The Palestinian historian Edward Said (1935 – 2003), considered to be one of the 20th Century’s greatest thinkers, wrote in 2001 that the real tragedy of history is that so much of it is lost to time and is forgotten about, or, worse still, that it is mis-remembered in such a way that people of the present have a distorted narrative of their own past.
He goes further by adding that so much human tragedy and suffering is often sanitised in this way from the record books of history, usually to satisfy the wants and desires of a present day establishment.
As the saying goes, the victors write the history.
I can think of no greater example of this than that tremendously tragic part of Irish history, very much a part Celtic and Gaelic history also, the often misnamed ‘potato famine’ which should, quite rightly, be more commonly known as An Gorta Mor (The Great Hunger).
After all, it is entirely inaccurate to describe a situation as a famine when the land is overflowing with food and belonged to the richest empire in the world.
This catastrophe deserves to be explained within the mainstream much more accurately than it usually is. At the very least, it deserves to be known by those of an Irish descent who are currently living in Scotland where there exists, strangely, no real commemoration to such a large scaled human tragedy which has had a tremendous impact in reshaping the Scottish social landscape right up until the present day.
Thankfully, there is a scheduled commemoration to be constructed next year within the Calton area of Glasgow, next to St Mary’s RC Church, the spiritual home of Celtic Football Club, thanks in large part to the An Gorta Mor Glasgow movement.
Anybody of an Irish extraction should, at this point, stop and ask themselves however, why exactly has it taken so long?
More to the point, as columnist Kevin McKenna has noted, why did Glasgow City Council stall over such a decision and then try to align it with a commemoration of Scottish clearances also?
Fundamentally, why is there a fear associated with commemorating an atrocity which terminally afflicted our Gaelic cousins in Ireland, on Scottish soil?
Remember that this horrific holocaust of humanity did not discriminate based on religion as both Catholics and Protestants suffered.
This article will attempt to contextualise some of the extreme inhumanity associated with An Gorta Mor as well as to highlight the establishment’s silence or attitude of ‘collective denial’ regarding their acquiescent role in the holocaust of humanity, which forever changed the demographics of Scotland from 1850 onwards.
An Gorta Mor: A Holocaust of Humanity
Historians more qualified than me have long argued the point about the sanitising of history by states and government establishments, academics such as Joe M. Bradley (‘Celtic Minded’), Tim Pat Coogan (The Famine Plot) and Christine Kinnealy of Drew University, NJ, for example, but it is a point which must never be forgotten and forever brought into the present context for as long as a country remains unflinchingly obtuse in facing up to its lack of empathy and understanding of the role it played in purposefully forgetting such an avoidable disaster which was, according to some, tantamount to an economically and ethnically motivated genocide.
Sobering Statistics: An Gorta Mor in Numbers
The sheer scale of devastation created by An Gorta Mor and the ignorant and prejudiced Westminster policies which exacerbated it is exhausting to the psyche but, through statistics, can and should be measured, as morbid as it may be.
Consider that between the 1841 and 1851 the Irish census shows that the entire population is decreased by a staggering 30% – put another way, approximately 1 million Irish men, women and children starved to death and approximately 1.5 – 2 million Irish folk left the country.
An historical myth is present here however, the idea that these Irish sufferers of hunger were somehow migrating to a better land for increased opportunity aboard ticketed ship with luggage in tow; these people, the forefathers and mothers of many within present day Scottish society, were seeking genuine refuge from An Gorta Mor.
They were emaciated and psychologically and physically tortured whilst on the brink of death with no real help from their colonial oppressor based across the pond in Westminster – these people were, as Sociologist Sean Damer has stated, refugees.
To the Clyde via Coffin Ship
John Burrowes tells us in his book ‘Irish’ (2004) that thousands upon thousands of these refugees hoped to find solace across the Atlantic but many more could only get as far as the Mersey or the Clyde coastline and they did so aboard what he termed as a ‘coffin ship’.
Many of these poor souls aboard the coffin ships would have an informal burial at sea as their wretched and suffering bodies could no longer stand the inhumanity and the pain of it all, whilst others would make it to their destination only to be already within the throes of death as their bodies, starved of nutrition for over a month, had now past the point of no return.
It has been recorded by post mortem analysis that some of the contents of the stomachs of those murdered by the Hunger could consist of stone, grit and human flesh. A sickening act of inhumanity which, if historically sanitised correctly, is seen as an accidental happening due to a natural disaster, a so called ‘famine’.
This is at best misinterpreted, at worst, a manufactured myth for the sanitising of blood soaked British history.
Additionally, just how could the potato crop failure that blighted Ireland, which was already predicted, blight other lands such as Belgium, some of the Germanic states and parts of France, however there was no An Gorta Mor there?
Present mainstream narrative dictates that it was because of the fecklessness of the Irish and that they ‘over relied’ upon the potato crop through choice – utter nonsense.
When your master, the British, does not allow you to take control of your economy or even your own industries, such as coal for instance, and you are made to work on absentee landlord crofts whilst your rent is going up and your crops which are not being spoiled, are being exported from the mouths of hungry crofters and their children under military guard to be delivered to dinner tables throughout the rest of the British empire; this cannot be regarded as famine and there is no stupidity or fecklessness on the part of the now starving farmer, often Catholic but also Protestant.
This is what happens when the priority of power, profit and Empire takes precedence over people, humanity and preservation of life.
Hunger Refugees and their Generations in Scotland
The numbers of An Gorta Mor survivors and refugees who made their way to Scotland’s west coast, chiefly Glasgow, are truly staggering. For example, Tom Devine states that an area roughly the size of Motherwell’s population had made Glasgow their new home by 1851 as a result of the continual movement of refugees from across the Irish Sea, mostly via coffin ship. Burrowes adds further weight to this by stating that at the height of this refugee traffic in the summer of 1847, Greater Glasgow had taken in 33,000 of these wretched souls. (pg. 21)
By 1851 just over 7% of Scottish citizens were listed as Irish born, this is roughly 208,000 people, according to Devine.
Although as much as Scotland became a new home to these tortured folk, these victims of economic priority over humanity and subjects of a ruthless ignorance by Westminster MPs such as Lord Clarendon who declared the Hunger as an act of God no less, before adding,
“the departure of thousands of Papist Celts must be a blessing to the country they quit”,
in relation to the supposed ‘positives’ to be taken from An Gorta Mor, highlights a strong ethnically discriminative basis to the attitudes of some within the British elite.
It wasn’t all plain sailing for these refugees and their subsequent generations in order to adapt to mid-Victorian Scotland however, as the views of leading Scottish historian, W. H. Fraser show,
“For the Irish in Scotland…the formation of Irishness in what, after all was, for some, a hostile environmental combination of ancient oppressor and rival religion”.
Such a journey these people made, such a trouble they went through and at such a cost, the most expensive of which would be with their own life. A people who clearly left their mark on the Scottish social landscape for the better, through hard graft, local politics and progressive changes to a more inclusive education system to name but a few.
But still, it has taken a scandalous 167 years to receive any positive response from the Scottish state in relation to a legitimate commemoration to this horrific event which led to these peoples catapult here in the first place. Contextually, there are over 100 An Gorta Mor commemorations from Dublin to New York and beyond. At the point of writing, still none in Glasgow.
This lack of activity of the Scottish state over the last century to officially recognize and commemorate those who have suffered due to An Gorta Mor is perhaps best explained as a form of ‘collective denial’. Something that powerful states, in this case Scotland as part of the Westminster based Union, are regularly accustomed to and able to enforce via mass media manipulation and educational agenda setting.
This is no longer acceptable.
Any Scottish citizen of Irish extraction, or anyone of any ethnicity who wishes to right the wrongs of historical injustice, ought to realise that persistence, bravery and necessity, the very values that enabled the refugee to survive the coffin ship, are the very same values that need be applied in the present context if a community of people is to change the state establishments twisted narrative of history to a more realistic one and if collective denial is to be successfully challenged.
Within both political and sporting circles in Scotland people of political power and those who believe their moral compass to be ‘holier than thou’, not to mention the mass media who are masterminds in the art of skilled distraction, are often very quick to point the finger of blame at two football teams from Glasgow in relation to religious bigotry, anti Irishness or cultures of hate, so much so that the label ‘Scotland’s Shame’ was applied to these two teams who need no introduction.
One could convincingly argue however, that the powerful political classes who, decade after decade, have enabled a narrative of history to be denied, suppressed and re-manufactured to the point that the real historical truth of an acquiescent Scotland alongside an ethnically motivated anti Irish Westminster, has been completely hidden.
Surely this, in all of its horrific and unapologetic glory, is the real version of Scotland’s Shame.
This is a modified version of my original article which was posted on the Celtic Star Mag website in 04/2018