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Black 47: The Irish Potato Famine - Part One

Posted November 20th, 2011 at 06:19 AM by Gile na Gile
Updated September 7th, 2012 at 08:30 AM by Gile na Gile

The greatest political failure of the Act of Union is seen in the inadequacy of Westminster’s response to the famine. It stands to reason that a Dublin-based domestic parliament would have been better equipped to cope with the crisis instead of an alien government overseas which ruled without majority consent. Was the British government right, in hindsight, to continually refuse calls for a repeal of the Act of Union? What, in fact, was the nature of this alliance between the two countries? Was it one of mutual benefit, or was it in fact, less of an alliance and more of a forced betrothal, a "brutal rape" as some would have it?

Apart from lost autonomy the structure of political and economic relations that existed under the Union drained the country of wealth and resources. When the Dublin parliament was eventually dissolved, itself leading to the economic stagnation of the capital, Grattan bemoaned more than anything the monies being remitted out of the country; 8 million pounds sterling per annum - funds that could have been used to develop proper infrastructure; roads, railways and hospitals not to mention a properly funded programme of direly needed land reform.

The truth of the matter is that there were few in England interested in nurturing democracy or developing the country let alone restoring lost and to them putative land rights; instead the country was variously seen either as a convenient overseas grain depot, a source of army recruits or an occasional locus of agrarian capital investment. At the height of the famine in 1847 when John O’ Connell was putting together his proposals to raise 40 million pounds sterling from the British treasury, which Ireland was prepared to pay the full rate of interest on and which would be used ‘to plunder the world’s markets for food’, he informed the House that, by his calculations and since the enactment of the Union, Britain had benefited from the relationship to the tune of 450 million pounds - double the international debt George III incurred trying to prevent American independence.

The schisms that existed among Irish nationalist leaders boiled down to a disagreement only over the means to achieve this independence. When the Young Irelanders broke rank with O’ Connell’s Repeal Movement after the ‘sword speech’ of Francis Meagher, John O’ Connell’s only objection arose from his conviction, having sought legal advice, that were he to drop the safeguards within the Repeal Movements’ constitution, which ruled out the use of force as a legitimate means to attain independence, he, and his followers, would be open to the charge of treason; a crime which still had the penalty of being ‘hung, drawn and quartered’. After the 1848 famine uprising, Francis Meagher and several others were tried and convicted and were due to be butchered in this manner until an international petition drew clemency and they were banished to Van Diemen’s land. (Meagher later escaped and fought in the American Civil War).

The point is of course, that Britain wasn’t welcome to be in a position to ‘mismanage’ or ‘bungle’ anything and, if Ireland had been dealt a fair hand historically, Westminster would have spent less time drafting Coercion Bills and more time securing a lifeline a little more reliable than the Indian ‘flint’ corn that was making its way haphazardly around the globe. You can debate all you want about the merits of a laissez faire market approach during famine relief - it is still practised to this day, (witness the ‘bungling’ of Niger’s drought in 2005) - but if you can’t recognise at the onset that the structure of relations between the two countries predisposed the Irish countryside to natural disaster, then I give up.

We are also suffering a bit, are we not, from a ‘crisis of the signifier’. You ‘bungle’ an outfield pass or ‘mismanage’ your electricity bills, these are trivialities. The Penal Laws and the Act of Union were designed and intended to preserve and protect the Protestant Ascendancy to the detriment of the native Irish Catholic majority. Genocide is indeed a poor descriptor but it’s a lot closer to the truth than the sanitised airbrushing that proposes we should be content with ‘mismanagement’ or ‘bungling’, when the entire thrust of nationalist politics, such as it was allowed to exist, was geared towards Ireland’s right to manage its own affairs, just like any other nation.

The term ''genocide'' did not become an accepted descriptor until relatively recent times and is associated most notably with the discourse on human rights as evinced by the UN's UDR. It's usage, in this context, and in short, amounts to a disjointed contemporary projection into the past which does little service to understanding the prevailing conditions. In the language and concept of the times the famine was seen by nationalist leaders such as John Mitchell as an inevitable by-product of Ireland's secondary status within the Union; ''murderous'' is a word he himself was wont to apply. Mitchell was quite scathing (whilst in America ) on the incapacity of the Irish peasant to revolt against this state of affairs and gave every encouragement to Fintan Lalor's attempts to rouse the nation's seeming apathy. When it became apparent that they would not do so to the extent required he was quite brutal in his contempt for the generality of the Irish peasantry whom ''as a race deserved to vanish into oblivion'' for failing to prevent through force of arms their own near destruction.

If the benchmark of culture is the possession of a living breathing language then the Irish ''as a race'' (again, in the parlance of the times) did allow themselves to be wiped out, in actuality and in fact. Davitt too, shares this harsh assessment in ''The Fall of Feudalism in Ireland'' though he, unlike Mitchell, lived to see the final throes of the land question announce itself.

However, if you read the Westminster debates for the period concerned you will see that over half the time of the House was taken up with proposals for alleviating the crisis in one form or another - it was very far from a consciously designed genocide.

Much of the debates were somewhat tangential (or proved to be); Bentinck's railways scheme which was eventually quashed wasted a good deal of time and there were several readings of Coercion Bills which attempted to quell the growing agrarian unrest as well as strengthen military forces (to protect exported grain in some cases) but the majority of House time during the first few years from 1846-48 was given over almost exclusively to the issue of the loss of the Irish potato crop. And if you are familiar with British parliamentary debates in the 1830's and 40's you will recognise that this degree of time and energy was quite unprecedented. The average British MP's pride was stung by the suggestion that their country would sit back and let a catastrophe of this magnitude unfold in their own backyard. They had their international reputation to be upheld as much as anything.

And so, most members who participated in this debate (some 50 odd regular contributors) were genuinely aggrieved at the extent of the calamity and wished the Government to do as much as was humanly possible - within the acceptable parameters allowed by the budget. It was actually the newer MP's, the ones who gained boroughs after the Reform Act, the so-called Manchester Radicals (who were in many cases backed by the Chartists), and who represented the interests of the manufacturing districts (like Roebuck for instance) - it was this group who were constantly badgering the Chancellor of the Exchequer for estimates concerning the outlays towards the Relief Schemes - for the Board of Works, the Soup Kitchens and so on. Their electioneering slogan in their own constituencies had been to ask of the govt. to reign in excessive spending; thus famine relief for them was often viewed as a case of cutting the pursestrings.

After Peel was brought down over the passage of the Corn Laws Russell's Whig cabinet was enthusiastically backed by O'Connell's Repeal movement - the Foxite Whigs to whom Russell belonged had always represented the best hope for positive reform in Ireland (though never Repeal) as their staunch liberal credentials were genuinely offended by the segragationalist apartheid nature of the anti-Catholic legislation. In practice, Russell appeared to have the best of intentions and was quite radical in his sponsorship of some legislation particularly his support for Sharman Crawford's proposal that the Ulster Custom of tenant right be extended to the South - this would eventually become the three F's of Fair Rent, Free Sale and Fixity of Tenure adopted by the later Land League under Davitt - it was duly quashed not by Russell himself but by a largely antagonistic cabinet, several of whom were themselves large Irish landowners. (eg Clanrickard and Lansdowne).

The charge of genocide could be more aptly placed on the shoulders of this small coterie of aristocrats who were actually determining policy but at this point of the game they were arguing that large scale clearances of estates and subsequent funded emigration was the best thing that could happen the tenants - the real net cost benefit from the landlord's perspective had of course been outlined in detail by Nassau Senior and other Edinburgh Review economists in terms of the Malthusian catastrophe and the need to switch from tillage to grazing and "modernise" farming techniques ie. introduce intensive capitalisation, a mode of agrarian reform which excluded small tenant farmers. Marx, amongst others, refer to deliberate "culling" of the tenant population and that is indeed what it all amounted to; the blight was a perfect opportunity for landowners who had being paying attention to the likes of Senior to finally put his theories into practice.

What was murderous or "genocidal" if you want ( I don't have any hankering in particular for definitions in this respect) was not the actions of the majority of MP's or even Russell's cabinet during the actual time of the emergency - as once it arrived and the clutches of the famine drew down upon the population the vast majority of them committed an overwhelming amount of their time and resources into it's successful handling (however misguided we now view those attempts) - but rather the lack of any agrarian policy over the previous 60 years which could identify and correct the root cause of recurrent starvation among over two million rural Irish

They hadn't enough land to live on and the little piece they had wasn't theirs. Thus their surplus grain production was taken in lieu of rent and exported abroad - it's that simple. O' Connell was as much to blame in my view - nothing less than a full-scale revolution was required to radically restructure land ownership but he infamously missed the opportunity at the last "Monster Meeting". Overall, taking a long view of things and on an extended timescale it was certainly genocide; every policy adopted from the time of the Williamite settlement was designed to obliterate the Gaelic speaking culture but within the timescale of the famine years themselves we can be less certain.

How, though, it may be asked, can such large swathes of the population be induced to subsist on the monotony of a solitary food item if not through coercion? The high calorific yield per acre along with its legendary nutritional value meant it was the ideal crop with which to keep the populace in check. As long as the small rural farmer and heriditary dispossessed were not pushed to the brink of outright starvation and could maintain themselves on ever decreasing plots via the multi-purpose and trustworthy spud, as long that is, that this ever-increasing population of cottiers, smallholders and homeless labourers would continue to subsist on a solitary food source that remained unthreatened, then for the time being at least, rural unrest in the form of 'whiteboy' agrarian outrages (increasingly seen from the 1820's onwards) and the possibility of it's more radical instigators aligning themselves with the national Catholic Repeal movement led by Daniel O' Connell - could be further postponed.

Few writers on the famine, if any, pay attention to the potato's historical capacity to soak up agrarian outrage through it's ability to absorb on hillsides and quarter acre plots the disgorged remnants (ie former tenants) of the Protestant Ascendancy's switch to wholesale grain exporting to complement the vacuum that increasingly existed in the British domestic corn market from the 1780's onwards. This re-orientation of agricultural practices was encouraged every step of the way by the Ascendency dominated Dublin Parliament prior to the Act of Union and continued thereafter by such initiatives as Foster's Corn Laws which granted subsidies to all landlords who made their land available for the increased sowing of oats, wheat and barley. Legislators in Westminster ensured the smooth passage of this and like initiatives to provide corn for their own domestic markets as one of the ongoing effects of the Industrial Revolution in England was to ensure that an ever increasing army of industrial labourers simply couldn't afford further inflated grain prices.

High grain prices were one of the main focuses of Chartist unrest in England from 1838 onwards with multiple references in parliamentary debates on the increasingly straitened circumstances of families in the industrial core regions such as Manchester being unable to afford anything beyond their day's subsistence. England was in fact no longer grain sovereign and hadn't been since long before the Napoleonic Wars - it depended absolutely on the Irish
grain trade whose own landed Ascendency aristocracy enjoyed preferential trade access to the British mainland. No other country was allowed import grain to England at the preferred rate of tariff which they enjoyed. Meanwhile, English manufacturers now plagued by rising wage demands due to inflation used their influence within Westminster to apply pressure on the landed gentry who emphatically rejected Corn Law Repeal as this would bring down the price of grain; their staple produce.

From at least 1800 onwards unless a radical restructuring of agrarian policy were initiated which didn't entail mass export of agricultural produce (not merely grain but cattle, pigs and dairy) a massive famine would almost inevitably occur in Ireland. To the extent that this was both predictable and avoidable the accumulated policies of successive British governments certainly from 1815 up until 1845 may be justly described as self consciously 'murderous'.

So we should instead take a look at those methods of long term control such as the penal laws, ostensibly designed to stamp out Catholicism, but in actuality an apartheid lever transferring Irish labour surplus back to Brittania. Nothing new there; a tried and trusted formula. We should look at tenant rights and the long struggle which culminated in Davitt's Land League. Also, Catholic Emancipation in 1829 clawed some concessions, but notably not the killer tithes to the Protestant church and O’ Connell’s monster meetings in the early 1840's calling for Repeal of the Union soon petered away along with his health.

In all events, there were still in place enough legal formulas and exclusions by 1845 to ensure that the boot would remain firmly pressed in the face of the peasantry, which had never recovered from the Williamite Wars, the Cromwellian sacking and the Acts of Settlement, and were essentially being pummelled to death one generation after the next till they were ready to collapse with the slightest caprice of nature. Blight hit most of Europe but only Ireland was devastated. Why was this? Infrastructure was sorely underveloped apart it seems from ports and rail networks to carry the booty out. What we have basically is 5 million hectares of an agrarian concentration camp. Landlord led committees were continually assigned funding responsibilities for relief works and then later soup kitchens (germinal liberal conscience?) - same landlords who squandered the Irish surplus on summer trips down the Nile or in syphilitic West End fleshpots or maybe cavorting around the splendid English countryside with some upper-class crumpet and pondered the marvels of the Enlightenment and the march of scientific progress and suggested that 'one could perhaps eventually play one's role if one were so inclined' - no less inclined to see the rag and bone workshop across the pond that paid his bread and butter.

Just because the critique against the system of absenteeism is part of what’s now called the ‘nationalist’ repertoire doesn’t mean it’s undeserved or not grounded in reality. By the time the current revisionism completes it’s circle I’ve no doubt the pyramid of agrarian labour relations shall be completely inverted and we shall be soon hearing of the cottiers exploitation of London’s wealthiest investors; the financial speculators of yesteryear. These people have received the harshest opprobrium from the ‘nationalists’ as they have purchased their land not to admire the Irish countryside or participate in the development of the country but to make profit through the export of barley, wheat and oats. The Tipperary Kingstons for instance are regularly rolled out as an exemplar of the beneficial improving landlord but it would be more surprising not to find exceptions to the general rule of alienation and distrust. It is not the individual landlords and how they manage the privileges into which they are born which was the problem. The problem is the system in it's entirety; what good a bleeding heart Mother Theresa who offers you crumbs from the table when the Big House is appropriating and exporting the farmer's harvest as rental. Without the ownership of the land there will always be hunger and want because without it the farmer is ceding half his crop for another's profit and is left in perpetual subsistence.

Christine Kinnealy, who spent 15 years researching her book "This Great Calamity" and is among the first of the post-revisionist Irish historians to examine the famine, estimates there was enough food in the country to feed 11 million - and yet the people starved. There were at least twenty failures of the potato crop in the hundred years before the famine; all of them indicating the necessity of developing a more diversified food source - something which could never happen as long as the land remained corralled off under the aegis of a conquering superpower. Pushed into the hinterlands, into the most marginal lands, the Irish cottiers and smallholders (the peasantry) were forced to live in the most appalling agrarian ‘slums’ surviving entirely on a solitary food item; you could grow a spud in your ear if need be, such is their hardiness they yield three to four times the calorific return of a similar acre of grain. The 'patata' it seems, was Raleigh’s real gift to the territorializing growth of Empire.

"Genocide" as we've said is a poor descriptor, a word sculpted out of UN human rights documents and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights discourse of the modern era that presupposes 'equality' and 'self-determination' - laughable concepts totally inapplicable to weighing up the machine of 19th c. colonialism. This is a system whose proponents bypass the logic of their being a right to life - through some sort of deluded self -obfuscation, I don’t know. "Genocide" is an incomprehensible concept for the servants of racial imperialism; their filters don't process the world in any way which makes the term applicable.

“All this wretchedness and misery could, almost without exception, be traced to a single source - the system under which land had come to be occupied and owned in Ireland, a system produced by centuries of successive conquests, rebellions, confiscations and punitive legislation”
Cecil Woodham-Smith, The Great Hunger

Irish historiography tends to channel very predictable grooves. The pro-Unionist ‘revisionist’ narrative focusing on the advances of Empire’s ‘civilization’ is said to be opposed by a ‘misty-eyed’ nationalist re-imagining of a glorified Gaelic past interrupted by the perceived evils of a Cambro-Norman/Tudor expansionism. But neither of these interpretative ‘schools’ are ever monolithic, or homogeneous; in the imaginations of most, their arguments blend, intersect and shed light on key events like finely graded spectra.

Thirty years after the famine, Westminster’s hand was finally forced into drafting redistributive land acts on foot of agitation and rural unrest caused by the land wars of 1879-82 and the successful campaigning of the Land League under the leadership of Michael Davitt whose own family and possessions had been flung onto the roadside during the ‘Great Hunger’ of ‘Black 47’. These land wars were themselves made inevitable by the social, economic and religious polarisation that continued to exist between the gentry and the lower strata of tenant-holder and labouring classes - a polarisation exacerbated by the fact that the majority of the 8,000 or so gentry were descended from English Tudor era Protestants and Cromwellian colonists and not Anglo-Norman settlers or native Gaels; as most of the latter who had held lands prior to the Confederate Wars had been dispossessed by the Acts of Settlement.

For the bulk of the aristocracy, their outlook remained distinctively English and Unionist and most were implacably opposed to nationalist calls for Emancipation or for dissolution of the Union, the extension of Ulster tenant right and for the demands of O'Connell's Repeal movement, all of which they naturally saw as the first steps towards their own dispossession. We should characterize the emergent Catholic middle class and the larger Catholic tenant farmers, who held maybe thirty acres or more - and were doing reasonably well, as representing a buffer zone between these two antagonistic groups; the two and a half million labourers, cottiers and paupers who regularly starved in the country whether there was a famine or not and the elite kleptocracy who monopolised it's wealth through the annual siphoning of 13 million pounds rental.

Among the many Bills confronting parliamentarians in Westminster in 1846 was a proposal to limit the working hours of English children in manufacturing (aged between 13 and 18) to twelve hours a day. I read through the debates for about an hour, in between reading Peel's presentation of the Corn Laws and realised that the poor MP who had proposed the measure and ushered the thing through committee had no chance of seeing passed what appears to us a progressive piece of legislation. The ideology of 'free trade' had completely permeated parliamentary debate, or so it seemed, and any and all measures that constrained market forces where determined to be logically flawed. A cynic would simply say they were in the pockets of big business - if not actually big business themselves. One advantage we have though is that we have seen what has actually transpired over the ensuing 150 yrs. In Ireland's context it is known that the Gaelic Order, long considered dead and irrelevant, reasserted itself with a virulent agrarian based nationalism that ended in armed rebellion followed by independence.

What was this Gaelic order, captured and re-imagined by the revivalists but the Phoenix itself arisen from the ashen bones of workhouses, coffin ships and anonymous mass graves? Famine victims are often referred to as “illiterates” and burdened with a peasantry's typical superstitions but “illiteracy” doesn’t equate to ignorance for knowledge had been transferred much as it had always been - through an oral tradition based on folk stories, songs and poems; a wholly embedded culture crackling with life, within itself and for the world around it. And when the end came there was scarcely a “cottier” or a “labourer”, of those empty economic categories we now deploy, who wasn't aware that he had belonged to a conquered and subjugated people and still fewer again, I'd wager, who didn't curse the Sassanach with their dying breath.

Much of the accumulated traditions were lost with the Tudor dispossessions with many of the Bardic order being reduced in status to that of wandering paupers but this poetic tradition exerted a tenacious hold on the Gaelic imagination. Some, such as the 17th.c Daithi O' Bruadair, still managed to get by, for the most part, purely on the strength of his verses - though he ended his days embittered and labouring in the fields like everyone else;

D'aithle na bhfileadh n-uasal,
(The high poets are gone,)
truaghsan timheal an tsaoghail;
(and I mourn for the world's waning)
clann na n-ollamh go n-eagna
(the sons of those learned masters)
folamh gan freagra faobhair.
(emptied of sharp response.)
D'aithle na bhfileadh dar ionnmhas eigse is iul
(After those poets for whom art and knowledge were wealth)
is mairg de-chonnairc an chinneamhain d'eirigh dhuinn:
(alas to have lived to see this fate befall us)
a leabhair ag titim i leimhe's leithe i gcuil
(their books in corners greying into nothing)
's ag macaibh na droinge gan siolla da seadaibh run.
(and their sons without one syllable of their secret treasure.)

Bards like O' Bruadair were the vessel's and expositor's of the Gael's wisdom - though their learning was more often deployed extolling the virtues of their Gaelic lords - but after Kinsale (to choose one turning point) their numbers were necessarily reduced and their power base eroded. The encomiums or 'praise poems' were now eclipsed by experimentation with new genres such as the 'aislingi' or 'vision' poems which usually ended with a prophesy that Eiru, personified as a speirbhean or 'sky-woman' would be redeemed by a restoration of a Stuart monarchy. This was the dominant form throughout the first half of the 18th c ('Gile na Gile' being probably the most well known of the early aislings written by Aodhagan O' Rathaille) but as the Jacobite cause became increasingly untenable there emerged a new generation of travelling poets and seanchai (story-tellers) who specialized in parodying the conventions of the genre. Nevertheless, the political aisling could still be found as late as the 19th c with the ri thar caladh (king from overseas) being now replaced by other figures such as Daniel O' Connell.

However, this is only one genre among many. From the mid 18th century, to the time of the famine there are Gaelic poems being written - and performed - about the 'wild geese', the Whiteboys, the Defenders, the Seven Years War, the Volunteers, the American War of Independence, the United Irishmen, the French at Bantry, Catholic Emancipation, the Tithe War, Repeal; in addition to hundreds others concerning myriad events of local importance; such as O Reachtabhra's 'Anach Cuain', satires on landlords such as Sean Clarach MacDomhnaill's poem on Colonel Dawson of Tipperary and Riocard Bairead's 'Eoghan Coir' not to mention the countless elegies for historical figures such as Patrick Sarsfield, Edward Fitzgerald, Fr. Nicholas Sheehy and Thomas Davis - all of which circulated widely before the famine and predated the so-called "Gaelic Revival" of the late 19th c. To say they knew little or cared less for the Gaelic Order is absurd; it defined their very being. Even among those who had to renounce Catholicism to evade penal law apartheid, consideration of past and present oppression was an ever-present.

But there were other paths to chose; is it at all surprising that an early 18th century Gaelic speaker would leave his little plot of land and seek profit in the urban centres; taking odd jobs and menial pay for want of an education and possessing only the rudiments of the foreigner’s tongue? That he would speak to his children only in English knowing this is their only hope for advancement. That those children would in turn look upon their parents with a certain disdain; believing in the words heard all round him (in 'enlightened' propaganda streaming from the presses) that they are ‘backwards’, ‘savage’ or ‘superstitious fools’ and that they should build up for themselves through industry and guile a small enterprise and seek to protect their meagre savings and future by aligning themselves fully with what must appear to be the acme of civilization.

But theirs, the aspiring Catholic middle classes who engrafted themselves onto Empire, is not the story that has survived; because the sinking ship which they left behind them, the emaciated ruins of rural Ireland, had too many passengers and too much baggage - and the tidal wave of ‘nationalism’ that accompanied its submersion was so powerful and all-encompassing that by the 1918 War of Independence only a fool would dare swim against it.

The worst of the revisionists, the timid little woodland voles that emerged from their forest retreat sixty years after the deluge - who betray not the slightest comprehension of the passions that spontaneously erupted in those years - think that by denigrating the leaders and motivations behind 1916 they can effect ‘a peace for our time’, that by undermining turn of the century nationalism they are depriving contemporary ‘32 County’ Republicanism’ of it’s oxygen? If this is their strategy then it is a false and deluded one and persisting with it will only tickle the leviathan out of its slumber.

It is astounding to me to read the contemporary correspondence, the newspaper reports, the debates in parliament and see so little inkling among the participants that an enormous grievance could be stewing in the Irish soul. It's there, it's mentioned countless times alright that the Irish 'feel hard done by' for instance vis-a-vis the Tithe Laws - they recognise it as an intellectual construct - but they don't actually feel it, they can't appreciate it's reality. Seldom has there ever been a concession made to the promotion of democracy in Ireland under British rule without the threat of violence, a sad and grievous legacy which haunts the country to this day. Independence, when it came, a full two generations after the famine, was thanks to the slow emergence and pre-dominance of the physical force tradition - one that had it’s roots in the Irish Republican Brotherhood - itself forged in the aftermath of the famine, and by men, rocked to the core by a cataclysmic visitation, which occurred, under the perennial thumb of ‘perfidious Albion’.

The Tudor-era and Cromwellian plantations in Ireland did not entail for the native Gaelic inhabitants a simple transferral of one set of elites for another. Oftentimes it is implied by revisionist historians that there has been an almost seamless switch effected which has no great meaning for the ‘peasantry’ who stay poor and are still peasants. It is not; an entire culture has been upended, a society whose individuals have well rehearsed rights and obligations towards one another and which are codified in the seanchus law tracts, additions and embellishments to which date back over a thousand years - this entire relationship is now torn asunder. They will also have to qualify by what they mean by ‘serfdom’ and expand upon how they conceived this to have occurred in pre-Norman or pre-Tudor times, for the Gaelic clans were predominantly mixed pastoralists who practised seasonal tillage, continually shifting their herds and livestock to fresh pasture, constructed mobile shelters and readily vacated their stone fortresses as needs required. Institutionalised slavery is, by and large, not a common feature of such groups, if only for the inconvenience it causes. This mobility is also associated, as cultural anthropologists can testify, with a more egalitarian social structure. Richard II, for instance, was said to be horrified when on one occasion the Gaelic chief whom he was entertaining insisted on having his entire ‘retinue’ sit with him during the meal. There is also the question of the native Gaels relationship with the land, made free use of within the prescribed territory of their kinship groups and the special features of which are preserved for us in the Gaelic place names and endlessly referenced in works such as the Tain Bo Cuailgne.

Woods, trees, lakes, plains; all previously freely accessed and known intimately and each associated with it’s own legend, tale or piece of folklore have now been enclosed; circumscribed within the baronies, boroughs and the estates of the new colonial settlers. This lifestyle is now abruptly brought to a halt replaced by a sedentary agriculture confined within specific designated areas. Within a generation perhaps the intimate knowledge connected with that landscape will be lost but more importantly the customary rights of use and management of the soil - mentioned by Gladstone in his 1884 Home Rule Speech as ‘tribal land customs’ - have now been obliterated and in their stead stand the sprawling untouchable acres of the usurper; divided utterly from their now ‘tenants’ by language, culture and law.

The natural affiliations and reciprocal ties that might exist between an English feudal lord and vassal each bound to the other by a common national history are here nowhere to be found. In their stead lie mutual suspicion and distrust; an unnatural hierarchy sustained by no common bond but the brute exercise of force. The reason why historians such as McDowell don’t focus on secret agrarian resistance groups like the ‘Defenders’ is not because of a paucity of information, or because they are ‘not important to the big picture’ - but because this would disturb the much more tranquil narrative to be found in the chambers of the Irish Parliament; the one that blinds itself to the ultimate reality that it’s legislators, despite all their high flown rhetoric and noble sentiments, are really just haggling how best to parcel out the land and it’s resources amongst their own exclusive members - native Irish aberrations such as William Connolly aside - whilst the sedentarised Gaelic majority, through their policies, their ignorance, and their neglect are being commissioned straight into a 19th century holocaust. Where are the chapters from the Royal Irish Academy on the root causes of the famine? The root causes that is, not the arbitrary sweep of nature line or the bogus proliferating population story which they have the gall to dress up as an indicator of success, or even the ‘mismanagement and incompetence line’ but the narrative that details in minutae how the land was enclosed into the feudal estates system and it’s former inhabitants gavelkinded into oblivion.

The result of the ‘Cogadh an Da Ri’ (War of the Two Kings) in Ireland was the installation of an alien ruling class, largely composed of English military mercenaries who neither shared the culture, language or religion of the native Gaels and who proceeded to institute punitive measures which assured their predominance; known as the penal laws. Lands held by the descendents of the Anglo-Norman settlers (Old English) - who had maintained their Catholicism throughout the Reformation - and who had thrown in their lot with the native Gaels (Old Irish) during the Confederate Wars, or the ‘Cogadh na hAon-deag mBliana’ (Eleven Years War) were also forfeited. Some, such as James Connolly in his ‘History of Irish Labour’ have pointed to the suspicion and enmity that existed between the native Gaels and the Old English as a factor which contributed to the failure of their alliances on both these occasions.

Without dwelling at length on this matter, both these conflicts are viewed by the signatories of the 1916 Proclamation as the first two occasions in which independence was attempted through the use of arms;

“In every generation the Irish people have asserted their right to national freedom and sovereignty: six times during the past three hundred years they have asserted it in arms”.

The point has often been raised that Catholics were not the exclusive focus of the penal laws; that discriminations also existed against the northern Presbyterian “dissenters” and that this fact somehow mitigates the argument that native Irish Catholics were being exclusively targeted. Now, I cannot begin to account for the various theological disputes which produced the proliferation of ‘dissenter’ faiths but at the end of the day they are all, are they not, Protestant. The northern Presbyterians and their Protestant brethren, whatever disagreements may have existed between them and whatever exclusions they may have suffered in the past from the Anglican hierarchy were always united in their condemnation of ‘popery’ and this unity becomes more pronounced after 1798. In many ways, in fact, they become joined at the hip as we can clearly see, for instance, in their common membership of Orange lodges. In referring to penal law discrimination against dissenters it needs to be acknowledged that these ties of affinity - being bound within the one Protestant faith - ultimately bind them closer to Anglicans and distance them both in turn from Catholicism.

As a general point to illustrate that Catholics were not being singled out exclusively for discrimination under the penal code this argument is well taken - but let’s be clear, the penal laws, in themselves, are not the immediate problem with the conditions that prevail in Ireland from the 17th to 19th centuries; what is of more concern is the fact that the country has been colonised. The ‘Jacobite’ French monarchy’s persecution of Protestants is appalling and well known, as is the anti-catholic hysteria that culminated in the massacres of Vendee and the Roman Catholic Church was just as grasping as it’s Anglican counterpart in Ireland in extracting tithes from the French peasantry; but in France, as is the case with England, the discrimination against Protestant and Catholic minorities is not proceeding in the context of colonialism. It is Englishmen and Frenchmen legislating against their fellow country men, or upholding their own faiths as a means to diminish them; in Ireland the laws are being applied, stiffened and relaxed, as according to the measure of the times, by “Irishmen” of English stock under the ultimate auspices of the Crown of England. What is more, whereas in France the Protestants were a significant minority; in England, Catholics comprised only 4% of the population and didn‘t by themselves constitute a threat to the status quo. In Ireland, the discriminatory laws are being applied to a 70-75% majority, by a minority Anglican ascendancy of mainly English extraction, with a corresponding alien culture and language; in short, they are colonists unsustainably lording themselves over an alienated populace.
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