Recalling, Remembering and Learning from the Great Famine Speech at the National Famine Commemoration
Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin, 11 September 2016
For a very long time it was something to which we could not give a name. It was something with which we were not able to engage. It was something that generated a great silence. Many of us, of course, were descendants of the survivors as well as, perhaps, of the victims. Therein lay for us a possible contradiction. And many of us recognised that we were now related to those who had reworked the land in new circumstances. At the same time, a far greater number of our relatives had joined the river of emigration that had become a tsunami of the desperate at the end of the 1840s.
Today we are in possession of a wonderful body of scholarship that has provided us with material for reflection, understanding, and indeed resolution. Between the publication of Cecil Woodham Smith’s The Great Hunger. Ireland 1845 - 1849 and John Kelly’s The Graves are Walking came a fine body of scholarship that has given us information and analysis on the regional and national experience of the Famine and indeed also its international significance.
We are now in a position, without facing any accusations of hyperbole, to draw some conclusions from that scholarship and also draw some instructive lessons.
Famine was never only an accident of nature. It was more than a series of mistakes. It was not Providence. It took place in the context of Empire and an imbedded atmosphere of conflict. It took place in a particular context of land ownership. Yes, it took its toll on a population that had massively increased – but hadn’t the population of the whole of Europe itself increased from 140 million people in 1740 to almost 270 million people in 1850?
The particular vulnerability of the Irish people stemmed from the reliance of the vast majority of its population on a single variety of a single form of food – the Lumper potato. The ancient population of Ireland were grain-eating people, and indeed there were remote mountainous areas of Ireland that were not suitable for the planting of potatoes, tiny disctricts where some sowing of grain such as Irish oats prevailed even into the 19th century and which escaped the full devastation of the Famine.
When we compare the experience of other famines to this devastating experience in our own history, which has been described by some historians as the greatest human tragedy of the 19th century, in proportionate terms of population, we can discern some patterns.
We can discern structural features, which created the social vulnerability that is famine. Dependency on a single source of food is obvious, but other factors also come in to play. Irish land ownership was dominated at the top, John Kelly tells us, by between 8 to 10,000 families. Below them, in 1841, 45% of the land holdings were under 5 acres. In the West 75% of those who scratched a living from the land lived on holdings, where they had them, with a valuation of less than £4.
The Ireland upon which the Great Famine would descend had, as a consequence of the Act of Union 1800, seen its industrial and commercial structure slip into decay. That century of the Great Famine also is one when a number of assumptions came to dominate political and, it was claimed, moral, thinking. The new citizen of the post-industrial revolution period was to be thrifty, industrious and motivated by individual welfare – characteristics very different from those assumed to be the characteristics of the Irish peasant.
Thus in the throes of the Famine, it was concluded that the giving of relief directly to those dying would constitute a “moral hazard”. It was important, in the minds of those administrators who sought to respond to the Great Irish Famine, according to their lights, to continue the project of moral reform even in the midst of the greatest loss of life – one which would end up with over 1 million Irish dying of hunger and related diseases, and 2 million fleeing from a country with no hope. Avoiding the creation of dependency, as imperial elites saw it, was a target that could not be allowed to slip.
It is unfair, I believe, to take the view of Edmund Spencer, who in 1582 had suggested the need for a new population in Ireland, one that would shed its nativism, and to transpose this view onto those who were responding to the Great Irish Famine of the mid-19th century. It is possible, however, to discern the shades of such a view in the invocation of the Famine as an act of Providence. An even more extreme version of this was invoked in response to immigrants arriving in ports in Britain, which suggested that Providence required that the fleeing Irish die where the Famine had afflicted them, in their own areas, rather than migrate as carriers of disease.
John Kelly, in what I regard as a seminal contribution to famine scholarship, wisely suggests in an Afterword that -
“In The Last Conquest of Ireland , John Mitchel accused Mr. Trevelyan of creating a special “typhus poisoning”. Mitchell should have confined himself to the truth. It was incriminating enough.”
It is a truth we must respect in all its complexity. We must also be aware of how the treatment of the Irish Famine changed as one year succeeded another: the first identification of the crop failure in 1845 was different to 1846 in terms of policy response; the rhetoric as to Providence became a central feature of the discourse in 1847; and by 1848, in response to the William Smith O’Brien revolt, we have cartoons presenting the Irish as ingrates towards those who are saving them.
Recognising the full profile of what was the experience of our people is necessary, I suggest, if we are to learn, to understand, even to forgive. Is there not a lesson for all of us, as we are faced in our own time with the largest number of displaced people since World War II, as the Mediterranean becomes, for many, a marine grave, as European nations fail to respond to their humanitarian obligations? Isn’t some of the rhetoric invoked today similar to what in the worst periods were the opinions of the London Times?
We now have the capacity to anticipate the threat of famine. We have the capacity to take measures to avoid it; and yet we allow nearly a billion people across our world to live in conditions of extreme but avoidable hunger. The moral principle - the moral challenge of our humanity- remains the same: should we adjust our populations to an abstracted economic ideology, or should we, rather, use the best of our reason to craft economic and social models that can anticipate the needs and care for the peoples who share this fragile planet?
As we consider the Irish Famine, it is, then, so important that we take account of the economic assumptions which served as context to it. The notion that one could change the moral character of the peasantry, and do so in conditions of poverty, was not the only assumption to come into play. The model of agricultural production that was assumed to have a future was that of commercialised agriculture. And as this became the sought-after aim, massive evictions of the smaller farmers took place so as to clear the land for such production.
As the debate unfolded as to which group the burden of Poor Law Relief should fall upon, many landlords, realising that while those with holdings over 10 acres might make their tenant contribution to the Poor Law, those with land valued at less than £4 had no such capacity. Their poor rate had to be paid entirely by the proprietor, and they came to be seen as an “encumbrance.”
Thus, evictions both preceded and succeeded the Great Famine. As John Kelly wrote, in The Graves are Walking:
“In time, many of the evicted families became like the other ruins on the Irish landscape. Passing through Mayo in the winter of 1847, the Quaker Richard Bennett reported that one saw “only the remnants of families now”.”
As they were driven out, many fleeing not only dispossession but also hunger, flooded to the cities. Thousands of families aimed for the port of Dublin in the hope of escape, many of whom would never make the journey to a new destination. It is appropriate, then, that we are here in Glasnevin where we are honouring the lives of these men, women and children, by the unveiling of this Celtic Cross donated by the Glasnevin Trust.
Whether from the city or the country when we consider the stories of our families, our communities, and our nation, we see that a commonality of experience draws us together. Dublin in the Famine years could no more ignore or remain immune to the suffering of its hinterlands, than it can today survive without the contribution of those same hinterlands to the vibrancy of the city. The story of our people, whether from the town or country is one of common striving for a better life, a fairer society and a more prosperous future for the next generation.
Today we stand in the single largest burial ground for the victims of An Gorta Mór. Surrounded by the remains of victims from all corners of the country, we should embrace the common bond that connects us to those who have gone before throughout the history of this island. While many were interred in mass graves, or “unpurchased graves”, with no headstone to mark their final resting place, their identities are recorded in the archives of the Glasnevin Trust.
By recording the names of the victims the Glasnevin Trust has done a great service, not only to the victims but to those who follow, by asserting the uniqueness and value of each human life, by the simple act of recording the name and passing of each and every person buried here during those terrible years.
Mar sin, is mór an onóir a bheidh ann dom an cros Cheilteach seo a bhronn Iontaobhas Ghlas Naíon a nochtadh, ionas go mbeidh cuimhneachán buan againn ar na ndaoine sin. Seasfaidh an leacht cuimhneacháin seo in aice na leachtanna thábhachtacha eile sa reilig seo mar chomhartha ómóis agus dobhróin dóibh siúd a d'fhulaing le linn an Ghorta Mhóir.
[Yes, it will be a great honour for me to unveil the Celtic Cross donated by the Trust as a permanent memorial to and reminder of those people. This memorial stone will stand here beside the other important memorials of this cemetery as a testimony to our national remembrance of, and grief for, those who endured so much suffering during an Gorta Mór.]
Today we also remember all those who left Ireland; perhaps I should say, who fled Ireland. The Famine is the source of so much of our diaspora, which today includes many who voluntarily sought to establish themselves abroad. In the very different context of the terrible post-Famine years, those who arrived in their new destinations often found their Irishness to be a source of marginalisation, of stereotypical presentation of their cultural status as inferior, be it in terms of language or behaviour. It is from this space that many went on to make outstanding contributions in their new homelands. They assisted their relatives, some of whom followed them, others who stayed at home but were assisted with emigrants’ remittances sent from abroad.
These emigrants’ remittances not only helped other relatives to follow, they paid shop debts, they built Churches, and for many of those who survived, they were a source of money for the purchase of clothes and the payment of the rent, very often to the native graziers who succeeded the landlords.
As I prepared these words, I was struck by something which had escaped my notice before. I refer to the writings of those European travellers who had visited Ireland in the years immediately prior to the Famine, and indeed also those writers who had travelled in Ireland during the Famine such as Thomas Campbell Foster, who reported for The London Times. These writers stress the nakedness of the Irish people, and particularly of the poor. A nutritious milk and potato diet before the Famine had left them, as some writers describe, in rude health.
However, their removal from any possibility for a decent livelihood, for security and shelter, and the impact, as in 1847, of extreme weather, meant that they never enjoyed such a surplus as would have enabled them to properly clothe themselves. Then during the Famine itself, a large number of those affected sold their clothes.
For me one of the most moving references in John Kelly’s work is the reference to the vessel which carried 14 tons of second-hand clothes to the paper mills in Britain. The most harrowing descriptions of those who encountered the victims of the Famine nearly all referred, not only to the skeletal remains, but their absence of any covering. This reminds us, of course, of one of the features of famine that I myself recall from visiting famine-stricken Somalia. The sheer numbers dying in terrible conditions meant that the usual cultural rituals of the passing of life had to be abandoned. Thus it was not only a people that was losing its members, but a culture being quenched. This is an experience Somalia shared in the 20th century with the Ireland of the 19th century.
As we pray for the souls of all of those lost to famine, and in particular those lost in our own Great Famine, we must pray, too, that we not be condemned to repeat the mistakes of the past as we deal with the challenges of feeding the hungry in our own times.
Many of those who may have had the best of intentions, but were however operating with the most dreadful assumptions, must be understood. They made disastrous calculations, even beyond the erroneous assumptions of their economics. They did not accurately assess the capacity or the attitude of the Irish landlord class; they did not take regard of the absence of a commercial infrastructure in Ireland, of an adequate distribution system, or indeed, the obduracy that existed in some parts of the country at bringing into existence a Famine Relief Committee, which, the Treasury insisted, was an essential condition for relief.
Skibbereen is a striking example in this regard:
“Trevelyan had recently called a Board of Works report on Skibbereen the “most awful” thing he had read; still for reasons of policy he was unwilling to alleviate the town’s misery. Under Treasury guidelines, only a local relief committee could distribute government provisions, and, at present, Skibbereen lacked a relief committee. Given the wealth in the community, that was scandalous. The owner of the town, Sir William Wrixon-Becher, had an annual rental income of £10,000 (using the multiplier of 100 and the $4.80 value of the 1846 pound, that is the equivalent of almost $5 million a year today); and Stephen Townsend, a local protestant clergyman, had an income of £8,000 per annum. Nonetheless, the fact remained that Skibbereen did not have a relief committee, and if an exception were made for Skibbereen, other towns and localities might demand exemptions. A run on the government food supply would result, and the government food supply was thin. On December 18, Trevelyan told Routh that “principles” must “be kept in view”.”
As we gather here, it is appropriate that we recognise those who did not share such views, or the assumptions to which I have referred earlier. In Connemara they still speak of James Hack Tuke, and indeed, there is a song in Irish in which his name is mentioned. This great Quaker and his son both sought to bring relief and indeed, in his daughter’s diary we have an account of how James Hack Tuke sought not only to visit those distressed in the west of Ireland and bring relief, but how both father and son worked to assist those Irish arriving in Coventry. Frances Finnegan has given us a valuable account drawn from the Tuke papers.
Even in the worst of circumstances the noblest sentiments are drawn forth. The greatest of risks are taken for the most vulnerable.
Ní hamháin gur cheart dúinn cuimhneamh, ar an lá seo, orthu siúd ar fad a thug cúnamh d'ár sinsear, ach is lá é chomh maith le smaoineamh orthu siúd atá ag fulaingt de bharr gortaí ar fud na cruinne. Caithfimid an chinneadh a dhéanam len án n-acmhainní ar fad a úsáid leis an ghuais seo cur as an áireamh go deó.
[On a day like today we should not only remember those whose assistance helped our ancestors, but we ourselves must resolve never to turn aside our gaze at the threat of famine in any part of our planet. We must resolve to use all of our resources to eliminate this threat to our fellow humans on this fragile planet.]
Ar dheis Dé go raibh siad – may their souls rest in peace.
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