Rough Diplomacy

The Irish Potato Famine, prelude to Easter Rising & Troubles.

A controversial look at how the “Great Potato Famine” of Ireland in the 19th century. It was not a famine as there was plenty of food other than potatoes. The British government stood idly by and let millions of Irish die in what is called genocide.

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A blight upon the potatoes of Ireland forever changed the histories of Ireland, England, and the United States of America. The blight that we now know was a water mold (and not a fungus as originally believed), Phytophthora infestans, attacked the cash crop of the Irish Catholic peasant farmer. This was the crop with which the Irish paid their rent to the English and Protestant landlords.

Starving Irish peasants tried to eat the rotten potatoes and fell ill to cholera and typhus and whole villages were struck down. Many landlords evicted the starving tenants who could be found dying on sides of roads with mouths green from eating grass to fill their bellies.

Other families were sent to workhouses where the overcrowding and poor conditions led to more starvation, sickness, and ultimately death. Going to a workhouse was akin to marching to one’s own death.

Ireland, 1913

Some more sympathetic landlords paid the passage for their tenants to emigrate to America, Canada, and Australia. Ship owners took advantage of the situation and wedged hundreds of diseased and desperate Irish into ships that were hardly sea-worthy for the Trans-Atlantic trip. These ships became known as “coffin ships” as more than one-third of the passengers died on the voyage.

Coffin ship conditions

Coffin ship conditions

The Irish that did survive the trip to America, Canada, or Australia on the coffin ships drummed up awareness and more importantly, aid in the form of food.

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But for every one ship sailing into Ireland with food, more were exporting grain-based alcohol, wool and flax, and other necessities such as wheat, oats, barley, butter, eggs, beef, and pork that could have helped feed the Irish people.

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The Irish themselves were accused of bringing the famine on themselves as they were viewed as a lazy, overpopulated race of people – never mind that they were not legally able to fish or hunt under British law. They starved in the midst of plenty because they were not allowed to provide for themselves and their families by any means other than agriculture.

potato famine ireland, kilmainham gaol

I saw the dying, the living, and the dead, lying indiscriminately upon the same floor,” reported James Mahoney, an artist from Cork. But there was one place that, inconceivably, became a source of nourishment. Kilmainham Gaol stands as a sombre reminder of Ireland’s dark and turbulent past.

Ireland, 1913

A Dublin jail and now must-visit museum, it provided some relief to desperate women and children who, on the edge of starvation, would steal loaves of bread in the hopes of imprisonment and, therefore, access to shelter and meagre food rations.The eerie hallways of Kilmainham Gaol. But if life outside was hell, Kilmainham Gaol was a purgatory.

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work house cell

With five to six inmates confined to a cell designed for one, it was squalid and overpopulated. For those who couldn’t be squeezed in, there was nowhere else to sleep but on the dingy floors of the dark corridors.

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At least another million of Ireland’s population emigrated, many to North America, to escape the famine. But for those who braved the seas, the “coffin ships”, as the name suggests, were wretched prisons in themselves.

Thousands perished during the one- to three-month journey across the Atlantic. In the face of disease at every turn, a skin-and-bone population withering away and dead children left on the side of the road by parents too weak to bury them.

Poverty in towns, slum dwellers in Dublin, Ireland circa 1901.

Poverty in towns, slum dwellers in Dublin, Ireland circa 1901.

The Famine, or An Górta Mór, the Great Hunger, took more than one million lives, between those that died of starvation and those that left Ireland for a better life in America or elsewhere .

Those who were left behind in Ireland ,experienced a desperation that led to a massive change in politics and nationalism – it was only a few years later, in 1858 that the Irish Republican Brotherhood was founded.

The British government and the British and Irish Protestant landowners still required the Irish peasants and laborers to pay their rent for the land they could not work due to the blight and the hunger upon them. In a lush island surrounded by water teaming with fish and land that fattened pig and cattle alike, how could one failed crop cause a Famine?

The Wind that Shakes the Barley

Forced Evictions

According to British law, Irish Catholics could not apply for fishing or hunting licenses. Their pigs and cattle were sent to England to feed the British and to export for trade, while the landlords kept the fine cuts for themselves.

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Forced evictions from the British

Ireland was part of the British Empire, the most powerful empire in the world at that time – yet the British government stood by and did nothing to help their subjects overcome this hardship. In our time, an enforced famine such as this would be labeled genocide yet in the 1800s it was merely an unfortunate tragedy.

As defined in the United Nation’s 1948 Genocide Convention and the 1987 Genocide Convention Implementation Act, the legal definition of genocide is any of the acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, including by killing its members; causing them serious bodily or mental harm; deliberately inflicting on a group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; and forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

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A reproduction of the insides of a coffin ship at the Dunbrody Famine Ship

The British policy of mass starvation inflicted on Ireland from 1845 to 1850 constituted “genocide” against the Irish People as legally defined by the United Nations. A quote by John Mitchell (who published The United Irishman) states that “The Almighty indeed sent the potato blight, but the English created the Famine.

Ireland, 1913

Such is the case when discussing the British treatment of Ireland during the potato blight; treatment which was based in the history of Ireland. William Makepiece Thackcray wrote:

“…It is a frightful document against ourselves…one of the most melancholy stories in the whole world of insolence, rapine, brutal, endless slaughter and persecution on the part of the English master…There is no crime ever invented by eastern or western barbarians, no torture or Roman persecution or Spanish Inquisition, no tyranny of Nero or Alva but can be matched in the history of England in Ireland.” (Metress, 2)

Almost two thirds of the 545 youngsters buried in the just one mass grave were under six while in just one workhouse records show the mortality rate for babies under the age of two was four times higher than older children. all the mass graves have still yet to be found.

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The Stone Breaker’s Yard: Kilmainham Gaol: Site of 1916 Executions

A famine did not truly exist. There was no food shortage in Ireland evidenced by the fact that the British landowners continued to have a varied diet and food stuffs were exported. This was not the first failure of the potato crop in the history of Ireland. The starvation (and genocide) occurred as the British carried on their historical exploitation of the Irish people, failed to take appropriate action in the face of the failure of the potato crop, and maintained their racist attitude toward the Irish.

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The Penal Laws, first passed in 1695. were strictly enforced. These laws made it illegal for Catholics (Irish) to own land, and required the transfer of property from Catholics to Protestants; to have access to an education, and eliminated Gaelic as a language while preventing the development of an educated class; to enter professions, forcing the Irish to remain as sharecropping farmers; or to practice their religion. In addition, Catholics (Irish) could not vote, hold an office, purchase land, join the army, or engage in commerce. Simply put, the British turned the Irish into nothing better than slaves, subsisting on their small rented farms.

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The exportation of wheat, oats, barley, and rye did nothing to help the financial status of the poor farmer. The produce was used to pay taxes and rents to the English landlords, who then sold the farm products for great profit. These profits did nothing for the economy of Ireland, but did help the English landlords to prosper. The Irish farmer was forced to remain in poverty, and reliant on one crop, potato, for his subsistence.

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The potato became the dominant crop for the poor of Ireland as it was able to provide the greatest amount of food for the least acreage. Farming required a large family to tend the crops and the population grew as a result of need. Poverty forced the Irish to rely upon the potato and the potato kept the Irish impoverished.

Ireland, 1913

As the economic situation worsened, landlords who had the legal power to do so, evicted their Irish tenant farmers, filling the workhouses with poor, underfed, and diseased human beings who were destined to die.

The workhouse has been described as “the most feared and hated institution ever established in Ireland.”

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The workhouse was an institution which operated in Ireland for a period of some 80 years, from the early 1840s to the early 1920s.  There were 163 workhouses in total.  If people could not support themselves, they could come into the workhouse.  Here they would do some work in return for food. People had to stay and live in the workhouse and so the system was known as indoor relief.

Man, Crumpsall Workhouse, c.1897

Man, Crumpsall Workhouse, c.1897

The whole family had to enter together. This was a way for the landlords to clear the land of tenants who could not pay rent.  Life in the workhouse was meant to be harsh so as not to encourage people to stay. One of the cruellest aspects of the workhouse was that family members were split up into separate quarters. Children aged two or less could stay with their mothers. Sometimes, family members never saw each other again.

A caption under a picture shown in The Pictorial Times, October 10, 1846, best describes the circumstances of the great starvation, and the nature of the genocide:

“Around them is plenty; rickyards, in full contempt, stand under their snug thatch, calculating the chances of advancing prices; or, the thrashed grain safely stored awaits only the opportunity of conveyance to be taken far away to feed strangers…But a strong arm interposes to hold the maddened infuriates away. Property laws supersede those of Nature. Grain is of more value than blood. And if they attempt to take of the fatness of the land that belongs to their lords, death by musketry, is a cheap government measure to provide for the wants of a starving and incensed people.”(Food Riots, 2)

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It is time for the world to stop referring to this disastrous period in Irish history as the Great Famine, and to fully realize, and to acknowledge, the magnitude of the crime that systematically destroyed Irish nationalism, the Irish economy, the Irish culture, and the Irish people.

A crucial moment in Ireland’s history, the Easter Rising of April 24, 1916 was predicated on growing tensions between Irish nationalists and the British government. Since the 1800 Act of Union which merged Ireland with the UK and the later potato famine in 1845-47, pressure had been mounting for Home Rule.

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Manning the barricades during the Easter Rising – “independence was secured by violent struggle,

The Act of Union meant Ireland lost its parliament in Dublin and was governed from Westminster.

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Thousands line Falls Road for main Easter Rising centenary parade in Belfast

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Since its inception Irish nationalists had been staging their opposition to this shift of power. Nationalists lobbied for an arrangement whereby the country remained part of the UK but had some form of self-government.

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It was not until 1914 that a bill to this effect was passed through Westminster, but its implementation was suspended at the outbreak of the First World War.

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Loyalist brands Easter Rising participants as ‘traitors’

With the outbreak of the First World War, the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) began planning the Easter Rising with military support from Germany; an underground group of revolutionaries they believed Home Rule did not yield enough and sought complete independence.

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Hundreds of thousands of people line the streets of Dublin for a military parade to mark the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising.

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The biggest event took place on Easter Sunday when more than a quarter of a million

At first the rebels’ actions were not met with much support from the Irish, but the executed leaders were later heralded as martyrs as public opinion shifted.

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The UK’s 1918 general election saw the republican political party Sinn Fein win the majority of Irish seats. They then refused to sit in Westminster and in January 1919 met in Dublin to convene an Irish Parliament and declare Ireland’s Independence.

Carlow IRA veterans march in Carlow town in 1966.

The rising was also a factor in the establishment of the Irish Free State – now the Republic of Ireland – in 1922, following a treaty agreement in 1921.

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When The Clock Struck in 1916 – Close-Quarter Combat in the Easter Rising

The Irish Republican Army launched an attack against the British government and its troops based in Ireland.

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The Irish government has described the symbolism behind each colour as being that “green represents the older Gaelic tradition while the orange represents the supporters of William of Orange. The white in the centre signifies a hope of a lasting truce between the ‘Orange’ and the ‘Green’.”

The 1921 ceasefire resulted in the two sides signing a treaty establishing the self-governing Irish Free State. Six northern counties in the province of Ulster opted out of the Free State and remained with the UK.A fully independent Republic of Ireland was formally proclaimed on Easter Monday 1949.

The harsh mass arrests and martial law, which stayed in place through the Autumn, fuelled the public’s resentment of the British, growing support for the rebels and Irish independence.

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