I recently saw a photo of my grandfather, Denis McSweeney, the man on the far left of the photo, who had died before I was born. Seeing the photo of this group of people in west Cork in the late 19th or early 20th Century set me reflecting on a number of issues arising.
The picture would have been taken some decades after the Great Famine of the 1840s, in which approximately one million Irish people died, and another million or more emigrated, reducing the national population by about a quarter.
The cataclysmic event had an enormous effect on the Irish psyche, which in many ways continues to this day. The actions of the British Government at the time in allowing crops to be exported while people starved, and the general laissez faire approach to relief, led to intense resentment which fuelled the nationalist cause.
A forced reliance on the potato crop
The impact of the famine was most acute in areas of the west and south, where there was a heavy reliance on the potato crop (hence why it is sometimes called the Potato Famine). The emergence of a potato blight, which spread across Europe at the time, had a particularly severe impact in Ireland, as so many of the tenant farmers relied on the crop.
The 18th Century Penal Laws had forced a subdivision of holdings, so by the 1840s most holdings were uneconomic in nature, and potatoes were the only crop farmers and their families could live on. Already by 1800, about one-third of the population relied on potatoes, which could be grown quickly in a small plot of land. It has to be remembered that most Irish farmers in those days were tenants, often dealing with absentee landlords in England but at the mercy of middlemen, who were not renowned for being merciful.
Essential food exported and tenants evicted
Prime minister Robert Peel’s efforts to repeal the Corn Laws aroused intense opposition within Parliament and helped lead to his downfall in 1846. The Tories were replaced by a Whig administration, led by Lord John Russell, which had a strongly laissez-faire mentality. It allowed the export of food and halted relief works.
Charles Trevelyan, who was in charge of relief, was a particularly harsh exponent of this policy. In 1847, the worst year of the famine (known as Black ‘47), Westminster introduced poor law schemes, which were meant to make landlords pay, but resulted in many evictions as the landlords passed the cost to tenants.
Irish migrants flee to North West England
The North West of England, because of its proximity to Ireland, received particularly large numbers of impoverished migrants fleeing the Famine. In the case of Manchester, by 1851, 15% of the city’s population was Irish born. Just as in other parts of England and Scotland, they didn’t always receive a warm welcome.
In 1836, the Tory MP Benjamin Disraeli, later prime minister, stated “[They] hate our order, our civilisation, our enterprising industry, our pure religion. This wild, reckless, indolent, uncertain and superstitious race has no sympathy with the English character… Their history describes an unbroken circle of bigotry and blood.”
Tensions rose in Manchester in the decades after the Famine, a particularly tragic case being the 1869 murder of nine-year-old Ellen Higgins, after she refused to say if she was Catholic or Protestant. Four boys were brought to the police station over the attack but the jury found them innocent, despite one boy admitting he had hit Ellen about the head.
Terrible conditions in Manchester’s ‘Little Ireland’
No surprise, then, that Irish ghettoes began to emerge in the area off Oxford Road. Manchester’s ‘Little Ireland’ was renowned for its poverty and slum conditions, as described on the website “If those walls could talk”.
Friedrich Engels, writing in his “The Conditions of the Working Class in England” (1845), speaks of small cottages that were old and dirty, surrounded by “masses of refuse, offal and sickening filth” that further poisoned an atmosphere “darkened by the smoke of a dozen tall chimneys”. He suggested that the people living here “must really have reached the lowest stage of humanity.”
British politician James Kay-Shuttleworth had visited the already emerging ‘Little Ireland’ long before the Famine, in 1832 after a cholera outbreak. He wrote: “The district has been frequently the haunt of hordes of thieves and desperadoes who defied the law, and is always inhabited by a class resembling savages in their appetites and habits.” Kay-Shuttleworth also noted, with much disgust, that whole families slept in the same room together, in some cases with a pig or other animal as well.
An even greater impact on Liverpool
In Liverpool, the impact was even greater. The 1851 census showed 22.29% of its people were Irish-born. As the nearest port to Dublin, the great city on the Mersey was a natural destination point. For some, Liverpool was a point of transit on the way to the United States or Canada, but for many others, it was to become home.
Now often called the ‘second capital of Ireland’, the memory of the Famine is deeply embedded in the folk memory of Scousers, so many of whom trace at least part of their ancestry to the Emerald Isle. And, as the Liverpool Echo tells us, in Birkenhead, just across the river in what is now Wirral, the Irish representation was even higher. In fact, some 15,000 Famine Irish were deported back, as city authorities were unable to cope.
But the big cities were not the only places affected. As this article points out, Ulverston had its share of migrants. Also reported is the case of a man in Kendal repeatedly breaking windows in order to secure a place in prison, where he would be fed.
Yet, it must also be remembered that many in what was then a small city went out of their way to help the starving and often disease-ridden Irish, sometimes at the cost of their own lives.
English priests and others who died helping Irish migrants
I think, in particular, of the Catholic priests, all of them English, who died from typhus while ministering to the new arrivals. A Unitarian minister, ten doctors, several nurses, police officers and poor law officials also died from the fever, all of them English.
Ironically, the first parish priest at St Patrick’s Church, in Liverpool’s Toxteth, where the priests are buried, was Father Francis Murphy, who later became the first Catholic bishop of the Australian city of Adelaide. My uncle, James McSweeney, became a priest in that diocese, serving for many years as PP of Gawler, on the outskirts of the South Australian capital.
Father Murphy is remembered in this article, which also outlines how the bones of many of those who fled the Famine, and those who later died of typhus, are buried beneath the church. The work of priests like Father James Nugent, remembered today in Liverpool’s Nugent Care, is another reminder of the English who went out of their way to help the Irish refugees.
The kindness of strangers
There is much debate as to whether the Famine counts as genocide, with AJP Taylor declaring “all Ireland was a Belsen”. But, while the Famine reflected indifference and laissez-faire on the part of the British government, few historians see it this way.
In my own case, when I reflect on the story of my grandfather, whose own parents would have survived the Famine, I see things in a different way from those who simply see it as a narrative of Irish suffering and English oppression. While I am aware of the hardships faced by those who came here, I am also very conscious of the many ordinary English people who showed ‘the kindness of strangers’.
The events left an indelible mark on the North West. Back in the 1990s, as people marked 150 years since the Famine, the remembrance shown by the people of Liverpool transcended religious divides. And, ironically, while it was a terrible tragedy, the narrative of the Famine has served to unite so many families on both sides of the Irish Sea.
Help from all over the world
It is also important to remember that aid to the stricken Irish came from all over the world, from an incredibly wide range of people – from the Catholic Church globally, encouraged by Pope Pius IX, from many benefactors in the United States and Canada, and from many in Britain itself.
Slaves in the United States, as well as the Choctaws and the Cherokees, were among those who gave aid, as did the Sultan of Turkey and Hindus in India. Jews, Baptists, Methodists and Shakers were among other Americans who contributed. In 2010, the then Irish president, Mary McAleese, acknowledged the generosity of American Jews at the time, despite the poverty many of them experienced.
Christine Kinealy, a noted Famine historian, lists some of the helpers here, pointing out that the largest single donor was, in fact, Queen Victoria, who gave £2,000 to the British Relief Association, attracting criticism for her two letters to British Protestants urging help. (Her role in the Famine era does, however, remain controversial.) The Association was founded by Lionel de Rothschild, a British Jewish banker, and received donations from as far away as Mexico and Venezuela. Many former slaves in the Caribbean islands also gave generously.
In my own view, an important part of the story of the Irish Famine is the solidarity shown to the Irish people by people all over the world, of every colour and creed.
Protestant poor also suffered
When we look at the history of the Famine, the impression is sometimes given that only Catholics were affected, but while obviously, given demographics, they made up the majority of the victims, there is an increasing awareness that the Protestant poor also suffered. it is estimated about one in ten of those who died were Protestants.
It’s also worth saying that the accusation of ‘souperism’ i.e. giving food to Catholics on condition they turn Protestant, was largely the preserve of some fringe evangelical groups and did not reflect the mainstream approach of either the Church of Ireland or the Presbyterians.
Unfortunately, the memory of the Famine has been hijacked at times, either to cause division between Ireland and Britain, or between different sections of the Irish people on religious grounds.
Comparisons with slavery do not hold
In more recent times, the Famine memory has been used for an equally nefarious purpose – to downplay the sufferings of African slaves and their descendants in the United States and the Caribbean, by suggesting that the Irish who were sent there to work were also slaves. There is not a scintilla of truth in that suggestion – anyone with any knowledge of the period knows that slavery was very different from indentured servitude.
Likewise, the suggestion that there were Irish slaves in Sweden in 1610 has been dismissed as nonsense by no less an expert than Cambridge Professor Neil Kent (slavery in Sweden was abolished in 1335 but Sweden did have African slaves later in colonial outposts).
Irish involvement in the British imperial project
The idea that the experiences of people like my grandfather and his ancestors is an absolution for Irish people from ‘white guilt’ ignores the pivotal role of so many Irish in the British imperial project. Ireland, like Wales, was paradoxically both colonised and coloniser, as the British empire wasn’t just an English empire and the MPs for Irish constituencies at Westminster, be they Catholic or Protestant, had as much a say on colonial matters as their English counterparts.
In other words, countries like Nigeria or Ghana were as much colonies of Limerick as of Liverpool, Macroom as of Manchester, Tullamore (my home town) as of Tarporley, Cork as of Carlisle.
In that context, it was noticeable that when Irish President Michael D Higgins addressed the parliament of Western Australia in 2017, he apologised to the Aborigines for the way some Irish had treated them.
Likewise, in the United States, Irish migrants were actively involved in the ill-treatment of slaves and of Native Americans. The irony was that some of those who lost their lands at English hands in Ireland proceeded to deprive others of theirs.
As Trinity College Dublin historian Ciarán O’Neill explains, the Irish are increasingly facing the paradox that while they experienced oppression, they also were perpetrators of it. As he further points out, Irish Catholics were also involved in the French and Spanish empires.
A photo that captures a nuanced story
In a nutshell, when I look back at my grandfather’s photo, the lesson I would take from it is not only to remember those who died in the Famine, but the many from all over the world who helped the starving Irish, and those who welcomed them, sometimes at the cost of their own lives, when they arrived on the shores of other lands. It is a lesson forgotten by some Irish today, when people from other lands go to work in Ireland today.
It’s also worth remembering that while it’s easy to focus on past injustices, evictions are still a big problem in Ireland today. Only, the tenants are not being evicted by British but by fellow-Irish, something that doesn’t attract the same attention.
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