Ahead of the National Commemoration in September in Newry, Co Down wouldn't it be wonderful for the Irish Government to take control of the terminology of the country's history.
The Irish Diaspora is now better educated on the period of Irish history between 1845 to 1851. It is now time for passionate request for the Government of Ireland to stop calling this period “The Famine.”
The word famine suggests that it was simply a lack of food. It was much more complicated than this. To call it by this name denigrates the suffering of the people. We need to be aware of the importance of the terminology with regard to this period.
A few years back, I described an exhibition on the Irish famine period that I had seen at St. Connell's Museum, in Glenties in County Donegal, to a friend. I was taken to task on using the word “famine.”
“How can you call it a famine when there was enough food to feed the people in the country? What about all the food exported out of the country under armed guard to England?” my friend contested.
The definition of famine is “a lack of food during a long period of time in a region.”
I took these comments on board and wanted to know more and to understand more about this tragic and defining period of Irish history. I started to read all I could, trying to understand how this massive tragedy could unfold not more than four generations removed in Ireland – a country where hospitality and kinship is inbred.
In my quest for knowledge, I came across many descriptions of the period. An Gorta Mór and the Irish translation The Great Hunger were two names regularly used. However, non-Irish speakers were not familiar with them and did not understand the Irish An Gorta Mór. Some of the Canadians called it the Big Starvation or the Great Starvation. The former expression resonates with me as it conveys the helplessness of the people as well as the lack of help to assuage their needs.
Records of the time confirm that there was enough food in Ireland to feed the people. The rest of the crops were not affected. So there was no famine.
The academics list again and again the amount of food that was shipped out of Ireland whilst the people starved. Historian and author of many books on this painful period of Irish history, Christine Kinealy, states that almost 4,000 vessels carried food from Ireland to the ports of Bristol, Glasgow, Liverpool, and London during 1847, when 400,000 Irish men, women and children died of starvation and related diseases. The food was shipped out under guard from the most hard-hit parts of Ireland: Ballina, Ballyshannon, Bantry, Dingle, Killala, Kilrush, Sligo, Limerick, Tralee and, Westport.
It should be highlighted, that there was a major difference in the British Government response at this time. During a previous period of hunger Irish ports had been closed, food remained in the country, and prices were maintained at an accessible level so that the people did not die. This did not happen during the Great Hunger. The leaders of the day allowed free trade, which allowed prices to rise, leaving the starving population who were mostly dependent on the potato as their staple diet to fend for themselves, until various charities came to assist them. The weak government of the time effectively withheld relief and allowed market forces to take their course.
The philosophy of providence prevalent at the time was not helpful. The premise of this was “that what happened was the will of God.” Many leading figures of the time endorsed this thinking. The result for Ireland and its people was five years of poverty, hunger, starvation, death, and devastation.
The consequences of adherence to this philosophy resulted in understandable anger from generations of Irish. Those who are still angry about the political policies of the time, which contributed to the demise of so many, call it genocide.
There are some archived letters and newspapers, which do reveal political discussions on immigration and land clearances as a way of reducing the population. For me, there is nothing to be gained by this latter terminology. Many see it as inflammatory and it does not ease the suffering both physical and emotional that was caused.
However, there is a growing interest in this period as many of the increasing diaspora start to research their family trees. They trace their ancestors to this period and are dismayed by what they learn. Many are incredulous. Starvation, evictions, long walking journeys to ports in the hopes of surviving.
The true stories of this time can be found in many archives. Indeed, there is now a wide range of books – both fact and fiction – on the period. One of the most accessible is “The Graves are Walking” by John Kelly. There is a groundswell of opinion to encourage the Irish Government and the academics of this period to call it “An Gorta Mór” or “The Great Hunger.”
Michael Blanch, a modest retired Dublin taxi driver, who is passionate about recognition for the victims of the Great Hunger, started a campaign to have markers on the mass graves in Ireland and for an annual commemorative event to be held in honor of the victims of the Great Hunger. Bill Fahey in New York has been a wonderful patron for the markers established so far. The Irish Government now holds an annual commemorative event at different locations in Ireland each honoring and respecting the victims of the Great Hunger. This year it will be held in Newry. However, the Irish Government still refers to this period as “famine.”
Is this a hangover from the terminology that was taught from previous generations and handed down from the government in charge at the time? I wonder if the Irish Government has given any thought to its choice of description. I really don't know... But I do think it is time to reflect and to call our history by the right terminology.
I summarize with a quote from Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa, who lived through this time (and was evicted from his own home), from his “Recollections 1838-1898.” He recalls “thousands of families were broken up; thousands of homes were razed; I am one of the victims of those bad times. People now allude to those years as the years of the 'famine' in Ireland. That kind of talk is nothing but trash. There was no famine in Ireland; there is no famine in any country that will produce in any one year as much food as will feed the people who live in that country during that year. In the year 1845, there were 9 million people in Ireland; allowing that the potato crop failed, other crops grew well, and the grain and cattle grown in the country where sufficient to sustain three times 9,000,000 people.”
The academics are dismissive of the use of the word “famine” and say that they call it by this name as this period is labelled under Famine Studies which can have a range of causes including lack of food, political and economic policies etc. Although, I know of one dedicated academic who is researching the origins of this label. It will be interesting to see the results.
Hopefully, this terminology issue will be resolved soon so that the voices of the descendants of those lucky ones who survived will state clearly and plainly that there was no famine in Ireland. There was a potato blight and a pathetic, disastrous British government attempt to cope with the starvation by laws and rules. The administration was incompetent and ill-advised. There was eviction by landlords Irish and absentee (some who were in financial straits themselves and other who were unscrupulous). There was forced immigration and a program of road and building works for those unfit for work, including women and children, and there were soup kitchens set up and organized by the generous Quakers and then emulated by the British government. There were workhouses where families were divided on entry and where the food was deliberately worse than in prison, so that you had to be really desperate to choose this option.
Those who are informed about the true circumstances of this awful travesty will realize that a few villains caused death and mayhem. But as the respected academic Christine Kenealy points out in her book “Charity and The Great Hunger in Ireland,” Ireland was helped by the kindness of strangers from the Choctaw Indians, the Society of Friends aka Quakers, American aid and aid from Turkey and India as well as the British Relief Association.
We should also remember how emigration impacted the island of Ireland. Families were separated, many never saw their relatives again. Those that left sent money back so that others could benefit from better prospects in the US or Canada. Immigration became a trend in Ireland, the population has never recovered. There was an emotional yearning for home and family for those who left.
For decades, people did not want to speak of this time because it was so difficult, sad and tragic, like a vast chasm of grief that was too hard to overcome. People did not want to discuss it.
But as they say “time is a great healer." It is time to acknowledge what really happened – the good and the bad. To heal, we need to understand the reality of the time, to grieve and to be amazed by those whose strength of character helped them to survive. We need to remember them and those poor unfortunates who did not make it. Those who died starving in their cottages, in the ditches, on the roads, on the work programs, in the workhouses, on route to the ports, on ships, on arrival at ports or traveling to find work or shelter. Most of these individuals were buried nameless in mass plots, often without a ceremony because of fear of disease.
In my opinion, to call it a famine denies the victims (well over a million of our ancestors), our fuller understanding of the reasons for their demise and in honoring them we should call this complex disaster The Great Hunger or An Gorta Mór.
Please join and ask the government to ensure this tragic period is given a truer and fairer.