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How the Great Famine made Catholic Ireland The restrained and conservative nature of the country was a response to the trauma

Photo: Martin Hollander/ Newsday RM via Getty Images

Photo: Martin Hollander/ Newsday RM via Getty Images

September 9, 2020   6 mins

The 175th anniversary of the Great Famine in Ireland is upon us. The disaster had no definitive start or end, but it was in September 1845 that the tragedy was first reported, and on the 13th of that month it fell to The Gardeners’ Chronicle — of all publications — to report: “We stop the Press with very great regret to announce that the potato Murrain has unequivocally declared itself in Ireland.”

Within five years, the outbreak of “Murrain”, or potato blight, had led to around one million deaths from disease, hunger and fever. A million more emigrated, and the death rate on some of the “coffin ships” to America was more than 50%.

For those who remained, the decades following the famine saw the percentage of Irish people who never married climb dramatically. With age at marriage also going up, the imprints left on the country’s demographics were multiple. Today Ireland is the only country on earth with fewer people than it had in 1840, indeed it is still well over a million short of that total; for comparison, the population of England and Wales has grown four-fold.

Reading about the Famine is harrowing: something, if I’m honest, I would almost always prefer not to do. The suffering endured is the kind that goes beyond evoking shock or pity. It can tear holes in the everyday understanding of what it means to be human that we, living in more secure, comfortable, affluent societies, have acquired.

There is a Famine Museum in Strokestown, Co. Roscommon, but, at the same time, I have never detected a very strong desire among the Irish to linger too long on the 1840s, apart from in song. Written in 1979, “The Fields of Athenry” — with its lyrics “For you stole Trevelyan’s corn so the young might see the morn” — has become a kind of second national anthem. However, transmuting history into stirring melodies can be a way of taming and repurposing it, not facing it down. And, in the end, the Irish came out the other side — even if for many this meant coming out on the other side of the world — and eventually built a new and stable republic.

Nevertheless, if only at times like this, when an anniversary bell solemnly tolls, we are called back to peer again into that national abyss; to ponder events that would still have been in the living memory of people my grandparents knew when they were young. Lingering over those events brings the usual risks of entering closed circles of anger, lamentation and the apportionment of blame. But, what may be most intriguing about the Famine now are its long-term effects, rippling through the Irish psyche over the course of a century and a half, beneath the surface but with consequences felt in thought and behaviour.

This is a subject that comes up in public discourse every now and then. At the time of Live Aid, Bob Geldof was asked during a television interview about the high per capita contributions the Irish had made to the cause of defeating hunger in Africa.  Why was this so? Geldof speculated that the Famine lived on in the Irish in the form of a deep folk memory and that this lay at the root of their spectacular generosity.

Perhaps. But there was another more proximate and direct cause that did not require pursuing something as nebulous as “folk memory”: namely, the relentless exhortations that generations of Irish people had heard in their churches, homes and schools about the importance of charity and the evils of selfish materialism. These ideas were of course part of Christian teaching the world over, but in Ireland they were preached bluntly, relentlessly. Moreover, in a strange way, Africa didn’t feel all that far away. While it would certainly not be the case now, many Irish people of the Live Aid era would have known men and women, friends and relations, who had served, or were still serving there, in Catholic missions, schools and hospitals.

But even if Geldof was stretching it with his theory of a folk memory, he was surely right to suggest that the Famine did not simply come and go without making deep impressions on the Irish mind. Other possible repercussions from the Famine demand attention, beginning with the Irish concern with respectability that came to form such a large part of the country’s image and identity until recent times.

Figures such as the Jesuit priest Fr Richard Devane, who campaigned strenuously to keep Ireland free from alien decadence, have a distinctively Irish feel. Among other things, Devane, joining forces with the Legion of Mary, played a large role in the closure of “Monto” in Dublin, reputed to be biggest centre of prostitution in Europe in the 19th century.

And the rearguard action led by Devane and others like him was the defensive counterpart to the positive vision proposed by 1916 rebel and later Taoiseach and President of the Republic, Éamon de Valera, when he beckoned the Irish towards “a land whose country would be bright with cosy homesteads, whose fields and villages would be joyous with the sounds of industry, with the romping of sturdy children, the contest of athletic youths and the laughter of happy maidens, whose firesides would be forums for the wisdom of serene old age. The home, in short, of a people living the life that God deserves that men should live.”

In my own home city of Cork, our main thoroughfare was dominated and watched over not by the statue of a rebel or a poet or a legislator, but by Fr Theobald Matthew, the temperance campaigner, his hand extended above the heads of the populace in a benevolent but restraining gesture.

But what had this prizing of respectability — this obsession, even — to do with the Famine? No doubt more than one stream fed this river of the Gaelic mind, but we should not forget the effect of the virulent insults that rained down on the heads of the Irish as the tragedy unfolded. For many quarters of the Establishment, the outrageous pain and misery of the Irish peasantry was first and foremost their own fault, a product of their own slovenliness, superstition, stupidity and recklessness. In March 1847, for example, an article in The Times declared the Irish “a people born and bred from time immemorial, in inveterate indolence, improvidence, disorder and consequent destitution”.

Charles Trevelyan, Assistant Secretary to the Treasury believed that the Famine “had been ordained by God to teach the Irish a lesson”. And, lest there be any doubt, these critics in high places saw the failings of the Irish as ultimately a product of their faith. Here is Lord Farnham: “There is no thinking man who does not perceive in the preponderance of the Roman Catholic religion in this country, the fruitful source of most of the calamities and agitations with which it is afflicted”.

What to make of all of that? Edmund Burke, Irish-born though dead for nearly 50 years before the outbreak of the Famine, might have identified a different cause for the fragile, ramshackle state of the Irish peasantry of the 1840s. Speaking of the penal laws instituted in the previous century, he saw “a machine of wise and deliberate contrivance as well fitted for the oppression, impoverishment, and degradation of a people, and the debasement in them of human nature itself, as ever proceeded from the perverted ingenuity of man”.

Given the callousness of the remarks about the Irish pouring from establishment figures, one might wonder whether, in their “perverted ingenuity”, these laws had a debasing effect on the class who made them as much as the classes who suffered under them.

My purpose here, though, is to ponder what effect the loud and frequent condemnations of their attitudes and behaviour had upon the Irish themselves. A famous observation made by Frantz Fanon, the Martiniquais psychiatrist and political philosopher, comes to mind. Fanon once wrote that the first thing the coloniser does is to “plant deep in the mind of the native population the idea that, before the advent of colonialism, their history was one which was dominated by barbarism”.

Perhaps the words of Trevelyan, Farnham and others — Carlyle, for instance, who wrote about the “wild Milesian features” of the Irish poor and their “false ingenuity, restlessness, unreason” — planted themselves deep in the mind of the natives, causing a variant of Fanon’s thesis (originally put forward in a book about Algeria).

In this variant, the colonised would strive to show the coloniser that they were not barbarians, that they would never have these accusations flung at them again, that they could outdo the colonisers at one of the things they, the colonisers, prized most highly and for the lack of which they criticised the Irish so savagely. Moreover, Irish respectability at this high noon of the Victroian era would be of a higher order, less prone to error, because Catholic. There would be no going back to the abyss, no return to the “completely unhinged” society already diagnosed by a Catholic Bishop, John MacHale, at the time of an earlier though less catastrophic failure of the potato crop.

It is possible to over-egg such speculations. While the statue of Fr Matthew in Cork was unveiled in 1864, 15 years after the Famine, he had actually begun his Total Abstinence Society in the 1830s. And the prizing of respectability no doubt had other causes too. The Famine had exposed the Irish to the human body in its most degraded and, frankly, disgusting states, which may have bred a certain revulsion towards the flesh and in turn a sub-conscious desire to keep corporal urges under lock and key. In the 20th century, darker impulses towards social control may have played a part, but perhaps so did also the building up of the distinctive identity required by a people emerging blinking into the light of nationhood — and, too easily forgotten, genuine, popular fidelity to the Christian moral code.

Whatever the exact balance of forces, the exceptionalism of Irish respectability is, of course, a thing of the past now: largely unlamented, bulldozed away in the wake of social changes so enormous they can probably be seen from space. But, even these changes were themselves, in part, a reaction against the elevation of respectability to one of the country’s greatest social goods. And, if Irish social history is a series of chain reactions, the explosive consequences of the Famine are still being felt today.

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