Letters to the Editor, ‘Is the Great Famine still with us?’

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Thursday, September 24th, 2015
Community, Letters to the Editor, Old Newry

Dear Editor,

Recent images of people from Syria and other countries fleeing their own lands across dangerous waters in flimsy boats with little or no possessions evoke the experience of Irish famine victims who left Ireland for a better life in Britain, Australia, and America.

Letters to the EditorWhilst aspects of the Great Irish Famine, the policies, laws, social conditions, attitudes, the main players and actual events have been well documented – the legacy of the Famine has not been explored to the same extent and perhaps some thoughts may be appropriate as we approach the first National Commemoration to be held in the North of Ireland.

There are some aspects which seem obvious: emigration, the effect on the Irish language, the land question, and some which are perhaps less obvious and more difficult to detail: the impact of the famine on the Irish psyche and how we have come to terms with its effects.

Emigration and the Irish language are closely linked. Emigration hastened the decline of the language. The geographical areas which bore the worst effects of the famine were the areas in which the language was strongest. A huge number of those who emigrated, around one million people, were Irish speakers.

The removal of such a huge number of speakers from the country clearly weakened the position of Irish but it would wrong to assume that the Famine was the only contributory factor to the decline of Irish. It was not.

Seán de Fréine in his book, ‘The Great Silence’, makes it clear that the process of anglicisation was well under way by the time of the Great Famine, with English having been established as the language of the cities, of education, emigration, economics, and the law.

Irish was the language of the hearth, cosy but useless in these other important areas. So whereas the Great Famine was not the initial or only cause of the decline of the Irish language, it was a major contributor.

The destination of the emigrants – America, Canada, Australian, New Zealand, and Britain were all countries in which English was the dominant language. The message coming back from the emigrants to those who might consider following them was that English was necessary whatever destination was being considered.

Therefore emigration had a doubly negative effect on the position of the Irish language – it removed speakers of the language from Ireland and sent a message back that English was the language for the advancement of the emigrant.

The message reinforced that of the ‘national’ system of education established in 1831 with English as the only medium of instruction and which actively discouraged children from speaking Irish – sometimes with the assistance from ‘An Bata Scóir’, a short stick hung around the child’s neck which had a notch cut in it for each time the child spoke Irish; for each notch a punishment was later administered.

The famous South Armagh folklorist Michael J. Murphy recorded an Omeath man Charlie Mc Quade in 1959 in which the latter spoke about the new national school master O’ Meara’s words about the Irish language, ‘It’s the language of hunger and want, if you want to get on in the world listen to me.’

Máiréad NicCraith in her article in the Atlas of the Great Irish Famine, ‘Legacy and Loss; The Great Silence and its Aftermath’ makes the point that when there is a break in linguistic transmission, there is a loss of insight from earlier generations that is often unrecoverable and that the current generation in Ireland has hardly begun to appreciate the significant impact of the loss to the psyche.

‘This’, she says, ‘is not to lament the acquisition of English, particularly since the time of the Famine, but it is to seriously regret that the gain of a new language was accompanied (unnecessarily) by the decline of an ancient and precious national resource’.

As with the Irish language emigration did not begin with the Great Famine. Emigration began well before the Great Famine. Piaras Mac Éinrí in the Atlas of the Great Famine ‘Famine and the Irish Diaspora’ says, ‘the Famine turned the river of emigration into a torrent’ with up to 1,000,000 people leaving Ireland between 1815 and 1845.

Whilst 1847 is remembered as the blackest Famine year, emigration actually rose in subsequent years. Interestingly, in pre-famine times most of the emigrants were Protestants.

Irish people in their new homes had to struggle for a place in society. They began quite often below the bottom rung, stigmatised by the effects of famine, shunned by their new neighbours who in some cases wanted to see them returned to their homeland.

However they gradually built up influential communities and considerable social and political influence, not only in their new lands, but directly and indirectly on their homeland.

In England the relationship between the Irish and the English was often fraught with tensions for a variety of reasons but in more recent times the Irish in Britain have become established as a largely successful and valued community within British life.

Protestant Irish Americans before and after the Famine have made a huge contribution to American life with twenty US Presidents, only one of whom was Catholic, claiming Irish descent. It is also worth remembering it’s estimated the majority of Irish Americans today are Protestants.

The major breakthroughs in Anglo-Irish relations during the 1990s were heavily influenced by Irish American politicians from both the Republican and Democratic parties exerting a powerful influence on the peace efforts.

We have some way to go in assessing the legacy of the Great Famine, which was in part confirmed by Cormac Ó Gráda who said in his Thomas Davis Lecture on RTÉ 1 radio during the 150th commemoration of the Great Famine that the Irish Famine was relegated to being a slogan and taboo for many generations and was hardly even commemorated in the 1940s.

Now that the silence has been broken we must continue to talk. Protestants died during the Famine as well as Catholics, albeit not in the same numbers but we must never forget that fact.

Ó Gráda says, ‘I believe that if the sufferings of the half-forgotten, wretched Irish Famine victims can inspire greater concern for the Third World today, then they may not have died in vain.’

Will we be found wanting as the government of the day was at the time of the Great Famine or will the experience of Irish famine victims inspire us with generous compassion for the poor and homeless of Ireland, compassion for the fleeing Syrian refugees seeking sanctuary, and for the hungry, naked, and starving of the world all of whom are the present day victims of great famine?

Dominic Bradley – SDLP MLA for Newry and Armagh


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