The most significant section of Tim Pat Coogan’s book on the Irish Famine is not his own writing, but his printing of the United Nations definition of genocide.
“The Famine Plot”, published by Palgrave MacMillan, was released in America and Coogan should have been here to launch it but in a separate but equally confounding plot he was denied a visa to come here by the American Embassy in Dublin.
The conclusion from his book is unmistakable.
Ireland’s most prominent historian, who has previously created definitive portraits of both Michael Collins and Eamon De Valera, has now pointed the finger squarely at the British during the Famine and stated it was genocide.
It is a big charge, but Coogan is a big man, physically, intellectually, and in every sense. This makes it a very effective accusation. Coogan has painted a portrait of devastating neglect, abuse, and mismanagement that certainly fits the genocide concept.
I mean, if we go back to that time Ireland was the equivalent of Puerto Rico or Samoa, massive dependencies on the United States today.
If there were a massive food shortage in either of those two countries, we know the US would step up to the plate, literally.
Back in Famine time, the same potato crop disease occurred most heavily in Scotland, outside Ireland, yet there were relatively few casualties as the landowners and government ensured, for their own sakes as much as anything, that there was no mass death.
That was not the case in Ireland, where a very different mentality prevailed. The damned Irish were going to get what they deserved because of their attachment to Catholicism and Irish ways when they were refusing to toe the British line.
As Coogan painstakingly recounts, every possible effort by local organizations to feed the starving were thwarted and frustrated by a British government intent on teaching the Irish a lesson and forcing market forces on them.
Charles Trevelyan, the key figure in the British government, had foreshadowed the deadly policy in a letter to the “Morning Post”, after a trip to Ireland, where he heartily agreed with the sentiment that there were at least a million or two people too many in the benighted land and that the eight million could not possibly survive there.
“Protestant and Catholic will freely fall and the land will be for the survivors.”
Shortly after, he was in charge of a policy that brought that situation about.
One Trevelyan story and one quote suffice.
“British Coastguard Inspector-General, Sir James Dombrain, when he saw starving paupers, ordered his subordinates to give free food handouts. For his attempts to feed the starving, Dombrain was publicly rebuked by Trevelyan…”
The Trevelyan quote is “The real evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the Famine but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people.”
Tim Pat Coogan has done an enormous service with this book.
Read it and weep.
Originally published 2012.