'Irish Hunger and Migration' -- Assessing the Famine's Global Impact

TITLE: Irish Hunger and Migration: Myth, Memory and Memorialisation

Reviewed by John Bruton

EDITORS: Patrick Fitzgerald, Christine Kinealy and Gerard Moran

PUBLISHERS: Ireland's Great Hunger Institute, at Quinnipiac University

A number of years ago I visited a museum exhibition on the Irish Famine in Quinnipiac University.

Having grown up in Ireland, and having read Cecil Woodham Smith’s seminal work on the Irish Famine, I was well aware of the drastic impact the Famine of the 1840s had on my own country, and how the strict application of free-market economics had needlessly increased the appalling death toll when the potato crop, on which the majority of the Irish people survived, failed in 1846.

But I was puzzled as to why a university in the United States, the home of free enterprise, would be devoting so much attention to an event, however appalling, that had occurred on another continent, 150 years previously, given all the other horrors that had occurred elsewhere in more recent times.

This book answers the questions that were on my mind then.

Beyond Ireland itself, the Irish Hunger, and the wave of immigration to the Americas that it caused, had a huge impact on the psyche, the demography, and the religious diversity of North America itself.

It provided much of the manpower that fought the American Civil War. And its memorialization provides a shared source of identity for generations of Americans of Irish ancestry.

Initially, the memories of the starvation in Ireland were suppressed by the Irish immigrants, whose immediate goal was to fit in as Americans, and indeed to maintain their sanity, by not dwelling too much on the horrors they had left behind.

By the early 20th century, the situation had changed, and Irish Americans were ready to talk about the Famine. But they tended to do so in a simplified way, which highlighted British neglect, as proof of the case that Ireland should separate itself from Britain politically and economically.

For example, the Famine was remembered as if all its victims had been Irish Catholics, and as if Irish Protestants had escaped. As this book shows, that is simply false. The death rate in many Protestant areas of Ulster was just as great, but it suited neither the Unionist nor the Nationalist myth-makers to emphasize that.

(Pictured: Clothing being distributed to famine victims.)

This reminds us that memorialisation of any historic event serves a different function in each succeeding generation. The way we commemorate an important event in the past, tells us what it is about the past that we regard as important (and unimportant) today, and thus how we see ourselves now and in the future.

If, for example, we only commemorate the dead on one side of a conflict, that shows us that, for us, the conflict is not really over at all.

As our current needs change, so too will be the way we commemorate the past.

This point is brought out very well in one of the essays, by Catherine Shannon, which describes how a coastal community in Massachusetts commemorated the fatal shipwreck of 99 Galway and Clare emigrants fleeing famine at home in 1849. The way the local commemorations of this shipwreck changed, in tone and format over time, showed how the Irish community in that part of Massachusetts made the transition from marginalization and obscurity, to noisy self-assertion, and then ultimately to complete and contented integration.

This collection of essays also deals with the integration of Irish Famine immigrant in the French-speaking community of Quebec. Much help was given to the starving Irish by Francophone Catholic orders of nuns. But eventually the Irish settled down so well in Quebec that a concern grew that Irish influence might displace the French in the hierarchy of the local Catholic church!

The vitally important role of the Quakers in famine relief in Ireland is described, as is how the Quakers drew on their Irish experience in assisting famine relief in Finland in the 1850s.

The part played by Irish immigrants in the defence of the Confederate States of America is described by David Gleeson. Here the Catholic and Protestant Irish made common cause.

(Pictured: Famine refugees arriving in Liverpool.)

For instance, Randall McGavock of Nashville, a planter and proud of his Ulster Scots roots, was happy to emphasize his Irishness when seeking a command in the Confederate Army.

This was presumably because this would make it easier for him to recruit post-famine Irish immigrants to his command.

Randall, one of whose descendants is a good friend of mine, lost his life at the head of his Irish troops at the battle of Raymond, in Mississippi, in May 1862. I have seen the standard of McGavock’s regiment at my friend’s home in Franklin, Tennessee. It features a harp on a green background.

Another Irish supporter of the Confederacy was Young Irelander John Mitchel.

A Derry Presbyterian, Mitchel was an opponent of the constitutional politics of Daniel O'Connell and had taken part in the 1848 Rebellion in Ireland. In America, however, he became a strong supporter of slavery. Writing in the Richmond Examiner, of which he was editor, he justified secession, saying that the Northern states had broken the compact establishing the United States with its attack on the “God-given” institution of slavery. He also criticised the statement in America's Declaration of Independence that “all men were created equal."

("Daniel O'Connell: The Champion of Liberty" poster published in 1847.)

For me, the most interesting of all the essays in this book is the one by Gerard Moran on the forgotten Irish famine of 1879 to 1881.

This later famine was also due to potato blight, but its effect was confined to the western seaboard, and to some poorer inland counties like Monaghan and Longford, because it was only in those parts of Ireland that exclusive dependence on the potato for food had persisted, after the terrible experience of the 1840s.

Still reliant on the potato, the population in these counties had increased in the 1861 to 1881 period, while the population had been allowed to fall in the rest of the country. This meant that when blight struck in 1879 after a series of earlier poor harvests, starvation was immediate in those counties still dependent on the potato.

This time, however, relief was provided with greater speed than in the 1840s.

The Lord Lieutenant’s wife, the Duchess of Marlborough, wrote a letter to the “Times” newspaper in December 1879 drawing attention to the famine. Her letter sparked the formation of the Mansion House Relief Fund and also to a fund bearing her own name.

Moran in his essay alleges that the Land League “was a reluctant participant in relief operations because it diverted its activities away from its main functions as a political and agrarian organisation” and he quotes Parnell as launching a blistering attack on the Mansion House Relief Committee and its chairman, Edmund Dwyer Gray. This led to Irish Americans contributing to the Land League’s political fund, rather than to the direct relief of starvation through the Mansion House Fund.

This, perhaps, points up a deeper conflict of interest between the west and the east of Ireland.

In the west, the priority was simple survival, whereas in the east, the priority was wresting the ownership of the land from the landlords, and transferring it to the Irish farmers.

This book enables the reader to understand the global impact of the Irish famine, and it acts as an antidote to the misuse of famine memory in the service of contemporary identity politics.

John Bruton, a former Teachta Dála in Ireland’s Dáil Éireann, served as the nation’s Taoiseach (Prime Minister) from 1994 to 1997, and as Ambassador of the European Union to the United States from 2004 to 2007.  He is currently President of IFSC Ireland.  A graduate of University College Dublin, with degrees in economics and law, he is a passionate student of history.  John has graciously agreed to write book reviews on occasion for The Wild Geese. You can get more of John's perspectives on Irish -- and world -- affairs at http://www.johnbruton.com/.

Views: 1356

Tags: An Gorta Mor, Famine, Identity Politics, Reviews, Revolution

Comment by Fran Reddy on December 29, 2015 at 9:08am

Thank you for the review Mr. Bruton.

Was there any mention in the book of how the British exported thousands and thousands of tons of food from Ireland during The Great Hunger? I understand that this book may deal more with the forced migration of the Irish, but if there is one single incident that needs to come to light about those horrific years and that should stand out in history regarding it, it is that Britain starved the Irish and why they did so. Many people do not even know this most important fact! Are the details of this included in the book? The word 'famine' should cease to be used to describe The Great Hunger as it misleads history.

Heritage Partner
Comment by That's Just How It Was on December 30, 2015 at 7:20am

I agree with you Fran Reddy , too much emphasis has been place don the word "Famine"

in excerpts from my Book "That's Just How it Was" ................ the research I completed.......................  

In the words Francis A. Boyle, Law Professor of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, ‘Trevelyan and the British government pursued a race- and ethnicity-based policy aimed at destroying the group commonly known as the Irish people and that the policy of mass starvation amounted to genocide as per the Hague convention of 1948, approximately 100 years after the famine.’

"in George Bernard Shaw’s, Man and Superman, Act 1, a real account of the famine is encapsulated: ‘While a country is full of food there can be no famine.’ What all of this amounted to, then, was ‘starvation’ on a massive scale.

" Dennis Clarke, an Irish-American historian, claimed that the famine or 'Great Hunger of 1844 was the culmination of generations of neglect, misrule, and repression. Not least, that it was of epic proportions of English Colonial cruelty and inadequacy; for the landless cabin dwellers it meant emigration or extinction.” 

Comment by Mike McCormack on January 3, 2016 at 4:28pm

True to form, Mr. Bruton may well have wondered why, until he read the book, the event he calls famine and we call the Great Hunger was the subject of a University Museum "given all the other horrors that had occurred in more recent times." Perhaps, Mr. Bruton it is because the Irish-America and American-Irish consider this a greater horror than any other natural or man-made disaster and on a par with the Holocaust (which also has a museum).

His statement that the Irish exiles suppressed the memory oif the tragedy and were "not dwelling on the horrors they left behind" flies in the face of the millions of American dollars that were sent by those exiles to those they were forced to leave behind.

As a participant in the historic remembrances of the Great Hunger on the 150th anniversary of the tragedy and author of a book and DVD about its causes and legacy, none of my research ever indicated that "the famine was remembered as if all its victims had been Irish Catholics" Perhaps he added that to illustrate his theory that the way things are remembered accounts for the revisionist version of historical events.of which Mr. Bruton appears to be a classic example given his prior denigration of the 1916 patriots as misguided.

 His concluding remarks however, astounded me most when he refers to "a deep conflict of interest between the west and the east of Ireland. In the weat the priority was simple survival, whereas in the east the priority was wresting the ownership of land from landlords and transferring it to the Irish people"  That can only be a mistaken, but divisive, interpretation of Irish history for the Land League started in County Mayo -- you can't get any further west than that! I'm sure that Mr. Britain Bruton means well, but his version of Irish history needs adjustment!

Comment by michael dunne on January 3, 2016 at 5:29pm

The  reference to the landless cabin dwellers needs further examination keeping the notorious quarter acre Gregory Clause of 1847 in mind. The begrudging Irish and Anglo Irish rate payers resented having to make a contribution to the upkeep of the poor houses and often criticized the inmates and those on the outside for not working hard enough in the useless "relief schemes". These inmates had to sign over their homesteads and or land in order to access the fine fare provided by the poor law union. This requirement meant that if these poor wretches on their last legs gave up their last claims to respectability and pride signing over their homesteads to the keeper of the Poor House. And if they survived the ordeal they had no place to go except into the towns and cities to rob or whatever it took to survive. Or else emigration if they could scrape the fare together and speak English.

Two things come to mind (a) the absence of surnames, that is the million anonymous who died. This is sometimes referred to as the Great Silence. (b) when the British handed over the successful Land Commission to the Irish Government in 1922, along with a loan of 30,000,000 pounds sterling to continue the policy of relocating subsistence farmers from the Western Seaboard to the more fertile pastures in the East of Ireland, a fair amount of nepotism crept in with 100 acre and larger parcels of land being handed out. 

The fact that most of the land in Ireland was owned by Anglo Irish in the 19th century and by the Irish early in the 20th Century has been referred to as "The Bloodless Revolution" It is small wonder that when de Valera came to power in 1932 his dispute with the British over payment of the land annuities led to the agricultural trade war between the two countries causing bankruptcy and hardship to middle class farmers. He seized upon this opportunity to acquire these ranch type farms dividing them into 25 acre holdings and distributing them to the people they were originally intended...the subsistence farmers.This strategy was a successful political building block for de Valera which endured long after his death. I believe that anything to do with land over the centuries of plunder and colonialism was carefully recorded in writing. 1847 was not that long ago and the majority of these small holdings I believe, were acquired/purchased by grasping farmers and middle men. Whether the land registry records were burned or not is not the substance of the matter but the amnesia of those Irish who benefited from the misfortune of their neighbours. So aside from the anonymous million who died, another million Irish had to emigrate perhaps within a decade or less. This emigration and displacement of our people continues to this day. The reliance on a monocrop of the lumper potato was well flagged and a disaster waiting to happen. The reference to the shiploads of grain and livestock would have been a help but not near enough to prevent famine.

Comment by Deifereen Burns on January 16, 2016 at 4:19pm
As an American of Irish descent, I have tried hard to grasp the "Horrors" of the hunger.
It is not the failure of the potato crops that created the "horror", but the inhumane treatment of its victims. As previously stated, there was plenty of food that was shipped off to English landlords.the famine ships, the Protestant soup kitchens and the attitude that the Irish somehow deserved the disastrous impact, while locking up the thieves that tried to steal a loaf a bread. As the world must remember the holocaust of Europe, so must we remember the genocide created by the great hunger.

Heritage Partner
Comment by That's Just How It Was on January 24, 2016 at 2:44pm

 It is a sad day for Ireland that 


Comment by michael dunne on February 29, 2016 at 5:37pm

What of our recent general election results? A hung Dail. Massive unemployment and the consequent emigration. The so called new jobs created which will reduce the Irish nation to its sad 19th Century history of chronic stagnancy. Then we had the lowest marriage rates in Europe. Its heading back to that sorry state again with the insistence that would be house buyers save 20% of the deposits in Dublin where the average home is twice the price of one in rural Ireland. Dublin properties average 400,000 euro for a three bed home.This means the would be purchasers pay 80,000 euro deposit while they are paying up to 1000 euro per month to unscrupulous landlords. There is a famine of political ideas in Ireland with a growing homeless problem, and the best we can come up with is to introduce water charges and property taxes and permit our nationalized banks to sow it into the ordinary citizen. This is an economic famine


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