Last night’s fairly exciting end of season tussle between St Johnstone and Celtic saw the travelling supporters in fine voice. Indeed the first 20 minutes of the game was played out to a ceaseless cacophony of songs from the wonderful away support which backs Celtic so well on their travels. At one point stadium reverberated to a rather poignant song which I’m sure you all know well. It contains the line…
‘For you stole Trevelyan’s corn
So the young might see the morn
Now a Prison ship lies waiting in the bay...’
For the supporters of Celtic FC this song carries a folk a memory which echoes in the very DNA of the club. The event known as ‘An Gorta Mor’ (The Great Hunger) led not only to the deaths of over a million people but saw the dispersal of many more to all corners of the English speaking world. Of course the great cities of the industrial revolution in the UK saw the benefits of imported Irish muscle in the factories, Docks and Mills. In their hundreds of thousands they came seeking a better life and an escape from deprivations we can scarce imagine, to London, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and of course Glasgow. In time they put down roots and contributed greatly to their host societies but they never forgot what drove them from Ireland in the first place.
Those of you who know the work of Irish historian Tim Pat Coogan will realise that he is a man of intellect and unafraid to take on the establishment. His background is that of a nationalist, his father fighting in the war of independence but as a historian and academic he knows that anything he writes should be backed up by evidence if it is to be taken seriously. His books on the Troubles, the Easter Rising and other sensitive aspects of Irish history have caused great debate and one of his latest offerings is no less controversial.
‘The Famine Plot’ argues that the British Government was guilty of engineering the food shortage in Ireland to kill off surplus population in what was one of the first examples of ethnic cleansing in western Europe. Of course, the British could not be blamed for the failure in the potato crop which came as a result of the arrival of the ‘blight’ (Phytophthora infestans) in Ireland which rotted the potatoes in the ground. However Coogan’s narrative informs us that the blight struck all over Europe and in countries like Scotland there was no mass starvation because Landowners and the Government acted swiftly and decisively to avert this. Why then did they not act likewise in Ireland? This remains the crucial question in determining why Ireland alone was to suffer a million fatalities and the displacement of whole communities. Coogan states that anti-Irish racism and a still virulent anti-Catholic prejudice were part of the answer to why the Government did little of substance to prevent a very difficult situation turning into a disaster of biblical proportions. He quotes extensively from official documents, newspaper reports and eyewitnesses accounts to construct a damning picture of a Government which did little to prevent a million of its citizens perishing. All of this in the richest Empire on earth at the time.
In one chapter Coogan relates that when the Coastguard General, a man with some shred of decency, ordered his men to hand out food to starving paupers he was rebuked by Charles Trevelyan who said with breath-taking inhumanity…
‘This famine has been sent by God to teach the Irish a lesson. The real evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of famine but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people.’
This idea of blaming the Irish for the Famine held sway with many in the British establishment. The fact is that Irish writers like John Mitchel warned the Government at the time what was occurring and was met with cold indifference. Mitchel wrote…
"The people watched as their "food melting in rottenness off the face of the earth, all the while watching heavy-laden ships, freighted with the yellow corn their own hands have sown and reaped, spreading all sail for England. The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the Famine."
Coogan’s book looks at the various forces at work which led to the disaster in Ireland in the mid nineteenth century. Yes the Laissez-faire economic philosophy of the day which demanded that the market will ‘sort it out’ played a part as did the natural inclination in those pre-welfare days to blame the poor for their plight. Where Coogan is masterful and concise is in his exploration of the morality of the educated ruling elite, who were for the most part church attending Christians, doing little while millions were in mortal danger. He clearly exposes the hypocrisy and prejudice which played a role in the Irish being considered expendable. Trevelyan himself said that the famine was…‘a mechanism for reducing surplus population.’ It takes a real lack of empathy to see the suffering of hundreds of thousands of people in such terms.
Coogan is certain in his assertion that the actions of the British government in Ireland during the1845-52 period were little short of genocidal. This is powerful book with a powerful narrative which pulls no punches. To read it is to delve into one of the darker chapters of human history. One cannot help but be affected by the horrors it speaks of and the actions of those who could have helped but chose to look the other way.
That is why singing ‘The fields of Athenry’ at Celtic games is perfectly legitimate. Many of the supporters are of Irish descent and even those who are not understand the scale of the disaster which befell Ireland during An Gorta Mor and its role in the birth of Celtic. I recall driving from Shannon airport to my Grandfather’s home town in County Clare and noticing the abandoned cottages, long fallen into ruin, which dot the landscape. They stand in mute remembrance of countless lost souls and countless communities destroyed by famine and man’s inhumanity to man. Whole villages were emptied by hunger and those who survived had every right to tell their children to remember.
''Oh God that bread should be so dear and human flesh so cheap''