Famine feeds anti-British mood

New Englanders are the latest to follow Hollywood in fuelling anger over Irish history

There was new tumult on Cambridge Common in front of the gates to Harvard University yesterday. On the spot where over two centuries ago George Washington took control of the troops that chased Britain from colonial America, thousands gathered to mark another moment in history that is not kind to the English.

With the keening of bagpipes, throngs of Irish Americans, a few in nationalist green-and-orange T-shirts, watched as the Irish President, Mary Robinson, unveiled the first memorial in the United States to Ireland's "Great Hunger" in the 1840s. Some shedding tears, all who attended later joined a solemn procession to lay yellow roses and white carnations at its base.

The bronze - a mother holding a dead child bidding farewell to a teenage son who is carrying a living infant and preparing to board a "coffin ship" bound for America - glints nobly in the memory of the 1 million who died in the potato famine that was at its harshest in 1847, and the 2 million more who fled from their country, many of them ending up on Massachusetts shores.

Until now, only memorials to soldiers who fought the British in the Revolution had been permitted on the Common. The sub-text is clear: in many minds here the figures are also a testament to British colonial guilt. "We remember," declared the principle organiser of the memorial, John O'Connor, "the children with green teeth from eating grass, and we remember the decisions in London of a government that could have fed the Irish but decided it made good economic sense to drive them from their land."

Thus yesterday's fervour on the common also represented a growing and politically-correct cult in the United States of romanticising the Irish story.

At its roots are both the nostalgia that naturally imbues any ethnic minority in a foreign land and also the appetite for votes among politicians in a country of 40 million people who describe themselves as Irish-Americans. Include in this Mr O'Connor, a Boston business man who aspires to a seat in Congress to represent a city where one in four people claim Irish descent. And include also, President Bill Clinton.

Hollywood too has recognised this emotionally charged market. To cries of foul from many in Britain who see historical inaccuracies in them, films about Ireland have been tumbling from the studios. In the Name of the Father, portraying the miscarriage of justice in the conviction of the Guildford Four, was followed by Michael Collins, the freedom fighter who was the principle architect of the Irish Free State. This year we have already seen The Devil's Own and Some Mother's Son.

While the granting of a visa to Gerry Adams in 1995 by President Clinton provoked the first and most furious diplomatic spat with London, more recently it has been the famine itself that has been nettling relations. In recent months the states of New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania have passed legislation making the teaching of the famine to students in high school compulsory.

Most controversial was the New York State law that was tacked on to earlier legislation asking schools to teach about the Holocaust and other genocides. The state Governor, George Pataki, drew a sharp rebuke from the British Ambassador in Washington, Sir John Kerr, when he declared that the failure of Ireland's potato crop was "the result of a deliberate campaign by the British to deny the Irish people the food they needed to survive".

In Boston last night, television news viewers watched a detailed report on how the Whig government in London chose to export crops from the Irish colony at the same time as its staple potato crop failed.

True, in April, Tony Blair offered a short statement of regret - not quite an apology - over the circumstances of the famine. "Those who governed in London at the time failed their people through standing by while a crop failure turned into a massive human tragedy." But this may have only served to intensify the debate.

On Cambridge Common, President Robinson steers clear of the arguments over Britain's role in the famine. In the crowd, views are more bluntly expressed. "It was genocide and it was deliberate," insists Ed Child, an Irish-American and a cook at Harvard. As for the arguments that Britain is being treated unfairly, either in politics or on celluloid, Mr Childs simply laughs. "It's like saying that that man who ate humans, Jeffrey Dahmer, was unfairly treated at his trial."

Trying to "educate" Americans is a full time job for the British embassies in the US. "I think there is a growing appreciation that this thing is more complicated than it has been commonly portrayed in this country, that is more than just a British and Irish problem," said one British diplomat.

Had he been here in Cambridge yesterday he may have felt less optimistic.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
Andy Davidhazy at the beginning (left) and end (right) of his hike
video
News
Taylor Swift is applying to trademark song lyrics from 1989
people
Voices
The popularity of TV shows such as The Liver Birds encouraged Liverpudlians to exaggerate their Scouse accent
voicesWe exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
Life and Style
Parker says: 'I once had a taster use the phrase 'smells like the sex glands of a lemming'. Who in the world can relate to that?'
food + drinkRobert Parker's 100-point scale is a benchmark of achievement for wine-makers everywhere
News
i100
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

How to make your own Easter egg

Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

Cricket World Cup 2015

Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing