Famine emigrant descendants have hunger to commemorate

Democratising power of social media allows them to contribute to interpretation of their ancestors’ history, Michael Collins finds on his Diaspora Run in Canada

Having passed the five hundred mile (805km) mark in the last week of my run retracing the route the Irish immigrants of 1847 took along the Saint Lawrence from Grosse Île to Toronto, my understanding of the story of Irish migration to Canada both pre and post 1847 continues to reveal the deep correspondence and influence of numerous immigration waves of Irish to Canada.

Much of this emigration throughout the 1800s was spurred by the yearly spectre of continual deprivation and near starvation that stalked the tenant class, especially between the time the potato crop ran out and the harvest of a new crop. Food scarcity was further exacerbated when, between 1800 and 1847, the population of Ireland doubled from four million to just over eight million. The population explosion was most notable in the rural footholds of Munster and Connaught, to which preceding generations had been banished during Cromwell's reign of terror.

By all accounts, catastrophe was inevitable.

Tragically, the potato blight of 1845 would prove a tipping point, grimly auguring the unsustainability of a land system controlled by an absentee landlord class, while further highlighting the ineffectuality of British policy that broached a fated providentialism in believing that the hand of God was behind the potato blight.


Indeed, more than a century before this characterisation of the Irish situation, the Anglo-Irish satirist and cleric Jonathan Swift, in addressing Ireland's sprawling overpopulation, began his 1729 Modest Proposal:

“I am assured... that a young healthy child, well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food; whether stewed, roasted, baked or boiled...”

One detects even then a perverse providentialism and unnerving psychopathology behind the satire of raising and selling Irish babies at market, but such was the sprawling poverty of an overcrowded Dublin in the early 18th century.

Thomas Malthus, another speculative moralist Protestant cleric, in his An Essay on the Principle of Population, likewise predicted the inevitable culling of millions through vectors of disease and starvation if population growth remained unchecked. To offset such natural disasters, Malthus argued for moral restraint. Yet, despairing that the poor could ever be so swayed, he sardonically advocated against assisting the poor, advocating that:

“…we should make the streets narrower, crowd more people into the houses, and court the return of the plague. In the country, we should build our villages near stagnant pools, and particularly encourage settlements in all marshy and unwholesome situations. But above all, we should reprobate specific remedies for ravaging diseases.”

To be sure, the bombastic hyperbole owes much to a stylized Protestant-inspired rhetoric. Yet the underlying appeal for moral restraint tied directly to tenets of the Protestant Reformation, namely, the direct mediation of the self with God, an idea which would eventually dovetail with the secularist Enlightenment ideas of self-determination and individual rights. This hybridisation of spiritual determinism with secularised enlightenment would further influence economic theory as Adam Smith, in his Wealth of Nations, penned a proto-Protestant inspired manifesto that argued for unregulated free markets and laissez-faire capitalism based on rational self-interest and competition.

Without invoking the metaphysical, Smith's theory aligned with Martin Luther's assertion that all Christians served God in their occupations. To quote Luther, "God is milking the cows through the vocation of the milkmaid". In so ordaining work in the temporal world as essentially vocational, Luther ended Catholicism's disjunctive split between the clergy and the laity. In the Catholic Church, vocation was tied exclusively to acts beyond common human living and marked by chastity. Deconstructing the monastic life, Luther pointedly warned:

“If you find yourself in a work by which you accomplish something good for God, or the holy, or yourself, but not for your neighbor alone, then you should know that that work is not a good work.”

In essence, the rise of the Industrial Age, and with it, a new economy of self-interest-inspired capitalism, was facilitated by a radical conceptual shift in the understanding of vocation under the Protestant Reformation. If God commanded the mysteries of the universe, so be it, but there were concerns within the domain of man, namely how he survived and prospered in the temporal world. Smith put it thus, in his The Theory of Moral Sentiments:

“The administration of the great system of the universe ... the care of the universal happiness of all rational and sensible beings, is the business of God and not of man. To man is allotted a much humbler department, but one much more suitable to the weakness of his powers, and to the narrowness of his comprehension: the care of his own happiness, of that of his family, his friends, his country....”

In anticipating a shift from the essentialism of Catholic emphasis on the transcendent and acts directed to God alone toward Protestant self-actualisation in the temporal world, Smith extended Luther’s argument for vocations, so that the agency of exchange between men could align with principles of self-interest while simultaneously serving a moral function in promoting compassion and advancing happiness. In essence, a true Christian could not isolate his relationship with God, speaking only of faith while overlooking his relationship with his neighbour.

Tragically, Ireland was worlds away from this emergent neo-Protestant capitalism spreading across Europe. While the creep of Enclosure Acts elsewhere ended a medieval serfdom of tenant farming, reorganising commerce around industrial cities, Ireland was going in the opposite direction. To the casual observer, the country exemplified the antithesis of moral restraint, or it was more politically convenient to conflagrate unremitting birth with Catholicism and Irish ignorance than to seek a deeper understanding of the Irish situation. In effect, the Irish dilemma - for the English parliament - became less about underlying economics and more representative of a sectarian attitudinal divide, as Protestant self-determinism met the miasma of a wretched Catholic helplessness.

Indeed, Charles Trevelyan, in commenting on his governmental role as overseer of famine relief, echoed Swift and Malthus's providential theme, writing,

“I think I see a bright light shining in the distance to the dark cloud which at present hangs over Ireland. A remedy has been already applied… and I hope I am not guilty of irreverence in thinking that this being altogether beyond the power of man, the cure has been applied by the direct stroke of an all-wise Providence… God grant that we may rightly perform our part and not turn into a curse what was intended as a blessing.”

Greater understanding

I have provided the above historical preamble as my own interpretation of the circumstances that led to the marginalisation of the Irish in the decades preceding the potato blight. I undertook the study of the historical influences surrounding the Irish situation for my own understanding of the socio-political history leading up to the failure of the potato in 1845, though, subsequently, with the advent of the run, I offered my own interpretation of historical influences as a point of discussion.

I am not a historian, and I understand the pitfalls of advancing theories without extensive research, yet the spirit of the diaspora run has sought to initiate dialogue and draw either support or corrective criticism or encourage competing theories to find voice. Yes, social media can accommodate and promote work of dubious academic rigor, but the general emphasis in embarking on the run and hosting the Irish Diaspora Run Facebook page was to facilitate discussion with the assertion that opinions and oral histories of the descendants of those who left Ireland matter, and that the received history of a people bears on how history is commemorated.

In doing research for the run, in speaking with historians, a quiet murmur arose suggesting that, due to political tensions, commemoration of the sesquicentenary anniversary of the Great Famine was perhaps tempered, as the Good Friday Agreement was not yet signed.

Indeed, in 1996, while in Australia, Fine Gael minister Avril Doyle, during a speech marking the Great Famine, cautioned that "Irish people needed to develop a mature relationship with their past, to view the famine as a moment in history which defined a sense of vulnerability and not as a weapon for modern political conflict".

Further entanglement ensued during a Manhattan luncheon in 1996, when the then governor of New York, George Pataki, who had recently signed a law mandating that state schools provide a course on "mass starvation in Ireland from 1845 to 1850", linked with studies on "the inhumanity of genocide, slavery and the Holocaust", declared:

“History teaches us the Great Irish Hunger was not the result of a massive failure of the Irish potato crop but rather was the result of a deliberate campaign by the British to deny the Irish people the food they needed to survive.”

It was, again, minister Avril Doyle who would interject and state that in speaking as “a member of the Government... I don’t call the Famine genocide... historians have disproved that”. Rather, she characterised the Famine as exacerbated by “an appallingly inadequate response by the British administration.”

As late as 2013, the eminent historian Tim Pat Coogan, in his The Famine Plot, caused a furore in academic circles by arguing that the famine was genocide perpetrated by the British. Challenging Coogan's scholarship in a particularly vitriolic exchange, Liam Kennedy, emeritus professor of Economic History at Queen's University Belfast, accused Coogan of "providing junk food for the wilder reaches of Irish America".

Hunger to commemorate

What I can say so far, in hosting the Irish Diaspora Run 2016 Facebook page, is that the hunger to commemorate the immigration of so many Irish to Canada and America lives not as a point of maudlin sentimentality, but as a point of literal and spiritual departure from one's origins. The why behind that leaving-taking seemingly matters more to those descendants of that history than it does for those who remained in Ireland. For the Irish diaspora, the leave-taking raises existential and political questions.

Indeed, the management of the Diaspora Run page has become a fundamental part of the run. In the three weeks since it inception, with the help of various immigrant groups and selective paid posts to target groups, the page has handled over 100,000 visitors. What has become apparent is that descendants of emigrants, along with a cadre of indigenous Irish, are engaged in an active process of recovering and debating history, facilitated through the democratising role of social media in broadening discourse beyond academic circles.

Of course, there are those cautionary voices who will argue that uninformed commentary is potentially harmful, but, in the main, the aggregate of stories and the recovery of lost historical archives by local historical and genealogy societies has facilitated the retracing of the literal migratory path and settlement of immigrants’ waves. In many respects, it is the composite of individual stories, of received history, passed from generation to generation, that best identifies and accommodates our understanding of ourselves as immigrants.

So far, in my month-long run, I’ve attracted the attention of communities along the Saint Lawrence that hold isolated historical records documenting the plight and path of immigrants. In many instances, the recent recovery of such records has prompted the formation of memorial committees who have independently erected commemorative monuments to this recovered history. This visual testament to a receding history is key to establishing a further awareness and discussion of the socio-political realities that often attend the upheaval of entire peoples.

In speaking at Kingston's Skeleton Park, site of a graveyard to some 10,000 Irish, where the Irish are commemorated with a Celtic Cross, I was made pointedly aware of Kingston's continued commitment to refugees. The city webpage has a tab - "Refugees" - devoted to helping Kingston's citizens sponsor Syrian refugees.

Of course, in the broadening of dialogue regarding culpability for the death of one million souls and the emigration of another million, I’ve had to negotiate the landmine of historical interpretations. There are those who declare Britain’s inaction as tantamount to genocide, and I’ve been challenged on more than one occasion for steering clear of political controversy. In truth, the sharpness of the exchanges and the pointed criticism is welcome, since part of the process of understanding involves the clash of varying and competing histories.

In this receiving and passing of histories, there is always loss and gain. I am mindful of a story I was told in Cornwell, Ontario. The story concerned an infant Irish child, who, in mortal sickness during the horror of 1847, was passed by her father to a lockmaster on the banks of the Saint Lawrence. The father's simple entreat was that the child receive a decent burial. The boat passed, and so went the family. The lockmaster took the child as instructed, though, miraculously, under the care of his wife, the child survived and was adopted into the family.

Years passed until eventually a letter arrived and circulated in Cornwall from the Irish family, who were then settled in Niagara. Theirs was a simple request - they were seeking information regarding the location of the burial plot of their infant child. The letter went unheeded, the lockmaster and his wife afraid to correspond, the course of the girl's fate then tied to another history.

One can only imagine the tragic void that lived in the heart of that Irish family, and why, for them and their descendants, the matter of leave-taking and the circumstances surrounding their emigration so occupies the diaspora conscience.

How to join the Irish Diaspora Run

The route begins at Grosse Île quarantine island, on the St Lawrence river, and continues through Quebec City, Montreal and Kingston before reaching Ireland Park, in Toronto.

The project is raising funds for Irish-Canadian organisations seeking to create parks and erect monuments and statues to commemorate 1847.

Others can participate by taking on runs where they live, and logging their distances on diasporarun.org, where they can also sponsor Collins.

This project is supported by the Global Irish Media Fund