Driving down to Wexford some time ago, I came across this memorial stone on the outskirts of The Rower, a small village in Co. Kilkenny. I stopped to read the inscription and remember being quite taken aback at how direct it was.
A memorial for the three million native gaelic poor who through death by starvation and despairing emigration under the racist foreigners mis-rule, were ethnically cleansed from this their homeland, in that famine decade.
Heady words indeed. Is there a case for the famine being a form of ethnic cleansing? The official United Nations definition of ethnic cleansing is ‘rendering an area ethnically homogeneous by using force or intimidation to remove from a given area persons of another ethnic or religious group.’
According to singer Sínead O’Connor in her song Famine there was no famine – there was plenty of food; what was missing was the access to it. It was only the potato crop that failed in Ireland. Wheat, oats, beef, mutton, pork, and poultry were all in excellent supply. Irish folk memory is long and stories are still told about ships leaving Irish ports loaded with food for the UK and Europe when native Irish were eating grass to survive. Would that amount to force?
Author C.W.Smith, an Englishwoman, wondered at the behaviour of her compatriots during the famine years: It is not characteristic of the English to behave as they behaved in Ireland. As a nation, the English have proved themselves of generosity, tolerance, and magnanimity, but not when Ireland is concerned. The moment the very name of Ireland is mentioned, the English seem to bid adieu to common feeling, common prudence, and common sense, and to act with the barbarity of tyrants and the fatuity of idiots. But were they racist?
Isn’t history a wonderful thing? Or is it, as Napoleon put it, ‘a set of lies agreed upon’? I had a piece sub-edited recently to better reflect the editor’s view of history than my own – i.e. my certainty was traded for his skepticism. I wonder how much our views on history shape our understanding of what’s going on in the world today – and what happens when those long-held beliefs are rubbished? Does our essence change as we recalibrate all we hold real?