European History~ Ireland and Northern Ireland and the Potato Famine


This PowerPoint was developed as background for students who were planning to participate in a trip to Ireland designed to study the Troubles and the Good Friday Accords. I apologize for any copyright infringements, which were not knowingly committed.

For anyone interested, I’ll keep a running commentary on where we go, from July 7th to July 16 (2011)

We will land in Dublin tomorrow morning(July 8th )………  Five students are along: Livia, Ronnie, Spencer, Jared, Jordan…

We’re here, and ensconced for last night and tonight in a hostel in Belfast.   It’s nicely situated over a lake, has in suit bathrooms, so for a hostel it’s quite nice.    We arrived only an hour or so late yesterday morning, despite some difficulties with a fuel
valve and air conditioning at Charlotte.    We have an hour or so of one of those scary, bumpy rides and then it was smooth flying to Dublin.

*We’re here, and ensconced for last night and tonight in a hostel in Belfast.   It’s nicely situated over a lake, has in suit bathrooms, so for a hostel it’s quite nice.    We arrived only an hour or so late yesterday morning, despite some difficulties with a fuel gage valve and air conditioning at Charlotte.    We had an hour or so of one of those scary, bumpy rides and then it was smooth flying to Dublin.

We were well met by Keith McNair, who gave us an hour for coffee and tea and then we headed north.  We stopped off on Droheda to see Oliver Plunkett’s head (and I think more importantly an elaborate Catholic church)  then we headed the Battle of the Boyne site, where there was the explanation of events, plus a display of horsemanship and musket loading, then we met with the Drew Nelson, Grand Secretary of the Loyal Orange Order, who spoke at LENGTH about Irish history and the place of the LOL in it– So we’ve seen both sides, or have at least begun to of the conflict.  He spoke a great deal about the Troubles, friends murdered, a siege mentality…. how much peace means, and how fragile it seems still at times.

Then to Belfast, to see some rather magnificent buildings, a tremendous number of Goth teenagers, who gave us a sense of how unhappy many are with their prospects.   Belfast is a beautiful example of a Victorian industrial town–  magnificent public buildings, large businesses, department buildings, and students got a glimpse of the murals– on the East Side, where they are militantly Protestant– defending what is theirs: “We shall maintain!”  and along the Falls Road where they celebrate the hunger strike in the “Haitch Block”,  memorialize the famine as a genocide, or take the side of the Palestinians in recent conflicts.

**The hostel looks out onto Belfast city, so we began  our first morning in Belfast with an orientation.   We visited  a cemetery, where students briefly met Bobby Sands’ sister, who was visiting her brother’s grave on an anniversary of his death, and then to Falls Road to look at murals. Students had lunch — and met with–Jerry Scullion, a former IRA member, at the “Felons Club”.    He talked at length giving his view of the role of the IRA before, during. and after the Troubles.    Several students also watched Irish Hurling on television and have declared it an “awesome game”. It’s tremendously popular in Ireland.
Students  went to the old shipyards, birthplace of the Titanic, and looked around.  There is nothing much left of it, but it’s quite dramatic to walk around, and one has a sense of the now lost industrial might of Belfast, which added greatly to the “Protestant Ascendency”.    Then looked at murals in East Belfast, where we talked at length to a Loyalist with amazing paramilitary tatoos, then toured a private school, Campbell, a largely Protestant school, which reminded the students of Hogwarts.  We then got fish and chips (very greasy, very good!) and looked at the foundation for the largest bonfire in Northern Ireland, where we talked to an interesting lady who had furnished the dummies  and flag for the top.

*** Today, a trip to Stormont, the seat of the Northern Irish Parliament, where students got a good sense of the history of the Parliament in Northern Ireland, especially since the Good Friday Accords.  Then there was the RUC garden of Remembrance, where students were impressed with the passion of “Bud” Abbott the historian of the museum, so spoke movingly of  fallen comrades and the bravery of the RUC.   (They will encounter people later who see the RUC as absolutely the prime enemy, so I’m glad they got this perspective.)   I don’t
think they expected to be, but  his feeling for lost comrades, and his sense of service was moving.

****We travelled to Bushmills. The  distillery makes it prosperous, and it’s not a place where any trouble is at all likely to break out–so we’re out of the Belfast region
where there has been more tension. The B and B is a lovely one– and on a
working farm, so the students can pat all the cows they want, and sheep,
too. After a traditional Irish meal at a roadside in,  Students saw a few marchers, and then a small but very warm bonfire.   We had a long conversation with a very drunken Scotsman and his colleague, who were clearly enjoying the bonfire.

*****The next day we drove toward (London) Derry.   We stopped to have a look at Giant’s Causeway, and then on to a suburb of Derry to watch the marches.   This proved to be an excellent spot.  Since they don’t celebrate the 12th in Derry, but instead something in August pertaining to the rescue of Londonderry by the “Apprentice Boys” marching bands from Londonderry were all there in force, and many, many LOL marchers, with the older members in “transit vans” or cars, and the youngest marching with their families.  We had an interesting conversation with several marchers.   One in particular came from Scotland but explained that he marched in Ireland because William had “saved all of Europe” from tyranny and had brought freedom and saved Protestantism.

Marches over, We went to Bogside in (London)Derry, but the 12th is not a big deal in Derry.  (They celebrate something about the Aprentice Boys in August).  So that tour–with a Reublican who had been part of the IRA and in jail for 7 years,– was uneventful, but especially interesting.  The pride that Eugene took in having been in prison and having participated in the IRA was interesting, as were the murals and the monument to the “H-Block ” as well as the famous “Free Derry” wall.

From Derry Students saw — a beautiful part of Sligo overlooking the bay– near the site of the late Lord Mountbatten’s estate.  They are now all ensconced  at their homestay family homes

******The days are long here in Ireland–  the sun sets after ten, and the
people here seem to be active for the entire period that it’s light.  Or
certainly we have been.  Today, we began about 9am.   We went to several
Yeats sites,i including seeing the “Isle of Innesfree” and many sides of
Ben Bulben,  then to a Megalithic site, then to the “holy well”, then to a
sort of beautiful and rocky beach (Strandhill), and also spent two hours
in Sligo town eating lunch and looking around, visited the “Holy Well”, an underground church that was used during “Penal Times”, when priests were outlawed, as a place of worship, thought it undoubtedly dates back to early Celtic times,  and  finally two and a half
looong hours of authentic Irish music.    The kids will either come home
with a new found love of Celtic music, or having concluded that they never
want to hear another note of it.

*******Next to the last day– which began with the kids looking at the grounds of one of the Great families, and listening to the details of a local squabble over the right of way through the grounds,   then they performed their bit of community service by picking up litter on a nearby beach.  I’ll let them tell you what they thought of it, but it was chilly and rainy so I  don’t think it was a big hit.   There was then an attempt to grill hamburgers, which took a long time, but resulted in some reasonably good burgers in the end.
So though , community service was performed, and a rather haphazard
picnic ended the day, rather later than it should have t he final dinner was great fun.  We went to Temple House, yet another of the old 18th century great houses of Sligo, where we got to enjoy the grounds and the rooms–  it was something right out of a Jane Austen novel, complete with an Irish wolf hound called “Darcy”. There was more Irish music, which had a couple of us  taking lengthy trips around the house to avoid, but it turned out to be rather more enjoyable than we thought.  Many of the songs were very funny.  It all proved to be a lovely ending to our time in Sligo. The

******** (the last) we visited yet one more great house in Sligo, and
> then drove to Dublin, where we visited Kilmainham Gaol, Trinity College
> (where we saw the book of Kells) found some incredibly kitschy souvenirs,
> and had one last traditional Irish meal.  The Kids had bought Harry Potter
> tickets, so they were whisked back for the 9:30 showing, and then the next
> day we dispersed. Livia left a couple of hours early to go to Paris,
> Ronnie was off to Turkey, and the remaining four of us began a 14 hour
> trip home.

> I think I’d plan a few things differently if I had it to do over again
> (avoid Philadelphia, and perhaps shorten the trip by a day) but overall, I
> think the students had quite an interesting experience. They talked to RUC
> officers, former IRA members who had spent years in jail, leaders of the
> Loyal Orange Lodge, and many people who we just encounted at random, but
> because the students were attuned to the whole situation they were able to
> learn a great deal by just talking to people as we watched bonfires being
> built or people marching in parades. And in Sligo, they saw the less
> intense, aspect to Irish history.   The great houses gave students insight
> into Irish life in the 18th and 19th century, with British oriented
> Protestant families owning most of the land.  The resentments are still
> there.

These students have learn more in 8 days than most people learn in a year of staying in a place.   I’m proud of them.  There was much fun, but there was also a great deal of attention required, and students were unfailingly attentive and polite. Bravo and Brava!

Resolution: The famine that resulted from the blight on the potato crop in Ireland should be classified as a deliberate genocide on the part of the British.

“The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the Famine.”

–John Mitchell

Here is a reasonably neutral account of events:
Potatoes are, of course, a New World crop, but they are a particularly nutritious vegetable, and since many of the Irish Catholics of Ireland were tenant farmers, they grew potatoes on tiny plots of land, on the seacoast or in the mountains, while the bulk of their labor went into other people’s lands.

The blight, a fungus called phytophora infestans, hit Ireland’s potato fields in 1845. The British government responded by importing boatloads of corn from America and establishing public relief works. But in 1846 the blight returned– this time crop failure was almost total. To survive, people ate anything they could find — dogs, cats, seaweed, grass. 1847 was the worst winter in memory. British officials gathered in London to discuss “the Irish question,” deciding to set the poor to roadbuilding. So, by the end of January nearly 700,000 men were working on the public works. But in many cases the poor were too sick and frail and many just fell dead by the roadsides. Finally, the government called an end to the public works. In the spring of 1847 there was a brief respite: the British government opened soup kitchens that fed 3 million a day. The potato crop that year was healthy but too small, enough to feed only 1/5 of the population. Nonetheless, the soup kitchens were closed down, as planned.

But while all this was happening, wheat, and vegetables were being shipped out of Ireland to Britain for consumption and export. There was tremendous prejudice against the Irish, and many in Britain were more concerned with creating “dependence” than in feeding the hungry. In the end about one million Irish people died, and a land of 8 million became over the next few years a land of five million or less due to emigration to the US, Canada, and elsewhere The “corn laws” of Britain restricted the importation of grain from the US and Eastern Europe. These were later repealed but they contributed something to the crisis, if nothing more than to keep the incentive to take food from Ireland to Britain. Also, there wre huge numbers of evictions from land held by Protestant Landowners. (Irish land had been given to victorious soldiers, under Oliver Cromwell and again under William and Mary, since in both conflicts the Irish had supported the monarchy.)
(Particularly strong on the genocide issue)
A good summary in the context of British history
Lookes at ethnic sterotyping
cartoons and drawings during the period

Why is there so much material on the Irish Potato Famine on the web?

What role did prejudice play in the British reaction to the potato famine?

Is the potato famine legitimately “genocide” on the part of the English
Why/Why not?

For Thursday, March 10 th Debate: The Irish Potato famine

Were the deaths resulting from the Irish Potato Blight the result of a genocide?

During the summer of 1845, a “blight of unusual character” devastated Ireland’s potato crop, the basic staple in the Irish diet. A few days after potatoes were dug from the ground, they began to turn into a slimy, decaying, blackish “mass of rottenness.” Expert panels convened to investigate the blight’s cause suggested that it was the result of “static electricity” or the smoke that billowed from railroad locomotives or the “mortiferous vapours” rising from underground volcanoes. In fact, the cause was a fungus that had traveled from Mexico to Ireland.
“Famine fever”–cholera, dysentery, scurvy, typhus, and infestations of lice–soon spread through the Irish countryside. Observers reported seeing children crying with pain and looking “like skeletons, their features sharpened with hunger and their limbs wasted, so that there was little left but bones.” Masses of bodies were buried without coffins, a few inches below the soil.

Over the next ten years, more than 750,000 Irish died and another 2 million left their homeland for Great Britain, Canada, and the United States. Within five years, the Irish population was reduced by a quarter.
Some Irish historians consider the famine “genocide”. Is that an accurate and productive way to look at the matter?

Affirmative: The English response to the Irish Potato Famine constituted a Genocide
Negative: The English response, while in retrospect, not totally adequate, was as much as could be expected for the time, and did not amount to genocide.
Here are some sites to examine:
(Particularly strong on the genocide issue)
A good summary in the context of British history
Looks at ethnic stereotyping
this is a PowerPoint designed for a debate on the subject of the Irish Potato Famine

4 thoughts on “European History~ Ireland and Northern Ireland and the Potato Famine”

  1. I always was interested in this subject and stock still am, thanks for posting .

  2. Woh I love your content , saved to bookmarks ! .

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