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July 26th, 2002

  Grief and Shame


Finding myself in downtown Manhattan on Monday afternoon with an hour to kill, I thought I would take a look at the new Irish HungerMemorial, dedicated July 16 by New York State Governor George Pataki and various other dignitaries. The memorial is in Battery Park City, at the westernmost end of Vesey Street. I came at it from the north, walking down Broadway, and without thinking just took a right onto Vesey, intending to walk westward to the riverfront. That didn't work: because of the events of September 11 last, a stretch of Vesey is fenced off, and I had to hook round north and then south to get to the memorial. This accidental juxtaposition of the horrors of our own time with those of five generations ago gives food for thought all by itself, and helps put one in an appropriately somber frame of mind when encountering the memorial at last.

For commemorative objects of this kind, the traditional approach favored stone obelisks inscribed with words, or statues of representative human figures in suitable poses, set on an inscribed plinth. The modern artistic imagination ranges much wider than that, of course, and you either like this change of style or else you don't. I myself mostly don't. In part this is because I dislike the best-known instance of it: the Vietnam War memorial in Washington D.C., which seems to me ill-conceived and depressing, encapsulating — and designed to encapsulate — all the negative emotions about that war that poisoned American life for an entire generation. In part it is also because, whenever I see a striking piece of modern monumental art, I look up the artist in a library or on the Internet to see what he has to say for himself, and find that what he has to say is invariably expressed in some dialect of post-modernist flapdoodle, studded with leftist clichés. Brian Tolle, leader of the team that designed the Irish Hunger Memorial, is no exception to this rule.

I was therefore surprised to find myself thinking that the Irish Hunger Memorial is a modest artistic success. To get an idea of what it is like, imagine a large concrete slab, irregularly shaped but roughly a rectangle, 30 yards by 50. Holding one of the shorter sides of the rectangle to the ground, lift up the opposite side to a height of about 20 feet. Cover this inclined plane with some representative Irish landscape: soil and scattered rocks, imported heather, grass and wild flowers, and a roofless, ruined stone cabin. Build plain walls to support the slab beneath, and inscribe them with random sentences drawn from contemporary accounts of the famine. Cut a tunnel from the interior of that ruined cabin down to the sidewalk outside, and line the walls of the tunnel with similar inscriptions. Include some speakers broadcasting spoken equivalents of those inscriptions. Place the whole ensemble in a quiet park overlooking New York Harbor, so that if you stand at the high end of the slab you have a clear view to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty.

Having been a proud Englishman for most of my life (until April 19 this year, to be precise), and of a contrary and unapologetic cast of mind, I had an extra layer of resistance to overcome before liking this memorial. The fact is that English people, educated ones at any rate, have a bad conscience about Ireland. We feel about the Irish the way white Americans feel about blacks. There is a sense, of course, in which collective guilt of this sort is absurd. I myself never did anything to any Irish person; and when the Irish were starving, my own ancestors — peasants and coal miners in the English North and Midlands — were hardly in any better condition. (One of my Staffordshire forebears, in fact, according to family lore, was transported to Australia for sheep-stealing just a few years before the Irish famine, and never heard of again.)

And yet, if pride in your country's past achievements is a proper component of honest patriotism, as it surely is, then there is nothing unhealthy about nursing some shame towards the past misdemeanors of your country (or, in my case, ex-country). It doesn't do to let these sorts of emotions, neither the one nor the other, get out of hand, and I don't approve of the kind of wallowing in shame that the PC crowd go in for; but yes, if your country did something wrong 150 years ago, you ought to be a bit ashamed of it. And there is not much doubt that in the matter of the Irish famine, some blame must fall on the British governments of the time.

Exactly how much blame is a matter of lively argument among historians. There is an extremist position — not held, I think, by any honest scholar — that the Famine was an act of British policy. That is preposterous. The personalities of the political actors involved are all well known from their own letters and writings, and from the reports of their contemporaries, both friend and foe: none of them was of a type to contemplate anything so monstrously wicked. Incredibly, though, this demented version of the Famine story is the one required by law to be propagated in the public schools of New York State. "History teaches us," said Governor Pataki, signing the relevant law into effect in 1996, "that the Great Irish Hunger was not the result of a massive failure of the Irish potato crop but rather was the result of a deliberate campaign by the British to deny the Irish people the food they needed to survive."

What history actually teaches us that amoral shyster pols of the Pataki type will do absolutely anything to curry favor with a noisy faction. Curious George's support of this law was a straightforward pander to extremist Irish-American groups — people who cynically use the memory of the famine to further their fund-raising efforts in support of the international terrorist movement. (The upcoming trial of IRA men in Colombia, accused of helping arm and train that country's narco-guerillas, illustrates sufficiently well where these funds end up.)

The Famine has, in fact, been the subject of even more misrepresentation than is the average for historical events that can be mined for political purposes. Its uniqueness, for example, has been much exaggerated. Famine was chronic in Ireland until the legal and social improvements of the later 19th century. Prior to the Great Famine of 1845-47, there had been one in 1821-22 that was almost as dreadful, with a quarter million people dying of hunger and consequent diseases. The famines of the18th century helped drive the great wave of "Scotch-Irish" Protestant emigration to America — famine was no respecter of religious denomination.

Nor was famine an artefact of British rule. There was a terrible famine in A.D. 665, long before any such nation as Britain, or even England, existed. Responding to it, the High Kings called an assembly of all Ireland at Tara, where, under the encouragement of Abbot Fechin of Fore, the Gaelic warlords who ruled the country prayed to the Lord to send some sickness that would "relieve the nation of part of the burdensome multitude of inferior people, so that the rest might live more easily … the excess of numbers being the cause of the famine." The monk Gerald of Mayo, in whose hagiography these events are recorded, denounced the warlords for their inhumanity, arguing that they ought to pray for God to increase the food supply, which He could do just as easily as He could increase the population. As things turned out, the prayers of the nobles were granted, but with the inevitable ironic twist: a plague came and killed off the High Kings, as well as Fechin and many great lords. Gerald was, of course, spared. (And I can't resist noting that he seems to have been not a native Irishman, but a Saxon convert from the British mainland!)

There is no doubt, though, that the British governing classes of the 1840s included many men equal to Abbot Fechin in heartlessness, and their heartlessness is the main indictment against them. It had a number of sources. One was plain despair. For years before the famine it was perfectly obvious that Ireland was heading for a demographic catastrophe. Everybody knew this, and many said so — Anthony Trollope, for example, who knew Ireland well (and whose novel Castle Richmond, by the way, includes the only account of the famine by any contemporary novelist of quality). From 1781 to 1841, the population of Ireland more than tripled; among the Catholic peasantry of the southern counties, it may have quintupled. A thing like that is hard not to notice. And yet, within the political thinking of the time, nobody, not even the best-intentioned and most charitable observers, could think of anything to do to avert the coming disaster. Britain was a minimum-government state, ill-equipped for the sort of speedy, wide-scale relief the situation called for.

Economic ideas, too, contributed to the general callousness of the authorities. This was especially true after the Tory administration of Robert Peel, which actually did attempt some substantial public relief, gave way to Lord John Russell's Whig government in 1846. Lord Russell held to a very pure version of laissez-faire economics, which tolerated as little government interference as possible. After the pathetic "Young Ireland" rebellion of 1848 — it was put down by a single detachment of policemen — Lord Russell chided the Irish for their ingratitude: "We have subscribed, worked, visited, clothed, for the Irish, millions of money, years of debate, &c., &c., &c. The only return is rebellion and calumny. Let us not grant, lend, clothe, &c., any more, and see what that will do." The note of inhumanity born out of cold despair was best caught by Lord Cardigan. Told that a million people had died in the famine, he replied gloomily: "Not enough to do any good."

Against all that official cruelty should be set the myriad acts of charity and compassion that must have saved countless lives. You can still inspect parish registers in churches all over England — there is one in a village church near my home town of Northampton — with handwritten entries from the 1840s recording money contributed "for the suffering people of Ireland" by English farm laborers, people who were themselves living at a level only just above subsistence. The best among the English landlords in Ireland threw open their houses to the sick and the starving, sometimes dying of infection themselves as a result. Soup kitchens were organized, rent payments were suspended, relief work organized. All of this is well recorded; none of it is ever heard of from the "Irish-American" terrorist-funders.

Nor, for that matter, is it well known that the Famine was basically America's fault. One of the inscriptions on the tunnel wall at the Vesey Street memorial gives the game away. "The failure of the potato crop very extensively in the United States … but, happily, there is no ground for any apprehensions of the kind in Ireland." — Dublin Evening Post, September 9, 1845. Far from having been manufactured in a British government laboratory, as George Pataki pretends to believe, the phytophthora infestans fungus that caused the potato blight (that caused the Famine) had been ravaging North America for some years before it first appeared in southern England in June 1845, around the port city of Southampton. It was most likely washed ashore on potato peelings thrown overboard from an American ship — in all probability, one that had started its lethal journey from New York harbor, perhaps from a mooring that would have been visible, if such moorings still existed today, from the Irish Hunger Memorial on Vesey Street!

What a dreadful human calamity might have been averted if the U.S. authorities had had the wit to ban the export of infected potatoes! Why did they not do this? In part, for the same reason that the British government did not organize adequate relief, or prevent the export of foodstuffs from Ireland while Irish people were starving: it was not within the nature, philosophy or resources of Anglo-Saxon governments to do such things in the 1840s. New York's Governor at the time was William C. Bouck, "the old white hoss from Schoharie," a decent and capable enough man as such things went in those times. Bouck was a better human being than Pataki, at any rate (and a much better budget-cutter — he had his wife do the cooking in the executive mansion), but his background as a country farmer left him ill prepared to supervise the card-sharps of New York City. Samuel Swartwout, collector of customs for the port of New York in Andrew Jackson's administration, had decamped to Europe with over $1.25m of government money shortly before, and things had improved little in the years following.

To say that governments were not equipped for these tasks does not, of course, absolve them of moral responsibility. Twenty-two centuries before the Famine, the Chinese philosopher Mencius wondered rhetorically: "What should we think of a ruler who allows his people to starve?" What then should we think of Robert Peel, Lord Russell, and their administrators? These men were responsible for the citizens of the United Kingdom, which at that time included Ireland. They were responsible to provide for their defense in case of invasion, and for their relief in case of natural disasters — the most elementary functions of government. They failed in that responsibility. They — and, to a lesser degree, the authorities of New York and the United States — must forever bear the stain of the Famine.

The Great Hunger ought to be remembered; it ought to be commemorated. Given the esthetic standards of our time, the Vesey Street memorial will serve well enough to help us keep in mind those who perished so miserably in one of the greatest and most horrible catastrophes of the modern age. To remember, also, those who fled that catastrophe and came here penniless and in rags, in disease-ridden "famine ships," to help build a new country, a land of plenty, with food enough for all.