Letter: Irish famine and 'ethnic cleansing'

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Sir: Beatrix Campbell spoils her interesting article on the continuing relevance of the great Irish famine ('It's time to open our eyes and think of Ireland', 6 September) with a number of inaccuracies. Contemporary observers spoke of some 20 (named) people dying on the infamous Doolough 'famine march' in 1849, but exhaustion and hunger may well have increased the eventual total of fatalities to the several hundreds mentioned in local folklore. However, the claim that 5,000 were swept into the lough appears to be a fanciful embellishment. This question of numbers is significant.

The Irish famine is one of the best-documented episodes in Irish history, and much can be reconstructed with a fair degree of accuracy through careful research. It is precisely the repetition of eye-catching but unsubstantiated claims that has allowed much of English opinion to dismiss the horror of the famine as so much Irish exaggeration with the consequences that Campbell so rightly deprecates.

It is both wrong and distracting to describe the famine as an episode of English 'ethnic cleansing'. The dominant strand in British policy could more accurately be summarised as the forced Anglicisation of Irish society at whatever human cost, a policy that has closer parallels to the strategies of the World Bank and IMF in developing countries today than it has to events in former Yugoslavia, and hence more relevant to the internationalist concerns of the organisers of the annual Doolough commemoration and the famine museum at Strokestown.

Yours faithfully,

PETER GRAY

Downing College

Cambridge

6 September

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