The Famine - A shared tragedy
The Famine - A shared tragedy

By Mary Nelis

One hundred and sixty years after one of the most traumatic events in the history of this island, the Dublin Government are to officially commemorate An Gorta Mor, the Great Hunger, which claimed the lives of an estimated one million Irish people and reduced the population of the country by half.

The announcement by the Community Affairs Minister Eamon O Cuiv, TD, came about after a concerted lobbying campaign by a Dublin taxi driver Michael Blanch.

Minister O Cuiv, the grandson of former Taoiseach and President of Ireland, Eamon de Valera, stated that 'the effects of the Great Famine are still evident today and its legacy has given Irish people an appreciation of issues of food security and a strong commitment to humanitarian aid'.

He could also have added that the famine also changed the face of Gaelic Ireland forever and left a legacy of silence, and political hostility that has not been fully addressed even to the present day.

Real understanding of events around the Great Hunger written in Irish as well as the Irish oral tradition, has been compounded by the decline in the language and the ongoing political hostility towards it Thus generations have been deprived of a rich source of information and as a consequence many myths have taken the place of this understanding for a number of reasons.

One of the common myths that have been around for a long time is that the Great Hunger had little effect on the people of the nine counties of Ulster.

The people making such claims employ a number of arguments none of which stands up to any degree of historical scrutiny but has silenced any meaningful debate on the great hunger, within the Protestant community Another myth is the almost racist claim that the hard working Protestants of Ulster were spared the hunger and disease which was more or less confined to the Catholic community, who didn't work.

Such myths, compounded by the fact that the real history of Ireland is rarely taught in schools, has had an undoubted impact upon peoples ability to put the Great Hunger today, in its proper historical context.

Eamon O Cuiv has been challenged for not informing the Stormont DCAL department and the Minister Edwin Poots of his intentions to officially commemorate the event and indeed it would be amiss of both Ministers to ignore the historical fact that the great hunger, although it fell hardest on the Catholic population profoundly affected Protestants as well.

Any form of commemoration needs to acknowledge that what happened in Ireland during that period 1845-1848 was not a famine, for the starvation of more than a million people took place during a time when Ireland was bursting at the seams with food.

Indeed the untold story of the great hunger hidden behind myths and distortions of the truth, is that the British allowed both communities, Protestant and Catholic to starve while the ports of Derry, Belfast, Larne and Newry continued to export food, that had been often been sold by farmers from both communities in order to pay rent.

The Belfast Newsletter in the spring of 1847 was reporting accounts of destitution from Donegal, Fermanagh, Tyrone and Armagh which rivalled descriptions of scenes in Skibbereen and Mayo where starving and diseased people tramped the land looking for food.

Much has been written of the workhouses and soup kitchens, which became the breeding ground for the spread of diseases such as typhus, dysentery, cholera and smallpox, diseases common among the starving of today's world.

In the midst of the distress of the destitute and the starving of that time, the British parliament passed an act, empowering Magistrates to sentence the starving beggars littering Ireland's roads, to a month in prison.

The prison population rose steeply as the starving welcomed the meagre diet of the prison regime.

When this was discovered the prison authorities moved swiftly to reduce the quantity of the prison food.

Tens of thousands perished in Ulster and in her book, 'when Hunger stalked the North' Doreen Mc Bride quotes from A. Shafto Adair who claimed in 1947 that thousands around Ballymena died without being counted. Ballymena at that time would have been regarded as a prosperous district and today is the political heartland of Ian Paisley.

Paisley, like many Unionist is fixated by the history of the Battle of the Boyne, crossing ancient swords and muskets with Bertie Ahern during the recent opening of the Boyne Museum, yet the thousands of the ancestors of Ballymena's present day inhabitants who perished during the Great Hunger, are not remembered by any of the cultural traditions to which Paisley lends his support.

Most of Ulster's dead from the Protestant tradition lie united in death in pauper's graves or in other sites long forgotten, their wretched lives and deaths cloaked under a veil of silence and political dishonesty.

Many who died from cholera are buried in a mound in Friars Bush Cemetery on the Stranmillis Road in Belfast, ignored by the majority of the Protestant community.

The denial by many in the Protestant community of the historical forces that have shaped this country, 'the famine never happened' is akin to being an amnesiac in you own place.

Not all Protestants however ignored the plight of the starving during the Great Hunger. A careful study of the Protestant owned newspapers of the day, reveals editorials and letters sharply critical of the British Government.

Many Protestants set up relief committees, raised funds and exhausted their own personal wealth to help the suffering poor.

Many Protestant doctors, nurses and clergy lost their lives working with the sick having contracted the diseases they were trying to cure. It was a painful lesson for those with values and beliefs in the British establishment to have those beliefs turned upside down and to acknowledge that the British had no interest in the people of Ireland.

The claim that the great hunger had little effect in Ulster needs to be challenged and Unionists need to be made aware that many of the unpalatable episodes of their history have been quietly abandoned by Unionist historians and myth makers, lest they may ask why their fate was no different in many respects from the native Irish stock who perished in greater numbers but who otherwise shared the horrors experienced by the poor of all denominations.

It is part of the history of today's Nationalists/Republican and Unionist alike for the Great Hunger affected us all, if only in the question of how our ancestors survived it.

The misery of the years of the great hunger took place less than half a century after the Act of Union.

The then richest and most powerful nation in the world had seen fit to preside over the deaths by starvation of over a million Irish citizens while at least another two million were forced to flee mainly to the United States and Canada.

The sight of red coated British soldiers escorting foodstuffs to the ports while people died in their thousands put paid to any belief that Britain never had any intention of assimilating the people of Ireland as equals into the United Kingdom, a situation that has not changed much since then.

The callous indifference displayed towards the suffering Irish poor of all denominations and the racist justifications used to explain away the dead, the evictions and the inhumanity of British statespersons, was proof then and now that the only people who are entitled to order Irish affairs are the people of this island themselves.

Ta ocras an domhain orm, which literally translated means 'The hunger of the world is upon me'. There is a sense that the hunger of the world today is upon us all.

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© 2008 Irish Republican News