By Frieda Klotz (for the Irish Echo)
Overcrowded workhouses, soup kitchens that closed when they were needed most, a neglectful British administration and a population decimated by illness and starvation.
More than 150 years after the Irish famine, the Great Hunger of 1845-52 remains one of the most far reaching and tragic events in Ireland’s history. The Famine drastically shrank the country’s population, initiated a trend in emigration that remains in place today, and had lasting cultural and social effects.
It raises questions that are still unanswered, and last weekend, historians, students, and members of the public gathered at Fordham University to discuss them.
The impassioned dialogue that ensued showed how controversial the tragedy remains.
The aim of the two-day Irish Famine Tribunal, at Fordham University Law School, was to explore issues of culpability. On Saturday, two opposing teams of law students, from Dublin City University and Fordham Law School, argued over Britain’s role. Did the famine constitute genocide, in modern terms? Were British actions tantamount to crimes against humanity?
Three eminent legal experts adjudicated the presentations, John G. Ingram, acting justice of Kings County Supreme Court, William Schabas, professor of International Law at Middlesex University, and Adrian Hardiman, a judge of the Irish Supreme Court.
On Sunday, three historians, Tim Pat Coogan, John Kelly and Ruan O’Donnell, discussed their research on the subject.
Over the course of the two-day event, those present shared a wealth of data and knowledge, and the conversation that ensued was lively. History and historians were as much under scrutiny as anyone else.
“Quite simply, we plan to explore, through the adversarial process, culpability for the Irish Famine,” said moderator James Cullen in his introduction.
“Today’s contest will not be burdened by preconditions, political views or academic censorship.”
Tim Pat Coogan, who published a book on the famine last year called “The Famine Plot: England’s Role in Ireland’s Tragedy,” suggested that subsequent descriptions have filtered out the trauma that it caused.
An ideological hesitance exists around talking about the famine, he argued, and revisionist historians have moved away from questions of blame, a process he described as a “sanitation of Irish history.”
By presenting it in economic terms, revisionists forget that they are talking about death - “death in its most hideous manifestations, its cruelest form.”
Coogan painted a persuasive picture of just how impoverished Irish people were at that time. Many lived in miserable conditions, inhabiting mud huts that had one door and smoke emerging from a hole in the roof. A large proportion of the population relied almost wholly on the potato for sustenance.
Several of the politicians sitting in the British cabinet were Irish landlords, he said.
“There is no doubt that people knew that Ireland was a disaster waiting to happen.”
The famine decreased the number of people living on the land, and fitted with a desire among British politicians to bring down the number of small- holdings in Ireland, Coogan explained. Emigration also played a part in Britain’s policies for reducing congestion. He said the psychological effects of colonialism are still apparent in Irish people today.
Whether the UN’s definition of genocide could retrospectively apply to Britain gave rise to a specific legal debate. The UN describes genocide as an act “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”
For Coogan, the answer was certain: “What happened, I would submit, is accurately and pithily described in one word, genocide.”
John Kelly, an independent scholar and author of “The Graves Are Walking,” emphatically disagreed: while Britain’s actions were terrible and neglectful they
did not embody genocide. Judged by the UN standard, “the case against Britain becomes less compelling judged by UN standards,” he said.
One thing that was clear from the tribunal was how emotive and wide-ranging the Irish Famine’s history is. Several speakers noted the difficulty that seems to exist for Irish people about addressing the country’s past. Many felt that silence had reigned too long over this issue.
Mary Pat Kelly, a writer whose family came to Chicago during the famine, explored the subject through fiction in her book “Galway Bay.” She is now writing a screenplay for a mini-series based on her book with Naomi Sheridan.
The Famine holds a key place in the history of the Irish-American diaspora, and Kelly thought a dimension not addressed at the tribunal was the dogged strength of
the Irish who survived and came to the U.S. It is important not to end the story with emigration and death, she said, but also to celebrate those who possessed “the will and intelligence and determination to survive, and to basically build this country.”
Like many of those who attended the tribunal, Kelly felt that the event had sparked a vital conversation.
“I do think there is validity in looking at the past through a different lens,” she said.
“I think the most important thing is that it’s being talked about.”
A verdict arising from the tribunal will be delivered later in the year.