I don’t watch much TV so I haven’t seen the new series called “Victoria.” I was aware of it and knew it was a portrayal of the life and times of Queen Victoria in the UK but that’s about it.
Apparently though, another installment was shown on Sunday night, this one dealing with the Irish Famine, (1845 -19852). I did not see this either but I did learn about the Famine while in school and read a couple of books on the topic subsequently. It was Ireland’s darkest hour and was instrumental in changing us forever. It left the island diseased, denuded, depressed and damaged forever. We lost a million people to death, two million to forced emigration and the remainder riddled with sickness and a sense of hopelessness.
And yet, outside Ireland, little is known about it. But what caught my eye was the ordinary British reaction to the show on Sunday. The ‘Twitterati’ were out in force with the soundbites after it ended.
“Bay Alden @BayAlden
Horrifying learning about Potato Famine. Elitism, bigotry, leaders protecting their own interests over peoples lives. Genocide.”
“Frankie Magpie @Magpie_Dreams
#VictoriaITV is a genuinely hard watch tonight. Half my family are Irish & I studied Irish history at A Level. It’s incredibly complex.”
“joanie ￼ @nicodiangeli
#Victoria I don’t know much about the Irish famine but now I understand why the Irish are so angry,, #VictoriaITV”
Oof. #VictoriaITV was tough watching tonight. Famine sucks.
10:01 PM – Oct 1, 2017”
Watched tonight’s @VictoriaSeries & now I can’t sleep b/c I’m thinking about being a nursing mother in the Irish Potato ”
The ignorance in U.K if what happened in the Famine is shocking #Victoria #lessonsofhistory”
“James Beglin @jamesbeg
Such a sad and moving episode of #Victoria last night on the Great Famine. One million dead; it should be taught in British schools.”
“Mr I @Ingramsean32
Incredible episode of #Victoria this week, thanks @DaisyGoodwin and all cast! Adding this and reactions to lessons on the potato famine!”
It is stating the bleeding obvious to say that the ordinary Irish people today, (2017), are not angry with the ordinary British people of today as regards the Famine. I have many friends and acquaintances across the UK and I know that they are in no way responsible for the Irish Famine. Events in history must always be seen in the context of the times they took place. In 1845 Europe there was inequality everywhere. The rich were very rich and the poor, who were the majority, were very poor indeed. Ireland had been occupied by it’s much more powerful colonial neighbour and as is the case with all colonies, the invader steals the indigenous wealth.
Wealth in 1845 Ireland was the land and its produce and it was forcibly taken from the Irish and handed to British landlords. The former Irish owners were then allowed to farm the their perviously owned land and the resultant produce went to the landlord and was shipped for sale back to the UK by him. The now Irish labourer was allowed to stay on in what had always been his cottage but even there, he had to pay a rent for the privilege. Then, and only then, was he also allowed to plant in a modest garden around the cottage for his own consumption. The Irish were not permitted to own a horse and the meat from all animals were handed over by law, with the exception of the odd chicken. So it was the produce from the garden that the Irishman and his family lived on. This led to the reliance on the potato. What was not known at the time was that potatoes had to be rotated. It was unwise to plant them in the exact same patch of ground year on year. Added to that, in 1844 a mysterious blight hit the country, affecting several kinds of plants. But it was the total dependence of the native Irish on the potato for life itself that began the calamity. The potato harvest of 1845 was devastated with this deadly blight and it failed.
The swollen bellies of barefoot children are images we associate with African famines of the 20th century yet their white Northern counterparts began appearing at the roadsides all over Ireland by the end1846 and black ’47. Reasonable commentators suggest that it was at that point, the British authorities could have brought the famine to an end. It wasn’t as if they didn’t see it happening and indeed, some of their number even reported back to London about it.
But we switch then to the context of the time and the British Parliament was operating the biggest Empire in the world. India, Africa, Australia and vested interests in America were prominent as well as an active policy of divide and conquer in mainland Europe. Ireland or reports of an alleged famine over there were way down the list. There was an understanding among the powerful in London that the Irish were an ignorant backward people and not worth the effort. More important matters of national interest, (to this world power), elsewhere on the world stage meant that a small localized problem on a remote island off her Western shores, should not trouble Britain. So nothing little or nothing was done.
This led to the coffin ships, hundreds of them, that transported the Irish all over the globe in conditions that killed nearly half of them on their voyages. The lucky ones arrived to partial slavery in the United States, Canada, South America and Australia. These Irish hadn’t a word of English between them and little in the way of knowledge or skills required by the hosting countries. As a result, they were not treated very well. But somehow they made it and today, sixty-million Americans claim Irish heritage. It might also interest readers to know that there are, “Fifteen Irish Inventions That Changed The World.”
Okay, it is isn’t much but that is from a small remote country which was not allowed to evolve its own industrial revolution. Indeed, prior to the famine years the native Irish were not permitted any schooling so even those few modest inventions are a miracle.
When I read the tweets above from UK residents it was obvious that the history of Ireland was not taught in UK schools. Conversely, we were taught quite a bit of British history in our schools, which is hardly a surprise since our total history for eight-hundred years consisted of fighting the British invader for freedom. Sadly though our British neighbours know nothing about any of that and can be resentful that we Irish staged a rising in 1916, fought a war of Independence after that and having finally made it, stuck to our neutrality during WWII. They do not understand how there could ever have been a Provisional IRA either and some of the more forthright British I have met on my travels in the seventies believe the Irish are an ignorant, ungrateful, treacherous people and the UK have the moral right to just wash their hands of them.
But that too is just another misunderstanding that I put down to not knowing the facts. The reality for the Irish is that generations of our forefathers suffered centuries of oppression and death at the hands of a much more powerful foe. In my own Father’s lifetime, independence was achieved at last and I was born into a Free Irish Republic sixty-one years ago. I have related here before how as a young man I visited and worked in London and was treated very civilly. I liked it over there anytime I did visit but was always happy to get back to my own place too. I have no doubt that British tourists to Ireland feel the same way when they get home. We’ve all moved on and the famine happened over one hundred and fifty years ago.
But like the UK Tweeters, I believe it would do no harm for British kids to learn a little bit more about the historical contacts between our two countries. It might better inform them as to why we are all where we are today. And of course, knowing your history can help you avoid making the mistakes of that history again.