By Doctor Michael Herron
The prevarication of Glasgow City Council over raising a memorial to the Irish Famine needs to be answered by challenging the revisionist narrative of the Famine.
According to this narrative, the British government would not interfere with the regular patterns of imperial trade, which diverting food ready for export to feed the starving Irish would have done. Adhering to the economic orthodoxy of the time thus explained the government’s policy. The British government’s response to a natural disaster, the potato blight, was also marred by administrative incompetence mainly at a local level.
Conversely, the Great Hunger Memorial Committee was correct to highlight how a potato blight that affected all of Europe, particularly populations with a potato based diet in Eastern Europe, only resulted in mass casualties in Ireland with one million dead and another million forced to emigrate.
This article will explain why the revisionist narrative of the Famine is at least incomplete and ultimately wrong as it was in fact a case of genocide. It is instructive that genocide scholar, Professor William Schabas of the National University of Ireland, Galway, has previously described the Famine as a “crime against humanity”.
To explain why it was a case of genocide, it is necessary to define what genocide is. According to the Genocide Convention of 1948, genocide is the “intent to destroy in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group as such” comprising a number of acts including “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part”.
The issue of which groups were affected by the Famine underpins the most common argument made to deny that a genocide was perpetrated since Irish Protestants were also affected by the Famine as well as Irish Catholics. This is to misunderstand how genocide works. Genocides can encompass victims other than the target group, for example, during the Rwandan genocide, a number of Hutus as well as Tutsis were killed by Hutu perpetrators. Key aspects of genocide are the identification of the target group and separation from the rest of the community. Oliver Cromwell had already accomplished these two steps when he banished the Gaelic speaking Irish Catholic population to the infertile West of Ireland. The Victorian perpetrators of the genocide took advantage of this fact as they knew where the target group was located, which could then be destroyed.
Perhaps the most important and difficult aspect of the definition of genocide is proving intent. In Katherine Goldsmith’s view intent can be defined from an understanding by the perpetrator that what they will do will probably eliminate the group. While for Florian Jessburger intent can be determined from the circumstances in which the crime took place.
This article will show that the British government of the time had a clear understanding that its policies would probably eliminate the core group of the Irish in Western Ireland. In addition, in its knowledge of the circumstances pertaining in the West of Ireland it deliberately inflicted on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.
Intent can also be inferred from determining patterns of behaviour and policy. A policy of “ethnic cleansing” of the Gaelic speaking regions of Britain can be perceived in the early nineteenth century. The Highland Clearances along with the Famine were key parts of a continuum of government policy by the Hanoverian state. It is perhaps not coincidental that these Gaelic speakers allied to the French had almost overthrown this state in the Jacobite rebellion of 1745 and the Irish rebellion of 1798.
In this context it is important to note that Ireland was often a testing ground for ideas and policies that would be implemented in other parts of the British Empire. The idea of plantations was replicated in the colonisation of North America and the use of famine as a means of population control was later adopted in India.
Perhaps a stronger motive than the strategic imperative for genocide was the economic. In both the cases of the Highland Clearances and the Famine the landowners would derive more profit by consolidating their land free of tenant farmers than they would with them on it. Indeed, as noted by Tim Pat Coogan, there were influential figures in the British government during the Famine including Palmerston, Landsdowne and Clanricade who owned some of the most extensive landholdings in Ireland and helped shape government policy on Ireland to suit their interests. This does not contradict the charge of genocide, it supports it, since expropriation of the victims’ property is a common feature of genocide.
It is important to note that “ethnic cleansing”, the deliberate expulsion of a group from a specific territory, and genocide are not mutually exclusive. One can blur into the other as was the case at Srebrenica when Bosnian Serbs massacred Bosnian Muslims. The British authorities were able to “ethnically cleanse” the Highlands of Scotland without many casualties because the population was smaller than in Ireland. There were many millions of tenant farmers in the West of Ireland. In order to successfully cleanse the West of Ireland, genocide would also have to be employed.
The path to genocide was a case of cumulative radicalization as the British government deployed more radical measures to resolve a crisis of its own making developing from long standing roots.
The roots of the problem were that the Irish banished to the West of Ireland occupied plots of land that were only suitable for growing potatoes. These tenant farmers were at the mercy of absentee landlords who demanded labour as well as rent to maintain their tenancy.
According to James Handley in The Irish in Modern Scotland, the position of these tenant famers was made precarious by the attempt in 1838 to enact Irish poor law reform on the lines of the one adopted in England. One commission set up by the British government recommended a different kind of bill to the one in England, taking into account the different conditions existing in Ireland where the problem was not that people were unwilling to work, but there was no employment available.
The Whig government of Lord Melbourne rejected the findings and instead assigned an English Poor Law commissioner, Nicholls, to compile a report more to their liking. This commissioner recommended the establishment of 80 to 100 workhouses to accommodate 1,000 people each. The government based its Irish Poor Law on Nicholl’s recommendations. According to Handley, another government adviser, Sir George Lewis explained in his book The Irish Disturbances the reason for the workhouse plan “it was necessary to provide a shelter for the evicted tenant in order to lessen the ignominy and danger to the landlords in their endeavour to consolidate their farms”.
The carte blanche given to landlords by the government to accomplish this outcome was outlined by Lewis in a confidential paper written at the request of Thomas Spring Rice, first Baron Monteagle of Brandon in Kerry and Chancellor of the Exchequer in Melbourne’s government. Lewis wrote, “in the present condition of Ireland I can conceive of no other means except a strongly guarded poor law of restoring to the landlords the power of doing what they will with their own”.
In Handley’s view the implications of this law were clear “in the light of these facts it is no exaggeration to state that the English government by its Irish Poor Law Bill of 1838 deliberately accelerated its policy of depopulation”. Contemporary opinion was aware of the potential implications since The Times envisaged a time “when an Irishman would be as rare in Connemara as a Red Indian on the shores of Manhattan”.
When the potato blight struck the response of Charles Trevelyan, the minister responsible for Irish poor relief in both Conservative Robert Peel’s and Whig Lord John Russell’s governments appeared at first sight ambivalent but nevertheless achieved the result of making Irishmen very “rare in Connemara”.
Trevelyan did provide some relief giving food for public works and setting up soup kitchens but his attitude, according to revisionist writer RF Foster in his book Modern Ireland 1600-1972, reflected the “Whig view of economic theory” that “government intervention was to be strictly limited”. The disbursement of food was indeed very limited. Trevelyan opposed the import of Indian corn that could have helped to sustain the Irish. Foster does admit, however, that Trevelyan in his book, The Irish Crisis (1848) “intimated that the Famine was the design of a benign Malthusian God who sought to relieve overpopulation by natural disaster”.
During this time Trevelyan also supported the export of food from Ireland. Eyewitness to the Famine American journalist Henry George described the situation this provoked: “When her [Ireland’s] population was at its height Ireland was a food exporting country. Even during the famine, grain and meat and butter and cheese were carted for exportation along roads lined with the starving and past trenches into which the dead were piled”. Charles Trevelyan was later knighted by Queen Victoria for his work on Irish relief.
The situation was dangerous enough but one event in 1847 turned a crisis into a tragedy. By the summer of 1847 three million Irish were receiving relief. Due to a good harvest but not one for potatoes since no seeds had been planted, the government decided that all government relief under the Soup Kitchen Act would end in September 1847.
An Act of Parliament of that year drastically radicalized the situation and can be seen as the key turning point towards genocide. Legislation facilitating genocide by a Western liberal democracy only has its parallel in the various Indian Acts passed by the US Congress endorsing genocide of Native Americans by the US government. The Poor Law Extension Act of 1847 allowed able bodied persons to enter workhouses and be fed in return for work and for the first time granted the workhouses authority to provide outdoor relief. This would be funded by local Poor Law rates not the government in London. There was one problem, in order to receive relief anyone possessing more than a quarter acre of land would have to give up their property. The maximum capacity of the workhouses was 100,000. The choice facing upwards of 1.5 million was a stark one, starvation or shelter from the harsh Irish winter. Foster accepts that the Act “boosted the landlords’ desiderata of land clearance and emigration” and resulted in “disintegrating the fabric of rural society”.
At this point a number of parallels can be made with a genocide that genocide scholars have agreed was genocide, the Armenian genocide perpetrated by the Ottoman Turk government during the First World War. Having studied this genocide for a doctorate “Denial of the Armenian genocide in American and French politics,” this author was struck by the commonalities with the Famine although there were important differences since the Armenians were subject to massacres while the Irish were not. Perhaps the most important commonality is that both the Armenians and Irish were evicted from their homes. Most of the Armenians died on forced marches into the Syrian desert where they perished from starvation, thirst and exposure to the elements; the Irish were also forced out of their homes to walk the roads often in the depth of winter and suffered starvation and exposure to the Irish climate and once they had reached their destination they often had no shelter as the workhouses were full. Indeed, Mustafa Kemal, the founder of Modern Turkey, expressed surprise at British complaints about Armenian suffering given their treatment of the Irish during the Famine.
There are a number of reasons why this author argues that the British government perpetrated genocide through passage of the Poor Law Extension Act of 1847. If one can accept revisionist arguments about economic orthodoxy determining policy and administrative incompetence, the Poor Law Extension Act gives the lie to these excuses. Any reasonable person would have been aware that forcing a million and a half Irish off their land as the workhouses were already overwhelmed and full to capacity would result in disaster. The decision to force the Irish to make a choice between food and shelter, indefinite though that was, under the 1847 legislation appears to meet the requirements of article ( c ) of the Genocide Convention of “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part”.
Emigration was an option for some although many of the population could not afford the fare. By deliberately worsening the problem through the 1847 legislation and then leaving the Irish parishes to deal with the consequences the government in London must bear the major share of responsibility for the disaster. It is this deliberate worsening of the situation that meets the requirements of the convention. For this reason, this author argues that it was a case of genocide, where the British government used the opportunity of a natural disaster to deliberately engineer the mass destruction of the population of the West of Ireland.
If this charge of intent to commit genocide is accepted, then the population decline in Ireland of 2,225,000 through death and emigration between 1845 and 1851 was a result of the first genocide of Modern European History. It is why a memorial to the Irish Famine must be raised in Glasgow.
Katherine Goldsmith “The Issue of Intent in the Genocide Convention and Its Effect on the Prevention and the Punishment of the Crime of Genocide Toward its Knowledge-Based Approach” Genocide Studies and Prevention 5(3) pp238-57
Florian Jessburger “The Definition and the Elements of the Crime of Genocide in Paulo Gaeta (ed.) The UN Genocide Convention-A Commentary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009)
Tim Pat Coogan The Famine Plot: England’s Role in Ireland’s Greatest Tragedy (US: palgrave macmillan, 2012)
James Handley The Irish in Modern Scotland (Cork: Cork University Press, 1947)
R F Foster Modern Ireland 1600-1972 (USA: Penguin Group, 1989)
Robert Kee Ireland A History (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1980)