Over two Monday nights I watched that excellent two-part television programme, The Hunger: The Story of the Irish Famine. Broadcast on RTE and written by Ruán Magan it was a powerful piece of work. There was an immediacy to its portrayal of the awfulness and horror of what happened to ordinary people. Equally immediate was its depiction of the cynicism, racism and heartless opportunism exhibited by many of those at the upper echelons of government, and to our shame, by neighbours and local officials.
Watching it there was a rising sense of dismay at what was unfolding and a rumbling anger at the myriad of injustices and tone deafness that exacerbated the tragedy.
The economic and social unsustainability of the situation prevailing immediately prior to the arrival of the blight is plain to see; a burgeoning population very much dependent on a single food source, the potato.
Aside from some successes on the part of Robert Peel’s Tory government, from 1846 the policies pursued by John Lord Russell’s Whig government deepened the misery and increased the death toll. What happened will forever stand as an indictment of him and his administration.
The figures speak for themselves, before the Famine the population of the island of Ireland stood at 8m people. Ireland is the only country in Europe to have a population lower than it had in 1840, we have never recovered.
Like any great event of historical significance the Famine can become so huge and so iconic that we lose the sense of its reality. Ruán Magan’s programme broke through the iconography and the epic nature of the event to bring us face-to-face with real people, people with names like ours, people who walked, worked and died in the places that we call home. We are but a remove from their ghosts.
By coincidence, my attention was recently drawn to a paper delivered in 1995 by the late Mainchín Seoighe, a Limerickman and renowned local historian and writer. The short paper, like Magan’s TV programme, combines statistic and anecdote to paint a graphic picture of the reality of the Famine in Co Limerick.
To my total surprise my own home parish is singled out as one of the most severely affected. In examining the townland population losses throughout the county between 1841 and 1941 Seoighe notes that townlands in my home place had population losses of 85pc, 81pc, 70pc, 68pc, 60pc and 50pc.
I grew up totally unaware of this, my grandparents never spoke about it. The Famine was something I studied in the history books. It was about as real to me as the Battle of Waterloo, and yet, the inhabitants of entire townlands in the place where I grew up disappeared in the 1840s and no-one mentioned it. I knew more about the Cromwellian and Williamite sieges of Limerick that predated it by 200 and 150 years than I knew about the local impact of the Famine.
Local history groups do excellent work recording the history of the locality. Members of one in my own locality are specifically acknowledged by Mainchin Seoighe for their contribution to his article on the Famine. But what is preventing us from owning this knowledge? Why do I know the name of Cromwell’s son-in-law who took over the command of his forces at Limerick? Why do I know the name of the Dutch general who commanded the Williamite artillery at Limerick . Why do I know the name of the French general who had his head shot off at the Battle of Aughrim? Why do I know all this and yet I don’t know the name of one person who died of hunger or disease in my home place , one of the worst affected in the country?
Is it survivor guilt? Was the Great Hunger followed by a great silence? Perhaps it is more than coincidence that the language spoken by the majority of the people in Ireland in the 19th century , like the population size, never recovered from the Famine. Is it taking it too far to say that the Irish language was critically wounded in the calamity but was finished off by the great silence that followed? Perhaps we chose to forget the very sounds, the very echo of the only words that could possibly hold and express the awfulness of what had occurred.
In these days, when the place of history in our schools’ curriculum is under threat, it is even more important that we remember and learn. It is vital that we remember and learn the local stories, the names of our neighbours who lie under the local sod or fled from the pestilence.
Why should we remember? Because it is our holocaust.
I’ll leave the last word to Mainchín Seoighe, “Surely, we, the descendants of the survivors, should ensure, as far as lies in our power, that no other people anywhere in the world shall ever experience the like again.”