New facts about Great Famine emigration out of Ireland revealed
Between 1845 and 1855, more than 80,000 Irish died on coffin ships bound for America
Chief among the stigmas endured by the Famine Irish and inherited by their children, Dr Ó Murchadha suggests, was the “brand of their Irishness” and, consequently, their inferiority. But for them – and subsequent generations – this was eased by the succour of Irish neighbourhoods, particularly the trinity of the Catholic Church, Irish cultural societies and major political organisations, until demography, democracy and economic success enabled the Irish to tentatively assimilate within the majority society.
Those who remained in Ireland grappled with another kind of anguish. “As surviving inhabitants tried to come to terms with a significantly emptier landscape, they were also wrestling with a sense of guilt: that they had survived and a great number of their neighbours had not,” says the author. “In so many cases, their survival had been at their neighbours’ expense. This sense of survivor guilt was something that inevitably became embedded in the Irish psyche.”
Charting a monumental record of abject suffering, from the destruction of the potato harvests, through to the degradation inflicted by the relief programmes, the swell of fever pandemics through the workhouses, the mass clearances by landlords and the hemorrhaging emigration, The Great Famine climaxes with a sober analysis of the consequences and causes of this seminal event in Irish history.
Approximately 1.1 million died and over a million emigrated during the Famine. The population of Ireland plummeted from almost 8.2 million in 1841 to 6.5 million in 1851. Among its legacies were the physical and psychological disabilities of Famine survivors in Ireland and abroad, a deep-seated hatred of Britain, ruptured social and communal intimacy and rising conservatism in Irish society and a highly influential Catholic Church that met a gaping spiritual yearning and provided otherwise absent leadership.
The failure of private charity and state relief is central to explaining the extent of the Famine, insists the author. While contributions towards famine relief were received from the US president, the papacy and, most movingly, from the Choctaw tribe of Native Americans – the Famine resonated with the ‘Trail of Tears’ deaths during their forced population transfer from Mississippi to Oklahoma in 1841 – its impact was tempered by soaring international food prices. While Britain spent £8 million on relief programmes in Ireland during the Famine, most of it as loan advances, it spent £69 million on the Crimean War (1854 – 56).
Additionally, Dr Ó Murchadha argues that the prevalence of providentialism – the belief among the British government that the Famine was an opportunity to reform Ireland – is essential to accounting for the Famine and, controversially, he believes Britain may have been guilty of genocide.
“If you’re taking about a Jewish-style holocaust, a deliberate attempt such as by the Nazis to annihilate an entire people, then it’s not that kind of genocide,” he explains. “But there is a case for asking if the British deliberately used the Famine to thin out the ranks of the Irish by allowing mass death and emigration after 1847. Of course, it was never admitted at the time so it can’t be proven. But the question is certainly valid.”
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