Tuesday, 14 June 2011

The Great Hunger - parallels

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June 14th 2011
BALLYHEA BONDHOLDER BAILOUT PROTEST – 16th march this Sunday, 10.30pm
The Great Hunger of 1845 - 1849
I want to give ye a few excerpts from a piece I read lately on The Great Hunger of 1845-1849, the greatest catastrophe in the history of Ireland, a period when millions were allowed die from starvation.  Allowed?  Yes, allowed to die, by a cynical government in London, because a famine this was not.
We all know about the potato crop failure that began in 1845, continued in 1846, then into black 47, and finally, in 48, but how about this: In the 50 years preceding the famine (sic) up to 200 commissions and special committees were instructed to report on the State of Ireland, and without exception their findings prophesied disaster.  Ireland was on the verge of starvation, her population rapidly increasing, three-quarters of her labourers unemployed, housing conditions appalling, and the standard of living unbelievably low.  The Governments ignored all these reports.
Does any of that seem familiar in the current circumstances?  All the articles by so many leading economists warning of the property crash, the bank crash, the warnings now from many of those same economists of sovereign default if we continue down our current route?  Let’s look at another headline from that era.
Evictions were not confined to populations of paupers and squatters living in mud huts.  The most notorious instance was the eviction of 300 tenants by Mrs.  Gerrard from the village of Ballinglass, Co Galway, on March 13, 1846.  A population reasonably prosperous, according to Irish standards, was evicted with the assistance of police and troops, in order that the holdings might be turned into a grazing farm.  On the morning of the eviction a large detachment of the 49th Infantry commanded by Captain Brown and numerous police appeared with the Sheriff and his men.  The people were officially called on to give up possession and the houses were then demolished - roofs torn off, walls thrown down.  The scene was frightful; women running wailing with pieces of their property and clinging to door posts from which they had to be forcibly torn; men cursing, children screaming with fright.  That night the people slept in the ruins; next day they were driven out, the foundations of the houses were torn up and razed, and no neighbour was allowed to take them in. 
Starvation was everywhere, the general feeling was despair.  Fear of famine was in the Irish peoples’ blood.  Only too clearly they realised that they were helpless before the fate overtaking them, and turned blindly to those in authority for salvation, but nothing was done. 
Again, sound familiar?  Potato failure then, bank failure now, and because those banks are still not functioning properly thousands of healthy companies are being forced out of business and hundreds of thousands of workers are thrown into unemployment, while those in authority do nothing.
The grain harvest in Ireland in September was excellent, but it was all exported to England.  The people were forced to hand over the corn to pay rent to the landlord.  It was notorious that, for the Irish peasant, failure to pay his rent meant eviction. 
To people desperate with hunger the sight of food streaming out of the country was once more unbearable.  Government food depots and sub-depots were guarded by police and troops.  60,000 tons would have left the country. 
Again, parallels; already we have paid billions (perhaps as much as €60bn) to foreign bondholders who placed a losing bet on our banks, and over the next few years – according to our own Central Bank, decreed by the ECB and agreed to by our own government – we will pay another €64.3bn, all borrowed at penal rates from the ECB, while here in Ireland more and more mortgage-holders are in trouble, more and more levies/taxes/cuts are imposed on an already suffering people, the threat now of national assets being sold off to pay these billions.
Black '47
As we enter Black '47, as the year 1847 was called, the paradox of Ireland continued.  The people were dying of starvation, whilst shiploads of food were leaving the country under military escort, and merchants were making a small fortune with massive prices. 
Which of these years, I wonder, will be our ‘black 47’?  Starting two years ago with the blanket bank guarantee, year on year we are being squeezed, the weakest suffering most, while the money-marketeers make massive profits.
Trevelyan thought that famine was the will of God and he hoped that the Catholic priests would explain this to the people.  They had no strength left and they believed that is was the will of God that they should die. 
Our friends in the ECB speak of ‘moral hazard’, how we as a people must suffer and pay the price for the recklessness of our banks (conveniently ignoring the application of the same principle of ‘moral hazard’ to the bondholders, who make their full profit from their losing bet), and relying on our own government ministers to explain all this to us.  We also have our own ‘castle Irish’ still telling us this is our own fault, we all partied, etc. etc.  Are we really swallowing all this?
As the famine and fever intensified the minds of the Irish people turned to emigration.  In a great mass movement they made their way to America and England.  They left their country with hatred in their hearts for the British Government.  Historians estimate that more than a million emigrated from Ireland to North America, and about the same amount emigrated to Great Britain.  Many emigrated to Canada because the fares were low or the landlords paid their way.  They crossed the border into America at the first opportunity. 
And yet again, bitter parallels, so many of our youth now following the same trail.
Many letters of appeal from officials and the most responsible people in Ireland were received in London, all pointing out the desperate situation, but Charles Wood, Trevelyan and Lord John Russell were not to be moved. 
Has Trichet budged, Merkel, Sarkozy?
The unfortunate masses of destitute were crushed by hunger, and the more prosperous were an inert mass of middle-class Catholic respectability. 
I swear, the parallels are more and more frightening. 
The visit of Queen Victoria in the first week of August 1849 gave the people a temporary boost but it brought no result. 
My God almighty, was this really over 160 years ago?  Could I not write almost exactly the same words today, just substitute QE2 for Queen Vic?
Political power remained in the hands of the cabinet, and above all with the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Treasury.  The poverty of the Irish people continued, dependence on the potato continued.  The treatment of the Irish people by the British Government during the famine has been described as genocide, and of wishing to exterminate a race of people. 
The cabinet spoken of above is the British cabinet, its equivalent today the EU Council and Commission, the Chancellor is Trichet, and for British Government substitute EU.
It will never be known how many people died during the famine, and historians often come up with different figures.  Before the famine the unofficial population was almost 10 million.  But in 1851 after the famine it had dropped to 6.5 million.  It is safe to say that one million died of starvation and two million emigrated to America and England.  The greatest loss of population was in Connaught at 28.6%. 
How many will we lose before this is all over?  Are we going to sit back again, watch our friends and neighbours suffer, see our children emigrate, or do we fight?  Do we learn from history, or do we repeat it?
Ballyhea again this Sunday morning, and every Sunday morning, 10.30am; if you're from Ballyhea, this is your march; if you're from Charleville, from Kilmallock, from Newtown, from Kilfinane, from Milford, from Bruree – wherever else you are from, organise and hold your own march.  There was one attempt at revolution during the Great Hunger, in 1848; it died a miserable death in a cabbage patch in Ballingarry, Co.  Limerick; don’t let this protest die. 
Diarmuid O'Flynn.