The Irish famine was without doubt the worst humanitarian crisis to hit the Victorian world. Over a million people starved to death whilst two million more fled the Irish shores forever creating the beginnings of the huge Irish diasporas which still exist in today North America, Canada, Australia and also, of course, London.
A Land of Poverty
Ireland by the middle of the Nineteenth Century was a land of tenant farmers, agricultural labourers and small holders known as cottiers. Many cottiers were “bound” tenant farmers, who in return for working other farms, would be “paid” by being allowed to grow potatoes on tiny strips of land known as conacres. The diet of these people, who spoke Gaelic and worshipped a Catholic God, consisted almost solely of potatoes with a tiny bit of milk, buttermilk or sometimes fish as their only other source of nourishment. It was estimated that the average cottier or labourer ate around twelve to fourteen pounds of potatoes a day. The diet was boring but it was also filling and nutritious, and until the 1840s, reliable but then blight arrived on Irish shores having already swept across Europe devastating potato crops in its wake.
Historians aren’t certain where the blight that caused the Irish famine came from but it’s believed this new fungus probably arrived on ships from Peru or even North America. The blight – Phytophthora infestans – grew on the under surface of the potato leaves and consisted of an extremely fine filament ending in thousands of minute spores. Ireland’s climate of endless rains and strong winds, meant the fungus was able to spread extremely rapidly devastating the potato crops, season after season, causing a humanitarian catastrophe on an epic scale. But its effects were severely worsened by the actions (or perhaps we should say, inactions) of the British government, headed by Lord John Russell, in the crucial years from 1846 to 1852.
One million dead, another two million fled
Éamon De Valera was born 14 October 1882 in New York to a Cuban father and an Irish mother, but returned to live with relatives in Bruree, County Limerick, as a small child. He studied mathematics and worked as a mathematics teacher. He became involved in republican politics around the time of the third Home Rule Bill. He joined the Irish Volunteers and participated in the Easter Rising. Imprisoned, he was sentenced to death but was reprieved. Many accounts say this was due to his American birth; the man himself disputed this, arguing that he was simply lucky with the timing: the British authorities decided they had already executed enough men and commuted the remaining death sentences.
After his release, Eamon De Valera was elected as a Sinn Féin MP in 1917. He became President of Sinn Féin the same year. He was rearrested in 1918 for allegedly plotting with the Germans (a baseless accusation) and held in Lincoln jail, from which he escaped dramatically with two other inmates, using a copy of the Catholic chaplain’s key. While on the run de Valera was elected leader of the first Dáil. He went to America in June 1919, where he campaigned and raised funds (around $6 million) for the Irish republic. He returned to Ireland in 1920 but took little part in the negotiations with the British government after the truce of July 1921 that ended the Irish war of independence.
Michael Collins, the Irish revolutionary leader, was born in County Cork on 16 October 1890, and worked as a young man for several years in London, where he joined the secret society, the Irish Republican Brotherhood. After returning to Ireland in 1915 he fought in the General Post Office during the Easter Rising. Arrested, he was sent to the internment camp at Frongoch (Wales), where he made many contacts among the other imprisoned Irish republicans there and quickly became acknowledged as one of the movement’s natural leaders.
Collins rose swiftly through the ranks of Sinn Féin, and was elected as one of the MPs for Cork in the 1918 general election. In the abstentionist Dáil formed by Sinn Féin after those elections, Collins filled first the function of Minister for Home Affairs and then Minister for Finance. At the same time he was in charge of the IRA intelligence network and leader of ‘the Squad’, which targeted and assassinated members of the British intelligence services. In all of these tasks ‘the Big Fellow’ displayed his talent for organization and for inspiring loyalty in those who served him. It is a sign of Collins’ importance that during the War of Independence the British offered a £10,000 reward for his capture.
It was on 28 June 1922 that the newly formed army of the Irish Free State opened cannon fire upon the Four Courts, a large neoclassical building dominating the quayside in central Dublin. Their aim? To dislodge former colleagues from the Irish Republican Army who had occupied the building. The attack on the Four Courts was the beginning of the Irish Civil War.
Why did former comrades turn on each other? The answer can be found in divisions over the agreement that ended the Irish War of Independence — the guerilla war that the Irish Republican Army had been fighting against the British authorities in Ireland since 1919. It was a bloody and brutal conflict, marked by many atrocities and civilian casualties, but one which had brought about no clear resolution. A truce was agreed in July 1921 and a delegation from Sinn Féin (the Irish republican party that had won the overwhelming number of Irish seats in the 1918 general election) was sent to London to negotiate with the British government.
The intellectual leader behind the Easter Rising of 1916, Patrick Pearse, born 10 November 1879, had qualified as a lawyer but his interests ranged widely beyond that. He was a proponent of both the revived Irish language and educational reform; combining these interests, he opened a private bilingual school for boys in Dublin, St. Enda’s, in 1908.
He came to notice as an Irish nationalist through his writings — he edited the Gaelic League’s newspaper An Claidheamh Soluis from 1903 to 1909 — and through speeches he made, particularly his eulogies on the anniversary of Wolfe Tone’s death (1913) and at the graveside of the leading Fenian (Irish Republican) Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa (1915):
‘I propose to you then that, here by the grave of this unrepentant Fenian, we renew our baptismal vows; that, here by the grave of this unconquered and unconquerable man, we ask of God, each one for himself, such unshakable purpose, such high and gallant courage, such unbreakable strength of soul as belonged to O’Donovan Rossa. Deliberately here we avow ourselves, as he avowed himself in the dock, Irishmen of one allegiance only. We of the Irish volunteers and you others who are associated with us in today’s task and duty are bound together and must stand together henceforth in brotherly union for the achievement of the freedom of Ireland.’
On 24 March 1972, the British government reassumed direct control of the province of Northern Ireland, thus ending one half of an early British experiment with devolution. (The other half, the establishment of a semi-independent ‘Dominion–style’ government in Dublin, can be said to have ended officially with the declaration of an Irish Republic in 1949.)
Home Rule in Northern Ireland
‘Home Rule’, as devolution was called back then, had been proposed for Ireland in the 1860s as the best way of keeping the United Kingdom (and the British Empire) together while satisfying the aspirations for independence of Irish nationalists. Nevertheless, this compromise suggestion had been met with utter rejection on the part of a large minority in Ireland who saw their status, economic well-being, and religious and civil liberties threatened by any loosening of ties to London and to the Empire. These opponents were named ‘unionists’, because they wished to maintain the union between Ireland and Great Britain. They were overwhelmingly Protestant (unlike the majority of the population of Ireland, who were Catholic) and concentrated in one geographical area — roughly, the Province of Ulster in the north of the island.
On 30 January 1972 British soldiers shot 26 unarmed civil rights protesters in an incident known as Bloody Sunday. Kaye Jones looks at what happened on that Sunday afternoon in Derry and why Bloody Sunday remains such a controversial topic.
A Civil Rights Protest
Bloody Sunday 1972 began with a civil rights march organised by the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) as a protest against Interment, a British government policy that detained without trial anyone believed to be a member of an illegal, paramilitary organisation.
Although Stormont officials had implemented a ban on marching in Northern Ireland, the proposed NICRA march went ahead and was scheduled for 30 January 1972. Fearing the potential for violence, Major General Robert Ford, Commander of the British Land Forces, deployed members of 1st Battalion, the Parachute Regiment (1 PARA) to Derry to contain the march.
The March Begins
Almost 5,000 Irish soldiers fought for the British Army during the Second World War and helped defeat Hitler in Europe and the Japanese in the Far East. But they returned to Ireland with their British medals to be court martialled, persecuted and shamed. For no matter what their brave deeds and honourable motives, these men were deemed to have deserted the Irish Army and as deserters they were treated.
Take, for example, Private Joseph Mullally, a 28-year-old Irishman from the town of Moate, County Westmeath in central Ireland, who fought for the Green Howards, a Yorkshire regiment of the British Army. He was killed in action on D-Day, the 6 June 1944, the day that Allied forces landed on the Normandy beaches of northern France and began the slow and deadly mission to push the German army right back to Berlin. The bravery of those men can never be overestimated. Many fell on that first day and Mullally was one of them. But incredibly, a year later, in August 1945, Mullally was posthumously court-martialled
The Campaign for Pardon
A campaign, launched to clear the names of these men, looks close to achieving its objective. Today, 7 May 2013, Irish Defence Minister Alan Shatter is, according to BBC News, ‘due to announce details of a pardon during a debate in Ireland’s parliament, the Dail. The legislation is expected to be passed and signed into law by the Irish president within days. The bill also grants an amnesty and immunity from prosecution to the almost 5,000 Irish soldiers who fought alongside the allies.’