Ethnic cleansing in Ireland?

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?


4 Responses

  1. History often depends on who wrote it and how it is used. One evening my Hungarian lady asked me and well Irish singer based in Budapest about Ireland. She could understand the laughter from both of us and the common reply of don’t go there! We can start with St Patrick that well known Brit who took Christianity to Ireland. Or James II who recruited support in Ireland to get his English throne back, and instead ended up losing to a protestant Dutch guy who rewarded his supporters with large chunks of Ireland. Or Oliver Cromwell who banned football, Christmas and all the good things in life. Where does it end. I just give thanks to my favourite uncle, Guinness, the most difficult book to read in the English language, some of the best English literature that has ever been written, Northern Ireland proving to world that terrorism does not work, and Mary Murphy who can rattle my cage and provide some great prose at the same time.

    1. I was in Vörösmarty tér one evening during one of the festival markets, Tim, and sat beside a woman from North America. I asked her what part of the States she came from. She said, with arched eyebrow. ‘I’m Canadian…What part of Britain are you from?’ Not quite sure what brought that to mind – maybe your talk of rattling cages 🙂

      Mary Murphy

      1. My lady Z, to well known Scottish Bar Manager with Irish name on their first meeting.

        Z – “Are you American?”
        P – That well known look of utter disbelief at the idea.
        Z – Trying to rescue the situation “English then?”
        P – You can just imagine the facial expression of total abhorrence at the suggestion from this lovely mild mannered guy
        T – Howls of laughter from yours truly
        He has forgiven her now. 🙂

        Only those from those islands could understand how much history there is between us. It could have been worse. She could have asked a scouser if he was from Manchester 😀
        It is good job we now fight our battles in teams of 15 on the rugby pitch and share a drink together.

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