Uncantation 3: ‘the old sad tragedies of our past history’

I had the formative misfortune of receiving my primary education in an Irish, rural, two-teacher school in the 1980s. While corporal punishment was criminalised in 1982, the year before I made my First Communion, in many other respects my educational experience could have taken place at any time from the foundation of the state. The Irish language was prioritised above all other subjects. Religion came a close second, with the month of May dedicated to a range of queasy festivities for the Virgin Mary. We sat at hard, wooden desks, unless we were standing in the corner for not knowing our times tables or poetry recitations. Children who struggled to learn were routinely humiliated. During the run-up to the first divorce referendum, in 1986, proselytising on behalf of the ‘Vote No’ campaign replaced the rest of the curriculum, and the traditional pre-holiday activities that are my only fond memory of school. Where, most years, we spent the end of the summer term on nature studies, using quadrats to count insects, and woven willow traps to capture pygmy shrews, in 1986 we 9 to 12-year-old non-voters learned about the existential threat divorce posed to Ireland’s soul.

Ireland’s soul was already familiar to us from our history lessons. Here, the headmaster railed with passionate intensity about Cromwell’s men bludgeoning proud Irish patriots to death with their own wooden legs, and the British deliberately exporting corn at the height of the famine to maximise the suffering and death. Long before I left that place, I had learned to disregard everything it was trying to teach me, from Catholic fundamentalism and the short stories of Patrick Pearse to long division.  

My mother tells of a similar approach to history in her school days. The headmaster of her two-room school, still without an indoor toilet or paved playground when I attended it in the early 80s, was a more positive classroom presence for her, and his gentleness spilled over into tears when he taught about the deliberate injustice the British had orchestrated in order to clear Ireland of people and make room for cattle.

These formative experiences of being unwillingly inculcated with the patterns of thought of a compliant and unquestioning rural Irish citizen, left me deeply mistrustful of the ‘British genocide’ famine narrative. When it crops up on my timeline, often in the form of arguments targeting Blindboy from the Rubberbandits, I shy away from its attempt to oversimplify a complex history, with multiple agents and forces at play, into a simple story of villain and wronged victim. Then I find myself questioning whether my own grounds for this rejection stem from a similarly misleading oversimplification, a rejection of everything I was taught in primary school in favour of a history in which Irish people themselves play a wider range of roles than the hordes of passively wronged. I find myself picking at the words ‘genocide’ and ‘trauma’, attempting to untangle their meaning in the context of the famine itself and the stories it has become.

In a wide-ranging discussion between Blindboy and Fin Dwyer of the Irish History podcast[1], they discuss the attempt to frame the famine as a genocide as part and parcel of a view of the Irish as a people shaped by unique sufferings which they triumphed over, a ‘misery competition’ in which our history is often used ‘to be racist gowls.’ The subtext here is an effort, primarily or at least originally, by Irish America, to tell an origin story that was as steeped in suffering at the hands of others as the African Americans who were brought to the continent in chains, or the native Americans who were slaughtered and dispossessed. In the latter two cases, many of the hands doing the slaughtering and dispossessing were attached to Irish or Irish American arms, necessitating a tale of comparable struggle of their own to wash them clean of guilt.

This doesn’t quite explain why a primary school principal in 1980s Ireland was framing the famine as a deliberate massacre, perpetrated by the British on the Irish people. Dwyer mentions that this story really became part of Irish self-fashioning around the time of the independence movement, which revived tales that a generation had shied away from, in order to galvanise opposition to British rule. The poet-teachers who were the glorious martyrs of this movement, and whose execrable poems we were forced to learn, were the mainstays of our history lessons, supplemented with Cromwellian atrocities and tales of rapacious landlords and starving tenants. It was history as indoctrination in foundational national myths.

In an episode of Dwyer’s own podcast[2] the use of the terminology of ‘genocide’ is explored in more depth, and Dwyer emphasises that the man-made nature of most famines since the 18th century means that it is unnecessary to use the word ‘genocide’ to make clear that what happened was an unnatural disaster, shaped and exacerbated by human intervention, and failure to intervene. Dwyer describes the approach of the British liberal government to famine relief after 1847 as a radical experiment in free market ideology, trusting the market and the charity sector to provide for the needs of the people. The market did not provide, and a million people died. It is baffling, and Dwyer made this connection himself in his interview with Blindboy, that this same hodgepodge of markets and charities is now relied on by the Irish state to provide the basic necessities of social infrastructure, from housing to social care and mental health provision. An approach that is labelled ‘genocidal’ in the context of 1847, is standard operating procedure in 2021. The idea of directly building homes, without enriching third parties in the process, is dismissed by Leo Varadkar with a sneer about ‘free houses.’

The worst devastations of the famine, rather than a genocide deliberately perpetrated by the British, were a by-product of liberal economic policies. It’s worth bearing this in mind when thinking about the lives of the country’s poorest under neoliberal austerity since 2007. Is a British landlord class qualitatively different from a multinational landlord class in any respect other than that it allows an external ‘other’ to be held responsible for the suffering it causes in its policy and practice?

A further consequence of framing the famine as a genocide is that it creates the illusion of a homogeneous Irish people, who were all equally targeted for destruction in an atrocity perpetrated by outsiders. A similar trompe-l’oeil operates by referring to the famine and its aftereffects as a ‘national trauma’ whose ripples we all feel to this day. Such framings serve to draw the eye away from diverging experiences and outcomes, dependant on wealth and social class. They airbrush away the uglier reality that the famine caused suffering and avoidable death among the members of the lowest social class, the landless farm labourers, but it brought prosperity to merchants and larger farmers, involved in their hundreds of thousands in the export of grain, dairy and beef throughout these years of starvation. The labouring cottier class was obliterated by the famine, and is ‘absent from both the historiography and the social memory of the period’[3], and yet we claim their fate as the source of a trauma we all share. In this case, the words ‘genocide’ and ‘trauma’ are uttered as uncantations, words whose purpose is to make sure the entangled complicities allowing for surviving and thriving at that time go unexamined.

Dwyer lays bare the realities of these entanglements on an episode set in Clogheen, a small village in Tipperary. I was drawn to this chapter as it’s set in a valley on the other side of the Galtee mountains from where I live, in similarly fertile agricultural land. While researching a project on the history of butter, I found evidence to suggest that exports of butter from my area rose, year on year, during the height of the famine in the late 40s and early 50s, but I was unable to find out how, or even if, this overlapped with the effects of the famine on subsistence farmers and cottiers in the area. Dwyer’s story of the experience of Clogheen, 40 km away, offered a promising point of comparison.

He describes a deeply unequal society,[4] with large farmers renting up to a thousand acres from Lord Lismore to grow wheat, mill owners running a network of mills and granaries, a town-based working class toiling in the mills, smaller farmers who could only rent a few acres, and landless labourers. Throughout the 1830s, tensions flared between these groups, as a cross-denominational coalition of landlords and strong farmers worked to enclose common land, consolidate strips of land into ever larger individual farms, contest traditional rights of access to the bogs, and push the landless cottiers to the most precarious of margins.  Opposition to this ongoing dispossession took the form of ‘outrages’, the state’s preferred term for outbreaks of violence in response to ongoing oppression. In the early years of the famine, as the cottiers and small farmers were pushed to desperation by the loss of their staple crop, carts bringing flour to Clonmel, for export via the port of Waterford, were often attacked and robbed. Throughout the late 40s and early 50s, as a quarter of the population of Clogheen and its hinterland died or left the area, tens of thousands of barrels of flour were exported.

In the popular imagination, the British pursued their genocidal agenda through enforcing the export of food from Ireland throughout the famine years. In actuality, while the British army was sent into areas like Clogheen, their function was as a security force, allowing those who wanted to continue exporting to do so.  Formulations suggesting that ‘the British’ sent food out of Ireland misrepresent the agents and the forces involved – Britain offered a ready market for the produce of Ireland’s dairy and grain farmers, who continued to supply this market throughout the years of the famine, and the British army ensured that this trade carried on unimpeded.  Once again, an insistence on the famine as a result of deliberate British strategy occludes a more complex reality, in which the native Irish middle-class enriched itself and consolidated its position through prioritising its own profits over the lives of its tenants, employees and neighbours. The strongest opposition to an export embargo, right through the blackest years of ’47 to ’52, came from this class, unwilling to countenance the loss of income that would follow from limiting their trade to the decimated local population.

However, these same families also set up soup kitchens, distributed alms, and sometimes even reduced rents, and these charitable efforts were not considered incompatible with pursuing their own financial interests. In a pattern we have replicated ever since, the well-to-do prioritise their own material wellbeing above all ethical considerations, before sprinkling their largesse on the lower orders once their own needs have been met. Then, as now, economic concerns come first. Only once some invisible threshold has been breached can the surplus be funnelled to those at the bottom. Then, as now, individualist, piecemeal, charitable provision fills the void where structured, state-funded intervention could actually have a meaningful impact on people’s lives, up to and including the chance to go on living. This was a formative chapter in our history, not only in loss of life, and certainly not in unleashing some universally shared trauma. Patterns of interaction between classes, based on an asymmetric interdependence between economic and social spheres, that warp our social fabric now, were woven then.

Some hundred years after the famine, the head of the Co-operative Association dismissed the social and educational potential of the co-op movement with the words ‘there’s very little good in talking about social aspects unless the economics of the situation is put right first.’[5] From 1847 to the present day, ‘the economy’ has always been a hungry ghost, needing feeding before we can begin to think about mere people. Nobody knows how much this ghost needs to eat, so the situation has never yet been put right.

The famine finally did away with a way of life that took place almost entirely outside of the modern cash economy, on the margins of the dairy plantations that would enrich Munster’s butter merchants and strong farmers through the second half of the 19th century. It did this by killing off the most vulnerable, the landless labourers, and pushing the small farmers to emigrate. Cloaked beneath the myth of national trauma, the famine proved an opportunity for those left, the better-circumstanced, to consolidate and thrive, in what Homer Simpson would recognise as a ‘crisitunity.’[6]

David Lloyd discusses 1990s famine commemoration in the context of an ‘alliance with a transnational capitalism whose rapacious, brutal and destructive past is continually reproduced in the present’[7] and indeed, the convergence of free market ideology with the subjugation of all social and ethical concerns by economic ones,  ensures that Ireland in 2021 is as rapacious, brutal, and destructive towards those on its margins as it ever was. The attitudes and patterns of thought that lead to the loss of an entire social class in the 1840s, destroys lives today. Ever before it was an independent nation, Ireland was a country that hated poor people. Not ‘the poor’ as an abstract concept, but the actual bodies, homes and children of poor people. It is not uncommon to hear people wax sentimental about the traumas of the famine, while fighting against the most minimal supports for people marginalised by our current extreme neoliberal regime. You would think a constantly revisited history of suffering, supposedly shared by us all, would yield solidarity. And yet the Venn diagram of those who call the famine a genocide, and those whose reaction to the sight of a woman and her children sleeping in a garda station is ‘don’t have children if you can’t take care of them’, is a smooth-brained circle. This attitude has caused material harm and real trauma. It is at the root of our shameful network of carceral institutions, designed to punish the wrong kind of people for living the wrong kind of lives.

In June 2021, a poet shared some thoughts on the origins of the (shared, national) fear of eviction in an Irish Times article called ‘Irish Property Psychosis Rooted in Fear of Eviction’[8] whose subheading claims that ‘Eviction trauma is vivid enough in recent memory to be culturally transmitted.’ Attempting to trace the very real insecurity faced by renters today back to the long-lost cottier, thrown with his family and belongings out of his bothán, was insufficiently spurious for the author, who went on to claim this cultural trauma as the reason we are wary of such alternatives to home-ownership as ‘lifelong leases.’ This analysis neglects the reality that there is no such thing as a lifelong lease in the Irish rental sector, where the greatest security of tenure that can be hoped for is a 12-month contract. What is presented as an ‘irrational compulsion’ for young people to own their own property is, in fact, the only rational hope of a secure home in a rental market that has, courtesy of Michael Noonan, been remade as a profit-mill for corporate buyers and vulture funds. The only legitimate parallel with the late 19th century, one the author does not draw, is that the profits of a landlord class are now, as then, prioritised over  the security and wellbeing of the people from whom they extract these profits.  

Casting the famine as a shared national trauma is a story told by middle-class Ireland to conceal the fact that its wealth and social position were created and consolidated through collusion in the destruction of poor people. Fear of eviction is real, and entirely justified, in a country that offers no effective protections against its native landlord class. Trauma isn’t ‘culturally transmitted’, any more than solidarity is. The same kinds of people who suffered eviction in famine times suffer homelessness now, and the kinds of people who did business, exported butter, consolidated farms then, are doing the same now. Eviction isn’t everyone’s story, then as now. Claiming the famine as a trauma shared equally by everyone, in a way nothing else ever has been on this island, is a convenient way of avoiding facing the asymmetries of suffering shaping Irish society, then and now.

James Connolly, in 1897 when the famine was still within living memory, was alert to this tendency ‘to re-enact the old sad tragedies of our past history’[9] and neglect the difficult realities facing us in the present. He saw this as part of a sustained effort to build a revolutionary movement by conciliating Ireland’s privileged classes, ‘by assuring them that in a free Ireland their ‘privileges’ will not be interfered with. That is to say, you must guarantee that when Ireland is free of foreign domination, the green-coated Irish soldiers will guard the fraudulent gains of capitalist and landlord from ‘the thin hands of the poor’ just as remorselessly and just as effectually as the scarlet-coated emissaries of England do today.’ This was not the Ireland Connolly dreamed of, but it’s the one we have. These self-styled conservative revolutionaries set about rebranding the events of 1916-21 as the revolution of poets and teachers I learned about in primary school in the 80s, editing out the women and working-class people who had been central to the movement.

Connolly’s warning[10] resonates in the weeks following the garda use of force to break up pickets by Debenhams workers trying to prevent the removal of stock from closed shops. It hits hard when you see pictures of guards in balaclavas assuming the role previously played by the redcoats in facilitating evictions and protecting property. It really hits home when you watch the organs of official Ireland push a narrative of shared atavistic trauma, when nothing in this nation, not even the misery it loves to cling to in its self-fashioning, has ever been equitably distributed.

[1] https://play.acast.com/s/blindboy/jocularguff

[2] https://irishhistorypodcast.ie/was-the-great-famine-a-genocide/

[3] https://www.rte.ie/history/the-great-irish-famine/2020/0806/1157723-hidden-ireland-the-world-of-the-cottier-on-the-eve-of-the-famine/

[4] https://irishhistorypodcast.ie/corn-gunpowder-class-conflict-the-famine-in-clogheen-i/

[5] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ShLC7LqjQLg&t=1587s

[6] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yY-P3D63Z18

[7] David Lloyd (2000) ‘Colonial Trauma/Postcolonial Recovery?’ Interventions, 2:2, 212228, DOI: 10.1080/136980100427324

[8] https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/irish-property-psychosis-rooted-in-fear-of-eviction-1.4586733?utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=twitter

[9] https://www.marxists.org/archive/connolly/1897/01/socnat.htm

[10] https://twitter.com/alan_maguire/status/1015018431228280835?s=20