An Gorta Mor and Celtic FC
A friend had long recommended that I look out for an old book which he claims was the best history of An Gorta Mor (The Great Hunger) ever written. I had wanted to find a good book which looked at the human suffering involved in the famine and not just bland statistics or biased political point scoring. Despite keeping an eye on the book stores and charity shops and I didn’t find the said ancient and fabled book entitled ‘The Great Hunger’ by Cecil Woodham-Smith and first printed in 1962. Then in one of those serendipitous moments I saw two in a charity shop in St Andrews! £3 changed hands and they both came home with me. It made sobering and grim reading but it was an excellent read. It also made me angry that people could allow such horrors to unfold and perversely claim it was ‘God’s judgement on a lazy and indolent people.’ The opening paragraph sums up Ireland’s plight in a straight talking style which augured well for the rest of the book…
‘At the beginning of the year 1845 the state of Ireland was, as it had been for nearly seven hundred years, a source of grave anxiety to England. Ireland had first been invaded in 1169; it was now 1845, yet she had been neither assimilated nor subdued. The country had been conquered not once but several times, the land had been confiscated and redistributed over and over again, the population had been brought to the verge of extinction—after Cromwell's conquest and settlement only some half million Irish survived—yet an Irish nation still existed, separate, numerous and hostile.’
Despite the unification of Ireland and Britain in 1801, an act which followed the brutal suppression of the United Irishmen Rebellion of 1798, Ireland was disdainfully treated as a colony and not an equal partner in the United Kingdom. The majority of the Irish population were poor, dispossessed and Catholic. Many harboured resentment that their once proud nation was under the heel of an uncaring ruling class who, with a few noble exceptions, only wanted to exploit the country for their own personal benefit. When the potato harvest failed in 1845 it was the only crop to fail. The barley, wheat and oats thrived. The cattle, pigs and sheep were plentiful too. Ireland exported food throughout the famine period, often under armed guard to stop the ‘starving wretches’ stealing the food they needed to live. One heart-wrenching description from 1847 describes a desperate people watching the old and young wither and die as food was exported before they could take no more…
‘The Irish watched with increasing anger as boatloads of homegrown oats and grain departed on schedule from their shores for shipment to England. Food riots erupted in ports such as Youghal, near Cork, where people tried unsuccessfully to confiscate a boatload of oats. At Dungarvan, in County Waterford, British troops were pelted with stones and fired 26 shots into the crowd, killing two people and wounding several others. British naval escorts were then provided for the riverboats.’
Charles Trevelyan was appointed by the UK Government to oversee the relief of distress in Ireland. His actions continue to cause debate among historians but certain things are clear; Trevelyan didn’t like his posting or the Irish and dragged his feet when it came to intervening in the crisis. The form of ‘Laissez Faire’ Capitalism he supported did not allow for Government money to distort trade by buying food to feed starving Irish peasants. Businessmen and Land Owners had to be free to maximise their profits after all. His slow response condemned countless thousands to death. He wrote to a friend in a letter which still survives, stating that the famine was an…
‘effective mechanism for reducing surplus population" as well as "the judgement of God", sent to teach the selfish, perverse and turbulent Irish people a lesson’
Little wonder with such men in charge that the growing disaster of An Gorta Mor became a catastrophe which saw the population of Ireland fall by 25%. In 1848 Trevelyan was made a Knight of Bath, one of the highest orders the British crown can bestow. Simultaneously the Irish were dying in their thousands. In that same period Historian and author of the children’s book ‘The Water Babies’ Charles Kingsley visited Ireland. He saw the horrors unfolding and reacted with cold racism by stating…
"I am daunted by the human chimpanzees I saw along the hundred miles of that horrible country. I don't believe they are our fault, But to see the white chimpanzees is dreadful; if they were black, one would not feel it so much, but their skins, except where tanned by exposure, are as white as ours."
And so it was that the Irish in their hour of need were viewed as indolent, lazy, white chimpanzees and abandoned by God. Those who could fled the horrors of Ireland to places such as Liverpool, London, Glasgow or America. They continued to die on the coffin ships, in the fever sheds of the New World and in the slums of Britain and America. They faced prejudice, discrimination and ridicule. It is a credit to the fighting spirit of the surviving Irish that despite the barriers they faced they established themselves in these places and eventually thrived.
In 1840, just a few short years before the catastrophe of An Gorta Mor hit Ireland, John and Elizabeth Kerins struggled to keep their family going in a small rural cottage in Ballymote, County Sligo. That year a baby boy was born to them and they called him Andrew. By the time Andrew was 7 or 8 years old he would have seen the awful effects of the starvation on County Sligo. The County was severely affected and its population dropped by around 30% in the black years of hunger. Somehow John and Elizabeth managed to keep Andrew and his brother Bernard alive and Andrew entered training for the Marist teaching order when he was a young man. It must have been bitter indeed when his work took him to Glasgow and he saw the immigrant Irish and their children still suffering deprivation and hunger in a city which described itself as the ‘Second City of the Empire.’ It is of course history that this child of the famine decided to act in a more humane way than Charles Trevelyan had forty years earlier. He declared in a statement all who love Celtic know well…
"A football club will be formed for the maintenance of dinner tables for the children and the unemployed."
That is why Celtic came into being and why we still rightly remember today the catastrophe which so afflicted Ireland during An Gorta Mor. Had there been no mass starvation in Ireland there would have been a much reduced flow of migrants to cities like Glasgow and Celtic may well have never been born.
And those countless souls cast into mass graves, often without coffin or shroud, they should be remembered too. Not as ‘white Chimpanzees’ or ‘selfish and perverse’ but as the victims they were. They were born into a cruel and hard time with the added complication of being despised by many of those who ruled over them. Their children, cast like wind-blown seeds all over the world, overcame hardship and difficulty to make better lives for themselves. Perhaps there is small consolation in that, that the Irish, so beaten down, but never enough to stop them rising up again. That is a lesson for us all in courage and tenacity.
Rest in Peace all victims of An Gorta Mor. Born into a heartless time.
''Oh God that bread should be so dear and human flesh so cheap.''