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A Journey Around the British Isles … Part 70

The population of Ireland in 2012 was approximately 6.4 million. The population in 1841 was approximately 8.1 million. There is no other country on the planet that can produce similar figures. Something terrible and something avoidable happened here that changed everything about the country. There is no crueller death than starvation other than to starve, and see those you love and care for, starve before your eyes. Terrible famines have punctuated human history but this one reverberates with senseless wrong, cruelty and an overwhelming sadness. At the height of the hunger Ireland was producing enough crops to feed the entire population, granaries were full and kept locked and over £6 million a year was being collected in rents from the impoverished Irish and sent across the water to absentee landlords in England.

Over a million people died in their homes, on the roads and by-ways, in the blighted fields, outside the houses of the wealthy. A further million emigrated. The country had been on the verge of starvation for hundreds of years, had been dreadfully served by a British parliament, had suffered under laws that made catastrophe inevitable and had stayed loyal to its British rulers during that whole period. The famine changed all of that.

The optimist will often look into the darkest cloud and see a silver lining. Only a cynic would do the same about the famine. No matter what the future brought, and it was hardly a future of milk and honey, the price was too dreadful.

British rule over Ireland happened in stages. It began during the reign of Henry II when an army led by a number of Norman Knights overcame the King of Leinster. The invaders were under the leadership of Richard de Clare, otherwise known as Strongbow. A larger scale invasion followed and for 800 years the country strained under an English yoke. Some historians seek to diminish the English culpability in the troubles of Ireland. I find this hard to swallow. Being guilty of appalling acts that led to centuries of suffering is bad enough. To adopt a revisionist view of history; to say it was never our intention; to wash our hands makes me feel deeply ashamed  in the same way that I am deeply ashamed to be part of a country whose wealth was in significant part, built on the slave trade. Ashamed of these parts of our history, not ashamed of the entire history. We’ve done a lot of good in our time.

And it was the same classes of people who did it. The wealthy merchant classes and the aristocracy. Those we are still told to look up to. Those who, once again we have made our leaders even though, once again, they have brought enormous pain and suffering down upon the ordinary people. Be they eighteenth century plantation owners and shipping magnates, nineteenth century absentee landlords or twenty first century capitalist bankers, the crimes are real and they remain largely free from punishment whilst the pain is taken by the poor and the weak. Centuries of poverty and exploitation had left the Irish tenant farmers and their families weaker than anyone else in the entire continent. A royal commission in the 1840s set out its view that the “patient endurance which the labouring classes have exhibited under sufferings greater, we believe, than the people of any other country in Europe have to sustain.” Historian Robert Kee puts forward the painful opinion that if the famine had hit anywhere else in Europe, the death toll would have been much greater. That the Irish endured it better simply because they were used to coping with the unendurable.

The cause is put down to blight in the potato crop, and this may well be true. Farms and small holdings had been so sub-divided, by exploitative landlords, as to make potatoes the only crop that could sustain a family. The failure of the crop wasn’t the cause but the inevitable effect of years of failure to look after the population, of mis-rule, mismanagement and a total lack, in modern legal terminology, of the duty of care the British government and landowners owed to the people of Ireland. To highlight this point, a fact. During the height of the famine between thirty and fifty ships sailed from Irish ports every day with their holds full of food.

Some historians see the famine as an unfortunate failure in agriculture. Others view it as genocide.

For those who survived, the situation was just about as bad as can be imagined. I still find myself feeling sad about the death of my father. He died peacefully in his sleep at the age of 89 after a full and successful life. The famine survivors had seen their loved ones die the most painful deaths before their eyes, had endured unbelievable suffering and now had nowhere to turn. For decades the solution had been emigration. The famine accelerated this process. There are fewer than 7 million souls living on the island today. There are over 100 million Irish living elsewhere. Of every one hundred people born in Ireland in the second half of the nineteenth century, forty permanently left their native land.

Ulster and Leinster were less badly hit. Though relative comparisons of suffering are meaningless here. It would be more fitting to say that the greater horrors were to be found in Connacht and Munster. The further west or the further south the worse the hunger.

I’d stood on the hard in Sligo next to a haunting statue of a famine family. Throughout my journey I had never been far from a famine story, a village that had been destroyed and field where someone died. At New Ross there are two monuments, and I’m not at all sure how I feel about either.

Against the quayside fully rigged, The Dunbrody looks almost ready to sail. Built in the twentieth century with money from the JFK Foundation, it is a replica of the ships used in the mass emigration and a museum to the times. These ships weren’t the end of the story. Finding the money to get on board was not the end of your troubles. Twenty per cent of passengers died on the six week trans Atlantic voyages to a new life. 20% went unquestioned. Questions were only asked if the figure went over fifty per cent. Conditions were dreadful. Some of these ships had been used as slave vessels. Survival rates were often higher on slave crossings where profits were dependent on the number of living souls arriving in port.

Further down the quay is a statue of John Fitzgerald Kennedy along with many photographs as he stood on the quayside in New Ross in June 1963. Kennedy was one of the 100 million. He may have stood for something that America gained through the famine ships that took his family from County Wexford to New England. Many countries gained immeasurably from an influx of the Irish. Their gain was Ireland’s loss. As I stand by the River Barrow in New Ross I feel most dreadfully sad.