Exclusive Interview with Tim Pat Coogan - A policy of ethnic cleansing? Who’s to blame for the Irish Famine?
"The Famine Plot" tells the unvarnished truth about that epic disaster
At 77, now an undisputed elder statesman, it’s baffling that he could be considered a security risk.
If it turns out to be true that the British exerted political pressure on the U.S. to block or at least postpone Coogan’s book tour, they needn’t have worried. Coogan is at pains to point out it in his book that it was not the British public who were responsible for the Great Hunger.
Instead he lays the blame at British officialdom and the often absentee land owning classes which pursued a reckless or opportunistic course of action that exacerbated or exploited conditions on the ground.
For decades, Coogan contends, both British and Irish historians skirted the question of where to lay blame. He also knows why.
“I used to argue a lot about it because of the revisionist historians. It was as if they wanted us to consider the Famine as a sort of 19th century precursor to the Scarsdale Diet (a low fat, low calorie weight loss diet) and not a famine,” he said.
Eyewitnesses of the period like Earl Gray, the then colonial secretary, were in no doubt where the buck stopped.
“We have a military occupation of Ireland,” he told the House of Lords in March 1846, “but in no other sense can it be said to be governed. It (is) occupied by troops, not governed like England.”
It was apparent to Coogan that this central fact, Britain’s misgoverning of an otherwise ignored and dependent colony, was the lynchpin of the crisis.
“But I found that the angle that’s given in most of the studies, is that academics will try to break it down into those who favor the nationalist cause and those who favor – I’m not quite sure who the other side are meant to be.
“The nationalists have been portrayed as ravening nuts compared with the measure gentlemen who take the Scarsdale approach. It’s a kind of colonial cringe that happens, derived from the fact that most historians until recently were trained in England. They had their eyes on their careers, too, of course.”
The better studies on the Great Hunger have all been written by Irish Americans, Coogan contends, since they are outside the British tenure track loop and don’t have to bow the knee to this kind of shibboleth.
“Christine Kinealy, James Donnelly Junior, Bob Scally – all these guys have written about the Famine in a moving way and are above reproach. They don’t follow a hidebound path.”
Unlike their illustrious predecessors, these Irish American historians don’t give credence to the idea that it didn’t matter that food was exported from Ireland during the Famine. Nor have they shied away from examining the impact and legacy on the people who experienced it and their descendents.
“Two million died. It is two million by the way because modern scholarship shows that the loss to the birth rate was more than just a million. Whole families perished and there’s no records. The fevers were devastating and then there were all the diverted births, of children born on ships or born in America,” Coogan explains.
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