One of the more incongruous images to emerge on social media in recent weeks was taken at Manchester City’s Etihad Stadium a few years ago. It shows a group of City fans dressed in a variety of odd outfits and holding a banner identifying them as being from East Belfast. Nothing unusual in that you might think as many in Ireland follow teams in the English or Scottish Leagues. What struck me about the banner they held though was the phrase emblazoned on it. It read; ‘The Famine is Over’ a reference to a deplorable song which was declared racist by a Scottish judge as it poured scorn onto a particular group in Scottish society and invited them to ‘go home.’
Those who sing or refer to such a song in banners at a football match show a huge lack of self-awareness. They also demonstrate a complete lack of historical knowledge and indeed human empathy. The events known as an Gorta Mor (The great hunger) killed over a million people between 1845-52 and saw Ireland’s population plummet by almost a quarter as mass emigration combined with hunger and disease. The term ‘famine’ is still a subjective one as Ireland was an exporter of food throughout the period. Great Hunger scholar, Professor Christine Keneally, tells us that:
‘Almost 4,000 vessels carried food from Ireland to the ports of Bristol, Glasgow, Liverpool, and London during 1847, when 400,000 Irish men, women, and children died of starvation and related diseases. Irish exports of calves, livestock (except pigs), bacon, and ham actually increased during the Famine. This food was shipped from the most famine-stricken parts of Ireland: Ballina, Ballyshannon, Bantry, Dingle, Killala, Kilrush, Limerick, Sligo, Tralee, and Westport.’
What is clear is that many landowners, often from the detached comfort of England, saw the unfolding catastrophe in Ireland as an opportunity to be rid of peasants from their land. There was more profit to be made by turning the land into grazing pastures than smallholdings for Irish farmers so evictions on a huge scale were commonplace. A few Landlords tried to help the people resettle in places such as Canada but most demonstrated a degree of heartlessness which is difficult to comprehend unless viewed through the looking glass of contempt they held for most of the native Irish. The penal Laws had reduced the majority of Irish people to virtual serfs. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Irish Catholics had been prohibited from purchasing or leasing land, from voting, from holding political office, from living in or within 5 miles of a corporate town, from obtaining education, from entering a profession, and from doing many other things necessary for a person to succeed and prosper in society. Some of these laws were changed in the decades before the great hunger but the Catholic Irish were expected to know their place and that place was at the bottom of society. A French visitor to Ireland in the years before the great hunger, Gustave de Beaumont, commented…
‘In all countries, more or less, paupers may be discovered; but an entire nation of paupers is what was never seen until it was shown in Ireland. To explain the social condition of such a country, it would be necessary to recount its miseries and sufferings; the history of the poor is the history of Ireland.’
However, the poor treatment of the native Irish by many landlords was more than matched by a government in London which behaved in a manner which can only be described as callous. Ireland was a full part of the United Kingdom following the Act of 1801 which abolished the Dublin Parliament. The ‘Mother of all Parliaments,’ put a man in charge of famine relief who made public knowledge his disdain for the Irish. Charles Trevelyan stated at the height of Ireland’s suffering…
‘The judgement of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson, that calamity must not be too much mitigated… the real 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.’
Thus a people exploited, dispossessed, impoverished and mismanaged on a monumental scale are said to be architects of their own misfortune. Trevelyan’s government spent around £7m on famine relief and public works. These works included building docks and ‘famine roads’ which often went nowhere. The remains of these roads can still be seen today and bear silent witness to the suffering of a hungry people forced to do hard labour in return for barely adequate food. The £7m spent on such projects in the years of An Gorta Mor represented just one half of one per-cent of the UK’s GDP. Consider that the UK government paid out £20m to compensate slave owners when the barbarism of slavery was abolished in the decade before the ‘famine.’
The great hunger may have had its roots in the potato blight which robbed the poorest in society of their staple food but by simply closing the Irish ports to food exports as they had done in the past, the government could have averted disaster. Instead, the needs of exporters to make money took precedence over a people who were considered expendable.
Even those capable of fleeing the country to Liverpool, Glasgow or London were met by the sort of racism which by modern standards is simply appalling. Punch Magazine satired the Irish migrants in England in the following manner…
‘A creature manifestly between a gorilla and a negro is to be met in some of the lowest quarters of London and Liverpool by adventurous explorers. It comes from Ireland, whence it has contrived to migrate; it belongs in fact to a tribe of Irish savages: the lowest species of Irish Yahoo. When conversing with its kind it talks in a sort of gibberish. It is, moreover a climbing animal and may sometimes be seen ascending a ladder laden with a hod of bricks.’
Nor was such racism confined to satirical magazines, often more ‘educated’ men were guilty of astonishing bigotry. James Anthony Ford, Professor of History at Oxford University was quoted as saying…
‘They are more like squalid apes than human beings; unstable as water. Only efficient military despotism can succeed in Ireland. The wild Irish understand only force.’
Such attitudes were common and helped shape the wholly inadequate government response to the catastrophe unfolding in Ireland. The potato blight arrived in Scotland, Wales and England too, causing much hardship, but only in Ireland did it lead to disaster.
The hunger and disease which claimed so many in those sad years paid no heed to the religious persuasion of those caught up in An Gorta Mor. In the north east of the country Catholics and Protestants alike suffered great hardships. In recent times there has been a growing recognition among Irish Protestants that the narrative of this being a disaster affecting Catholics only has been exposed as false. In the heart of Unionist Belfast lie the remains of hundreds of men, women and children buried in a huge pit. The grave lies in Shankill cemetery and is only one of several such graves in and around the city. Jim McAuley, vice chair of Shankill Area Social History group stated at a recent memorial service for victims of An Gorta Mor…
‘We were never taught this in school – never heard about it in any history. Occasions like this help reconcile people to realise that we all suffered.’
In one week in February 1847 the Lurgan workhouse reported an astonishing 95 deaths from famine related illnesses. Of 919 recorded deaths in Armagh workhouse in the year 1847, almost 55% were registered as Protestants. The myth that the famine was an exclusively Catholic tragedy does not stand up to scrutiny. That is why those football supporters with their ‘Famine is over' flag need to urgently learn some history as well as some empathy. They may think they are goading or disrespecting one side of the community but in reality they are disrespecting their own forebears who perished alongside their Catholic countrymen in those dark times.
On Monday 18th May 1840, a new born infant drew his first breath in a poor, rural cottage set in a land about to be visited by a calamity which still echoes down the years. That baby would spend his childhood in a country where a million would perish from hunger and related diseases while food was exported under armed guard. A million more would flee to Britain, Canada, America and many other places to escape poverty and destitution.
Eventually this child too would be forced to leave his native land and look to better his lot in Scotland. In time he would grow, educate himself and try to make a difference to the poor he found around him in his adopted city. He was to become a great humanitarian unlike those who oversaw the Irish catastrophe which occurred in his childhood and he spent his whole life working to help the poor. His name was Andrew Kerins but he is better known of course as Brother Walfrid.