Ireland’s Forgotten Genocide

The Guardian recently reported that the descendants of Lord Charles Trevelyan were shocked to learn that during his lifetime, the Trevelyan family owned a thousand slaves on sugar plantations on the Caribbean island of Grenada. One of the descendants, John Dower, said the ownership of the slaves “amounts to crimes against humanity.” Dower said he and the other family members had “no idea” about it until today. “It had been expunged from the family history. I was more than shocked, I was badly shaken. I was under the impression that I came from a benevolent, public service-facing family.”

Another descendant, Laura Trevelyan, joined her cousin in the confessional. “My own social and professional standing nearly 200 years after the abolition of slavery had to be related to my slave-owning ancestors, who used the profits from sugar sales to accumulate wealth and climb up the social ladder.” She, Dower, and other family members issued a letter of apology to the descendants of those slaves. “We, the undersigned, write to apologize for the actions of our ancestors in holding your ancestors in slavery. Slavery was and is unacceptable and repugnant. Its damaging effects continue to the present day. We repudiate our ancestors’ involvement in it.”

While these Trevelyan family descendants are apologizing for their ancestors’ slave-owning, which they say they knew nothing about, will they also apologize for Lord Charles’ well-known contributions to one of the horrors of the 19th century, the Irish potato famine? The magnitude of starvation, death, and forced emigration is almost beyond comprehension. During the famine years, 1845-1852, the 8.4 million population of Ireland shrunk to 6.6 million. More than a million Irish died from starvation and accompanying diseases, and more than a million emigrated, mostly to the United States. To put the cataclysmic losses in Ireland in proportional perspective, it would be like the United States losing 85 million people today.

Trevelyan served Britain’s colonial empire in India from 1826-1840 before he returned to England to become assistant secretary to Her Majesty’s Treasury. In that position, he was responsible for relief efforts during the potato famine. However, he saw his first duty as protecting the treasury from any significant expenditures for food in Ireland. Moreover, he was firmly opposed to any measures limiting or restricting English landlords in Ireland from exporting food, which they did all through the potato famine—enough food to feed double the Irish population. As the Irish nationalist John Mitchel put it in 1860, “The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the Famine . . . and a million and a half men, women and children were carefully, prudently and peacefully slain by the English government.”

Trevelyan saw the famine as an “effective mechanism for reducing surplus population” in Ireland. “The judgement of God,” said Trevelyan, “sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson, that calamity must not be too much mitigated . . . The real evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the Famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people.”

Ah, yes, those troublesome Irish who wanted their country back and had rebellion on their minds. The Irish rebellions of 1798 and 1803 were examples of what those ungovernable people would resort to when pushed. And to think they made heroes of Wolfe Tone and Robert Emmet, rebel leaders condemned to be hanged, drawn, and quartered. India, with a population of 220 million, had given England less grief than Ireland. In his 15 years in India, Trevelyan’s only problems were with other British officials.

During the famine years, Trevelyan made but one brief trip to Ireland and then didn’t venture beyond Dublin, which saw little of the horrific suffering and death devastating the countryside, especially in the west. The Irish counties bordering the Atlantic were decimated. Entire villages became ghost towns. Tens of thousands of stone and mud huts that had served as homes for tenant farmers—on land that had been their forefathers’—now stood empty.

In County Mayo, a third of the population—some 115,000 men, women, and children—either died or emigrated. Many of the dead were piled into mass graves. Occasionally, entire families who died on the dirt floors of their cabins were left where they lay, and the stone and mud walls were knocked down on top of them.

A Mayo newspaper reported “sickening scenes” and “the odour from decaying flesh” everywhere. The bodies of emaciated children were found with green mouths from eating grass. Parents watched their children die, and children watched their parents die. Barefooted orphans with distended bellies and nearly fleshless bodies, covered only by rags, searched the woods, bogs, and mountains for watercress, mushrooms, and berries. They ran alongside the carriages of landlords, begging for food. The lucky ones received a morsel before they dropped. Thousands died by the roadside.

Irish emigrants often didn’t fair much better. The ships leaving County Mayo and other west coast ports became known as “coffin ships.” Fares were reasonable because these ships often sailed from the United States or Canada to Europe with heavy cargo, such as timber, and required weight in their holds on the return trip for proper ballast. That weight could be provided by crowding the Irish into the holds without consideration for space, sanitation, water, or food. Landlords often paid the fares for their starving and disease-ridden tenants as a means of clearing their lands and shifting production from crops to sheep and cattle.

Until the Potato Famine, British ships normally avoided sailing to Canada or the U.S. during the winter because of the severe weather in the North Atlantic. During the famine years, the voyages became year-round. As a consequence, weather occasionally caused a four-week voyage to become a two-month ordeal, with death taking half of the passengers. Even in the spring or summer and with a relatively easy passage, 15 percent or more of the passengers typically died. Altogether, some 30,000 Irish died on their way to the U.S. and another 10,000 on the voyages to Canada.

The quarantine station on Grosse Isle in the Gulf of St. Lawrence kept good records. In July 1847, 10 ships arrived from Ireland carrying 4,427 Irish immigrants. Of that number, 804 had died on passage and were thrown overboard, and 847 were near death on arrival. Some 5,500 Irish were buried on Grosse Isle during the famine years. In 1909, a large Celtic Cross and a plaque were erected as a memorial to the Irish who died there.

Meanwhile, in Ireland, Trevelyan’s parsimonious relief measures were failing miserably. In some locations, “Soup Kitchens” were opened. The quality of the soup varied from location to location. A few places made soup with small bits of meat and vegetables, but most made it with nothing but hot water, rice, and corn. The cornmeal had not been properly ground, and it caused indigestion and diarrhea.

The soup provided few calories and little in the way of vitamins and minerals. It was not enough to sustain a child, let alone a grown man or woman. Even those who lived close to a soup kitchen realized little benefit from the watery gruel, but starving Irish in outlying areas would walk miles—with fathers carrying their younger children—to a soup kitchen. The calories they burned were far greater than the nutrition they received from the soup, and they died all the faster. At a few locations, it was even demanded that those receiving soup renounce their Catholic faith. After six months, the soup kitchens were shut down.

Trevelyan also implemented public-works projects. Beginning in August 1846, Irish men, women, and children were put to work, mostly building stone roads. By early 1847, some 700,000 were thus employed. Men broke large stones with sledgehammers; women and children placed the fragments in baskets, and women then carried the baskets to the roadbed and dumped the fragments. More women and children then raked and shoveled the rock chips into place.

Weakened by starvation and fever, it was not unusual for a worker to collapse on the spot. Many died right there. Worst of all, the money they earned was usually insufficient to buy enough food to sustain themselves in the labor they were doing.

Trevelyan and others in the government were not much concerned about such problems as the Irish dying, but they did think the program was costing the Exchequer too much money. By the end of April 1847, most of the projects were abandoned.

In 1848, Trevelyan declared that his relief work in Ireland was finished and claimed that it had been a success. The crown rewarded him by making him a Knight Commander of the Order of Bath and the 1st Trevelyan Baronet.

It had been a success from Trevelyan’s perspective. Through his relief efforts, the calamity in Ireland “had not been too much mitigated,” and the Irish population had been reduced by more than 2 million. I don’t know what to call this other than a gentleman’s form of genocide. There was food aplenty in Ireland—beef, lamb, pork, oats, wheat, barley, honey—but it was shipped to England. When the Irish protests over the shipments turned violent at several ports, Trevelyan had the government dispatch thousands of British troops—in addition to those already there—to Ireland to deal with the disturbance.

During the famine years, several of my great-grandparents came to America from County Mayo, and others from counties Cork, Tipperary, and Donegal. They arrived here with nothing, not even a good command of the English language—they were Gaelic speakers. I don’t want a virtue-signaling apology from the Trevelyan family or the British Royal family or anyone else, and I don’t want to impose modern-day sensibilities and standards over those who lived two centuries ago, but I am tired of ideologically driven selective outrage. All people of all colors have suffered, and they all have stories.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.