The Tower of Silence
There was a poignant ceremony in the east end of Glasgow last week as the memorial to An Gorta Mor was unveiled in the grounds of St Mary’s church. Sculptor John McCarron’s work ‘The Tower of Silence’ will stand in mute witness to the horrors inflicted on the poor of Ireland in the mid nineteenth century. Through a combination of heartless indifference, appalling racist attitudes and the ugly face of unrestrained capitalism, the greatest empire in the world at the time allowed over one million of its people to die in a catastrophe they had the power to halt. Ignoring centuries of mismanagement, underdevelopment and the exploitation of England’s first colony, Charles Trevelyan stated with brutal indifference…
‘The 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 the famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people.’
The Great Hunger is the defining moment in Ireland’s relationship with England. It casts a long shadow and made up the minds of many in Ireland that the country would be better freed from the colonial control of London. The so called ‘famine’ has played its role in defining the identities of the two great communities of Ireland. For Catholics, it marks the low point of English indifference to their suffering and has left an enduring mark on their psyche. For the descendants of those Protestants sent to colonise the north east of Ireland in the years after 1609, the famine is portrayed as a Catholic catastrophe which they avoided due to their thrift, hard work and God’s grace. The truth though is far more complex than either of those scenarios.
Recent research into population trends in Ireland suggest that the Great Hunger had a major impact on poor Protestants as well as their Catholic neighbours. Ian Gregory and Niall Cunninghame’s work, ‘The judgement of God on an indolent and unself-reliant people’?: the impact of the Great Irish Famine on Ireland's religious demography,’ uses Census records and information from church records to establish how the famine affected both communities. Their findings on the loss of population in Ireland in the mid nineteenth century are stark indeed…
‘In the period between 1834 and 1861 the population of Ireland fell by 27%. This was driven primarily by Famine-related deaths and emigration, although fertility decline may also have been relevant. Subdivide this by religion, comparing data from the 1834 Commission and the 1861 census and superficially, these results seem to support the idea that Catholics were the main victims of the Famine. Of the 2.15 million people lost over the period, 90.9% were Catholic, and for every Protestant lost 7.94 Catholics were lost. This ratio is, however, slightly misleading as before the Famine Catholics outnumbered Protestants by 4.24 to one.’
The population of Catholics and Protestants were both significantly affected by the great hunger, both in terms of deaths and people leaving to try and find a better life elsewhere. The study looked at areas of north east Ireland with higher Protestant populations and found that both communities were hit hard by the catastrophe…
‘Where there were significant Protestant populations these were often at least as badly affected by the Famine as Catholics. The nine dioceses that were more than 15% Protestant in 1834 contained 81.6% of the Protestant population. These dioceses experienced a 15.9% decline in their total populations between 1834 and 1861 which, while not quite as high as the 27.7% losses experienced across Ireland as a whole, was still little short of catastrophic. Importantly, these losses were almost evenly divided between the two religions: the Catholic population dropped by 16.9% while the Protestant population fell by 14.5% suggesting that in these areas the Protestant population was as vulnerable to the Famine as Catholics.’
The famine affected the rural poor more severely than the urban dwellers. In the north east of Ireland there was more industry and work to be had and this soaked up some of the impoverished excess population from the countryside. The lack of industrial development in Ireland as a whole though meant there were few options for the poor in the rural south. The deliberate lack of industry in the south and west of Ireland, combined with a growing population of rural poor living on the margins, contributed to the impending disaster. That being said, the government of the day did too little too late to alleviate the disaster their misrule had contributed to. It is recorded that food was being exported out of Ireland throughout the years of the great hunger, often under armed guard.
Gregory and Cunningham’s study is clear that the famine was indiscriminate in who it affected. Despite much mythology and overt use of the famine in political discourse, it seems clear that it had an impact on Irish Protestants which many today would be surprised to find…
‘Far from being a Catholic famine, the Great Irish Famine was a famine of the rural poor. Over much of Ireland this group was predominantly Catholic, and thus the Catholic population was disproportionately affected. However, the impact on Protestants increased in areas with larger Protestant populations to an extent that in mixed areas it is impossible to say which denomination was more severely affected. As a result, the Famine and its immediate aftermath did not result in major changes to Ireland's religious geography. The Famine remains a defining catastrophe in Ireland's history and has an enduring power to reinforce the stereotypes from which both communities continue to construct their own self-identities. The experiences of the two communities were more similar than either would tend to assert.’
There was an incident in Belfast a few years ago when a Loyalist Flute band stopped outside St Patrick’s Catholic church and marched in a circle playing that odious and fairly moronic ‘famine song.’ Apart from the absurdity of the descendants of those ‘planters’ sent to colonise Ulster telling the native Irish to ‘go home’ there was also a complete lack of awareness of the fact that many of their own people perished in the famine. As studies have shown, the great hunger claimed the lives of at least a million people in Ireland and caused a further million to leave the country. It is thought that around 100,000 of those who were lost were Irish Protestants.
An Gorta Mor was a catastrophe we should remember with honesty and reverence for those lost regardless of their religious denomination. Some, such as historian Tom Devine, have questioned the placing of the Tower of Silence in the grounds of a Catholic church but St Mary’s has played an important role in the story of the Glasgow Irish and as the memorial’s sculptor John McCarron has said, the sculpture commemorates all of those lost, of all faiths and none.
What would be a fitting memorial to those who perished in the great hunger would be the end of any petty squabbling and a coming together to remember a truly catastrophic event which affected all communities. As for those who play or sing ‘the famine song,’ perhaps they lack the intelligence to see the absurdity and ignorance of the lyrics. Or perhaps they are lost in tribalism where mythology is more important than facts.
The poor of Ireland, exploited and marginalised, did not die because there was no food in the land; they died because they had no money to buy it. That the forces of commerce would rather let people die in their hundreds of thousands than lose money was and remains the great evil of the famine years.