Was the Famine a Genocide?

Liam Kennedy, emeritus professor of economic history at Queen’s University Belfast has sent us this transcript of a debate, which took place on BBC Northern Ireland’s Sunday Sequence radio programme on December 10th, last year, between himself and Tim Pat Coogan and was moderated by William Crawley. The debate is also on Youtube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7YTOXoyhXvY


Crawley: In his new book, The Famine Plot, Tim Pat Coogan has gone where others fear to tread. The Famine, he says, was an early example of ethnic cleansing and one of the first acts of genocide.

Crawley (to Tim Pat Coogan): What’s the evidence that this was an act of genocide?

Tim Pat Coogan: A large number of graves for one thing, and an awful lot more people living in another country than should have been through forced emigration.

William Crawley: A million dead and a million more ...

Coogan: Probably more, because modern scholarship points out to averted births and the [the fact that] families died and there was no one left to record the deaths. And anyway census-taking in the deserts of Mayo and people lived in bog caves and so on, it was nearly impossible to map how many people lived there in the first place. But probably it’s something nearer nine million than eight when the Famine broke out, and it came down to somewhere nearer six when the Famine was over in’51, and the Hunger continued, so probably a far greater impact. And you have to remember the impact on society was about nine million. Whereas you get these awful famines we see on television in Africa and it’s probably something in the order of 250,000 that die, a quarter of a million, and it’s a terrible loss but it comes from a population of 19 million.

Crawley: There’s widespread agreement this was just an appalling tragedy, of course Tim Pat. Let’s go further than this, how we explain this tragedy.

Coogan: Well it was the detritus of centuries - the land situation had three million peasants living in mud cabins mostly to the left of the Shannon. If you took a line from Dingle to the Foyle, to the left of that line. But they lived everywhere, tens of thousands of people died of famine and diseases in Dublin as well. Though people tend to say the Famine didn’t touch the East. And they lived on tiny plots which they rented out from what’s known as middle men, bigger landlords, many of whom were absentee landlords. The Act of Union had transferred the buzz and the government and the power to London and everyone of consequence had got out, the artist, the plumber, the politician, the poet, the publisher. There wasn’t a government. And there they were, on these tiny plots, living on potatoes, propagating, everything getting worse. When the blight came first, Peel, the conservative prime minister, tried to alleviate it and he actually, sub rosa, smuggled in grain, on ships, and symbolically the very first act of the Whigs who supplanted them was to turn the ships round, and Trevelyan, secretary of the Treasury and [who] became the architect of relief and had the ear of the cabinet, Charles Wood: he turned them round, and that was his attitude throughout. Famine relief, any kind of relief, had to have a repulsive element in it, as he called it. And they went from feeding them on soup and so on to shutting the food depots, to confining the relief to be paid on task work on roads, some of which would be under four foot of snow. You couldn’t work under those temperatures today, and people died before the work started. And the constant refrain, he coined a phrase, about natural causes, natural events, which became the mantra, and when, say, a humanitarian landlord like Lord Monteagle would complain about the effects of their policies they would say “We must leave it to natural events.” Well natural events are if you say evict a grandmother with her children, bare-footed, in rags, no rain gear in a January gale, natural events would take care of the surplus problem of population very quickly.

William Crawley to Liam Kennedy: Does this add up to a deliberate policy of genocide in your mind?

Kennedy: Well, I waited in this book to hear some great revelation and it just isn’t there. It’s anticlimactic. I could not see the great plot, and indeed there is no serious historian who …

Coogan: None so blind as those who will not see.

Kennedy: I can’t think of a single historian who has researched the Famine in depth – and Tim Pat has not researched it in depth. One of the striking things about this book is the narrowness of the evidential sources he uses and indeed they’re presented so badly. Titles are misquoted. You might even say the title of his own book, The Plot, is itself misleading, and indeed the subtitle, England’s Role in Ireland’s Greatest Tragedy. Well it was Britain, not the United Kingdom. That’s an old nationalist trope: England the neverending source of Ireland’s ills. I find it terribly difficult, and I’m not being unkind, to find any redeeming feature in this book. That’s its only point of originality. It’s outdated, outmoded, and could I say, I was pleased to see that at moments you did engage with some modern scholarship, like Joel Mokyr, the great Dutch historian … of the Great Famine. I don’t think you understood what he was saying. You have a phrase at one point – excess mortality – numbers per cent per thousand – that phrase means nothing. You clearly didn’t understand what he was saying. And when you talk about coffin ships, one of the searing images of the Famine – appalling – and of course I accept that the Great Famine was a vast catastrophe, that’s the title of one of my publications on this, but even when talking about coffin ships, surely you need to set that in context. The Grosse Isle experience was appalling, I’ve been to Grosse Isle, I’ve seen those graves, but that was not typical of transatlantic shipping during the Famine. If you had read Joel Mokyr and others, as your references seem to suggest, you would see quite clearly that Mokyr says that that first year of shipping particularly to the mouth of Saint Lawrence was untypical and that mortality on ships across the Atlantic was less than 5 per cent. Less actually than German emigrants migrating to North America in the same time period. So either you’re guilty of incredibly selective reading or, I just wonder, have you lost the plot? Did you really understand what you were reading at times?

Coogan: Well I think what Mr Kennedy should have pointed out, by the way, from the start, was that one of my targets was the Irish academic historians, whom I say again, were guilty of colonial cringe, were largely trained in English universities, as Joe Lee has pointed out - Professor Joe Lee – and put this sort of emollient gloss on it that you’ve just heard. An even more eminent historian if there is such a thing possible, than Comrade Kennedy, was the late AJP Taylor, the English historian, who said that the Famine made Ireland a Belsen, a fairly strong term, and could not be termed other than a genocidal term in its import. I don’t know what he’s talking about new evidence. I have reproduced, I think, one of the most significant documents of the Famine, which is the article that caused Peel to fall out with Trevelyan. They had a very bad relationship for three years between 1843, when Trevelyan had visited Ireland for some six weeks, and came back, briefed to Peel, secretly, and then went out and published his findings in a quite hate-filled document, anonymously signed which showed a dreadful anti-Catholic, anti-Irish, anti-Celt bias. The last man you would have wanted to be in charge of Irish relief. But he was ...

Crawley: I don’t ... time.

Coogan: May I finish my point?

Crawley: All right go ahead.

The second point I make, which I haven’t seen our contestant advert to was that one of the most powerful men, Palmerston for example, in the English Cabinet, at the table, were huge Irish landlords, and Palmerston said flatly one day, to his colleagues, when there was some perturbation about what was happening. He said “Look, don’t we all agree that the solution to the land problem is to get the surplus population off the land?” and it is recorded that “with a shudder” they went back to other business. These were the people who imposed the Opium Laws on the Chinese at the same time in Hong Kong. They were imperialists, they wanted to clear the land, to get rid of the people off the land, to bring on high farming and they wanted to instal cattle farming instead of the Irish pauper and peasant, and he hasn’t adverted at all to the publicity campaign they ran largely with the aid of the London Times to get public opinion round to that state of mind where they backed a policy which said – they welcomed the Famine – “We look forward to the day when a Celt will be as rare on the banks of the Shannon as a red man on the banks of the Hudson.”  Are you trying to tell me that that is an indication of benignity and trying to populate the land?

Crawley: Well it sounds like bias, it sounds like an appalling anti-Irish perspective for sure and you had within that period a Malthusian sense of natural justice. And we also had mismanagement. There were also a lot of other factors going on. How does this tend to make an argument for genocide? A deliberate policy to remove by death Irish people from Ireland, Tim Pat?

Coogan: Because he flatly said, I’m talking about Trevelyan now, he said this to Monteagle, I believe, how can you complain about our policies when we are actually achieving what we really want (and he talks about improving the land situation)? And he talks about how much it’s getting better, while people are dying in their thousands. We’re getting rid of the middlemen. The real thing was to cure the land situation, not to fix the appalling situation in the workhouses.

Crawley: Liam Kennedy, is that the smoking gun then?

Kennedy: Well that’s the problem with Tim Pat’s book, there is no smoking gun. It’s largely a misrepresentation of Trevelyan and because the argument is so weak, Tim Pat needs to go back again and again to the seventeenth century, to Oliver Cromwell, so Trevelyan becomes the Cromwell of the mid-nineteenth century. And that kind of demonisation runs right through the book. And, again I don’t mean it unkindly, there is so little evidence. And the crucial issue is of course, intentionality. If you look at the UN convention on genocide, the vital element is intentionality.

Crawley: You can’t have an accidental genocide – there has to be a deliberate policy?

Coogan: Either way … I quote the [protocol?] …

Kennedy: Tim Pat, if I could finish the point …

Coogan: If you can

Kennedy: If you look at other aspects or other comments by Trevelyan during the course of the great Famine it’s quite clear that he was mistaken in many of the policies, too interventionist, but he was a workaholic, he was genuinely, according to his own lights (we need to see it in those terms in the context of his own time) he was trying to save as many Irish people from starvation as possible. Let me give one seasonal example. Trevelyan – and indeed it’s in your book, in fairness – censured one of his officials for taking Christmas holidays because, as he said, “When the lives of multitudes of people depend on your exertions.” And there is no case for genocide when you think of as part of British policy in Ireland, three-quarters of a million people were working on public relief schemes. That puts modern youth employment schemes in the halfpenny place – when you have three million people at one stage receiving soup from soup kitchens right across Ireland in their localities.

Coogan: But they wanted to close them down. You’re talking absolute rubbish with all due respect. You do realise the British prime minister apologised for the policies that you are defending.

Crawley: Tony Blair.

Kennedy: Yeah, I’m not defending the policies at the time. We do need to bear in mind – it wasn’t actually obvious – what kinds of policies would initially work effectively to handle a crisis on this scale.

Crawley: But why would you shut down soup kitchens?

Kennedy: That goes back to economic constraints, it goes back to issues of economic ideology. It’s very difficult for us to understand now ...

Coogan: Even more difficult for the people who were dying.

Kennedy: Sure, I would accept that point. But you had, in the early 2000s, neo-conservatives in the United States, absolutely believing in an unregulated market system – that was laissez faire economics.

Coogan: That doesn’t justify it. They used those policies to clear the land and I have quoted in full in the appendix, you can read the UN protocol on genocide – on every ground it ticks the boxes.

Kennedy: It doesn’t ...

Coogan: I know I did criticise academic historians for this bumbling attitude, obfuscating nomenclature, you couldn’t really blame them... it wasn’t really Malthusian, what they were really trying to do was create a nineteenth century version of the Scarsdale diet. In fact they presided from the year 1946 to ’51 over a continuous process of the elimination of the Irish peasant from the land.

Kennedy: 1846, I think you mean.

Crawley: A comment from Mary – she’s texted us – she says a British government document was discovered a few years ago that stated that the plan was to let the Irish starve, send the rest to America, leaving Ireland free to be planted by the English. Does such a document exist?

Kennedy: No.

Crawley: Part to the mythology then?

Kennedy: One of the great problems of this whole area is that it generates all kinds of conspiracy theories, websites – I’ve found myself misquoted on some of these websites – there is a kind of Famine commemoration industry out there and Tim Pat has made an extremely undistinguished addition to this …

Coogan: Could I put one point to you …

Crawley: Let’s hear Liam’s point.

Kennedy: The issue of intentionality is central to the whole discussion of genocide. In this book you have failed utterly to establish that there was intentionalilty and indeed the facts fly in the face of that. Misguided policy, certainly, but having three-quarters of a million people on public work schemes, having three million people receiving food rations, that is not consistent with a policy of genocide. And as an Irish revolutionary once put it, Ernie O’Malley, it’s easy to travel on another man’s wound. And that’s what you’re doing. You’re providing junk food for the wilder reaches of Irish America. What we need is real scholarship, not these outdated, outmoded, and frankly misleading commentaries.

Crawley: A final point to Tim Pat Coogan.

Coogan: I want to make a point about the Victorian Cromwell. That wasn’t my description. That was the description of a very renowned American scholar. The facts are as I’ve set them out, they can’t be denied, I suppose our friend is saying they didn’t really die, they were hidden some place. They knew in England for several years, long before the Famine, that the land was overpopulated. They had these distress committees set up in the House of Commons. People as far back as O’Connell said what had to be done. When the Famine broke out they should have closed the ports. You haven’t talked about the way food was exported all the way through it. He wanted grain distilling stopped, grain retained in the country – the soup kitchens you boast about – they had them for one year, and then cancelled it and put them back on the roads.

Crawley: All that adds up to evidence that they didn’t do enough to stop ... It’s not evidence that ...

Coogan: They wanted once and for all to grapple with the overcrowding on the Irish land and behind the cloak. The records of the London Times are there that I quoted. And I think it ill behoves an Irishman, which Mr Kennedy presumably is, to be going on with that sort of rubbish. To this day, to show you the position that the Irish Famine has left and a lot of Protestants thought it was providential to clear the Irish off the land. To this day it wouldn’t be possible for the National Irish Famine Committee of which I was a member, the government commission, to hold the commemoration for the Famine north of the border, because of the feelings there. And we had an example of those feelings from Comrade Kennedy’s corner this morning.