boss and used the potato as their primary food source and their sole means to pay the rent. The majority were illiterate as for decades prior Catholics had been forbidden from attending school officially. For at least a year prior to the appearance of the blight in Ireland, newspapers in Dublin and other towns published tales of a mysterious blight ravaging potato crops in the United States. Given the trade between the two countries, the warning was clear enough. Be careful. It may come here. But alas, the Irish peasants could not read the warnings.
The first year, 1845, things were bad but far from disastrous. Around one-third of the crop across the island was hit by the blight (now know to be a type of fungus). The following year saw the rate of infection jump to nearly three quarters. And here lies the irony of the whole thing. In the less serious years of the famine, the British government promptly responded to the news of a potential famine in Ireland. This is remarkable considering their relative apathy in the worst years of the Hunger. Sir Robert Peel, the man who gave us “Bobbies” gave Ireland cornmeal imported from the United States. There were a few issues with this raw “Indian corn”. The chief complaint was that Irish mills could not render it edible as they were not set up for that. It took time. During that time, people died. “Peel’s Brimstone” as it was called was an attempt to help, certainly, but it never arrived in sufficient quantities to feed the majority of those most affected.
Your mother too God rest her soul fell on the snowy ground
She fainted in her anguish, seen the desolation round
She rose no more but passed from life into immortal dreams
She found a quiet grave me boy in dear old Skibbereen
Peel also pushed the repeal of the Corn Law (in order to reduce the price of bread) and also instituted a system of public works in Ireland where a man (and later woman) could receive a meal in exchange for laboring twelve hours a day building a road to nowhere. But not everyone in Peel’s ministry or in Parliament agreed with his attempts, half-hearted though they might have been, to help the Irish. The split in his party led to the fall of his government and the election of John Russell to the position of Prime Minister. Things went from bad to worse for the Irish.
Many Americans are familiar with the excesses of the Gilded Age after our Civil War when capitalism ran rampant with no regulations. Child labor was routine as were unsafe working conditions, long hours, and low pay. This was a product of the laissez-faire economic system by which the government literally has its hands off of the economy and allows market forces sort everything out on their own. The Great Hunger is yet another tragic example of how that does not always work. If anything, it is a failure of the free market system practiced by the British Empire.
And now let us look at Charles Trevelyan who ran relief efforts for Russell’s government. Surely he was sympathetic to the plight of the starving people of Ireland? In a word, no. And may I detach from historical objectivity for a moment to say I hope he rots in hell (along with Oliver Cromwell). He said “the great evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse, and turbulent character of the people”. He also, of course, used sectarian terms such as “popery” and referenced the “idolatry” of Catholics. Thomas Gallagher in his excellent work Paddy’s Lament quotes him as saying “we are in the hands of Providence, without possibility of averting the catastrophe if it is to happen.” When he penned these words, half a million Irish men, women, and children had died. Perhaps that was the plan. For he said “We now await the result”. Trevelyan’s point was that God had it out for the Irish because of their heathen Catholic ways and who was he, a mere mortal, to do anything to try and prevent God’s vengeance. And I am not done with him yet! In 1847, the worst single year of the Hunger, he said “It is my opinion that too much as already been done for the people.” Too much? How about nothing? After all, this same man said “We ought not to complain about that which we really want to obtain.”
Donations from the rest of the world poured into Ireland as time passed. The Choctaw Nation in the Indian Territory, just ten years removed from the Trail of Tears, saw a kinship in the plight of the Irish people and donated $3,000 thus cementing a bond of friendship between the two nations which exists to this day. The British contented themselves with resorting to the usual stereotypes. A British Historian named Kingsley who visited Ireland during the Hunger with Queen Victoria said “I am daunted by the human chimpanzees I saw along that 100 miles of horrible country”. A London newspaper boasted “Soon a Celt will be as rare on the banks of the Shannon as a Red Indian is in Manhattan!” Word do all genocides have in common? The dehumanization of the target group has to happen in order to justify killing them. We did the same here with the Native Americans. We learned it from the English who had plenty of practice doing it to the Irish for hundreds of years. Queen Victoria’s chief economist, Nassau, when hearing about the horror afflicting the Irish people said that it “will not kill more than a million Irish this year (1848) and that will scarcely be enough to do any good.”
And you were only two years old and feeble was your frame
I could not leave you with my friends for you bore your father's name
I wrapped you in my cotamore in the dead of night unseen
And heaved a sigh and bade goodbye to dear old Skibbereen
And last we turn to the issue of food. Calling it a famine relives the British government of any responsibility. This is wrong. Ireland was a colony of England and the sole purpose of having a colony is to provide for the mother country. There was plenty of food in Ireland. The only crop that was affected was the potato. An average of fifty shiploads of food left Ireland EVERY SINGLE DAY of the famine years, headed to England. In fact, Trevelyan declared the “famine” over in 1847 and denied entry to ships carrying relief from the United States. More animals were exported from Ireland than people during these years! Food that could have easily been used to feed the starving people of Ireland instead went to feed the people of England, where food remained plentiful and food prices relatively low. The British kept troops stationed throughout Ireland during these years to guard food shipments as they made their way to the coast. But how many troops and how many shipments? We don’t know. Why? Because the regimental Daily Activity Logs have “gone missing” from the archives. But only for these years and only for regiments in Ireland. Interesting to say the least.
You cannot separate the “famine” years from the greater British policy towards Ireland going back to Elizabethan times. She said the Irish were a “nasty, barbarian, and brutish race who must be dealt with as harshly as possible.” Remember, for a genocide to happen you don’t have to actively try and murder people. You can also deliberately inflict upon them conditions of life designed to bring about their destruction. I think that is more what we have at play here. Through design or neglect, over a million Irish men, women, and children died during these years and even more immigrated. We don’t know the final death toll and we never will. Mass graves are spread all over Ireland. But one thing we know for sure is that the island was depopulated which is exactly what the British government wanted.
One thing that angers me here in America is when our own historians in this country who focus on the history of race get offended when a person discusses the oppression that the Irish faced. Some go so far as to say it is racist to say that any white group has ever faced oppression. Even if that were true, I point out that the Irish were never considered white by the English (or by the United States) until after the Civil War. Yes, other groups have faced oppression. And there is nothing racist about discussing it. Slavery and the aftermath was a moral evil. No one doubts that (or at least no one that matters). But the British attempts to eradicate the Irish Catholics were also a moral evil. Just as blacks were discriminated against in this country in the 1950s and 60s, so too were Irish-Catholics in Northern Ireland who looked to the American Civil Rights Movement as a source of inspiration. But while the United States responded with civil rights legislation, the British government responded with tanks and soldiers. Read about the Guilford Four and Bloody Sunday and then tell me that the Irish shouldn’t complain about discrimination. Remember, recent evidence has come out that is showing the extent of the British government’s collusion with equipping Protestant Paramilitaries in Northern Ireland who murdered innocent Catholics while they call the Irish Republican Army terrorists. Tell me? Who is really the terrorist? And no, I do not condone the IRA’s targeting of civilians in Northern Ireland or England as two wrongs do not make a right. While the Irish were not discriminated against in this country after the turn of the century (1900) that is not true in Northern Ireland where it continued into the 1980s. And historians of the Irish experience have every right to talk about it without fear of being called a white supremacist or a racist.
Oh Father Dear the day will come when on vengeance we will call
When Irishmen both near and far will rally to the call
I'll be the man who leads the van beneath the flag of green
When loud and high we raise the cry "Revenge for Skibbereen"+
As I close, let me say that this post took me a long time to write, and not just because of the length. It is a difficult and painful topic as it is one that hits me in the heart. Several of my third-great grandparents came over from Ireland as children. My great-grandmother (whom I knew quite well) knew them as a child. She looked into their eyes and saw the scars of these tragic years. Indeed, the Great Hunger left a painful legacy on the Irish both in Ireland and in the lands to which they immigrated that has given a sort of generational trauma to the Irish people. My family fought and often died for Ireland through the years. Some rebelled and fought back against the English. Others took the King’s shilling and served in England’s various far-flung colonial wars. All must have dreamed of a united Ireland. I pray that I see it in my lifetime. Being able to see something happen that my family fought for, died for, were tortured and starved for, would be a remarkable thing. Perhaps then, Ireland, the Emerald Isle soaked in the blood of her own children, will finally be at peace.
I will close with this quote from Gallagher's Paddy's Lament. When speaking of the Irish immigrants of these years, he wrote "But whatever name he goes by now, he will forever, with his battered high hat, ragged swallow-tailed coat, dangling knee breeches, and bare feet haunt not only Irish memory, but also the halls and chambers of Westminster Palace, where Parliament tried for so long, without success, to do him in."
My name is Lee Hutch and I am a Half A$$ Historian. I know this is a controversial topic and I'll probably get hate mail. So if you feel the need to don your Keyboard Commando costume and defend the honor of the British Empire, that is certainly your right. Just ask yourself this. What about all those people in the Empire that the English denied that right to. Just saying.......
+Skibbereen, also called "Old Skibbereen" of "Dear Old Skibbereen" is a very old tune that has been recorded by just about every Irish musician at one point or another. Sinead O'Connor is probably the best known. However, here is the best version of the song. Have a tissue handy.