- Lifestyle & Sports
- 17 May 21
He said the Famine was a defining moment for Ireland, and spoke about how it "released a cataclysmic period in our nation’s history".
Speaking at Glasnevin Cemetery today as part of the National Famine Commemoration, President Michael D. Higgins drew comparisons between the Famine, Covid-19 and ongoing conflicts in the Middle East.
He commented that “no people are better thus equipped to understand the impact of the term ‘eviction’ from this period than the Irish people and their friends in the United States or elsewhere, who are aware of the Irish experience.
“Irish people can understand so well the events that tragically are unfolding elsewhere, as I speak, in the Middle East."
This follows news that Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney has addressed the United Nations Security Council in a meeting on the conflict between Hamas and Israel, and the devastating impact it has had on those living on the Gaza Strip.
President Higgins also spoke on the impact that the Famine had on global Irish diaspora, but particularly throughout the United States.
Read the full speech below:
Is mór an onóir dom a bheith anseo libh, agus muid ag smaoineamh agus ag tabhairt ómos dóibh siúd d’ár muintir a d’fhulaing agus a bhfuair bás le linn na trasóide is mó tábhacht i scéal na hÉireann sa nua-aois: An Gorta Mór, An Drochshaol.
It is an honour and a privilege to be asked to join with fellow Irish people wherever they may be, and in whatever circumstances, as we recall the lives, deaths and suffering of all those of our people who perished during that tragic, imposed and never to be forgotten event in the history of modern Ireland, that is the Great Hunger, An Gorta Mór.
Famine as defining moment in history
The Famine of the 1840’s that we today recall released a cataclysmic period in our nation’s history, beyond the deaths, the emigrations, losses in every experience of life. It is an event that must be acknowledged in its fullness, horror, sadness and consequences, given due recognition as to what its sources were, the responses to it, understood in all its complexity if we are to be enabled to move beyond it in time to ever nurture a process of healing such as will assist us in our dealing with those who recognise that they constitute the successors of those responsible. We, and they have to deal with the challenges of the present and future, without the burden of an unaddressed tragedy, an acknowledgement of what is accepted as fact as to An Gorta Mór, The Famine is a necessary prelude to the understanding we must, however difficult it is, achieve together.
Changes in agricultural practice in Ireland in response to external demand, from labour intensive tillage to grazing which was less so, and was brought about by eviction in so many instances, had a devastating effect on the poorest dependent on a single food source.
The Famine, when that single food source failed remains the single most important event in forming, and giving form to, a distinctive form of Irish people’s relationship to the land, emigration and politics, in the decades to follow, ones defined by the Famine, its catastrophe and its human aftermath. The determination to survive, whether at home or abroad, was endured at a terrible cost.
The Famine resulted in apocalyptic conditions across Ireland at a time, of course, when the responsibility for public action, for response, had, in effect, been abdicated by the British Government and passed, at the midpoint of the Famine, to the heavily indebted Irish Poor Law Unions.
An Gorta Mór was not needed to discover the grinding poverty to which so many of the Irish had been reduced. A great number of external, European visitors, Government reports, all had given the facts, and in detail, in many cases many years earlier.
“There is over the whole country an air of utter destitution and abandonment”.
So wrote the Hungarian Baron József Eötvös in his 1837 account surveying pre-Famine Ireland. Such an account as his existed in their hundreds.
The source of acceptance, rationalisation of and response to the Famine is distinguished by the fact that those ruling in Britain had created the economic and food-dependency conditions of such dismal hopelessness, of desperate dependence on the potato crop. The Act of Union had laid the ground and the consequences of its restrictions, all of which was premeditated and preceded in earlier times by what were barbarous Penal Laws, laws which were deliberate and methodical in their intent to lessen, exclude, reduce, deprive the vast majority of the Irish population of some of the most basic of human freedoms including religious practice or participation in the representative aspects of society. When blight struck in the 1840s, the people of the country were utterly vulnerable, dependent on what would be decided for them.
We now have further detailed scholarly work from which to draw in helping us to understand the full context of the ideas that held sway at the time of the Famine, helping us to reflect deeper on Famine – its causes, impacts and long-term consequences on Ireland, Irish society and culture, our neighbourhood.
Famine and migration
Supported with new scholarship, and encouraged by new, more inclusive cultural endeavours, we are well resourced to return to An Gorta Mór to internalise the depth and complexity and to confront the wider contributory factors and engage with the full consequences of that catastrophe which took place on our island approximately 170 years ago.
We cannot adequately understand our history, and its relationship with our neighbours on both sides of the Atlantic, the subsequent changes in social forces in our own country, and how these would inform our outlooks and politics, without engagement with the Great Famine. An affected amnesia serves nobody, rather emphasises the hurt, retains the old rationalisations that can no longer suffice.
An Gorta Mór was not the sole founding event in the formation of the Irish diaspora – after all, over a million Irish people had already emigrated to North America between 1815-1845 – yet it can be viewed as perhaps the single most defining factor in the creation of what would come to be a distinct Irish-American cultural identity, one that would continue to have an important influence from the Famine to today. It is an identity that anchors an enduring bond between Ireland and the United States that not only those who claim Irish heritage, but all friends of Ireland, still value.
The population figures of the time make stark reading. Between 1846 and 1855, 2.1 million people left Ireland, more people than in the previous 250 years. Over 70 percent of those who emigrated would come to settle in the United States.
The Times of London, a newspaper frequently hostile to the efforts to relieve the Irish Famine, could editorialise in the 1880’s on what the significance of a growing proportion of the Irish in an emerging powerful nation would be. It was there in the US, one of the strongest countries of the future, they would ensure that the Irish Famine of the 1840s would become a central part of collective memory, and a significant element of United States politics. “They will never let us forget it” The Times editorialised in the 1880s.
Famine and displacement
Yet the very vastness of these numbers of emigrants, and their vital importance to the course of Irish history, may sometimes obscure the enormity of the internal displacement, dispossession and forced migration during An Gorta Mór and the decades and centuries which preceded it. The plantations, dispossessions and exclusions of the previous decades had created a particular congested dispersal of population on impossible holdings of land, with the poorest living in what were near serf-like conditions.
No people are better thus equipped to understand the impact of the term ‘eviction’ from this period than the Irish people and their friends in the United States or elsewhere, who are aware of the Irish experience. Irish people can understand so well the events that tragically are unfolding elsewhere, as I speak, in the Middle East. Evictions are provoking conflicts in States that are entitled to their security but who are violating the basic laws that are the tools of internationally-recognised protection against illegal eviction and destruction of homes of those whose rights should be acknowledged, and supported, by all in the international community.
Solidarity at home in Ireland was, of course, tested by An Gorta Mór. It was never easy. There was a run for survival to the cities and the coast. The population of Cork City, for example, expanded greatly during the Famine, as refugees streamed into the city from across the county, causing panic rather than any overwhelming sympathy amongst the general citizenry.
During Black ’47, the Cork Examiner wrote:
“[The] incursion of rustic paupers into the city continues unabated ... they wait on the outskirts of the town till dark, when they may be seen coming in droves […] 300 of these miserable creatures come into the city daily, who are walking masses of filth, vermin and sickness.”
Reports such as this, and the many others from the time, lay bare not just what was an absence of, as Father Mathew suggested at the time, basic solidarity and empathy for human suffering, but also they constitute an ‘othering’ of people that should be grounds for our reflection to the present day.
Ireland, then, has the moral obligation of not merely remembering but of asking its friends of then and now, not to surrender in our time to indifference to conflicts being allowed to continue, presented as intractable, when it is clear that such conflicts have not been approached with consistency, with continuity and commitment, in such a way as to compromise the possibility of resolution, and of making an enduring peace. Such initiatives are necessary now, urgent. and of immense moral significance in international diplomacy.
“A nation perishing of political economy”
Was it three years, or five, it took some time, but science did tackle and conquer the Blight. However, the economic theory which guided or, more correctly, misguided the response, and its sustaining ideology, was to be another matter. Ireland was “a nation perishing of political economy” to quote Church of Ireland Clergyman, Richard Townsend, who devoted his time in Skibbereen to the care of the poor and the sick, and who toiled tirelessly in that town which, along with Schull, was given the title of one of the ‘Two Famine-Slain Sisters of the South’, with a death rate of over 50 percent.
It would take quite some time later for it to be argued that a political economy suitable for Irish circumstances and values – one that was, for example, more hospitable to State intervention and small-scale agriculture, that tended to be opposed to the crude commodification of land, and to the unquestioned hegemonic position of the market – could sustain an impoverished people.
This was the subject of a famous confrontation, for example, between the new and old political economies. It occurred in the House of Commons in 1868 in a debate about Irish land in which Robert Lowe argued that political economy “belongs to no nation; it is of no country'”, to which John Stuart Mill replied:
“My Right Honourable Friend thinks that a maxim of political economy, if good in England, must be good in Ireland. [...] I am sure that no one is at all capable of determining what is the right political economy for any country until he knows the circumstances.”
Thomas Kettle saw this historicising project as a “revolt of the small nations against the Czardom, scientific and political, of the great”.
Yet it should not be forgotten that those who fell in the struggle for survival in An Gorta Mór played with their lost lives, exiles and poverty, a crucial, if unchosen, part in demonstrating that a perverse version of political economy had, too its supporting community of scholarly, political and indeed religious supporters.
Doctrines of inaction
We had a terrible lesson imposed, which carries its own warning into the present of the dangers of living with ideological assumptions untested.
It took an ideological tendency, confident of its place among those who need power to impose pernicious and dangerous economic orthodoxy to sanction poverty amidst plenty, conspicuous consumption amidst mass starvation – an ideology that felt unchallenged in elevating the right of property to that of a natural law, even while it consigned any moral duty of humanity and of solidarity to passive, voluntary acts of charity.
Acknowledging how pervasive that ideology was amongst many with authority and economic and social power in Britain, is important. Let us not forget, too, that in relation to placing abstract market theories above life itself, non-interventionist ideology had its zealots here in Ireland.
It sanctioned not only the withdrawal of Government support in the midst of Black ’47, but also, as Nobel laureate Amartya Sen and Mike Davis have reminded us, would be invoked in other but similar circumstances to rationalise the monumental catastrophes suffered by the Indian people and the action and inaction of the British Raj during the Indian Famines of the late 19th century. Amartya Sen has correctly insisted that famine is almost always a preventable occurrence if only the government in question has the political will to prevent it.
James Donnelly, in his book The Great Irish Potato Famine, wrote about the response, or lack thereof, was part of a prevailing ideology among the political élite and the middle classes which strongly militated against sustained relief. The doctrines of inaction were many and disastrous and included the economic doctrine of laissez-faire, a Protestant evangelical belief in divine providence, and the pervasive ethnic prejudice against the Catholic Irish to which historians have recently given the name of ‘moralism’.
Responding to this, on the 20th March 1847, the Right Rev Dr Hughes, Bishop of New York, could say,
“I plea there is a blasphemy in charging on the Almighty the result of our own doings”.
He went on to say:
“there is no law in nature that forbids a starving man to seize on bread, wherever he can find it, even though it should be the loaves of proposition on the altar of God’s temple”.
Moralism – the notion that the fundamental defects from which the native Irish suffered were moral rather than financial – was widespread among educated Britons of this era who ascribed serious defects in the Irish national character, including disorder or violence, filth, laziness, and worst of all, a lack of self-reliance, as the cause of the Famine. This was unambiguous xenophobic, racial and cultural stereotyping. In distancing themselves from the Famine and its consequences, it was suggested, the Irish could be taught to ‘stand on their own feet’, to wean themselves from their dependence on British support.
This ‘moralism’ manifested itself very clearly, and with cruelty, in the various tests of destitution that were associated with the administration of the Poor Laws. Thus, labourers employed on public works were widely required to perform task labour, with their wages measured by the amount of their work, rather than being paid a fixed daily wage. Similarly, there was the requirement that in order to be eligible for public assistance, those in distress must be willing to enter a workhouse and to submit to its harsh disciplines, including endless days of breaking stones or performing some other equally punishing labour. As James Donnelly noted:
“Such work was motivated by the notion that the perceived Irish national characteristic of sloth could be eradicated or at least reduced”.
All those who speak of it must face up to the uncomfortable truth that the Famine was of course avoidable. In fact, there were numerous interventions that Britain could have made to mitigate its devastating consequences.
Britain could have prohibited the export of grain from Ireland, especially during the winter of 1846-47 and early in the following spring, when there was little food in the country and before large supplies of foreign grain began to arrive. Once there was sufficient food in the country, the government could have taken steps to ensure that this imported food was distributed to those in greatest need.
The government could have continued its soup-kitchen scheme for a longer time which was effective for just six months, from March to September 1847, despite it providing food for up to three million people, and proving to be both effective and inexpensive. Its decision to cull it prematurely was again a policy of non-interventionism, supporting the Whigs’ beliefs of how government and society should function.
The remuneration that the government provided on its vast but short-lived public works scheme in the winter of 1846-47 should have been much higher if those toiling were ever to be able to afford the greatly inflated price of food. The Poor Laws providing relief, either within workhouses or outside them, a system that served as virtually the only form of public assistance from the autumn of 1847 onwards, should have been far less restrictive. A variety of obstacles were placed in the way of relief to those in dire need of food.
The government could have restrained the ruthless mass eviction of 500,000 people from their homes, as landlords sought to rid their estates of pauperised farmers and labourers.
Last, and above all, the British government should have been willing to treat the Famine in Ireland as a humanitarian crisis, an imperial responsibility, and a responsibility to bear the costs of relief after the summer of 1847. In an atmosphere of rising ‘Famine fatigue’ in Britain, Ireland at that point and for the remainder of the Famine was left to survive on its own woefully inadequate resources in a misguided effort to promote greater self-reliance and self-exertion among the poor.
The leading exponent of this Providentialist perspective, Charles Trevelyan, the British civil servant chiefly responsible for administering Irish relief policy throughout the Famine years, in his 1848 book, The Irish Crisis, described the Famine as:
“a direct stroke of an all-wise and all-merciful Providence […], the sharp but effectual remedy by which the cure is likely to be effected, [... one which laid bare] the deep and inveterate root of social evil. God grant that the generation to which this great opportunity has been offered may rightly perform its part.”
In the dock of Irish history, these remarks must surely rank as among the most callous, dismissive of the Other as lesser even sub-human. Trevelyan was influential in persuading the government to avoid intervening in even restraining mass evictions which resulted in a radically restructured rural society along the lines of the model ardently preferred by British policymakers of the day.
Let us have these facts acknowledged, these options not taken, debated, reviewed. Then we can move on, drawing on what our experience has taught us. Surely it has taught us that we must not be indifferent, challenge our friends and opponents to reflect indifference. The multi-lateral order itself has to reject impunity and indifference.
And as we meet, the threat of famine affects 34 million of our fellow global citizens today. Yemen, the United Nations informs us, is in imminent danger of enduring the worst famine the world has seen in decades. A quarter of a million Yemenis have died from violence, starvation and preventable illness over the past six years.
At least 20 million of 28 million Yemenis are in desperate need of food and healthcare, four million are homeless, and millions more are threatened by ongoing military operations. Nearly 400,000 children currently suffer from acute malnutrition and could die or contract cholera, diphtheria and measles without prompt treatment. These shocking figures stand as an indictment, not only on the protagonists of this proxy-conflict and their supporters, but on all of an international community who can, suffering from what Pope Francis has called the virus of indifference, look on and refuse to act.
Muidne in Éirinn, ba chóir go mbeadh sé níos éasca dúinn tuiscint a bheith againn, níos mó ná pobail áirithe eile, céard iad na torthaí ó thaobh daonnachta de nuair a chaitear i dtraipisí an daonnacht agus nuair a ardaítear teagasc fuarchroíoch féinchúiseach, saint, agus iomaíocht gheopholaitiúil.
[We in Ireland should understand, better than many, the bitter residue that persists for generations when human beings and our most basic humanity give way to a callous doctrine of self-interest, greed and geo-political jostling.]
We require today a renewed moral consciousness such as will produce a global movement across borders, of an informed, committed, scientifically aware, generous and kind, employing all the necessary courtesies for disclosure, working towards a civilisation of sufficiency, one which eschews the insatiability of boundless consumption, which rejects war and conflict as inevitable, one that ensures that the needs of all can be met.
The Covid pandemic has surely shown us that there is not only need for a better paradigm of existence, but that it is achievable with a harmonious, sustainable connection of economy, ecology and ethical society, all movements combined make a new force for a better world, one in which the private and public sectors are not pitted against each other, but where the great strengths of both are utilised for the betterment of the citizens and the delivery of universal services.
As to a healing then, as to how the scars of An Gorta Mór and so much else might be healed, and in a lasting way, with painful legacies in time translated, Sineád O’Connor’s remarkable song “Famine” puts it well:
“And if there ever is going to be healing,
There has to be remembering
And then grieving
So that there then can be forgiving.
There has to be knowledge and understanding.”
Go raibh mile maith agaibh uilig.
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