Discussing 'The Great Hunger' with Dr. Christine Kinealy

Here's Christine's last book on Amazon.The following is a transcript taken from the LIVE Community Chat chat hosted here at TheWildGeese.com on Saturday, January 24, 2015.  The focus for the discussion was Ireland's "Great Hunger."  Our special guest for the chat was Dr. Christine Kinealy, the Founding Director of Ireland's Great Hunger Institute at Quinnipiac University.  Some editing has been applied for clarity.

 

The Wild Geese: Céad míle fáilte, a chairde! So glad to see each one of you who have stopped by for this evening’s LIVE Community Chat here at TheWildGeese.com.

We’re discussing “An Gorta Mór” this evening -- Ireland’s “Great Hunger” of the late 1840s.  With us as a very special guest is Dr. Christine Kinealy. Dr. Kinealy is the Founding Director of Ireland's Great Hunger Institute at Quinnipiac University and a scholarly resource for the study of the Great Hunger.  She is a noted author of numerous books on the Great Hunger, including "This Great Calamity: The Irish Famine 1845-52," which was named the "Irish Post" Book of Year in 1995.  Based in the United States since 2007, Dr. Kinealy was named one of the most influential Irish Americans in 2011 by "Irish America" Magazine. In 2013, she received the Holyoke, Mass. St. Patrick's Day Parade's Ambassador Award. In March 2014, Christine was inducted into the Irish America Hall of Fame.

We’ll say hello and “fáilte” to Dr. Christine Kinealy who joins us live from Connecticut, USA. So pleased to have you with us today, Christine!

Christine Kinealy: Hello Ryan, Thank you for inviting me. This is the first time I have ever been in a chat room!

The Wild Geese: Christine, please tell us why you feel it is so important to study the subject of Ireland’s “Great Hunger” in the 21st century, and beyond.

Christine Kinealy: Many reasons. It is a single event that changed not only the course of Irish history, but of world history. It was a tragedy that was not inevitable. And the fact that hunger and famine exit in the world today means that it is still relevant.

The Wild Geese: Absolutely. And do you come into contact people regularly who have almost no knowledge of the event itself ever happening?

Christine Kinealy: It's interesting that many people seem to know that there was a famine in Ireland. But little beyond that. Generally they are aware that potatoes played some role, but that is the extent of their knowledge. Over the last twenty years though, there has been a resurgence in interest in this topic.

The Wild Geese: Good to hear.  Okay, let's take one question at a time from our members.

Kelly O'Rourke: How do you feel about the debate around the proper terminology for the event: famine, hunger, genocide, etc? Is the labeling important?

Christine Kinealy: Yes, labeling is important. But sometimes it is hard to capture the meaning in a single word or phrase. That is why debate and education is so important - to understand why certain labels are used or avoided. 
In Ireland many people refer to the event as the Great Famine. In North America, Great Hunger is preferred. Sometimes the word famine is avoided because people think famine simply means a shortage of food. It is more complicated.

The Wild Geese: Yes, interesting. Thank you for that.  Who's next?

Patricia A. McAuliffe: When you say the 'tragedy was not inevitable,' please explain. I have my personal, uneducated views, but would like to know yours.

Sheila Geraci: There was no shortage of food.

Christine Kinealy: Hi, Sheila - absolutely. I am one of the few - perhaps only - historian who has systematically examining the ship manifests detailing food that was leaving Ireland after 1845. The quantity and quality is shocking.

Patricia A. McAuliffe: Exactly!  When I think about the 'great hunger' my blood boils and you can guess my opinion of the English.

Christine Kinealy: Thanks Patricia - it is an emotional topic - it still upsets me reading first-hand accounts of the suffering.

Jim Curley: Dr. Kenealy, as someone whose parents came to America in the 1920s, I'm interested in the people who remained in Ireland as well as those who emigrated. How long did it take before Ireland returned to something approaching pre-1845 normalcy - i.e., people no longer starving, no workhouses, etc.

Sheila Geraci: Those who changed their religion were fed.

Christine Kinealy: Hi Jim - sorry - this is a great question that needs a longer answer but essentially Ireland never recovered from the trauma of those years. The population kept falling - is smaller today than in 1845. Ireland never really recovered.

Patricia A. McAuliffe: I think this is a complex subject tied to things like English greed for land, keeping the Irish uneducated and unfit for profitable work, etc.

Christine Kinealy: It is complex, and that is why debates/education are so important.

Kelly O'Rourke: Very sad. I've been wondering what hindered people here in Connemara from surviving on seafood...or maybe some did?

Christine Kinealy: Kelly, landlords owned the lakes, sometimes the shore. And fishermen had pawned their boats and tackle in 1845.

Patricia A. McAuliffe: I've read that in much of Ireland, seafood was not used for their meals.

Bridget G. McGill: Is this subject taboo? My mother refused to discuss it with me.

Christine Kinealy: Bridget, I think there were many silences for many years. Partly due to shame but also pain.

Patricia A. McAuliffe: My grandfather would never talk about his life before coming to the U.S. except to occasionally joke about it. The past was a closed door.

Christine Kinealy: Patricia - I think that was not unusual.

Patricia A. McAuliffe: Until he died, he rarely sat in a chair, but hunkered on the floor near the big old radio. He wasn't used to chairs from his childhood.

Jim Curley: Dr. Kinealy, I had the pleasure of visiting your museum in Hamden in 2013. It is a must-see. Would you talk about what is available there for the layperson who is not an academic?

The Wild Geese: Here's Jim's excellent piece on the museum.

Christine Kinealy: Hello, Jim. Yes, the Museum is wonderful - thank you. It is a mixture of art, carvings, and sculptures. Some are from the nineteenth century, and some are contemporary. It is very moving to see these representations of suffering.

Patricia A. McAuliffe: But weren't these collections also of fierce hope and determination?

Brian Conaty: Hi Christine, Is it true that the English kept displacing the Irish on to smaller and smaller plots of land until the only way to survive was to grow potatoes and once the potato failed they were doomed?

Christine Kinealy: Hi, Brian. Welcome to the discussion. Yes - for centuries the native Irish had been dispossessed of their land and forced on to the poorest quality land. This partly explains why there was much dependence on a single crop, the potato.

Janet Ann Keyes: How can the Irish experience help those who are suffering from a famine today?

Christine Kinealy: Janet, that is a lovely question. Partly through education and understanding that, for the most part, famines are not inevitable. To me, famines are more about lack of social justice and inequality. The Great Hunger teaches us many lessons.

Sheila Geraci: Weren't there large amounts of cattle raised in Ireland?

Christine Kinealy: Sheila, yes - and cattle exports increased after 1846.

Patricia A. McAuliffe:  If the cattle were exported, did that contribute to less to eat in Ireland?

Christine Kinealy: Patricia - Yes - they could have been kept in Ireland to feed the people

Patricia A. McAuliffe: Who was doing the exporting? The English landowners?

Christine Kinealy: At this stage they were generally referred to as 'Anglo-Irish" landowners. But yes landlords, and also merchants, both Irish and British.

Katarzyna Gmerek: If I may add, I read that O'Briens of Thomond mostly had cattle on their land, and the Famine was not that bad there. But they were Irish, despite being Protestants...

Kelly O'Rourke: Can you tell us about the non-governmental charity efforts? I know the Quakers were generous, and that even some Native American tribes donated, right? Did these donations reach the hungry people?

Christine Kinealy: Kelly - this subject is dear to my heart. It is the topic of my last book, 'The Kindness of Strangers' - the fundraising was amazing - charity came from all parts of the world and cit across religious and ethnic divides. The Choctaws gave $174 - a large amount from people who were themselves poor.

Kelly O'Rourke: Wow!

The Wild Geese: Here's Christine's last book on Amazon.

Christine Kinealy: And back to the Quakers - they were amazing. The not only brought in food to Ireland, they personally distributed it.

Patricia A. McAuliffe: Did the Quakers require the Irish to convert?

Christine Kinealy: Patricia - not the Quakers - but there were a number of evangelical groups who gave relief in return for conversion to Protestantism. They were a minority, but their actions have cast a long dark shadow over private charity.

Christine Kinealy: And Kelly for the most part the donations did reach the people. Sadly most of them dried up in 1848, although the famine continued.

Bridget G. McGill: I heard cornmeal was distributed, but the Irish did not know how to properly use it?

Christine Kinealy: Corn meal - known at the time as Indian Meal - was exported into Ireland. Not only did the Irish not know how to cook it, nutritionally it was of very low quality. It exacerbated disease.

Brian Conaty: Have the English ever owned up to creating the conditions that inevitably led to The Famine? And do you feel that the British still have too much influence and control over Ireland's economy, even today?

Christine Kinealy: Hi, Brian.  I think I should only answer on the Great Hunger ... but in 1997 the then British Prime Minister Tony Blair apologised for the British governments behaviour in the 1840s.

Katarzyna Gmerek: Christine, did you know about the missing report of P.E. Strzelecki, Report on the condition of Ireland, 1849, reportedly seen in the NLI long time ago but lost already in the 50's?
It was supposed to be very sharp towards the British Government..

Christine Kinealy: Strzelecki is one of my heroes.  I have read extensively about him. He did sharply criticize the British government during an enquiry carried out in 1849. Not sure if it is the same one, but I have read it.

Katarzyna Gmerek: I think it was the first one - the second one got missing according to Strzelecki's Polish biographer, Slabczynski.

The Wild Geese:
Okay, fellow Wild Geese ... that's all we have time for this evening. It's been a most worthwhile discussion ... one we hope to continue in days ahead. Be sure to check out our "Great Hunger" focus HQ page.  Also, please be sure to visit the home page of Ireland's Great Hunger Institute.  And follow them on Facebook!

Brian Conaty: Thanks, Christine!

Kelly O'Rourke: Everyone - check out all of Christine's articles ... fascinating!

Patricia A. McAuliffe: Thanks, Christine and everyone else for the interesting questions.

Bridget G. McGill: I just purchased your book!

The Wild Geese: Thank you so much for your time this evening, Christine! :-)

Christine Kinealy: Thank you fr making my first chat room such an interesting experience.

The Wild Geese: And thank you, everyone, for joining us for this tremendous discussion.  We'll do it again, Christine!  Oiche mhaith, gach duine!  Good night, everyone!

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Tags: An Gorta Mor, Chats, Events, Famine, History of Ireland, The Great Hunger

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