This month, Ireland commemorates two anniversaries, the 150th anniversary of the potato famine and the first year of peace in Northern Ireland in 25 years. It is a time of both solemn commemoration and cautious celebration.
In 1840, a new and deadly fungus was discovered in a potato field in Fermanagh. For the next seven years, the potato blight ravaged the Irish countryside, destroying the main food staple of the Irish lower classes. A million men, women and children died of starvation and disease; millions more went into unwanted exile around the globe.
One year ago, on Aug. 31, Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein, the political arm of the Irish Republican Army, announced an end to the IRA military effort to remove the British presence from Northern Ireland and unite the six northern counties with the southern Republic of Ireland.
Although the potato famine occurred long ago, it relates directly to the current peace process. Sinn Fein has used the memory of the famine trauma and this year’s anniversary to mobilize its supporters to push for British withdrawal from Northern Ireland. In a recent speech to 20,000 supporters, Adams made that relationship explicit, calling for marches commemorating both the famine and Sinn Fein’s year-long push for British movement on withdrawal.
Indeed, a large part of Sinn Fein’s popularity, particularly in Catholic working-class areas, derives from an unwillingness to let memories of British involvement in Irish affairs fade away. It’s a history of domination that Sinn Fein traces back to well before the famine period, embedded in Irish music, poetry and a thriving oral tradition.
There is hardly a family in Ireland untouched by the famine’s grim events. Sinn Fein keeps that history alive with academic conferences, Irish language classes and in the details of their negotiation posture with the British government. Through culture and politics, the past is translated into the present.
The complexities of famine relief in the mid-19th Century were great, but Britain’s response to the crisis certainly sent tens of thousands of Irish peasants to a needless death. The British government allowed the 1846 Irish grain harvest to be exported, with devastating effect. In 1847, Parliament established a law that denied food or work relief to anyone owning more than a quarter-acre of land--thus encouraging land clearance and emigration. This act also led to the death of thousands and to what one historian called “the disintegration of the fabric of rural society.” From 1847 on, British policy insisted that Ireland alone pay for all famine relief, rather than the entire United Kingdom.
Britain at that time was in the grip of laissez faire economic philosophy, so there was no strong government response. In addition, a widespread providentialist religious mood in Britain viewed the famine as God’s revenge on a slothful and uncivilized race. Charles Trevelyan, Treasury undersecretary and the man responsible for famine relief articulated this deadly logic by describing the famine as “a direct stroke of an all-wise and all-merciful Providence, the sharp but effectual remedy by which the cure is likely to be effected.”
Last year, Irish rock singer Sinead O’Connor created a controversy that raged through the Irish press when she recorded a song about the famine that many said irresponsibly dredged up an anti-English attitude that had dissipated. O’Connor’s song described a nation still emotionally and intellectually reluctant to face the famine’s horror, leaving the country in a state of social amnesia, unwilling to deal with the collective trauma.
Indeed, government officials in the Irish Republic have often had an ambivalent attitude toward their history. For many years, a thorough discussion of the famine was excluded from the school curriculum, for fear it would engender both bitterness and IRA recruits. And the government has only reluctantly acknowledged the yearly anniversary of the 1916 Easter uprising--the armed insurrection that initiated Ireland’s drive for freedom from British domination. One Irish head of state actually apologized to a reporter for attending the 50-year commemoration of the uprising.
When Adams announced the cease-fire a year ago, a hopeful light burst over Ireland’s political landscape, for it would perhaps allow a more thoughtful analysis of the past. Just last month, an Irish government minister said the peace would enable all Irish people to explore more freely the truth about the famine. This was an admission that many in the academic community regarded as a growing sign of the maturity and self -confidence of the Irish people. History is becoming less “a nightmare from which we are trying to awake,” as James Joyce said, and more a tool for political and psychological discovery. The first paragraph of the document prepared by the Irish and British governments as an outline for peace negotiations acknowledges that a crucial task is to “overcome the legacy of history and to heal the divisions that have resulted.”
Irish-Americans have a huge stake in these issues. Between 1845 and the early 1850s, about 1.8 million Irish left their homes for North America, where they were often regarded as a distinct and inferior race. In a situation mirroring the anti-immigration sentiment today, their presence in growing numbers created a political and social backlash that enterprising politicians used to change state laws and win elections. In 1854, the anti-Catholic Know-Nothing Party won stunning victories in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, running on a platform that attacked Catholic immigrants and called for their deportation.
Today, Irish-Americans are one of the most assimilated ethnic groups, emerging through years of hard work and struggle into the highest levels of politics, culture and economic life. But the moving up has also meant a moving away from Irish roots and identity, looking forward so as not to face the sense of shame and defeat the immigrant Irish carried with them from their homeland.
Irish psychiatrist Garrett O’Connor has argued that clerical and political leadership in the 19th Century imposed a psychology of self-blame on Irish immigrants and their offspring that resulted in suppression of feelings and memories about the famine. The peace process provides a critical moment to allow Irish-Americans to increase their self-knowledge.
President Bill Clinton is scheduled to visit Ireland in late November. The President is having his Irish roots traced and has suggested he would like to visit a few distant cousins. He should do more than play tourist. Clinton has played a significant role in the peace process since the cease-fire by granting Adams a visa to visit the United States. He can do more. He should push the British to move forward to all-party talks that would bring the Protestant and Catholic parties into negotiations on the future of Northern Ireland. This is the way to obtain a lasting political solution that moves beyond the precarious peace. An unprecedented unity has been built in the Irish-American community since the cease fire. Judging from attendance at recent conferences in the United States about the famine and peace process, Irish-Americans are increasingly interested in the connections between the Irish past and present.
If the fragile peace holds, political and cultural links will continue to grow between the Catholic and Protestant communities, and the cut and thrust of negotiations will replace the war of attrition that has taken the lives of so many innocents. If that happens, the Irish in both Ireland and America can perhaps, as Shakespeare’s Richard II said, be “ourselves again.”