After months of conducting his own research, the famed British reporter Michael Nicholson spoke out in December 2015 about the manner in which the British government dealt with the Irish famine declaring, “the truth is appalling.”
Writing for the Irish Times, Nicholson, an acclaimed journalist, speaks of the about turn his opinions took while researching and writing his latest novel “Dark Rosaleen,” as he discovered what he believes are the historical accuracies of the Great Irish Hunger, learning, in particular, about the actions of Sir Charles Trevelyan, the UK government’s director of famine relief.
As a journalist, Michael Nicholson has reported from 18 war zones over his four-decade career, including periods spent in Vietnam, Israel, Afghanistan, and Kosovo.
He was awarded an OBE [Order of the British Empire] by Queen Elizabeth II in 1992, has received Falklands and Gulf Campaign Medals, a BAFTA, and has been the recipient of three Royal Society Journalist of the Year Awards.
During his time reporting from war zones, he bore witness to a “fair share of man’s inhumanity to man,” counting thousands, even tens of thousands of deaths, none of which came close to the numbers recorded on an island at the edge of the Atlantic in the mid-19th century, he writes.
“‘A million dead. A million fled.’ It was those few words that had such an impact on me,” Nicholson said.
“Think of it. Try to visualize. Try putting it into a modern context, something happening today, something you are watching on television news, an apocalyptic disaster on an unheard-of scale, something that dwarfs Hiroshima.”
“Dark Rosaleen” is a love story set in famine times, telling the story of Kathryn, daughter of the infamous Trevelyan, who falls in love with an Irish rebel and begins to preach insurrection, despite her previous antipathy for the Irish people in their hour of need.
The story of Kathryn’s development is akin to Nicholson’s own thought process during the writing this novel. He first undertook the project to defend his own country and the actions of the British government during this time, long since vilified by what he believed were the exaggerated claims of Irish around the world.
In an interview with BBC "Talkback" (which can be heard below), Nicholson said, “When I started off, what I was trying to do was say, ‘hold on, do remember the times, do remember this blight [that destroyed the Irish potato crop] not only hit Ireland. It hit England, it hit Scotland, it hit Wales.”
“Remember there was no television then, there were no handphones, no instant communication. Letters from Whitehall to Dublin and Cork could take weeks. Could you imagine trying to get food aid from Dublin or Cork all the way down to Skibbereen?”
“I started out thinking it’s about time the English were given a fair trial.”
Believing he was to come to the rescue of the historical portrayal of the British at this time, Nicholson revealed that he soon felt taken aback by the books he was reading about the Great Hunger.
“It didn’t take me long writing and researching it [the novel] to find out, my giddy aunt, did this really happen?” he asked.
“Time and time again, characters in the book would tell me, ‘You’ve got it wrong’ [as he was developing their storylines].”
In particular, he mentions the historic figure Trevelyan, quoting in disbelief the writings he came across from the man sent to Ireland in order to establish famine relief.
“This is his real name and all that he does and says in my novel is as they appear, word for word, in the historical records of the time,” he wrote for the Irish Times. “I make this point because so much of what he said and did is barely believable.
“Trevelyan was guided not by any agreed government policy because there was none. He was guided by God. A pious, stubborn, uncompromising, devout evangelist, he saw the blight and the suffering as an act of Providence and to deny it was tantamount to blasphemy.”
Also speaking with BBC "Talkback" (and featured below), Queen’s University, Belfast historian Liam Kennedy feels that Nicholson is greatly exaggerating the realities of the famine, however, stating that his book is based on myths and half-truths.
“Historians prefer to rely on evidence,” he argues, announcing his dismay that Nicholson allowed his characters to take over, claiming that many of the actions of the Young Irelanders outlined in the book may have happened on occasions but were not widespread.
“A failure to conceptualize what he is dealing with,” Kennedy stated, relaying that poverty was also widespread throughout Britain at the time and that it should be remembered that income levels in Britain during this period would have been at current Egyptian levels.
“We’re not talking about a vastly rich country.”
“It’s irresponsible to talk about ethnic cleansing. It’s irresponsible to raise the specter of genocide, although it has a life of its own in ultra-nationalist Irish circles, in particular, in Irish America,” he added.
“Responsible journalists and historians shouldn’t go down those roads. You need to be much sharper about the concepts you use. There’s no such thing as accidental ethnic cleansing.”
There has been a push in recent years to rename the Irish Famine the Great Hunger as groups argue the period of hunger and poverty could not be classed as a famine but as genocide by the British government.
This is a long-running debate, which term to used to describe this event in Irish history, with some claiming that the version of events used by the education system and in media worldwide is not a truly accurate portrayal of what happened.
The pain and poverty suffered by the Irish people in the 1840s is often blamed on their reliance on the potato crop that was ruined by blight throughout these years, leaving the Irish people hungry.
Others argue that the blight was not the cause of the lack of food experienced by the population at the time, as plenty of other food types were being produced in the country - more than enough to feed the starving. They argue, however, that it was the choices made by the UK government to export this food from Ireland instead of feeding the hungry that caused the disaster. On these terms, they feel that “genocide” is a more suitable way to describe the tragedy.
A recent online petition “When genocide became ‘famine’: Ireland, 1845 - 1850” seeks support for a campaign to permanently change the manner in which we speak of the hunger and poverty in Ireland in the 1840s that caused the death of one million and the emigration of another million.
In order to do this, the petitioners aim to persuade authors, editors and writers who wrote, write or will write about the period to forgo using the word “famine” and use “The Great Hunger” or the Irish-language version “An tOcras Mór” in its stead.
They also call on the Irish Government and its politicians to make the same change, asking anybody “who wants the truth about Ireland’s history to be faced and justly discussed” to join their campaign.
Do you agree with Nicholson, or like Kennedy, do you feel that we must be cautious before using the terms genocide or ethnic cleansing in relation to the famine? Let us know in the comments section, below.