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Sunday 4 October 2015


It's time to get over the fact that the Great Famine was not genocide

When in comes to our past, we should ignore nationalist myths and follow the evidence

Starving peasants at a workhouse gate during the Irish famine

We're still bedevilled by myths that distort our island story. And because of the vicious propaganda of people like the Young Irelander John Mitchel, we have a particularly skewed view of the Great Famine. "The Almighty indeed sent the potato blight," he wrote, "but ... a million and half men, women and children were carefully, prudently and peacefully slain by the English government."

We've never lacked people eager to support that narrative. Hands up anyone who heard that Queen Victoria gave just £5 to aid victims? Or that only Catholics died of hunger or disease? Or that the Famine was genocide?

My guess is that few people now believe the first allegation, since there is clear proof that the queen gave £2,000, which in today's money is somewhere between £150,000 and £2m.

Many more believe the second, but they are gradually being educated out of it. The National Famine Commemoration Committee this year held its annual international conference in Northern Ireland, and no one paying attention could have been left in doubt that there was famine in Ulster, too, and that it was your social status, not your religion or ethnicity, that determined your fate in Ireland in the second half of the 1840s.

I spoke at the last session of the conference, where we addressed the third issue, with Tim Pat Coogan making a vigorous case for the prosecution.

A third of those present put up their hands when asked if they thought the Famine was genocide.
Those of us who disagreed, Coogan told us, were "holocaust deniers". And historians who suggest otherwise suffer from "colonial cringe" brought on by their indoctrination in English universities.

He includes my father. Well, it is true that after five years in University College Dublin he won a travelling studentship to King's College London, where after a couple of years he was awarded a doctorate and went home to Dublin to teach Irish history for the rest of his life. Apparently, though, he was infected by then, as would be generations of Irish, those who studied history as post-graduates at British universities.

Professor Liam Kennedy of Queen's, the distinguished economic historian, is among the damned. He has written a vast amount on the Famine, but Coogan is not taken in by it. Did he not spend time at the University of York? He and Coogan had a not-to-be-missed radio punch-up on the subject some time ago (you can still find it on YouTube).

Coogan pointed out Kennedy's colonial cringing and Kennedy accused him of peddling 'junk' (or 'hamburger', as Coogan misremembered in Newry) history to Irish America.

I was Kennedy's second at the conference because James Wilson, the editor of The Economist magazine, of which I wrote the history, was the cheerleader for the abolition of the Corn Laws, which along with the potato blight he blamed for the Famine. He was also, though, a doctrinaire proponent of laissez-faire economics and minimal state interference.

Like most ideologues, Wilson, a Quaker, thought his beliefs would make the world a better place: he certainly cared desperately about the condition of the Irish poor. He read and analysed everything available on the causes and impact of repeated crop failures and wrote tens of thousands of words excoriating landlords and governments. But in his belief that interfering with the market would make everything worse he was as wrong - as even idealistic fanatics always are.

In the zinger of a book Liam Kennedy is publishing next month (Unhappy the Land: the Most Oppressed People Ever, the Irish?), his essay comparing the Famine to the Jewish Holocaust points out - as he did in Newry - that five years of blight made this the longest-running famine in modern European history.

In support of his thesis, Coogan had quoted from the 1948 UN Convention on Genocide, where the term is defined as killing, causing serious bodily or mental harm, and so on "in whole or in part, to a national, ethnical, racial or religious group". Kennedy pointed out that he had omitted the qualification that to be genocide, it had to be intentional.

So here's the simple truth. The British government handled the catastrophe incompetently, and for doctrinaire but not ill-intentioned reasons changed policy to non-interference after two years, but there was no deliberate cruelty and no intention to kill anyone.

In these days of sophisticated infrastructure and brilliant communications, western democracies still fail to save hungry or endangered people in many parts of the world, but that is not because we want them dead. It's because we are incapable of dealing with most catastrophes.

We're a grown-up country now. As Professor Kennedy shows in his book, we had many problems along the way, but we definitely have no claim to have been the most oppressed people ever.

What caused the Famine was the potato blight, not the English government. Get over it.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards