The Famine in New York

Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheal Martin at the New York Consulate Wednesday

This week is a crazily busy one in New York. As I made my way to the Consulate to hear the Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs speak on Wednesday, I ran into President Obama’s cortege. At least one block was closed on either side of the President’s car, and a security guard told me that if I tried to get closer, there were invisible people with rifles nearby who would deal with me swiftly.

Micheál Martin was one of the many politicos in town for the Millenium Development Goals summit. He co-hosted an event on poverty along with US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton.

Earlier in his visit, Martin had made some intriguing comments regarding whether he would ever like to take the Taoiseach’s job — ‘There is not a member of the Fianna Fail front bench who wouldn’t like to be leader of Fianna Fail’ — but he let no secrets slip in his

Michael Collins, Irish ambassador to the United States, was at the Consulate event

speech yesterday, instead touching on all the expected topics — ‘the strong political and cultural relationship that Ireland and the United States has’ and Ireland’s desire to strengthen that bond, and America’s role in advancing the cause of peace in Ireland. Martin also mentioned ‘Hillary Clinton recognizing Ireland’s historic commitment to ending hunger — our experience of hunger in an earlier era and so on.’

Martin is a likeable speaker and what he said suited the setting (he was much better than Cowen, who visited in July). I’ve long felt uneasy, though, about the way Irish public figures talk about the Famine. It’s a story that goes down well in the US, of course, with so many Irish-Americans descended from people who came here during that time.

Martin's friendly, and good at mingling

Ireland has certainly put money into commemorating it, making the Famine a very visible part of its history. When I was last in Dublin I saw the rather gruesome Famine Memorial by the Liffey, and there’s one in New York, which I’ve never gone to see. But do the long-ago troubles of our ancestors really make us more sympathetic towards today’s starving populations?

The Famine story paints us as victims, explicitly of hunger and more subtly of an external enemy, Britain. It gets far more air-time than, say, the Civil War of 1922, which was (arguably) more divisive, problematic and complex; and it deflects attention from the maelstrom of contemporary Irish politics.

I learnt about the Famine in school at some point, just as I studied the War of Independence, World War II and Stalinist Russia. It didn’t stand out. There was no oral tradition, and no stories of angst or awfulness circulated within my family; my grandmother, born in 1898, never said that her parents had suffered (I accept this could be repression rather than a natural forgetting — which would be quite typically Irish too).

Photo ops

So I somewhat resent our government’s appropriation of the Famine as its own thing to interpret and use abroad. I’m not suggesting Ireland shouldn’t do anything to help other countries, or that we should have no empathy; just that it’s false to say our feelings arise from something that happened 170 year ago. The current focus on Africa makes me feel skeptical — for aren’t there poor, hungry people in Ireland too? Perhaps it’s just not as politically rewarding to launch programmes for them.

What do you think? Do Irish people really understand hunger in Africa because of the Famine?

Or is this a self-serving use of a historical event that was genuinely tragic at the time?

13 Responses to “The Famine in New York”
  1. omnivorish says:

    Um, the latter? Nobody alive in Ireland today has experienced famine. To say that we ‘understand famine’ is absurd and betrays a sort of navel-gaving and narcissistic preoccupation with our own national identity that’s deeply unattractive (though this sounds as if Ireland is going on a date with these other countries and needs to brush up its conversation skills, which isn’t what I mean).

  2. Frieda says:

    Thank you so much for that comment. I was wondering if I’m just an evil person who sees cynicism everywhere. I find the whole famine thing really repellent, given that it seems so precisely targeted at the US audience. I bet when Micheal Martin goes to London he doesn’t mention it at all…

  3. Katerina says:

    Thought-provoking article, Frieda! I remember learning during my last visit to Dublin that Ireland recurrently suffered from disease and famines in the course of its history. The lethal ingredients, according to the National Museum of Ireland, are the wet climate and poor soil, which tends to turn into bogland. We were also told that one of the reasons why the Great Famine had such a traumatic impact on the Irish psyche was because it was effectively caused the destruction of the Irish language/culture (i.e. through the loss of so many native speakers, who either died or emigrated).

  4. Frieda says:

    Katerina, the version you heard is an interesting one. The famous famine happened in the 1840s, when a blight hit the potato crops. Part of the issue is that Ireland was at the time producing plenty of food, which it was compelled to export to Britain, and this is what makes the whole topic so political. About half of the Irish population emigrated or died during that time, many going to America.

    My issue is with how it’s used by politicians today. I always think that I feel more traumatized by current affairs — massive corruption, debt incurred, poor planning which has made the Irish countryside less beautiful — than by anything that happened long ago. I wonder if the Greeks similarly idealize or dwell on certain parts of their history, which reflect well on them?

  5. Padraig says:

    It actually gets a little complex for politiicians; after all those still in ireland profited in the years after the famine from the real estate vacated by those who emigrated to America or died. The increase in farm size etc after the fam…ine allowed the rise of an Irish middle class who supported greater independence, giving support to Redmond, Parnell and eventually DeValera. Focusing on the famine (caused by the English and therefore not their fault) as a reason for emigration to America also allows Irish politicians to ignore the fact that most Irish Americans families ended up in America because of poor government decicisions post independence leading to an economic wasteland for most of the 20th century (and now it seems for at least part of the 21st).
    DeValera also brings up another part of the mythos; the child of an economic migrant who went to the US to enrich himself sounds much less noble than the child of a victim of a famine forced to leave his homeland. FF obviously prefer the later interpretation.
    Finally, there’s the one thing Ireland has in common with african nations, unlike most European countries we have the experience of being the colonised rather than colonisers, the famine experience is a small part of this. Obviously though anti-colonial sentiment doesn’t go down too well in New York, but speeches given by Martin in Kampala or Praetoria focus on this rather than the famine.See More

    • Frieda says:

      Brilliant comment, Padraig, thanks so much. You are very well informed! It hadn’t occurred to me that the famine would have enabled some individuals to gain more land … but that does make sense. I also have a pet theory that mass emigration gradually led to a stultification of the Irish political scene, which in turn enabled FF to stay in power for so long and made the country more conservative. I mentioned this on facebook too, but at the Consulate on Weds, the Minister unveiled a memorial to Dev., who was of course in his own party, which makes everything seem rather circular.

      As a journalist I shouldn’t really reveal my political affiliations. But I can at least criticize those I’m not affiliated with. (I think that works?).

  6. Katerina says:

    Indeed they do. For us this event has been the 1918-1922 war with Turkey, which resulted in the mass expulsion of a vast number of Greek populations (about 1.5 million) from the coast of Asia Minor and Black Sea. The official narrative is that we are the victims, and all history books and documentaries treating the subject tend to stress the horrible indecencies those people suffered in the hands of Turks, or the trauma of being a refugee. Of course, this neatly obfuscates the many atrocities the Greek army committed against Turkish populations during the same war…

  7. Frieda says:

    That’s intriguing, Katerina! I hadn’t known that the war with Turkey was that awful. Hm. Small nations playing the victim. That’s always quite dangerous. In Ireland too, lots of terrible things have gone on (e.g. child abuse, suppression of women’s rights, collaboration between church and state through the forties, fifties and sixties) that we prefer not to think about.

  8. queenofparks says:

    V good and perceptive points made by everyone. I mainly dislike it terms of the myopic tendency to see everything in the world in relative terms to Ireland – ‘Oh, the Mexicans, they’re very like the Irish.’ Gah.

  9. Frieda says:

    They are perceptive comments indeed, and I learnt a lot. Thanks people!

    No one violently disagreed with me, which is a bit disappointing. I know of one person who thinks the Famine was deeply traumatizing for our nation, and I’ve asked her, via a third party over the phone, to chime in. I await her contribution.

  10. Katerina says:

    I don’t think taking the Irish perspective as one’s starting-point in such terms is myopic. This is after all the only way to do cross-cultural comparisons! (ask the anthropologists worldwide). If anything, what comes out is common threads and attitudes in the experience of being a small nation, which has emerged out of events such as colonisation, real or intellectual. To bring in the academic perspective in this once again, a friend of mine has recently published an interesting book about this (focussing on literature, but still..) :

  11. I have nothing brilliant to say–just that I think you’re brilliant!

  12. Frieda says:

    I guess that’s a comment I’ll have to approve!

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