That was the subject of a debate between historians Tim Pat Coogan and Liam Kennedy on Wednesday 20th, organised by the 1916 Societies’ San Heuston branch and held in Club na Múinteoirí, Parnell Square, Dublin.
Coogan has a long track record as a journalist and historian of a nationalist/ Republican perspective: for nearly two decades Editor of the now-defunct nationalist daily Irish Press, broadcaster and author of many works including The IRA, Ireland Since the Rising and biographies of Michael Collins and Éamonn De Valera. Kennedy is Professor Emeritus of Economic and Social History at Queen’s University, Belfast. He is the author of a number of articles and of books, most of the latter collaborations, including (with L.A. Clarkson et al), Mapping the Great Irish Famine (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1999). His most recent, on his own, is Unhappy the Land: The Most Oppressed People Ever, the Irish? (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2015).
Given that the Great Hunger or Famine is a subject on which historians tend to take oppositional sides and with at least one prominent historian on the panel, I would have expected a very large turnout. Therefore when I arrived and looked at the seats in the large hall of Club na Múinteoirí, I was surprised to see that although there was a respectable number in attendance, some of the seats laid out were unoccupied.
I had got the start time wrong (yes, even though I had shared the poster for the event on my Facebook page!) and so missed some of Tim Pat Coogan’s presentation (but a friend told me Coogan had mistaken the subject and began to talk about the 1916 Rising until he came back on track). When I entered, Coogan was dealing with the Great Hunger’s death toll and referring to the “accelerated deaths” method of calculating population loss that took into account further likely births had early deaths of potential parents not occurred. By that method, Coogan estimated the deaths at two million, not counting those who died on the “coffin ships” or after arrival at their destination.
Coogan said that New York State included study of the Great Hunger under “Holocaust Studies” which he thought entirely appropriate and concluded by stating that the Great Hunger was indeed genocide.
Liam Kennedy then took the floor and began with a personal anecdote of the unveiling of a stained glass window in Belfast, dedicated to the Famine, at which he had been invited to speak some years ago. It was a somewhat rambling story through which his audience sat quietly, awaiting his arrival at the question up for debate.
During his anecdote, Kennedy related that he had, in the course of his speech, referred to punishment shootings and “exiling” (instructions to leave the country) carried out by both Republican and Loyalist paramilitaries, which had angered in particular his Republican audience, including Gerry Adams (which he described but did not name). So of course, in retelling, he was once again referring to it – in a debate about whether the Great Hunger was genocide or not. Kennedy related this in the alleged context of showing that the Hunger is a controversial subject – of course it is, so it hardly needs any other controversial subjects dragged into the discussion.
Kennedy went on to allude to “amnesia” around the subject of the Great Hunger, which he compared to a similar “amnesia” which he believed attached to the issue of the thousands of Irishmen who had “fought for the Empire (or he may have said “England”, or “the UK”) and for Ireland during WWI.” Yes, it seem to me that he was engaging in a certain amount of coat-trailing in front of his audience which, given the Dublin location and the 1916 Societies host, he must have assumed to have many Republicans in its midst.
Eventually he got the job for which he had been invited and began, helpfully, by quoting part of a definition of “Genocide”. I cannot recall which authority he quoted but a search reveals many definitions, most of which entail intent. One of the most recent authorities is Article 6 of the Rome Statute which provides that “ “genocide” means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group …” and goes on to describe a number of means of carrying that out.
It was clear that Kennedy was going to rely on denying the intention to cause, rather than to deny the effect of the catastrophe; this was entirely as I expected and it is the stock approach of genocide deniers and colonial apologists (not always the same thing). But in reality he had little to say on this subject, other than to point at the “laissez-faire” nature of the UK Government’s economic policy at the time and the weakness of the Whig party in power, managing a minority government. To be fair, it is extremely difficult to prove lack of intent but all the same I would have expected something better.
In its absence, Liam Kennedy went on to talk about culpability, which is not the same thing – one might be to blame for something which one didn’t, however, intend. And Kennedy spread the net of blame pretty wide, throwing it not only over the British Government but on the Irish middle class (could have done more), the Catholic and Protestant Churches (opposition to emigration and continued church-building), the Irish landlords (absentee or callous), the Young Irelanders (had no solutions), O’Connell’s 40 MPs at Westminster (didn’t raise much trouble at Westminster, although they were supporting the minority government).
Kennedy didn’t stint however on the severity of the Great Hunger nor on its huge impact on Ireland and on its diaspora. On that he said he agreed with Coogan, although his estimate of deaths was closer to 1.5 than two million. Any disaster in which one in seven died was an extremely severe one — it was the worst disaster in Irish history and one of the worst internationally, Kennedy stated. And it was most severe on the poor – and here Kennedy quoted a sentence of Karl Marx – and proportionally struck hardest at the Irish-speaking areas.
THE DEBATE OPENED TO THE FLOOR
When Kennedy finished, the Chairperson Kevin Keane summed up the main points elaborated by each speaker and the meetings was thrown open to questions and contributions from the floor. I wanted to get my comment in early, as I was scheduled to sing as soon as the questions and answers were over; since for a moment no-one stirred, my hand was the first up. Handed the roving microphone, I thanked both speakers and remarked that the question of intentionality did not relate only to the Government of the time but also to the ruling class of the time – the British capitalist class. An analysis of their opinions as expressed in correspondence and in their media of the time, for example editorials in the London Times, has indeed revealed the intention to get rid of the Irish cottier class and, to a degree, the Irish landlord class too. They wanted most Irish agricultural land turned to grazing and deliberately used the opportunity to do so.
Other contributors talked about food leaving Ireland while people starved, the low numbers of Irish permitted to vote; another countered the criticism of the Young Irelanders by pointing to the Rising they attempted in 18481. Yet another contributor pointed to comparisons with famine in other areas due to the potato blight such as the Highlands of Scotland, Belgium and the Netherlands – but did not express an opinion from those studies on the question being debated here. One contributor amusingly took Kennedy to task on standard academic grounds relating to questions on examination papers: “Read the question carefully, prepare your answers, ensure they are relevant …”
RESPONSES OF THE SPEAKERS
Returning to both speakers for the final responses, Kennedy admitted that the Government had wanted to get rid of the Irish cottier class but not by famine and disease. The “coffin ships” were only relevant to one year of the Great Hunger, he maintained and also that the Irish had, according to statistics, survived the journey in better health than for example the Germans, who had a much higher mortality rate during the journey and on arrival. On hearing that, I wondered whether he was taking into account the giant graveyard of Grosse Isle on the St. Lawrence, where “5,424 persons who fleeing from Pestilence and Famine in Ireland in the year 1847 found in America but a Grave.”2
Kennedy returned again to the question of the “laissez-faire” economic doctrine and maintained that the rulers of the UK at that time were convinced that government interference in economics was not only undesirable but would make things ultimately worse. He also stated that we should not judge the people of then by the knowledge and beliefs of today – another argument often put forward by bourgeois historians (and to which I was going to reply in a very short poem I had written on the subject).
Tim Pat Coogan had the final say in the debate and wandered somewhat while however displaying the breadth of his learning. With regard to the Catholic Church he related that the Papacy in Rome had dictated to the Irish Church that they should continue building churches during the Great Hunger and he went on to criticise Rome in terms that might come as a surprise to those familiar with Irish nationalists/ Republicans of Coogan’s generation. He accused the Papacy, through a certain Cardinal, of instructing the Bishops in the Church to cover up cases of abuse, by the Cardinal’s admonition that the Bishops were to act as fathers to the priests and not as policemen.3 Coogan also defended O’Connell who was already sick then, dying in 1847, and the Irish MPs, having to go to Westminster, where they were in a small minority, to put their case and to where letters from Ireland could take a week to arrive.
Returning to the subject under discussion, Coogan made the trenchant point that the Government runs the country and ultimately responsibility lies with it; if it does not, then there is in fact no responsibility for anything, he implied. It was a good point with regard to culpability and he went on to deal with intentionality. He drew attention to a London gentlemen’s club whose members were influential in forming Government economic opinion, and a discussion reported among two members that one million deaths would be required to bring Ireland to a healthy economic state while the other disagreed, saying that two million would be required. “The potato blight gave them the opportunity and they took it”, said Coogan. “It was genocide.”
Some points which did not get a response in my opinion were the issues of “bad Irish landlords” and “chaotic land tenancy” and perhaps the others “to blame” apart, of course, from the British ruling class and their Government. Briefly, who was to blame for the absentee landlord situation in Ireland? Who stole the land for them and then protected them and their agents with soldiers and police? Who bought out the Irish Parliament in 1800, giving the political class even less reason to hang around in Ireland? This was the result of invasion, colonisation, planting, repression and bribery – the principal culprit all along was English colonialism.
Yes the peasantry (and landless tenantry’s) situation was chaotic and yes they depended too much on the potato crop. Whose fault was that? Who organised the land in that way (and refused security of tenancy, penalised tenants for improvements by raising the rents, etc)? Who stifled profitable Irish industry if it competed with English and taxed Irish production for the English Crown? Again, British colonialism. Could the country’s economics have been differently organised, to support that population (and even larger) in reasonable comfort? Of course it could — but at that point in history, it would have needed an independent national capitalist class to organise it, something Ireland did not have (and has not had since that section of it she had in 1798 was beaten by Crown forces).
In the last analysis, it does not matter how badly one group or another behaved during the failure of the potato crop – the British Government was the principal body with the power to act to avert catastrophe and the real power behind them, the British ruling class, were the ones with the interest in doing nothing to avert the disaster.
Finally, a thought worth considering: would the British ruling class have tolerated a disaster on this scale in Britain? Laissez-faire economics or not, I am pretty sure they would not.
The 1916 Societies and in particular their Sean Heuston branch have been putting on talks and debates on important Irish historical questions for some time, some of which I have been fortunate to attend. The Great Hunger debate was worth having and the contenders were well known with a track record in historical studies and public fame – the debate promised to be interesting. Despite this however, I found the event overall somewhat flat. Kennedy’s presentation manner was hesitant in speech and devoid of liveliness; Coogan wandered off the core subject too often. One cannot blame the 1916 Societies for that, however.
HISTORY AND “SKIBBEREEN”
I was called up to the stage to sing my song which had been announced earlier; by now there were about half the audience remaining. I explained that the song I was going to sing was called “Skibbereen”, published in Boston in 1880, not far from the time of the Great Hunger, and attributed to Patrick Carpenter, a poet and native of Skibereen. The song is in the form of a dialogue between a migrant father and his son but I sing it as though his dialogue is with his daughter. I also intended to omit a verse, one which has the man’s wife dying in shock during the eviction – I felt that women were much stronger than that.
“That’s revisionist!” interjected Tim Pat Coogan.
“That’s right,” I replied, “but progressive revisionism.”
“It’s revisionist!” Coogan said again.
I felt like reminding him that I had not heckled him during his public speaking. Instead I said
“All history is revisionist. The issue is what kind of revisionism.”
“No it’s not – not good history!” Coogan replied.
I turned from him and read a short poem.
ALL our history is important,
not just 1916,
teaching us what we are
and what we have been.
How we came to reach the now;
of those who fought
or those who bowed,
through bloody pages,
down through the ages;
it relives the struggle to be free
and whispers soft what we might yet be.
(Diarmuid Breatnach, January 2016)
I then sang Skibbereen.
As I leaned over to hand back the microphone after finishing the song, Coogan told me his mother had loved that song. I took this as a peace overture and smiled, murmuring something about it being a good song to love. But no, I was mistaken: “And she liked that verse”, he added.
“Well, that was her opinion,” I replied, “and this is mine,” and left the stage.
Liam Kennedy was much more polite. Up in the bar, in passing, he thanked me for the song and added that he had heard the slogan “Revenge for Skibbereen” (also an alternate title for the song) alright but never the song. I expressed amazement at this, since the song is well known and even more so among people of his generation. Kennedy was born “in rural Tipperary” and, I believe, raised there too. There must have been many a kitchen and pub where that song was sung in Tipperary, surely?
1In a longer debate, I could have pointed out that James Connolly himself had criticised the Young Irelanders’ response the the Hunger but that his solution would not have pleased Kennedy either – Connolly wrote that the Young Irelanders should have led the people in breaking open the granaries, feeding the starving and preventing food from leaving the country.