Nameless and numberless, dead from the Great Famine lie buried beneath Mulraney strand and in unmarked graves across Ireland, victims of a disaster that struck 150 years ago. They should be remembered; but at such a difficult time in a delicate peace pr...
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THIS YEAR is the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Irish potato famine, the consequences of which included massive depopulation, torrential emigration, civil discord and an abiding distrust of British governments. This is also the year in which Britain and Ireland are taking extraordinary steps to ameliorate the collective memory of that tragedy; to try to remedy, once and for all, a persistent, centuries-long blight on their relations. "As far as the Famine goes," declares Terry Eagleton, Warton Professor of English Literature at Oxford, "we are dealing with the most important episode of modern Irish history and the greatest social disaster of 19th-century Europe - an event with something of the characteristics of a low-level nuclear attack".

Talking to those whom the late, lamented Flann O'Brien described as the "plain people of Ireland", one senses both a need to acknowledge the enormity of the 1845-52 calamity and a desire not to stir things up against Britain. Recently, when passing through Mulraney, a tiny, straggling community on the north shore of Clew Bay in County Mayo, I discussed the impact of the famine with a local hotel manager. Outgoing (even exuberant) when addressing other subjects, he was unusually reticent on the issue. I persisted, knowing that he had lost many ancestors in 1847 and 1848. He had little to say. But later, he sent me a book, dog-eared and yellowing, and printed on cheap paper.

Written in 1957, it was called Annla Beaga Phariste Bhuiris Umhaill, (A Short Account of the History of Burrishoole Parish). The chapter headed "The Famine" said: "We have very little documentary evidence of the sufferings of our people in that hour of darkest tragedy. But the old people of fifty years ago who had seen the horrible thing with their own eyes have told us harrowing tales. They have told us of men and women and children dying by the roadside, their mouths green from the nettles and grass they had eaten in their overpowering hunger; of others dropping dead after partaking of a meal of porridge which proved too much for stomachs long without food; of women carrying their dead husbands on their backs to the graveyards; of others, too weak themselves to carry their dead, burying their beloved ones somewhere near home. Dead vagrants, and they were many, were buried simply by pulling the sod fence down over them to cover them where they had died. Not one woman, but many, ill with fever, took the body of her husband who had died in the bed beside her of the same fever and buried it in the cabin floor. Then she, too, lay down to die.

"All over the parish the graves of the famine victims are scattered, sometimes in single graves, now and then several together. How many lie buried in the strand at Mulraney we could not count. Who they were God alone knows. There they rest, the fever of life over, the ebbing and flowing tides ever murmuring their requiem."

The "strand" referred to is a beach; a golden hem to a skirt of green clothing hills that rise above a bay of stunning beauty. Modern bungalows perch above the road which follows the shore. During the day, sheep descend from the hills, cross the road and nibble short, tough grasses between the road and the beach. In early evening they return to their rocky mountain pasture, often when Clew Bay, and its hundreds of islands and its promontories, are turned red by the setting sun. I have observed this wonderful scene on numerous occasions, but after reading the parish history I cannot walk on Mulraney strand without feeling the kind of great emptiness that one experiences on traversing a wasteland.

Before the famine, the population of Burrishoole was more than 12,000. In 1850, it was 4,000. The number of families had dropped from 2,700 to 890. Most had succumbed to starvation, typhus and cholera. Many had been evicted. The parish history says: "Lord Sligo flung some 40 families on the roadside in Treenbeg and Treenlar and thereby created his Treenlar Farm ... Sir Richard O'Donnell was also active. He declared he would not leave a Catholic between Knocknabola bridge and the river of Newport

THE GREAT FAMINE of the 1840s is one of the most significant divides in modern Irish history. To commemorate it carries significant risks, particularly at the present, delicate moment. It is easy to see why Irish folk memory carries the 1845-52 calamity down the turnpike of legend in a bulging sack labelled "British perfidy"; that memory includes the accusation that the British government acted too late to save hundreds of thousands dead and dying on the roadsides. For a couple of generations it has at least stayed in the sack. Why let it out again?

That is a question that has been worrying many of those in Ireland charged with furthering a lasting settlement of what British governments have chosen to call the "Irish problem". One senses a certain disquiet in Dublin, where a special committee was set up last year in the office of the Taoiseach (prime minister) to explore appropriate ways of commemorating the famine. So far, the exploration had resulted in a single decision: to postpone the commemoration to 1997.

The reason given to inquirers seems understandable. As someone close to the committee (who declines to be identified) said, "The big event in 1845 was not famine, but the potato blight that caused the famine. The actual starvation started in 1846. The following year - Black Forty- Seven - was the worst by far." He said that 1846 was ruled out as the commemorative year "because for six months of next year Ireland will have the presidency of the European Union and everyone will be working on that. All the ministers will be extremely busy".

But behind this careful rationalisation lies the fear that a wave of nationalist emotion, welling up from the commemorative effort, could jeopardise the fragile bloom of hope which emerged from last year's IRA ceasefire. The descendants of those whom the famine had starved into submission were fired by that humiliation into rebellion against British rule in 1918. But, in the years following independence, the importance of the famine as a political weapon became blurred, and some historians began to see the calamity more as an unfortunate act of God than as a calculated act of British nastiness. Christine Kinealy, of the Institute of Irish Studies at Liverpool University, is author of a recent book, This Great Calamity, which claims that the British were fully informed about the extent of its nearest colony's distress and lacked the political will to alleviate the suffering. She says that a "revisionist influence" has been at work, trying to counter the traditional Irish nationalist use of the famine as fuel for anti-British sentiment.

"I would call myself an anti-revisionist," Dr Kinealy says. "Anglo-Irish relationships are very delicate just now, and one revisionist actually said, 'We don't want to give ideological bullets to the IRA.' But there's an interesting debate going on - people don't want to be constrained by political agendas."

The Irish government's postponement of ceremonies may dampen famine sentiment while the British and Irish governments try to arm-wrestle Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness into a position in which IRA guns and explosives are decommissioned. But at Irish grassroots level commemorative events are going ahead this year: among them a re-creation of a 10-mile "famine walk" over the mountains of County Mayo by starving families seeking relief in the town of Westport. Last week, Dr Kinealy and others who took part in this trudge were joined by Gary White, a member of the Choctaw Indian tribe which had so identified with the plight of the famine victims that its members scraped together a relief donation of $740. Luke Dodd, whose "famine museum" in Strokestown, County Roscommon, was officially opened last year by Ireland's President Mary Robinson, expects a summer rush of visitors. "In 1940, virtually nothing was done for the 100th anniversary," Mr Dodd says. "But that's because our country was very poor and preoccupied with The Emergency [as the Second World War was called in Ireland]. However, the famine is very much on the people's agenda now. Between you and me, the official committee's decision to postpone things until 1997 has to do with political goings-on."

At least six new books on the Great Famine have been published this year alone (Professor Eagleton's Heathcliff and the Great Hunger will be published by Verso on 26 May). Tonight, the BBC screens the first of a powerful four-part television drama, The Hanging Gale, which highlights the cruelties perpetrated, and dilemmas faced, by British land agents in County Donegal, part of the old province of Ulster, though now part of the Irish Republic, when the potato crop fails and famished tenants are evicted from their hovels for inability to pay the rent (or gale) to absentee landlords living it up in London and Brighton. No one viewing the harrowing scenes of death and despair could fail to be moved to anger. And it has not gone unnoticed in Ireland that a British broadcaster has chosen 1995, rather than 1997, as the appropriate year for commemoration.

The terrible events of 1845-52 helped reduce Ireland's population from a pre-famine 8.2 million to the 1871 figure of 4.4 million. Starvation and disease claimed 1.5 million lives. Another million emigrated, mostly to the United States. Pressed by what they had seen, or by landlords determined to reduce the number of tenants on their land, another million-plus followed within the next couple of decades. The exodus drained the countryside, particularly in the west, and brought fresh afflictions to the towns, not least in Belfast and Derry, focal points of the recent Troubles. Neither rural Ireland nor political Ireland ever fully recovered.

The potato blight struck hardest in the west (in County Clare, for example, 80,000 - equivalent to the present population of the county - perished). But it visited Ulster first; specifically the fields of County Fermanagh in September 1845. By the end of the year, all Ireland had the stench of black, mushy tubers. And although Ulster weathered the famine years more successfully than the west and the south-west, it still suffered greatly. In west Ulster, some parishes lost more than half their people.

Many survivors fled to the east where the famine was less severe. "Catholics in large numbers began to arrive in some areas that had been overwhelmingly Protestant for almost two hundred years - notably Belfast," wrote the late Liam de Paor in his book Unfinished Business in 1990. Further west, across Lough Swilly in County Donegal, survivors turned despairing eyes to Derry.

Oddly (or perhaps not), little of this has been taught to succeeding generations of Ulster's children. "I know this, because my husband is a Northern Ireland Protestant, from a Unionist background in east Belfast," Dr Kinealy says. "He wasn't even obliged to study Irish history." But Catholic schoolchildren were not exactly steeped in it either. What I recall learning in my own Northern Ireland childhood was that a disease ruined the potatoes, and people died of dysentery from eating grass because such alternative crops as may have existed were exported to England to fatten up English schoolchildren. The calamity received less attention than the battles of mythical heroes or The Night Of The Big Wind, a 19th- century storm which flattened the countryside.

It was only through spending two summers in Donegal, as a boy, that I learnt more. This was long before Ireland gained her present prosperity. Because the inhabitants of the area - Gweedore - were very poor, their eyes were on the future, rather than the past. But a stranger from Belfast could see reminders of the famine years all around: sea shells, half-buried by time in a weedy field, testifying to a starving family's attempt to forage in the sea; a surviving practice of stuffing mattresses with dulse (a dried seaweed which could also be eaten) to save straw for livestock; a preponderance of villagers in Bunbeg, Bloody Foreland and Ranafast whose cousins were all overseas - in Scotland, England or North America.

Nevertheless, a link between the famine and British oppression somehow imbued Catholic consciousness. It may be argued that this was not so much because of the horrors the famine wreaked as because of where it had propelled them. Belfast in the 1840s was a fast-growing place and in the immediate post-famine decades it added new industries - engineering and shipbuilding - to its linen enterprises. Skilled and semi-skilled workers were pouring in from Britain, especially from Scotland, to confront unskilled workers, many of them poor Catholics, crowding in from rural Ulster. For a city that had known sectarian rioting before the famine, the future did not promise much harmony. Leaving sectarianism aside, what the famine achieved politically was to give all Ireland, and particularly nationalists, a powerful stick with which to beat the British.

So, it seems slightly odd to hear these deceased nationalists being slighted within the present Dublin administration. "The Irish nationalists made a big deal out of British policy," says the anonymous person who is helping to formulate commemorative policy. "Personally, I'd have been happier if they [the nationalists] had opened a soup kitchen instead, but none of the bastards did. They beat their breasts and said it was all England's fault and never did a damn thing about it." In his words, one detects some of the collective fatigue in the Irish Republic for extreme movements such as today's Sinn Fein/IRA. "Attitudes in the south are all tied up with what's going on in the northern part of the country," Mr Dodd says. "The history of the famine since the founding of the state [in 1922] has been used as a way of talking about the injustices of British rule in Ireland. Because of the IRA campaign over the past 25 years, the revisionist historians have tried to play down the significance of the famine."

IT IS memories of the injustices of British rule in Ireland that may be stirred by The Hanging Gale tonight and on the next three Sundays: a portrayal of insensitive English landlords and their agents, gouging a community that was in its death-throes. The television drama seems a fairly faithful reflection of what one reads in such books as The Land and People of Nineteenth Century Cork by James S Donnelly (1975), The Great Calamity - and, of course, in the dreadfully harrowing Burrishoole chronicle.

Like many historical accounts, the Burrishoole narrative emphasises "the golden opportunity" the famine presented to Protestant proselytisers who "had soup galore for every poor starving creature who was prepared to deny his [Roman Catholic] faith". Folk memory tends not to distinguish between the Quakers who crossed the Irish Sea to do that for which they are rightly acclaimed - alleviating suffering and offering practical advice to a largely illiterate peasantry - and the Church of Ireland, whose role in assisting victims was not impressive.

The Church of Ireland today is an important force for reconciliation in Northern Ireland. It is a voice of reason, understanding, pity, compromise. Its leaders are caring and pious, their hands stretching across the sectarian divide to reassure Catholics that times have changed. Even in the famine years, there were Church of Ireland clergymen anxious to prick consciences "across the water". Dr Kinealy's book, for example, refers to the Rev Richard Townsend, whose journals "attracted a number of visitors to [Skibbereen in west Cork], including British newspaper reporters". The Rev Townsend's writings also attracted some Oxford University students who collected £50 for the village.

"This money was taken in person by two of the students, Lord Dufferin and the Honourable Mr Boyle, who wanted to view the distress themselves. During their visit, Rev Townsend acted as their guide. He took them to what had become a typical burial scene, in which the dead bodies were emptied into a pit in the ground from a shell coffin which was to be used again ... The visitors admitted that they were 'completely sickened' by what they had witnessed and decided to leave the following day, although they left an additional donation of £10." The clergyman himself, who remained in Skibbereen out of "a stern sense of duty", blamed the "mistaken" policies of the British government for much of the suffering, saying that the principles of political economy "have been carried out in practice to a murderous extent".

But the Rev Townsend was one of a few exceptions to the rule. Long before the potato crop failed, the Church of Ireland was a blight on the land. One contemporary (English) critic said it "presented a more revolting spectacle of inordinate incomes and lax discipline than did its sister establishment across the water", meaning the Church of England. In the decade before the famine, Irish Catholics rioted against a system which obliged them to pay a tithe to Protestant parishes. The tithe had to be paid in preference to debt, rent or taxes. Consequently, the Established Church of Ireland clergy enjoyed lives of unrivalled luxury, paid for by a poor, distressed population who waited in vain for charity, humility and self-denial from sinecurists who appeared to include neither scholars nor divines. It is recorded, for example, in 1831 that one bishop who went over to Ireland without a shilling to his name retired eight years later worth between £300,000 and £400,000. Another bishop (Bennet of Cloyne, in Cork) was buried in the soil of Plumstead, Norfolk, having drained from Irish soil more than a quarter of a million pounds over 26 years, during which he hardly bothered to visit his diocese. The tithe system was reformed shortly before the famine, and the Church of Ireland was disestablished in 1869. But for famine survivors the reforms were largely eclipsed by the memory of the church's pre-famine conduct, which was startling to say the least. Placed alongside the Catholic struggle for emancipation at the time, these scandals provided ample fuel for stoking the fires of sectarianism in Ulster throughout the present century. Small wonder, therefore, that the Irish authorities are reluctant to have "a lot of old stuff" (as my anonymous official put it) "dragged up".

Outside the ghettoes of Belfast and Derry, however, one is hard pressed to find expressions of indignation about the shortcomings of the Crown, the Ascendancy or the Clergy in those awful times. The event that helped reduce the country's population to half its former size does not gnaw at the Irish psyche in the way, say, the Holocaust gnaws at the Jewish psyche. The gap in time may have something to do with it, but I suspect that, for many people, in the litany of Irish troubles - invasion, colonisation, segregation, rebellion - the famine's place is more chronological than motivational.

Helen Litton, author of The Irish Famine, a short illustrated history published by Wolfhound Press, says that although the Great Famine left "huge scars, the odd thing is that a blanket of silence came down afterwards". She theorises that this happened because "It was sort of shameful to say that members of your family were so poor they starved to death. If your ancestors lived on the margins like that, while you yourself have managed to pull yourself up a bit, you don't talk about it. That is why the famine is discussed as a national tragedy rather than a family experience."

The man on the Taoiseach's famine committee is a case in point. "I was treating this commemoration thing as a technical exercise until I remembered a conversation with my grandmother in the early Sixties when I was a bumptious teenager," he says. "I happened to ask if she had ever spoken to any of her relations about the famine when she was young. And she started telling me, for the first time, how her father's brothers and sisters had died of hunger. I nearly died hearing it. I mentioned this to some of my friends and discovered they all had stories like that."

From Donegal in the north-west to Cork in the south, one sees clear, physical traces of the Great Famine: "green roads" (unpaved) across mountains, which were the shortest route beween a starving household to a town relief centre; old graveyards with sections containing no headstones, where the dead were lowered in hinged, multiple-use coffins; and the broken walls of ruined workhouses. But these reminders are seldom the subject of conversation. "In some areas the famine dead were collected from the roadside in carts and piled up in mounds with stones on top," says Ciarn O'Murrouch, a teacher in Ennis, County Clare, who has studied the famine's effects locally. "I discovered that almost all of these mounds have disappeared. They are not talked about; nor are the workhouses and the soup kitchens, because they are reminders of degradation and shame. Also, for some reason there are very few workhouse records for the famine years in existence."

Mr O'Murrouch is helping to organise "famine symposiums" in County Clare. But he is surprised that so little of the commemorative endeavour is being sponsored at an official level. "At this time of year," he says, "we get warnings on radio and television to spray our potatoes for blight. But, as for the Great Famine that caused it all, there is a wilful amnesia about it." 8