“For you stole Trevelyan’s corn
So your young might see the morn,
Now a prison ship lies waiting in the bay”
Today Sunday 10th May is National Famine Memorial Day. Pause for one minute on Commemoration Day, May 10, and spare a thought or a prayer for not just those poor souls lost at home but also those spread out across the globe.
After only a mere 160 or so years on the Irish government finally commemorates that half of the country died of hunger or were forced to leave their homeland due to a deliberate policy of forced starvation.
They’ve decided to call this commemoration of the dead a ‘Famine’ memorial day. The commemoration is long overdue.
But it’s not a famine we should be commemorating. Because there was no famine. A famine is when there is not sufficient food to feed the population. What happened in Ireland in the 1840s was attempted genocide.
Let’s look at the evidence, and I don’t mean the mounds of dead, some containing the remains of over 10,000 people, that dot our landscape. Nor do I mean the ghost towns of the West of Ireland. I mean the documentary evidence of genocide.
What is a genocide? In common terms, it is the attempt to murder an entire race of people. But the United Nations has a legal definition. In fact, it has an entire convention on genocide. The relevant part is section 2, which defines acts of genocide.
As a single reading of 2c reveals, what happened in Ireland in the 1840s was a genocide. This has been confirmed by international legal expert F.A. Boyle, Professor of Law at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who wrote:
“Clearly, during the years 1845 to 1850, the British government pursued a policy of mass starvation in Ireland with intent to destroy in substantial part the national, ethnic and racial group commonly known as the Irish People…. Therefore, during the years 1845 to 1850 the British government knowingly pursued a policy of mass starvation in Ireland that constituted acts of genocide against the Irish people within the meaning of Article II (c) of the 1948 [Hague] Genocide Convention”
But some people object to the suggestion that there was intent on the part of the British government of the time. They suggest that the famine was an act of God, of nature, a tragic accident caused by a fungus on a tuber which had nothing to do with any human action or intent. To demonstrate the intent of the British colonial administration of the time, it is important to look at their own stated documents on the matter.
Firstly, let’s consider what Robert Murray, writing in his 1847 book ‘Ireland, Its Present Condition and Future Prospects’ had to say about the alleged famine:
“The surplus population of Ireland have been trained precisely for those pursuits (unskilled labor or agricultural) which the unoccupied regions of North American require for their colonization. That surplus is an overwhelming incubus (demon) at home, whether to themselves or others.Remove them and you benefit them in a degree that cannot be estimated. Precisely as you do so, you raise the social condition of those who remain.”
In other words, a policy of clearing Ireland of its ‘surplus’ of people and driving many of them to America would be of benefit to the American economy and to the easier administration of Ireland by Britain! Bear in mind this was written at the height of the horror – Black 47. This isn’t some sort of ‘Modest Proposal’ type of joke. This is a genuine policy proposal.
But perhaps Murray did not represent mainstream British opinion? Let’s consider instead the London Times, which crowed:
“They are going. They are going with a vengeance. Soon a Celt will be as rare in Ireland as a Red Indian on the streets of Manhattan…Law has ridden through, it has been taught with bayonets, and interpreted with ruin. Townships levelled to the ground, straggling columns of exiles, workhouses multiplied, and still crowded, express the determination of the Legislature to rescue Ireland from its slovenly old barbarism, and to plant there the institutions of this more civilized land”
In other words, the newspaper of record in England records with glee the imminent demise of the Irish as a nation in the hope that its land can be cleared for plantation by Britons. But again, perhaps it is unfair to attribute these mainstream British opinions to the government itself? Let’s look at what they had to say.
On April 26th, 1849, one hundred years before the Genocide Convention was signed, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, the Earl of Clarendon, wrote to the then British Prime Minister, John Russell, expressing his feelings about the lack of aid from Parliament:
“I do not think there is another legislature in Europe that would disregard such suffering as now exists in the west of Ireland, or coldly persist in a policy of extermination.”
Bear in mind, this is the voice of Britain in Ireland speaking. And he is speaking of a policy of extermination of the Irish people. I call that genocide. But perhaps I’m wrong. So let’s look around for other views. According to holocaust historian and expert Richard L. Rubenstein in his book ‘Age of Triage: Fear and Hope in an Overcrowded World’:
“A government is as responsible for a genocidal policy when its officials accept mass death as a necessary cost of implementing their policies, as when they pursue genocide as an end in itself.”
Rubenstein is the man who invented the term ‘genocide’, so I think we can defer to his definition of the word. So it seems absolutely indisputable: under the terms of the UN convention on genocide, Britain was guilty of conducting genocide on the Irish people during the period variously and incorrectly referred to today as the great famine or An Gorta Mor.
Now, we are not interested in a Brit-bashing exercise. I can’t imagine that the British of today would in anyway feel guilty (and nor should they) for something committed by an ruling elite that ran both their country and ours a century and a half ago. Britain is historically responsible for a number of attempted genocides, at least one of which was committed on their own soil (the Highland clearances).
Indeed, the ‘Great Hunger’ was not the only attempt at genocide on the Irish people. Cromwell’s exploits two centuries earlier spring to mind. I can’t imagine that it would ruin relations with Britain or indeed the British people if we were simply to pay proper tribute to our own dead.
In fact, I think many British people might find it illuminating to know what really happened. Certainly, given how the ‘famine’ is taught in schools, I believe it would be illuminating for a lot of Irish people too. I accept the British apology for what Tony Blair’s word is worth. Which is little, in fairness, but I accept it anyway. But that’s not the point.
The point is that our own government fails to acknowledge that it was a holocaust, not a famine caused by a lack of available food. The Irish holocaust had little in common with famine or hunger. Should the focus of Jewish holocaust commemorations be on preventing gas poisoning? What would any self-respecting Jewish person say if people expected them to euphemise away the horror their people suffered, or suggested that they get over it and grow up as a people? The Rwandans and Armenians would not accept anyone else trying to diminish the attempted genocides that happened to their peoples. So why do we accept it?
The commemoration has nothing to do with the British of today. It’s to do with our own acknowledgment of our own history in a accurate and correct way.
When we can do that, then we can really move on as a nation.
Further Recommended Reading:
but the most extensive resource on Facebook about this period is to be found at