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 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.
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/.