The Famine in Ulster

I originally wrote the piece below as a guest on the NUI Maynooth Irish History blog last year. Given that over the past weekend it has been announced that the annual Famine Commemoration will take place this September in Newry, it is an opportunity to challenge some misunderstandings which still exist about the period in the region. 

In their book, Contested Pasts Katherine Hodgkin and Susannah Radstone argue that contesting the past reveals certain presuppositions about the relationship between the past and the present which have both historical and political purchase. Of course, there are contested versions of the past on a global scale which continue to be debated without resolve. A recent example being the proclamation by Pope Francis on the centenary of the Armenian Genocide. Nevertheless, the ferocity of debates ebb and flow in many instances depending upon the political present.

To varying degrees the political present is coloured by anniversaries of the past.  While political eyes across the island of Ireland, and particularly the North are on the whole projecting a mature front in relation to the current crop of anniversaries known as the ‘Decade of Centenaries’ and how to commemorate them, the celebration of such events have not always been a smooth affair.

Of course many aspects of Irish history are still highly contested in that region, especially in the lead up to anniversaries. Normally focusing on battles, military outrages or conquests, they have the power to divide and inflame.  Yet, one period which doesn’t figure in this current Decade of Centenaries, but which still evokes much passion, is the Great Famine.  It must be said, impassions are not as inflamed as they once were.  This is a reflection of a maturity around the debates even from the last big anniversary in the mid to late 1990s, to the point that today when attempts are made to push the hard-line view of deliberate genocide they are, according to Padraig Reidy ‘given short shrift’.

As fierce opposition in the highest political quarters to remembering the Famine era has gradually subsided, it is replaced with a misunderstanding of the period, resulting in a sense of distance from the events by some.  Of course, this sense of distance has a historical as well as cultural grounding as the following account from the Belfast Newsletter (23 Feb 1849) indicates.            

“The spectacle of a bankrupt union, with a horde of starving paupers, and a   ruined peasantry on the brink of pauperism, has not yet been seen in Ulster, and why? Because her people are frugal and industrious, and her landlords         improving and conscientious.  Is it fair, then, to saddle a province like this with         the charge of the pauperism which is desolating the South and West – pauperism    induced by the absence, on the part of both people and proprietors, of every   quality which has made Ulster wealthy and prosperous?  The very supposition is   monstrous.  It is, in effect, the very surest plan for dragging down this province       to the level of Connaught and Munster”.

This kind of self-congratulatory sentiment was synonymous with industrialised Ulster in relation to the Great Famine, and has fed into the historical understanding of the period of today.  Granted, the region was more heavily industrialised than the rest.  As a centre of industry it boasted considerable wealth in comparison with the two provinces mentioned in the above quote.  However, as Gerard MacAtasney has shown in his 1997 study on one of the region’s linen industry heartlands, County Armagh, industrious Ulster was not immune from the ravages of famine, no matter what the projected image was.

This is corroborated by local Armagh historian Francis X. McCorry who argued that the north Armagh region which was the focus of his study ‘provided a picture of hardship and desolation which even yet few have acknowledged could have pertained to any district in the north of Ireland’.[1]  Indeed, McCorry has discovered that there were approximately 2,500 famine victims buried in unmarked graves in the field behind Lurgan Hospital, the site of the old Lurgan workhouse in the north Armagh town.  The worst period of time being from October 1847 to November 1848 when 1,119 people of all denominations perished through hunger and disease.

Perhaps one of the more interesting statistics in MacAtasney’s study of Lurgan workhouse is that in 1847 more Protestants than Catholics died.  This is important given that for decades, especially in parts of Ulster, the famine has been viewed as a ‘Catholic catastrophe’.

Several years ago Christine Kinealy, in her book This Great Calamity argued that much work needed to be done in relation to the impact of the famine on Protestant communities in the north east.  While some work has indeed been done, more is needed, and not just among the Protestant communities of the region.  There is a lack of understanding among Catholic communities in the same area.  This is perhaps due in part to the popularity of famine studies being off the agenda in favour of current and approaching milestone anniversaries.  This is evident by what local experts view as the lack of awareness of the mass famine grave in north Armagh among the majority of the population in the area.

The vast majority of famine historiography has rightly dealt with the provinces most affected, Connacht and Munster.  However, this has led to a popular perception of famine victims and survivors being viewed as those almost Yeatsian characters of the Celtic Twilight, to the detriment of those who died in more supposedly affluent areas [2]

Of course the time for mass public commemoration of the Great Famine has gone, for the foreseeable future at least.  Besides, the public can only be expected to be exposed to one set of public commemorations at a time.  This certainly was the case when this piece originally appeared. An important milestone in history, the 75th anniversary of the beginning of the Second World War slipped under the radar due to the effort being put in to remember ‘The War To End All Wars’, WWI.

Regardless of the fashion, famine historiography should not take a backseat because it doesn’t fit neatly into the current spotlight.  It certainly shouldn’t prevent continued academic research, and it certainly shouldn’t inhibit local engagement in Ulster on a period which is still in many cases, overlooked and misunderstood.  The announcement by Heather Humphries TD on 10 April 2015 that the annual Famine Commemoration moves to Northern Ireland for the first time surely gives a platform for better understanding of those tragic few years which have shaped so much since.

[1] F.X. McCorry, The Montiaghs of North Armagh in ‘Seanchas Ardmhacha: Journal of the Armagh Diocesan Historical Society’, Vol. 18, No.2 (2001), pp. 125-163

[2] R. Kee, The Green Flag Vol2: The Bold Fenian Men (London, 1981), p. 131.

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