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Sunday, January 11, 2009

Let's all stop denying the holocaust


The Irish holocaust of the 1840s, that is.

Our gombeen government has decided, a mere 160 or so years on, to finally commemorate the fact that half of the country died of hunger or were forced to leave their homeland due to a deliberate policy of forced starvation.

They've decided to call this commemoration of the dead a 'Famine' memorial day. The commemoration is long overdue.

But it's not a famine we should be commemorating. Because there was no famine. A famine is when there is not sufficient food to feed the population. What happened in Ireland in the 1840s was attempted genocide.

Let's look at the evidence, and I don't mean the mounds of dead, some containing the remains of over 10,000 people, that dot our landscape. Nor do I mean the ghost towns of the West of Ireland. I mean the documentary evidence of genocide.

What is a genocide? In common terms, it is the attempt to murder an entire race of people. But the United Nations has a legal definition. In fact, it has an entire convention on genocide. The relevant part is section 2, which defines acts of genocide.

As a single reading of 2c reveals, what happened in Ireland in the 1840s was a genocide. This has been confirmed by international legal expert F.A. Boyle, Professor of Law at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who wrote:

"Clearly, during the years 1845 to 1850, the British government pursued a policy of mass starvation in Ireland with intent to destroy in substantial part the national, ethnic and racial group commonly known as the Irish People.... Therefore, during the years 1845 to 1850 the British government knowingly pursued a policy of mass starvation in Ireland that constituted acts of genocide against the Irish people within the meaning of Article II (c) of the 1948 [Hague] Genocide Convention."

But some people object to the suggestion that there was intent on the part of the British government of the time. They suggest that the famine was an act of God, of nature, a tragic accident caused by a fungus on a tuber which had nothing to do with any human action or intent. To demonstrate the intent of the British colonial administration of the time, it is important to look at their own stated documents on the matter.

Firstly, let's consider what Robert Murray, writing in his 1847 book "Ireland, Its Present Condition and Future Prospects" had to say about the alleged famine:

"The surplus population of Ireland have been trained precisely for those pursuits (unskilled labor or agricultural) which the unoccupied regions of North American require for their colonization. That surplus is an overwhelming incubus (demon) at home, whether to themselves or others. Remove them and you benefit them in a degree that cannot be estimated. Precisely as you do so, you raise the social condition of those who remain."

In other words, a policy of clearing Ireland of its 'surplus' of people and driving many of them to America would be of benefit to the American economy and to the easier administration of Ireland by Britain! Bear in mind this was written at the height of the horror - Black 47. This isn't some sort of 'Modest Proposal' type of joke. This is a genuine policy proposal.

But perhaps Murray did not represent mainstream British opinion? Let's consider instead the London Times, which crowed:

"They are going. They are going with a vengeance. Soon a Celt will be as rare in Ireland as a Red Indian on the streets of Manhattan...Law has ridden through, it has been taught with bayonets, and interpreted with ruin. Townships levelled to the ground, straggling columns of exiles, workhouses multiplied, and still crowded, express the determination of the Legislature to rescue Ireland from its slovenly old barbarism, and to plant there the institutions of this more civilized land."


In other words, the newspaper of record in England records with glee the imminent demise of the Irish as a nation in the hope that its land can be cleared for plantation by Britons. But again, perhaps it is unfair to attribute these mainstream British opinions to the government itself? Let's look at what they had to say.

On April 26th, 1849, one hundred years before the Genocide Convention was signed, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, the Earl of Clarendon, wrote to the then British Prime Minister, John Russell, expressing his feelings about the lack of aid from Parliament:

"I do not think there is another legislature in Europe that would disregard such suffering as now exists in the west of Ireland, or coldly persist in a policy of extermination."

Bear in mind, this is the voice of Britain in Ireland speaking. And he is speaking of a policy of extermination of the Irish people. I call that genocide. But perhaps I'm wrong. So let's look around for other views. According to holocaust historian and expert Richard L. Rubenstein in his book "Age of Triage: Fear and Hope in an Overcrowded World":

"A government is as responsible for a genocidal policy when its officials accept mass death as a necessary cost of implementing their policies, as when they pursue genocide as an end in itself."

Rubenstein is the man who invented the term 'genocide', so I think we can defer to his definition of the word. So it seems absolutely indisputable: under the terms of the UN convention on genocide, Britain was guilty of conducting genocide on the Irish people during the period variously and incorrectly referred to today as the great famine or An Gorta Mor.

Now, I'm not interested in a Brit-bashing exercise. I can't imagine that the British of today would in anyway feel guilty (nor should they) for something committed by an elite that ran their country and ours a century and a half ago. Britain is historically responsible for a number of attempted genocides, at least one committed on their own soil (the Highland clearances.)

Indeed, the 'great hunger' was not the only attempt at genocide on the Irish people. Cromwell's exploits two centuries earlier spring to mind. I can't imagine that it would ruin relations with Britain or indeed the British people if we were simply to pay proper tribute to our own dead.

In fact, I think many British people might find it illuminating to know what really happened. Certainly, given how the 'famine' is taught in our schools, I believe it would be illuminating for a lot of Irish people too. I accept the British apology for what Tony Blair's word is worth. Which is little, in fairness, but I accept it anyway. But that's not the point.

The point is that our own government fails to acknowledge that it was a holocaust, not a famine caused by a lack of available food. The Irish holocaust had little in common with famine or hunger. Should the focus of Jewish holocaust commemorations be on preventing gas poisoning?

What would any self-respecting Jewish person say if people expected them to euphemise away the horror their people suffered, or suggested that they get over it and grow up as a people? The Rwandans and Armenians would not accept anyone else trying to diminish the attempted genocides that happened to their peoples. So why do we accept it?

Sure, some Shinners might want to use the designation of any commemoration for some Brit-bashing. But that in no way invalidates the core point, which is nothing to do with the Brits of today. It's to do with our own acknowledgment of our own history in accurate terminology.

When we can do that, then we can really move on as a nation.

12 comments:

Rua rua said...

excellent piece of writing, really excellent.

If you ask me... said...

very interesting article, with very valid points. But I dont' think anyone is really denying the hand played by the British. Whether we can it a famine or holocaust seems to me to be just sematics.

JC Skinner said...

Did you read the piece at all?
What happened in Ireland in the 1840s was an act of genocide, and while we keep pretending it wasn't be calling it a famine, then as a nation we're in denial of our own history, as well as failing to properly commemorate our dead.
That's anything but semantic - it goes right to the core of what we are as a nation.
What would you think of a cohort of Jews who kept insisting it wasn't important to call what the Nazis did a holocaust? That it didn't matter if we all referred to it instead as 'that big German industrial accident'?
You'd think they were in desperate denial of their own history and in need of help.
So it is with the Irish, be it the government or people like you.

Sweary said...

I was both fascinated and moved by your post until I got to your last comment, when you said, "That it didn't matter if we all referred to it instead as 'that big German industrial accident'?" I was still fascinated and moved, but I was laughing my arse off as well.

And one shouldn't laugh at such things!

JC Skinner said...

Laughter keeps us human, Sweary.
That's why your welcome return to blogging is so important to the national psyche.

Conan Drumm said...

Survivor guilt has played its part.

In terms of policy, there was also the policy of forced 'transportation' to the Antipodes, for what were often minor crimes, or crimes that were committed from the struggle to survive. And the policy that defaulting tenant farmers' dwellings be levelled on their eviction, so that they had no recourse to shelter.

It is arguable that what happened in the mid-19th century was just the logical culmination of policies for the previous two centuries. That included the imposition of the coloniser's legal system, religious and linguistic persecution, and the systematic dispossession of property rights.

I recommend a reading of Edmund Spenser's A Vue of the Present State of Ireland which offers a racist programme for the Anglification of Ireland.

Rua, chief of police said...

This has been bothering me for a few days, something about it just didn't sit right. Then it struck me on the bus this morning, calling the famine a genocide is redundant to a degree as 'An Gorta Mór' has been traditionally blamed on the Brits anyway.

Rebel Songsical evidence alone points the finger squarely at the authorities of the time. How many songs blame the spuds?

well, there is one. Its called: "ma, I don't thinks the spuds look so good" or something. Apparently its funny if you're over fifty

JC Skinner said...

Conan: agreed. Survivor guilt undoubtedly played a role, along with shame, taking the soup, you name it.
Rua: You're missing the point. At this time, it has nothing to do with blaming the British.
It has to do with paying proper honour to our own history, our own past and our own dead.

Anonymous said...

Obviously it does have something to do with the modern British, or else why would they make such stringent efforts to render mute as far as possible the expression of the view that it was genocide or reduce their statements of their own responsibility to practically nothing, as Blair's words on the matter have done. I do not accept Blair's 'apology' and I believe neither should you. Trying to gain some credibility from the middle ground by attempting to appear 'reasonable' in accepting what Blair has said only plays into the hands of those who wish to quieten this whole episode. Blair's words should be rejected, strongly, and a true analysis, admission and apology demanded.

I think you are naive to think that what occurred then has no bearing on today. If that were true then why do the Irish government and the British government make so much effort to play down and misrepresent what occurred? I think you will find that it's because an Irish sense of nationhood, injustice and outrage is very dangerous to British interests on this island even today. The fact that they are more aware of this truth than most Irish people and take steps to control it speaks volumes in itself.

JC Skinner said...

As I said recently elsewhere:
Blair offered an apology that Britain had not done more to alleviate famine in Ireland during the 1840s.
This apology is flawed in so many ways that it becomes hard to keep track of them all, but permit me to try:

- Neither he, his administration, nor indeed any living Briton was alive in the 1840s. So why he felt the need to apologise, apart from assuming that he could gain kudos by it, is beyond me.
- There was no famine in Ireland at that time, because a famine occurs when there is insufficient food for the people to survive. By contrast, there was plenty of food in Ireland at the time. However, it was being exported at gunpoint to England on British orders.
- Blair failed to offer any comment on British involvement in causing forced starvation. The fact that the people died of starvation as a direct result of British policy, a policy crowed about in contemporary London media and boasted about by the British administration in Ireland at the time seems to have escaped Teflon Tone.
- Blair has never offered any comment on the oppression of the Irish people by Britain, not even during the negotiations of the GFA or its aftermath.

So since the apology is beyond irrelevant, I am happy to accept it as such - ie utterly irrelevant to whether we commemorate our dead properly as the victims of genocide.
As to your latter point, about British need to control Irish nationhood, that is self-evident as the ongoing occupation of the six counties, the policing of our waters, the administration of our lighthouses and lifeboats all indicate.
It's obviously dangerous to the British elite to have a truly independent Ireland. But it's up to the Irish to decide how much or how little independence they are happy with.
In 1900 they were happy with next to nil (Home Rule.) Today they appear happy with nominal independence for 3/4 of the nation.
It seems, anon, that you desire a little more independence than that?

Jack O'Keefe said...

Skin, you are right on the money. For every ship coming to Ireland with corn maize and rice brought by the Quakers from America, six ships left the country with live animals and grain. Trevelyan said in a letter to Lord Monteagle, "The judgment of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson, that calamity must not be too much mitigated. The real evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the famine but the moral evilof the selfish, turbulent char. of the people.

Jack O'Keefe said...

For Trevelyan, the famine was "the mechanism for reducing surplus population." Is not this genocide?
A political economist at Oxford Nassau Senior told a friend Ben. Jowett that he feared that "the famine in Ireland would no kill more than a million people and that would be scarcely enough to do any good."