Well, here I am again as 2021 wends its way and unfortunately to begin with it has been something of a replay of 2020, at least so far as Covid and the effects of it have gone. But spring is around the corner – however while I may identify as culturally Irish, I certainly don’t go with ‘spring’ beginning on St Brigid’s Day on 1st February....it is still f-f-freezing (well, the damp cold anyway if not below 0°) at this time. Nevertheless, time to check the seed packets and think about the garden, if you have one, or the window boxes and tubs or even the house plants.
Framing ‘the Famine’
It is a long time since I studied ‘the Famine’ of 1846 in history lessons, however it is something that I would have an interest in and so felt fairly ‘well up’ on. Perhaps not so, as the RTE couple of programmes (“The Hunger: the Story of the Irish Famine”, marking the 175th anniversary – available on the RTE Player) in late 2020 revealed in terms of what I learnt from them. Of course, as Afri, Sinead O’Connor, and Christy Moore have told us in different ways, and many others besides, “there was no famine”; there was food other than potatoes but the starving peasantry either had to sell it or had no money to buy it.
Christy Moore’s piece, “On a single day” (lyrics by Peadar Ó Riada, available on Afri’s CD “The Doolough Famine Walk – Music from a dark lake”), detailing the amount of food exported from Cork harbour ‘on a single day’ in 1847 is a tragic masterpiece, and each recitation of an item of food a shocking blow in the gut to the starving. The Irish language term, An Gorta Mór, (‘The Great Hunger’) is a much more accurate term for this period.
One of the comparisons which the programmes made was with how countries in mainland Europe dealt with the risk of starvation there, since the blight was present in those countries too. While the European mainland peasantry may have been less dependent on the potato, exports of food were stopped by the likes of France and Belgium, and free food given out as necessary. It was pointed out that part of such relative generosity (I say relative meaning relative to Britain’s record) was because of a fear of rebellion but it would not appear solely because of that. A million people died in Ireland; a tenth of that in mainland Europe in total.
Robert Peel’s Tory government of 1845 was portrayed as dealing fairly effectively to support people in Ireland following the partial potato failure of that year. But the Russell Whig government from 1846, with the infamous Trevelyan on board at the Treasury, intervened too little too late and ended schemes far too early; the government stopped public intervention measures in the summer of 1847, declaring the famine to be over, when the peasantry had exhausted all their resources – it was indeed ‘black ‘47’. People had nowhere to turn, and workhouses could not cope. The RTE programmes defined ‘the famine ‘ as lasting 7 years; the terrible Louisburgh-Doolough-Louisburgh famine walk, commemorated by Afri annually, took place in the spring of 1849.
The programmes also mentioned that the British government spent £8 million on famine relief in Ireland, much of it in loans to be repaid. In comparison £20 million was spent to reimburse British slave-owners during abolition in 1833, and £69 million on the Crimean War of 1854-6. In the same period as ‘the Famine’ in Ireland the government spent £14 million on ‘security’ - the army and police in Ireland - the best part of double the expenditure on ‘famine relief’, and the number of soldiers stationed in Ireland doubled. In fact the people of Ireland were generally too shell-shocked and impoverished or emaciated to rebel.
Britain brought about the ‘Act of Union’ of 1801 between Britain and Ireland through bribery and corruption. The idea was that Ireland would become an integral part of the United Kingdom. But what is very obvious from these two programmes and looking at how Ireland was treated at this time, particularly by the Russell government, is that it was still considered a colony and an inferior place occupied by very inferior people. The ‘Union’ was a sham. The treatment Britain meted out to Ireland, and the lack of action, would not have been tolerated had it been happening in England. But as we have explored here before, the colonial mentality is one which can be acquired, in a different way, by the colonised as well as the colonisers.
It was a long, long time ago, so long ago that it feels like aeons, another existence. It was relatively early on in the Troubles in Northern Ireland, an unnamed year in an unnamed town in Northern Ireland. Like many such towns it was – and is - a very divided place, you could feel and often see the division. I have told the story before of going up the main street at this time to buy a pair of trainers; the shop assistant, seeing me in shorts and t-shirt, asked if I was on holiday. No, I said, I’m working on a playscheme. She asked me where. When I said the name of the Catholic estate concerned I was then told, by someone ostensibly there to sell me a pair of shoes, that “You are working in the wrong end of town.” This was said dead seriously, no hint of irony or divilment. I didn’t buy my trainers.
I was there for 6 weeks on a summer playscheme in a working class estate which was Catholic and known as a Provo stronghold; however, as with all such cases, if you dug deeper there were all sorts of political and apolitical views present, and it is a lazy stereotype to simply put one label on it and the multiplicity of people living there.
One woman I met there had comforted a dying British soldier as he lay on the ground, shot as he patrolled by on a walkway at the back of her house; her courage and action in doing so would indicate that she would not have supported the shooting which killed the victim.
I will share three stories here from this time, all different, and the last one light or slight and perhaps hopeful. The playscheme had half a dozen workers, mainly students like myself and they included several from England. To produce newssheets or slips advertising events which we were organising, we used a duplicator. For those sufficiently young not to know what a duplicator was, it was a stencil and ink printing machine; you ‘cut’ the stencil using a typewriter without a ribbon, put the stencil on the inked drum, and ran the paper through. The ink came through the cut part and created your printing. It was efficient enough, and cheap, but not too cheerful. They were the photocopiers of their day.
We used a duplicator located in the house of the local Provo chief, though it was Mrs Provo Chief there when we would have gone to duplicate. One day I went with another volunteer. When we were finished we were told that they were moving the duplicator into hiding as they were expecting a British Army raid and the duplicator would have been taken (and not given back). A petition had been organised against internment and some squaddies (British soldiers of ‘private’ rank) had signed so they were expecting a kind of retaliation. I can still remember almost exactly the words I said, and being more local I spoke rather than the English volunteer; “Presuming that we can’t use it where it is going, do you know of another duplicator around that we could use?”. There was nothing obvious and we said our thanks and left.
It then came back to us through someone involved in community work locally, and a friend of the playscheme, that we had said to Mrs Provo Chief that we weren’t happy with the decision to deny us use of the duplicator, and could we speak to Mr Provo Chief’s superior..... To this day I still don’t know how this interpretation could have arisen from what I said, but somehow it had. The person informing us managed to pour some calming oil on troubled waters, and we did find another duplicator to use. In such a situation and time the Provos also acted as sexual morality police; a warning came, via the same route, for a male volunteer not to get too close to a local married woman.
The second story I will tell of this time is genuinely scary in a ‘things go bump in the night’ way. Us volunteers on the playscheme were accommodated in local people’s houses on the estate, sometimes at considerable squashed discomfort for the family concerned. For some of the time I stayed, along with another volunteer, in the house of a local woman; we will call her Annie Phelan (not her real name). Tragically Annie was killed a couple of years later by her sister’s boyfriend, killing her and seriously injuring her sister; this was not a sectarian killing.
Anyway, Annie told us about her brother, John Phelan (also not his real name). John had bought a speed boat to use on a local body of water a couple of years previously and, tragically, had been drowned. The boat was found straight away but it was a couple of days before John’s body was recovered. One of the people who went searching for John’s body was a Protestant friend of his who was a policeman, in the RUC; there is a tragic and political-sectarian twist to this story as this policeman was subsequently killed, in an IRA action, by a former classmate of John’s.
But on to the denouement of the story. When this policeman was still alive he was in the old police barracks in the town. I don’t know how it happened, whether there was a reason to open an old police record tome, but anyhow he was reading a particular page and saw a bone-chilling fact. His friend John Phelan had been drowned at a particular named location on the body of water referred to, on a particular day, month and year; exactly 100 years previously, to the day, another John Phelan had been drowned at the same spot on the same body of water.
It may have been a weird coincidence but if my name was ‘John Phelan’ I wouldn’t be going out on the water there, or elsewhere, anywhere near the centenary of this drowning and the bicentenary of the other.
The final story is lighter and more hopeful. A small camping trip took place as part of the playscheme to an attractive forest park. As with many such events, our biggest problem was getting the teenagers, and in a few cases just-preteenagers, to settle at night time. When asked to go and gather wood for a campfire we had not thought to say, “Only gather dead, lying wood”, which we had wrongly assumed those gathering would have known. Someone axed down a small sapling in a prominent position quite close to a park ranger’s house, a useless action anyway because green wood burns appallingly badly; I applied some mud to the stump to make it look like the sapling had been gone some time or was never there......
But what I discovered, delightfully and accidentally, while on this trip was that two of the campers were Prods; a young lad had invited two of his friends from outside the estate. Natural mixing between people at a time like that was a pleasant picture of what could be in Norn Iron, and a symbol of a more hopeful future. You would have to take hope from such a small, and in other contexts insignificant, event; a bit of more conventional ‘normality’ in a situation which was anything but that.
Atheist Catholics and Protestants
Ian Paisley MP (the namesake son of the Rev) got in trouble recently for referring to “the Catholic IRA”. And so he should. The Catholic church was a vehement critic of republican violence throughout the Troubles and while individual ‘Catholics’ might have been involved, the Catholic church was considered a safe pair of hands, relatively speaking, by the British government, e.g. for funding to local areas (Perhaps I should point out that I am not advocating approval by the British government as some kid of positive test but to show they were not seen by them as supporting violence in any way). And many Catholics were involved in myriad ways in dealing with, and trying to overcome, violence.
It did seem a sectarian point Ian Paisley was making. Using this descriptive term in any way was a somewhat bigoted statement (although he later said he made ‘no association’ between the Roman Catholic Church and the IRA). But the problem is also that the terms ‘Catholic’ and ‘Protestant’ mean a whole variety of different things in Norn Iron. You can be a ‘cultural Catholic’ or ‘cultural Protestant’ and also an atheist. The acronyms ‘PUL’ and ‘CNR’ (‘Protestant, Unionist, Loyalist’ and ‘Catholic, Nationalist, Republican’) are an approximation of cultural and political identity for which religious background is a badge. Without considerable nuancing, the language used is not up to the task of being fair and accurate.
Ian Paisley was certainly not trying to be nuanced in his statement. However in saying what he did about the ‘Catholic IRA’ maybe Ian Paisley was simply on the PUL. And maybe his mind wasn’t on the job and he was thinking of holidays abroad.....undeclared freebies he has received in the past include one from a government that discriminates against Christians in general, something which is more than a bit odd considering where he is coming from. He doth Protest-ant too much.
Before I go, I will just say I have to admire Alexei Navalny’s courage. I don’t know much about the guy, and he is far from being a progressive or radical on many issues (e.g. it would seem he is still a Russian nationalist of a sort), but his anti-corruption work has been impressive. To come home to his own country, Russia, and face years of imprisonment by the regime which almost killed him by poisoning some months before, well that requires single-minded courage.
And I will end with sharing a great little online video. ICAN, the International Campaign Against Nuclear Weapons www.icanw.org is the international body that successfully coordinated the campaign to have nuclear weapons banned. Well, in celebration Scottish activist Penny Stone put together a can-can video. It is wonderfully silly though with a sensible refrain to keep dancing the can-can until the British government signs up.......
Well, that is me again. Stay warm, stay safe, and see you again soon, as ever, Billy.
is Billy King? A long, long time ago, in a more
innocent age (just talking about myself you understand),
there were magazines called 'Dawn' and 'Dawn Train'
and I had a back page column in these. Now the Headitor
has asked me to come out from under the carpet to write
a Cyberspace Column 'something people won't be able
to put down' (I hope you're not carrying your monitor
around with you).
Watch this. Cast a cold eye on life, on death, horseman
pass by (because there'll almost certainly be very little
about horses even if someone with a similar name is
found astride them on gable ends around certain parts
of Norn Iron).