England's Role in Ireland's Greatest Tragedy

"The Famine Plot," reviewed by Eamon Loingsigh (originally from bookslut.com).

Outside of Ennis, in County Clare in the west of Ireland, the wind kicks upon the hills under the same gray sky where once starved children, women and old men were buried callously, if not left by the ditches. Where the weakest of the agrarian poor were communally laid in what are now mere humps of turf. Paupers' graves that for over 160 years have not been fully honored by truth nor been properly acknowledged. Even if two million of them perished of starvation and common disease, over a million more died jumping desperately into coffin ships. The facts had never made a difference as to the truth of their demise, such as numbers as stiflingly affecting as up to twenty-five percent of a country's population dead or dispersed.

Now finally comes The Famine Plot: England's Role in Ireland's Greatest Tragedy. This seminal work and its stance on Ireland's most titanic event, written by its most famous historian, Tim Pat Coogan, has been bantered about for many years: A formal condemnation or blame on English policy and policymakers for the Irish Potato Famine of 1845-1852 and the "extermination" of so many poor by starvation, disease and emigration.

It has traditionally been with great difficulty for this story to be told, even though the Irish are known as epic storytellers. My grandfather, a gentle man of little emotion, tried but had such a hard time recounting the oral stories that were passed to him from his grandparents and parents that he found it necessary to turn away from me as he continued. In my family's longshoreman saloon in Greenwich Village around the turn of the century and in our home where the cause of Irish freedom was still debated in my childhood and where copies of Coogan's biographical work on the Irish Republican Army sat at my grandfather's table from my earliest memories, I heard story after story of the Famine. Passionate stories, angry stories, and irrefutable facts to support the emotion behind it. Yet in my formal education in the United States, I never heard a mention until I reached university level.

For too long, there has been much gray over the past like the gray skies over the paupers' graves in the hills of western Ireland. It seems Coogan's greatest contribution to this calamitous event is to sum up the condemnation for us. To focus in on the intention of those with the ability to help the sufferers, rather than to allow history to remember it as an act of nature. Not to fan the flames of war or rally the revolutionaries, but to explain discreetly, truthfully, and in an Irish voice, why today there is still an open wound.

For all those Americans with surnames such as Connolly, Donnelly, or Kennedy; Australians with Fin, Finnigan, and Flanigan; and Canadians with O'Hara, O'Neill, and O'Leary, the reasons for their original arrival has too often been shaded in gray. But the fear, the death, and the struggle endured by those families of the Great Hunger, condemned to a fate worse than stray dogs, were not gray at all. Ignored by governments, they were forced into the slums of the New York docks in stitched rags or settled in South Boston and other places (and many others died in the Port of Quebec). They recovered quickly, and then went to work and helped build through toil and hope the great cities we know today. Much of their own memories of Ireland were of a sad place where sad things happened. Unnerved, uneducated, traumatized, disenfranchised, these Famine Irish, as they were known, often found more struggle and racism in their new homes.

In time, the frame of their story would be obscured by the politics of the ruling classes. And in telling their own tragic story, the reasons for their arrival in new lands were all too often dis-remembered in guilt, clouded by an oral tradition and a need to not dwell on the past while instead planning for the future.

In The Famine Plot, Coogan explains that it wasn't until 1916 that Ireland began its true push for freedom and to govern and to express itself of its own history. But during the Eamon de Valera era, much of the academic class in Ireland was still heavily influenced by London and the soft-spoken, non-Republican Dublin professors that did not want to add their voice to the violence occurring in the north.

Coogan's work is not the first on the topic, though it is the brightest and most obviously damning. There have been many works. Of note is Cecil Woodham-Smith's 1962 affective work, The Great Hunger: Ireland 1845-1849 (also on my grandfather's table), which outlined blame particularly on the English civil servant Sir Charles Trevelyan who administered "relief" during the Famine, but fell short of condemnation, stating instead that Britain's record was simply "hard to defend." But even that was too much for most academics, who criticized Woodham-Smith's work for being biased.

Many works have followed, but not quite with the effect of Coogan's sharp pen. In the opening chapters, The Famine Plot outlines the brewing of a catastrophic event. Religious oppression after Henry VIII's abdication from the Catholic Church, the outlawing of education for Catholics; English landlords that spent their rent profits in London; failed rebellions including that of 1798; and a tradition of English racism for the Celt as being a lazy, popish, tribal, and feckless people. By the year 1800, after hundreds of years of invasions and oppression from their English neighbors, Ireland was brought under the umbrella of the Kingdom of Great Britain with the Act of Union like Scotland and Wales. But as Coogan rightly specifies, even important English Parliamentarians on the eve of disaster admitted that Ireland was not governed like a kingdom, but instead was only occupied by colonial soldiers that protected English businesses to extract Ireland's natural resources. There was little governing of the people, especially outside of the Dublin Pale. In reality, the majority of Irish families, supposedly benefiting from the wealth of Great Britain's economy, were solely dependent on the harvest of one crop: the potato.

However, Coogan saves his best argument for the most pertinent players during the Famine. Taking apart the philosophies of these royal English policymakers and their economic and religious treatises that prevail still today, he points directly to the heart of the matter. Breaking it up with the precision, with the gentle heart of an Irishman and putting it back together with the coolness of an historical analyst, he begins with providence.  

"Providence, the divine will, was declared to have a large bearing on the subject, as it generally does when the rich debate the poor, or the strong confront the weak. It was an era in which in America the indigenous Americans were going down before a similar doctrine: Manifest Destiny," he writes.

In this religious invocation by English political economists, God divinely chooses who shall live and who shall die and governments are not to intervene against His will. That God rarely chose them for death and instead chooses the most vulnerable of the peoples was certainly convenient for the powerful. The effect of policymakers interpreting God's will and pointing it at the poor would, as we find out, be a large factor in causing Ireland to never again reach the population levels of the 1841 census.

After providence, Coogan points to laissez-faire capitalism as affecting how English colonial rule could justify standing by while a famine raged next door. Years before the Famine, English economists decided that raising cattle in the Irish land would be much more fiscally productive than depending on the feckless Irish to pay rent on it. A plan was needed to exchange the Irish people for cattle. English policy during this time was smitten with the ideas of Adam Smith, the Scottish economist and "moralist" who famously outlined the philosophy of capitalism in Wealth of Nations. The notion that "greed is good," as director Oliver Stone sarcastically underscored in the movie Wall Street, was the prevailing economic philosophy then, as it is now. As is documented, even Smith was shocked at the perversions that accompany power within capitalism when he witnessed his own countrymen rape the Virginia tobacco fields and garner outlandish profits on the backs of free labor from African slaves without government regulation. In Ireland, the perversions of an economic doctrine guiding morality would justify extermination.

The interpretations of God's providence coupled with laissez-faire capitalism doesn't explain by itself how so many people could have been allowed to perish by hunger, and this is where Coogan takes his boldest step.

In recent years, on numerous blogs, Facebook, and in general conversation, there has been great cynicism toward the use of the term "famine" to describe what actually happened. As Coogan points out succinctly, a famine occurs when there is no food to be eaten, which was only true of the potato. But Ireland under Britain's colonial rule exported grain, corn, cattle, and many other foodstuffs on a regular basis. "Ireland had no shortage of food," Coogan writes. The London political economists of the time, however, termed these exports from Irish lands "cash crops," which effectively meant they were the lawful property of the business community and not to be allocated for relief. With evidence such as this, the debate in Coogan's book turns the description of the Great Hunger from "famine" to "extermination" and even "genocide."

Early on, in chapter three to be exact, Coogan outlines his thesis when he quotes the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. One of those terms of genocide in particular rings with a great clarity here: "Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part."

Coogan's intent here is not to say that England caused the blight of the potato. That was a matter of nature, of course. Instead he points directly to allowing its people for which it was responsible within the terms of the Act of Union, the Kingdom of Great Britain, to be so vulnerable as to be completely dependent on one crop. Furthermore, the deliberate attempt to utilize a natural disaster to "inflict conditions that bring about its physical destruction" is another powerful and ringing interpretation of the United Nations charter.

Here, Coogan levels his stare adroitly on the prevailing economic philosophy and the political economists in London at the time when he uses a famous quotation from the Irish Nationalist John Mitchel, who described the situation at the time as "God sent the blight, but the British sent the Famine." The Famine Plot then describes Trevelyan's followers in London as imposing an absurdity when they enforced, sometimes with soldiers and ships, the policy that "Ireland's property should pay for Ireland's poverty," therefore expunging responsibility from London's colonial lap with no more than a stroke of a pen and fatally placing care for the Famine in the metaphor of the economic market's cold "invisible hand."

To impose an illogical, calamitous condition such as Irish taxes needed to pay for Irish relief, Coogan states, is the perfect analogy to the idiom "extracting blood from a stone." The taxes levied on Anglo landlords in Ireland were high, but when the poor could not pay their rent, they were evicted. Often by force, these starving families were sent to the countryside while their homes were destroyed to make way for cattle grazing. The consequence of eviction was devastating, and the poor were often too weak to travel and so desperate that they tried eating the grass, like cattle. In enforcing this policy, Coogan declares, genocide can be interpreted.

At the time, even some Englishmen agreed that "famine" could not be a truly intellectual description. As Coogan underscores, one English parliamentarian resigned in indignation feeling as though he is "an unfit agent of a policy which must be one of extermination."

This policy of extermination went on to include the "work scheme," such as road building, which didn't pay a laborer enough even to fill his own belly, never mind the rest of his family. Also, the Poor Law Extension Act of 1847 that "effectively undid much of the benefits of the soup kitchens and brought an incalculable amount of suffering and death upon the starving." The Workhouse, which became only a place for the sick to die, at one point, only allowed "fit" people within its gated doors. This meant that those considered too weak, such as children, the elderly, and women, were turned away, often by force.

All of this in the name of improving the economy and allowing God's divine will to take shape was well within Trevelyan and many of his peers' direct plans when he described the Famine as a "mechanism for reducing surplus population." Trevelyan is also quoted as saying, "The greatest evil... is not the physical evil of the Famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the Irish people." And finally, "The judgment of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson."

There are many ways to describe what happened. Famine, genocide, and extermination are only a few. But Coogan does well in outlining the motivations and the actions of those responsible under the Act of Union. But the legacy of the Great Hunger still survives today. Nothing can bring back the dead or the dispersed, but some things can be acknowledged. In 1997, British Prime Minister Tony Blair gave a halfhearted, politically motivated apologia in order to help talks between his government and the IRA. But still today there are stains that remain on British officialdom. Particularly its chivalric code and order. Sir Charles Trevelyan, at this very moment, is still honored as Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath, a distinction awarded to him during the middle stages of Ireland's greatest tragedy in 1848. The means of removing him from the Order is outlined by Queen Victoria's 1847 process for revocation due to, "felony, or any infamous crime derogatory to his honour as a knight or gentleman." Though he is long dead, Trevelyan is still credited as being a Knight Commander of the Bath, even as modern history has uncovered the horrific intentions his quotations reveal or, at the very least, his indefensible failure or lack of willingness to properly manage funds for one of the most devastating colonial catastrophes ever recorded. For him to remain honored as a gentleman is an open wound for Ireland and its great diaspora.

The effect of the Famine on the world has been long lasting and is still quite alive today. The symbol of hunger has persisted in Irish politics and the "hunger strike," which has a pre-Famine Celtic history called, in Irish, the troscadh. Pádraig Pearse, the poet executed by the British for being a leader of the 1916 Easter Rising mentions it in his famous poem "The Rebel," when he turns red in shame and anger for his people who "have gone in want, while others have been full." This symbolized hunger was utilized as an allusion much more directly when in 1920 Terence MacSwiney, Lord Mayor of Cork, died in a British prison after seventy-four days on a hunger strike. In 1981 ten IRA prisoners, including Bobby Sands, also died on a hunger strike that radicalized the nationalist movement of the time.

Today, as Coogan prepared for an American tour, the barriers that were propped against him seem to reveal that there may still be discontent over the interpretation of his book and his previous works. It took multiple attempts for Coogan to procure a visa for the American tour, and as he explained on his blog, "Somebody somewhere it appears did not want me to visit the United States to publicise my book on the Famine. It was suggested to me that some securicrats in the U.S. embassy had decided to do a good turn for their buddies in the British 'Spookdom' by blocking my attempts to enter the United States on a Book Tour."

But with the intervention of New York Senator Charles Schumer and a raucous Irish-American community that was outraged by the terrible treatment of an esteemed author, Coogan was eventually granted a ten-year non-immigrant visa.

Maybe the most glaring reminder today of the Great Hunger of 1845-1852 is the cold, factual daily evidence of the Irish surname in foreign lands. Although emigration from Ireland continued in the nineteenth century after the Famine and through much of the twentieth century, what comes to mind when an Irish surname is attached to a cockney accent, or an Australian twang, or the drawl of the Southern United States is the curtain of history that remains mostly veiled. With The Famine Plot, we now have a platform in which to understand the intentions of the policies and the policymakers of an occupying force that helped exacerbate a blight on potato crops that had no business devastating an entire European country, sending the weakest and most vulnerable into shallow graves, onto ships bound for inhospitable countries with purpose and intention as its means. And with this book, my grandfather, who has since passed, raises his chin high in my memory now that the reasons for our family's arrival is described in terms that are grounded in reality, not politics.

Views: 391

Tags: Book, Coogan, Eamon, Famine, Loingsigh, Plot, Review

Comment by Frank walsh on June 6, 2013 at 9:26am

This is not new news to the Irish Diaspora - here we were used to the heavy hand of the British merchants and their servants the politicians and military well into the late 1800's. The Famine was never referred to and I was shocked a few years ago when I read of the "extermination" that was the famine - the sad part was that I was nor surprised. Let those who criticize the "excesses" of the Irish War of Independence cast a glace at Tim Pat's book and perhaps understand the scar that this inhuman cruelty left upon the Irish psyche and their need for separation from the perpetrators.

Comment by Eamon Loingsigh on June 7, 2013 at 7:55am

Well put, Mr. Walsh... Eamon


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