8. May, 2020

A Most Distressful Country

“A Most Distressful Country”

 A Conversation with my detractors on "An Gorta Mor"

I am sixty-seven years old, Irish born and bred and still live in my native home, although it is still the occupied six counties of Northern Ireland. Not Ulster and not North Ireland, but a country established by trickery and deception, when ‘Home Rule’ was still being promised almost ten years after it had bee granted, just before the outbreak of WWI. For many of my sixty-seven years I have studied Irish History and, especially, that period widely known as “The Great Irish Potato Famine.” Don’t just stop reading here and begin to criticise, do so at the end if you feel it is necessary. But the ‘The Great Famine’ has been known by other names, such as “The Great Hunger”, “An Gorta Mor”, etc. Now, in recent times people have begun to call it a “Genocide”, “Holocaust”, “Ethnic Cleansing” and certain readers of my articles on this period of Irish History have constantly attempted to brow beat me in to calling it one of these new-fangled descriptions.

Sadly, I have heard comments like the following – “Therewas no famine in ireland but a well planned genocide by the british. sure there was a potato blight but irish people didn't eat only potatoes. all the rest of the food in ireland was removed by british solidiers at gun point and taken by boat the england. this was a constant procedure by the brits as they also starved indian people to death and also millions died” – AF Sometimes I have to wonder where people read their history and I hope, somehow, to be able to correct the writer. However, I might just be farting in the wind for all the attention it will receive. Nevertheless, first and foremost, potatoes were the staple food of all Irish peasantry in the middle of the nineteenth century. Occasionally the potatoes would have some nettles chopped and mixed in them to make champ, or maybe wild celery, or other wild edible plants. Sometimes they might take a chance with their lives and poach a rabbit, or a hare, or a pheasant, or a fish. By doing so, they may have been caught and would have had to face jail, transportation to a penal colony like Australia, or even been shot dead or hung. Everything on a landlord’s land belonged to him and the law was written by and administered by the men who owned lands in Ireland.

The Irish Peasant found work of one kind or another on the lands of the landlords or their tenants. Instead of wages for their labour they were given a valueless piece of ground on which to build a small, one door cabin alongside a piece of rough ground or bog in which to grow potatoes. Some lucky peasants gained an opportunity to be tenants and grow crops, but these were ‘cash crops’ for rent and seeds and anything else but eating. Sometimes they would have a pig, which they would fatten and sell in the market to assist with rent and give them a small cash amount. They would have been fortunate one, but should they improve the property in any way it made it more valuable to a landlord and he would raise the rent. If you couldn’t pay the rent you would be evicted with your family and whatever you could carry, to wander the roads and find shelter where you could. If someone offered the landlord more rent for your tenancy, you would be evicted and the property handed to the new tenant, and you had no recourse to the law.

Another sample comment was - Every time posts like this come up, there is so much hate and divisiveness. I'm glad when I went to school in Ireland we were given the facts and not biased inaccurate information that bred hate.
The thing that has always stuck in my mind was that yes, the British government could've done a lot more to help, but this was over a hundred years ago, and the UK governments failed the British poor people, that's why writers such as Dickens started to really push for social change.
Also, globally we give billions to Africa each year yet they're still suffering with poverty, starvation and poor health. How much harder a task would it have been back then?
Incidentally, as well as getting it very wrong in a lot of ways, the UK government imported tons of corn to Ireland from the States, funded soup kitchens, provided employment on road building projects and spent 8million on relief, and private funds were also raised. Not an inconsiderable amount of money.
Let's go forward now rather than being hateful and irrational about the past. The truth is the two countries have more that unites us than divides us these days. Loads of us work in the UK, have married each other and are enjoying peace with our families. That's the future.
-DZ (No words in this comment were changed or redacted. It is as written)

Where in Ireland this person was taught Irish History, I would love to know, for I was also taught in Ireland and never given biased, inaccurate, information that bred hate. I have no sense of hatred against anyone of any race, colour, or creed, or gender. But I hold a deep sense of anger at the treatment doled out by successive British Governments in Ireland from Tudor times until the modern day. The writer talks about the Billions given to assist the poor and starving in the ‘Third World’ and I will agree that this is the case. But ask the people of India, Pakistan, South Africa and other nations that once formed the British Empire what it cost them. Taxation, Tariffs on export Goods, Cash Crops, Landlord power, etc. There is also mention of tons of corn being imported by the UK government, which did not happen. Sir Robert Peel and English PM wanted the Corn Laws repealed and was voted out of office and from his own pocket imported a shipload of corn (Maize) from the USA and the Cherokee Indians also sent much needed food aid in the shape of Corn. The UK government taxed these imports under Corn Law regulations, stored the corn in big warehouses, and severely restricted their dispersal among the needy. What corn was sent by the UK government was minimal and was not given away but sold. Soup Kitchens were not government funded, but supplied by various churches such as The Quakers, The Methodists, Church of Ireland, and etc. Soup kitchens were funded by these groups from their own funds and was usually a ‘stirabout’ of cornmeal boiled in water. In many cases the cost was for the Peasantry to disavow their Catholic Religion and become a member of the providing Church. Unlike DZ, modern Anglo-Irish relations have more that divide them than unite them, but maybe the person has been so long away from her roots that she has lost contact with the reality in her home country.

Focusing on the blight is like discussing the temperature of the ovens the nazis used to burn the jews instead of the dead.” JAC (No words in this comment were changed or redacted. It is as written) I had some misgivings about including this, but I decided to include it to show the bias of some commentators, to like a natural famine to a man-made holocaust in which an estimated 9 million Jews were murdered in cold blood by a fascist government at the whim of a right-wing dictator. But to say that focusing on the potato blight is irrelevant is like saying Black Rats had nothing to do with the ‘Black Death’. It was the blight that destroyed the potato crop in Ireland, the staple food of the peasantry which led, in turn to starvation, disease, and death.

Yes, there was food in the country and enough to feed the entire population, but the growers were not about to give it away. They wanted the best market price for their produce and that market was in England or exported outside the country. Certain foodstuffs did compete with England’s home-grown products and were taxed out of competition, but things that were needed were not so heavily taxed and it was these that Landlords in Ireland produced and sent to the marketplace. The Irish peasant made up the majority of the Irish population at this time and they had neither the money to pay for this food, or the wherewithal to trade for it. All they had was the potato and whatever grew naturally and when the Famine began to bite this included grass. There was no ‘Welfare State’ in those far off days. If you couldn’t pay, you didn’t get. There were things called ‘Poor Laws’ established to help the needy but the financing of these was down to the landlords in the district and the amount they paid depended upon the tenants they had. Many Landlords disapproved and to reduce their payments to the lowest possible level they simply evicted tenant families on to the roads of Ireland. Where workhouses did exist, they were not built to take in the numbers of starving people that flooded the roads and remote places of Ireland/ Those people they were able to take in had to work hard for what they were given, which was usually stirabout and watery soup. Disease was rife and constantly helped to ensure the people who occupied these places did not do so for long periods of time

There were also Public Work projects that built walls and roads in different parts of the country, many of which still exist and still go nowhere in particular. The workers were paid for their labour on these works, financed by landlords on the number of tenants they had on their land. The money paid was, theoretically, to pay for food supplies but greedy suppliers forced prices so high because of demand that they could not afford any. You cannot eat coins and anything that they could buy did not last long. The only constant was hunger, disease and death. There was nothing to prevent Cholera, dysentery, tuberculosis, diphtheria, influenza and many other deadly diseases.

This undoubtedly was a famine and a “Great Hunger”, but it was unnecessary. As we have said, there was plenty of food available, but the owners sent this to England for better prices and under military escort to prevent raids by starving peasants en-route. Many landlords turned to raising cattle rather than foodstuffs, because the profits were larger and the amount of monetary value per acre grew to great levels. Tenants were ousted to make way for more and more cattle and the life of the peasants became worse. Their only salvation was emigration and those who could afford it went, and some landlords wanting to reduce their tenantry would pay their passage to be rid of them.

People will say that this was a policy of ‘Genocide’ by the British Government, but the ‘Great Famine’ was simply a ‘Great Hunger’ caused by potato blight and worsened by a policy of neglect by landlords and state. However, in saying this, I would argue that it was just one more stage in Britain’s efforts to cleanse Ireland of its Catholic population. It began with the ‘Tudor Plantation’ under Elizabeth I when lands stolen from Catholic Irish Lords and their tenants were stolen by the Crown and sold off to the highest Protestant bidders from Lowland Scotland and South-West England. This was then followed by an even greater programme of ‘Plantation’ in Ulster under James I. But the first major cleansing pogrom was led by Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan Army murdering and deporting as slaves almost sixty percent of Ireland’s Catholic population, from which it is still recovering. There were also the Anti-Catholic Penal Laws established under William III after the Boyne and Limerick victories. So, I do not call the ‘An Gorta Mor’ a genocide, but it was one more step in a Genocidal programme established and financed by the British Governments over the centuries even unto Modern Times. Robert Kee, Write, historian and TV Presenter once called Ireland, “A Most Distressful” country. Ask yourself “Why?” and then check the history books. Don’t listen to what others tell you, for they might have their own agenda and would lead you by the nose like a lamb to the slaughter. Don’t simply believe what I have said but find out for yourselves! Go discover the truth and from more than two or three sources that might just support theories that you may have.

This was not meant as a rant, but a means by which I can let people know what I have learned and what I make of it. Now do it yourself.

Thanks for Reading

Jim Woods