Review of “The Irish Question: Two Centuries of Conflict” by Lawrence J. McCaffrey

Although the subtitle of Lawrence J. McCaffrey’s The Irish Question is Two Centuries [i.e., the last two] of Conflict, he argues that to understand modern Irish history, you have to begin with the reign of Queen Elizabeth – the first to be called such in 1603, not the current queen. Under Elizabeth I, Ireland was a part of what became the British Empire. At that time, Protestants were battling, and winning, the religious war for supremacy in England. Elizabeth’s land grants in Ireland to her Protestant supporters gave them substantial political power, far in excess of what their numbers (about a fifth of the population) would seem to have merited.

Ireland became a part of England (it was not yet the United Kingdom) pursuant to the 1800 Act of Union, pushed through the Irish Parliament by Protestants controlling the assembly. The Crown and the Tory Party endorsed a series of enactments that became know as Protestant Ascendency, a form of apartheid that relegated Catholics to second class citizenship. For example, Catholics could not attend public (read, “Protestant”) universities.

But the divisions that caused so much civil strife in the 19th and 20th centuries were not solely religious. They were also geographic. Ulster (Northern Ireland) had a Protestant majority (about 2/3) and was staunchly pro British. The rest of Ireland, about 4/5 of the country, was predominantly (about 90%) Catholic, and had little sympathy for the “mother country.” But many, perhaps a majority, of both Catholics and Protestants wanted Ireland to remain a united country. Protestants wanted all of Ireland to be closely connected to Britain; Catholics preferred to separate from Britain.

The internal divisions led many to desire a partition of Ireland into two countries, a Protestant north and a Catholic south. This led to cross-religious disputes between Unionists and Separatists.

Lawrence McCaffrey’s excellent retelling of 200 years of Irish history takes us through the potato famine of the mid 19th century, the heated “home rule” controversies lasting almost an entire century, the politics of the English Liberal Party, the Easter Rising of 1916, Ireland’s decision to remain neutral in World War II, the ultimate decision to divide the country, the rise of the IRA, and many other complex issues that helped shape the modern Ireland of the 21st century. The book was published before “Brexit,” and so it doesn’t take us to the present, but it provides a carefully researched account of how Ireland became the relatively peaceful, if divided, two countries you can visit today.

The structure of the book follows an adage I once heard for legal memoranda: (1) tell ‘em what you’re goin’ to tell ‘em; (2) tell ‘em; and (3) tell ‘em what you told ‘em. The first and final chapters are succinct yet comprehensive summaries of the middle 7 chapters. The book as a whole is well written and organized. Highly recommended.

Rating: 4/5

Published by University of Kentucky Press, 2000

May 24, 1923 — Ceasefire Called in the Irish Civil War

The Irish Civil war was a conflict between Irish nationalists in 1922-23 over whether or not to accept the Anglo-Irish Treaty. This treaty, signed on December 6, 1921, caused deep divisions within nationalist Ireland. The Treaty gave the 26 southern counties of Ireland – now the Irish Free State – a considerable degree of independence – the same within the British commonwealth as Australia and Canada. But it also dissolved the Republic declared in 1918 and required Irish members of parliament to swear allegiance to the British monarch. It additionally confirmed the partition of Ireland between North and South, which had already been instituted under the 1920 Government of Ireland Act.

Partition of Ireland in 1921

The Irish Republican Army (IRA) was split down the middle over acceptance of the treaty. Prominent Republican political leader Éamon de Valera had not been party to the Treaty and did not support it. When the Irish Parliament approved the treaty in January 1922, making way for provisional government under Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith, de Valera resigned and the nationalist movement split.

In April 1922 anti-treaty members of the IRA occupied the Four Courts (the Republic of Ireland’s main courts building) in Dublin. The pro-treaty provisional government (in the process of building the National Army) was largely dependent on the IRA for policing and was unable to deal effectively with the escalating violence. The British Cabinet decided to provide the provisional government with military assistance.

Bombarded Four Courts, Irish Civil War

Then a British military advisor in Northern Ireland who was an opponent of an independent Ireland was shot dead in London, allegedly by the IRA. The British Government insisted that the Irish Government take action against the Anti-Treaty IRA or it would consider the Treaty to have been broken.

On June 28, 1922 the National Army, as the Pro-Treaty IRA now become known, bombarded the Four Courts in Dublin which was occupied by the Anti-Treaty forces leadership. The fires started by the bombardment reached the main munitions dump, provoking the largest explosion Dublin has ever known, according to Tim Pat Coogan and George Morrison in The Irish Civil War. The Civil War had begun. After a period of conventional warfare the Anti-Treaty side reverted to a guerrilla campaign. This was accompanied by assassinations and the destruction of buildings, bridges and other installations.

In August, 1922, the anti-Treaty IRA claimed its most prominent victim when Michael Collins, head of the Provisional Government and Commander in Chief of the National Army was killed in an ambush in his native Cork. Other reprisal killings followed on both sides. An Irish History online site by John Dorney recounts:

By the spring of 1923, the republicans’ campaign had been reduced mainly to destruction of property . . . . A great number had been imprisoned – around 12,000. When Liam Lynch, the anti-Treaty IRA leader, was killed in action in April 1923, his successor Frank Aiken, at the urging of civilian republicans under Éamon de Valera, called a ceasefire. Éamon de Valera supported the order, issuing a statement to Anti-Treaty fighters on May 24:

Soldiers of the Republic. Legion of the Rearguard: The Republic can no longer be defended successfully by your arms. Further sacrifice of life would now be in vain and the continuance of the struggle in arms unwise in the national interest and prejudicial to the future of our cause. Military victory must be allowed to rest for the moment with those who have destroyed the Republic.”

Éamon de Valera

The pro-Treaty party won an election was held in August 1923, but Irish nationalist parties remained embittered.

Dorney notes that “The total casualty list has still not been definitively determined but appears to be about 1,500-2,000 killed with some thousands more injured.” (Defence Forces Ireland cites the number as closer to 4,000 killed.)

The anti-Treatyites entered politics in 1927 and came to power peacefully in 1932. By 1939, most of what they considered the objectionable features of the Treaty had been removed by acts of parliament. 

You can watch a short video about the war here.

January 21, 1919 – Irish Nationalists Declare Independence

In 1916, Irish nationalists began an armed insurrection with the goal of ending the 700-some years of British rule in Ireland and establishing an independent Irish Republic.

The Rising began on April 24, 1916 and lasted for only six days; the small cadre of Irish volunteers could not compete with the numbers and weapons of the British Army.

After the surrender the country remained under martial law. About 3,500 people, many of whom had played no part in the Rising, were taken prisoner by the British and 1,800 of them were sent to internment camps or prisons in Britain. Most of the leaders of the Rising were executed following courts-martial, an act famously memorialized by William Butler Yeats in his poem “Easter, 1916.” The stirring conclusion reads:

I write it out in a verse—
MacDonagh and MacBride   
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:   
A terrible beauty is born.”

485 people were killed in the Easter Rising. About 54% were civilians, 30% were British military and police, and 16% were Irish rebels. More than 2,600 were wounded. Many of the civilians were killed as a result of the British using artillery and heavy machine guns, or mistaking civilians for rebels. Others were caught in the crossfire in a crowded city. The shelling and the fires it caused left parts of inner city Dublin in ruins.

Dublin after Easter Rising

The Rising and suppression of it by the British led to increased popular support for Irish independence. In December 1918, republicans, represented by the reconstituted Sinn Féin party, won 73 seats in a landslide victory in the general election to the British Parliament. They did not take their seats, but instead convened the First Dáil and declared the independence of the Irish Republic on January 21, 1919, this day in history.

The assembly announced its “Democratic Programme,” publicly implored the “Free Nations of the World” to recognize their new government, and enacted a provisional constitution under which it would operate.

First Dáil Éireann at the Mansion House, January 21, 1919

A guerrilla war ensued, fought in Ireland from 1919 to 1921 between the Irish Republican Army (IRA, the army of the Irish Republic) and British forces: the British Army, along with the quasi-military Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) and its paramilitary forces the Auxiliaries and Ulster Special Constabulary (USC).

A ceasefire began on July 11, 1921. The post-ceasefire talks led to the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty on December 6, 1921. This ended British rule in most of Ireland and, after a ten-month transitional period overseen by a provisional government, the Irish Free State was created as a self-governing Dominion on December 6, 1922. Northern Ireland remained within the United Kingdom. Nevertheless, after the ceasefire, violence in Belfast and fighting in border areas of Northern Ireland continued.

A crowd outside Dublin’s Mansion House on 8 July 1921, waiting for confirmation of the forthcoming truce via BBC

August 16, 1845 – Potato Blight Reported in Ireland; Onset of Great Famine of Ireland

On this day in history, “The Gardener’s Chronicle and Horticultural Gazette” reported “a blight of unusual character” on the Isle of Wight. A week later, it reported that “A fearful malady has broken out among the potato crop … In Belgium the fields are said to be completely desolated. … As for cure for this distemper, there is none.” These reports were extensively covered in Irish newspapers. By September 13, “The Gardeners’ Chronicle” announced, “ We stop the Press with very great regret to announce that the potato Murrain [infectious disease] has unequivocally declared itself in Ireland.”

“The Great Famine of Ireland” is the name used for the period of mass starvation, disease, and emigration in Ireland between 1845 and 1852. It is also known as the Irish Potato Famine, because so many in Ireland relied on the potato for much of their nutrition, and during that time period potato blight ravaged the potato crops.

The BBC reported:

Altogether, about a million people in Ireland are reliably estimated to have died of starvation and epidemic disease between 1846 and 1851, and some two million emigrated in a period of a little more than a decade (1845-55). Comparison with other modern and contemporary famines establishes beyond any doubt that the Irish famine of the late 1840s, which killed nearly one-eighth of the entire population, was proportionally much more destructive of human life than the vast majority of famines in modern times.”

Ironically, during this same time period, Ireland had sufficient food to alleviate the starvation, but the food was controlled by the Anglo landlords, all earmarked for export, and protected by troops send from England. As Timothy Egan, author of Immortal Irishman, told NPR:

There was plenty of food on the island while a million people died. And was grain, there was beef, corn wheat, oats, barley – food from Irish land and Irish labor, but it didn’t go into Irish mouths.”

Importantly, he added:

…there are all these documents now that have come out and shown there was a British policy called extermination. They thought the Irish had breeded too fast, and this was nature’s way – in some cases they said God’s way – of culling the Irish.”

Sir Charles Trevelyan was the inflexible nobleman chiefly responsible for administering Irish relief policy throughout the famine years.

He devised “a relief policy” which imposed stringent tests on destitution and relied heavily the requirement of hard labor in exchange for an inadequate amount of food. Nonetheless, many signed up for it because they had no choice but to starve. (See, “Peter Gray, “National Humiliation and the Great Hunger: Fast and Famine in 1847,” Irish Historical Studies, Vol. 32, No. 126 (Nov., 2000), pp. 193-216, online here.)

The resulting disease, deaths, and emigration all seemed fitting to Trevelyan.

Sir Charles Edward Trevelyan

Sir Charles Edward Trevelyan

Trevelyan wrote:

The greatest evil we have to face is not the physical evil of the famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the Irish people.”

A network of state-funded food kitchens mandated by legislation in February 1847 was not in full operation until June of that year. These sites distributed maize and rice porridge to the destitute. In some western districts more than three quarters of the population were fed. But when the potato crop did not fail in the summer of 1847, the government promptly declared the famine was over. By the end of September it had closed all its soup kitchens.

A young girl standing outside a ‘scalp’ – a hole dug in the earth by the destitute to create shelter.

In an 1848 article in the Edinburgh Review – at the height of the famine – Trevelyan applauded the fact that starvation encouraged migration and supported the view that God was punishing the Irish Catholics for their superstitious ways and adherence to ‘popery’.

The BBC relates that in Trevelyan’s 1848 book The Irish Crisis,:

Trevelyan described the famine as ‘a direct stroke of an all-wise and all-merciful Providence’, one which laid bare ‘the deep and inveterate root of social evil’. The famine, he declared, was ‘the sharp but effectual remedy by which the cure is likely to be effected… God grant that the generation to which this great opportunity has been offered may rightly perform its part…’ This mentality of Trevelyan’s was influential in persuading the government to do nothing to restrain mass evictions – and this had the obvious effect of radically restructuring Irish rural society along the lines of the capitalistic model ardently preferred by British policy-makers.”

Trevelyan was actually knighted by Queen Victoria for his “handling” of the famine.

August 1, 1915 – Funeral Oration by Patrick Pearse – “Ireland Unfree Shall Never Be At Peace”

The conflict between Catholics and Protestants in Irish culture is hundreds of years old. In the fifth century, Saint Patrick came to Ireland and brought Catholicism and English rule to the Celts who had been in Ireland since ancient times. By the time Henry VIII took the English throne, nearly 100% of Ireland was Catholic.

(British rule in Ireland began with the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland in 1169. The English Crown did not assert full control of Ireland until 1541, when the Irish Parliament bestowed the title of King of Ireland on Henry VIII after an uprising by the Earl of Kildare threatened regal hegemony.)

Henry VIII was the first English monarch to also be King of Ireland

Henry VIII had a problem with Catholicism, however. His [first] marriage failed to produce a male heir to the throne, and moreover, he had become infatuated with another woman. He wanted a divorce but the Pope would not agree to it. Thus Henry VIII split from Catholicism, founded the Church of England, and demanded that all of the United Kingdom, including Ireland, convert to Protestantism.

The Irish were loathe to abandon their faith, and as a result of their stubborn adherence to “popery,” various acts were passed in the 16th and 17th centuries by Parliament that prescribed fines and imprisonment for participation in Catholic worship, and severe penalties – including death – for Catholic priests who practiced their ministry in Britain or Ireland. Other laws barred Catholics from voting, holding public office, owning land, bringing religious items from Rome into Britain, publishing or selling Catholic primers, or teaching. Protestant settlers from Scotland were sent to occupy Ireland, and Irish farmers were forced to become tenants to the new settlers. The Irish did not have access to education, and made almost no money. They lived off of the land they farmed, and all profits went to the Protestant settlers.

The Irish Penal Code was characterized by the philosopher Edmund Burke as “a machine as well fitted for the oppression, impoverishment and degradation of a people, and the debasement in them of human nature itself, as ever proceeded from the perverted ingenuity of man.”

Yet the English never did succeed in snuffing out hope, or in quenching the Irish thirst for self-determination, as evinced eloquently in the speech by Patrick Pearse, quoted below.

In the 1880s, there was a renaissance of Irish culture, which caused a wave of Irish Nationalism among Catholics. Parties such as Sinn Féin (in English: “Ourselves” or “We Ourselves”) were founded to advocate for the freedom of Ireland.

Violence between the Republicans and the Loyalists escalated, with Irish writers like William Butler Yeats fueling feelings of outrage with his eloquent poetry.

Patrick Pearse

On this day in history, Patrick Pearse, the Irish language activist, delivered an oration at the funeral of prominent Fenian Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa at Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin. (Fenian was an umbrella term for the Fenian Brotherhood and Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), fraternal organizations dedicated to the establishment of an independent Irish Republic in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Glasnevin Cemetery, opened in 1832 for Irish Catholics, contains the graves of many of Ireland’s most prominent national figures.)

Rossa was a political prisoner who had been released as part of the Fenian Amnesty of 1870, with the proviso that he leave the country permanently. He took up residence in New York City where he joined the New York Fenian Brotherhood.

Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa

In New York, Rossa established his own newspaper dedicated to the cause of Irish national liberation from British rule, “The United Irishman.” In his paper he advocated terrorism to overthrow the British occupation. He also organized bombings in English cities from abroad. The British government demanded his extradition from America, but without success.

On February 2, 1885, Rossa was shot outside his office near Broadway by an Englishwoman, but he did not die. He was seriously ill in his later years, and was eventually confined to a hospital bed in St. Vincent’s Hospital, Staten Island, where he died at the age of 83.

His body was returned to Ireland for burial and a hero’s welcome.

According to Century Ireland, a Boston University online historical newspaper that tells the story of the events of Irish life a century ago:

The funeral of the late Fenian, Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, was the occasion of one of the most striking nationalist demonstrations ever witnessed in Dublin.

Special trains brought thousands of people from all parts of Ireland, while people also travelled from England and from the United States. Amongst the throng were numerous members of the clergy and public representatives.”

Crowds gather at the graveside of veteran Fenian Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa in Glasnevin cemetery
Photo: National Library of Ireland, KE 234

The graveside oration, given by Patrick Pearse (also known as Pádraig or Pádraic Pearse), remains one of the most famous speeches of the Irish independence movement stirring his audience to a call to arms.

Mr. Pearse claimed: “The seeds sown by the young men of ‘65 and ‘67 are coming to their miraculous ripening today.”

He memorably concluded:

They think that they have pacified Ireland. They think that they have purchased half of us and intimidated the other half. They think that they have foreseen everything, think that they have provided against everything; but the fools, the fools, the fools! They have left us our Fenian dead, and, while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree shall never be at peace.”

You can read the full text of his speech here.

January 19, 1861 – Ireland Mistakenly Notes the Election of a Black President in the U.S.

On January 19, 1861, the Montpelier Vermont Patriot reported that the Argus, a regional newspaper in Ireland, discussed the implications of “a black Man’s” victory for the United States. “No Presidential election has excited so much party feelings as has the election of Abraham Lincoln, a black gentleman,” the Argus opined.

It is easy to see how they became confused. Lincoln was not well-known outside the country, and the Democrats, led by Stephen A. Douglas, consistently castigated Lincoln as a “Black Republican” whose goal was to incite a civil war, emancipate the slaves, and make blacks the social and political equals of whites. (At Douglas’s first debate with Lincoln, on August 21, 1858, Douglas challenged the audience: “If you desire negro citizenship, if you desire to allow them to come into the State and settle with the white man, if you desire them to vote on an equality with yourselves, and to make them eligible to office, to serve on juries, and to adjudge your rights, then support Mr. Lincoln and the Black Republican party, who are in favor of the citizenship of the negro.”)

Presumably the current newspapers of Drogheda double-checked before publishing on November 5, 2008….

October 9, 1846 – English Noble Charles Trevelyan Shuts Down Irish Famine Relief

Following the potato blight of 1845 and 1846, the Irish were starving to death in large numbers. Ironically, there was plenty of food produced in Ireland, but it was all marked for export (a practice enforced by British soldiers). For the British, mandating that the food had to remain on Irish soil to feed the hungry (for free!) was contrary to their belief in laissez faire, i.e., unfettered free markets and ergo unfettered profits for the English.

Britain’s Prime Minister Lord John Russell put his chief economic advisor, Sir Charles Trevelyan, in charge of dealing with Irish starvation. Treveylan laid out his policy in a letter on this day in history to an Anglo-Irish landlord, Thomas Spring-Rice, Lord Mounteagle.

He wrote:

It forms no part of the functions of government to provide supplies of food or to increase the productive powers of the land. In the great institutions of the business of society, it falls to the share of government to protect the merchant and the agriculturist in the free exercise of their respective employments, but not itself to carry on these employments; and the condition of a community depends upon the result of the efforts which each member of it makes in his private and individual capacity. …”

Charles Trevelyan

Charles Trevelyan

He even contended that culling the numbers of the Irish was all part of Divine Providence:

I hope I am not guilty of irreverence in thinking that, this being altogether beyond the power of man, the cure has been applied by the direct stroke of an all-wise Providence in a manner as unexpected and unthought as it is likely to be effectual.”

September 1, 1864 – Birth of Human Rights Activist and Irish Nationalist Roger Casement, Hanged by a Comma

Roger Casement was born in Dublin to an Anglo-Irish family, but both his parents were dead by the time he was thirteen. His father’s family took him in until he left for England at age 16. At age 20 he left for the Congo to work for Henry Morton Stanley and the African International Association, later known as a front for King Leopold II of Belgium in his takeover of the Congo Free State.

Roger Casement

Roger Casement

Casement met Joseph Conrad in 1890, and both of them, who originally believed that European colonization was a benevolent force, came to see that abuse was rampant. In 1903 the British government commissioned Casement to investigate the human rights situation in the Congo, and in that capacity he travelled for weeks observing and conducting interviews.

In 1904, in what became known as The Casement Report, he detailed abuses, citing “the enslavement, mutilation, and torture of natives on the rubber plantations.” The report was influential in leading to the release of the Congo from the private ownership of King Leopold II of Belgium, and Casement was called the “father of twentieth-century human rights investigations.” In 1911 he was knighted for his important investigations of human rights abuses by a private company in Peru.

King Leopold II

King Leopold II

However, approval of his exposure of abuses by other countries was one thing; exposure of abuses by the British Government was another matter entirely. Casement supported Irish independence and was also known to have been involved in plans to help the Indians win their freedom from their British colonial masters.

On April 21, 1916, Casement was arrested by the British on charges of treason, sabotage, and espionage against the Crown. To gain public support both before and during the trial, the British government secretly circulated excerpts of Casement’s journals to portray him as a sodomite and sexual degenerate.

As an Irish history site reports, at the trial itself, the prosecution had trouble proving the charges since Casement’s alleged crimes had been carried out while he was in Germany. Treason Act 1351 seemed to apply only to activities carried out on English (or, arguably, British) soil. The Treason Act read: “if a Man . . . be adherent to the King’s Enemies in his Realm giving to them Aid and Comfort in the Realm or elsewhere . . . that ought to be judged Treason.” During the trial, the question was whether the offence only applied to adherence to enemies “in [the] Realm.” The court decided that a comma should be added to the unpunctuated original Norman-French text, crucially altering it so that “in the realm or elsewhere” referred to where acts were done and not just to where the “King’s enemies” may be.

Roger Casement at Trial

During Casement’s self-defense at his trial, he stated:

Where men must beg with bated breath for leave to subsist in their own land, to think their own thoughts, to sing their own songs, to garner the fruits of their own labours . . . then surely it is braver, a saner and truer thing, to be a rebel . . . than tamely to accept it as the natural lot of men.”

Casement unsuccessfully appealed against the conviction and death sentence. He was hanged at Pentonville Prison in London on August 3, 1916, at age 51. Previously, Casement himself wrote that he was to be “hanged on a comma.”

Review of “The Immortal Irishman: The Irish Revolutionary Who Became An American Hero” by Timothy Egan

This excellent history of Thomas Francis Meagher (pronounced as Marr) is also a history of the Irish, particularly from the 1600’s onward. The story is quite sad, with the life of Meagher a microcosm in a way of the experience of the Irish nation as a whole. Both suffered repeated persecution, but did not give in to despair. Rather, they were persistent, passionate, and dedicated to justice, family, hearth, kin, and country.

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Egan begins by delineating elements of the Irish Penal Code, a series of acts passed by the English, characterized by the philosopher Edmund Burke as “a machine as well fitted for the oppression, impoverishment and degradation of a people, and the debasement in them of human nature itself, as ever proceeded from the perverted ingenuity of man.” W.E.H. Lecky summarized these laws in his A History of Ireland in the Eighteenth Century:

The Roman Catholic was forbidden to receive education.

He was forbidden to enter a profession.
He was forbidden to hold public office.
He was forbidden to engage in trade or commerce.
He was forbidden to live in a corporate town or within five miles thereof.

He was forbidden to own a horse of greater value than five pounds.

He was forbidden to purchase land.

He was forbidden to lease land.

He was forbidden to accept a mortgage on land in security for a loan.
He was forbidden to vote.

He was forbidden to keep any arms for his protection.

He was forbidden to hold a life annuity.

He was forbidden to buy land from a Protestant.

He was forbidden to receive a gift of land from a Protestant.

He was forbidden to inherit land from a Protestant.
He was forbidden to inherit anything from a Protestant.
He was forbidden to rent any land that was worth more than thirty shillings a year.

He was forbidden to reap from his land any profit exceeding a third of the rent.

He could not be guardian to a child.

He could not, when dying, leave his infant children under Catholic guardianship.

He could not himself educate his child.
He could not send his child to a Catholic teacher.

He could not employ a Catholic teacher to come to his child.

He could not send his child abroad to receive education.

And yet the English never did succeed in snuffing out hope, or in quenching the Irish thirst for self-determination.

Thomas Meagher was born in 1823, and died shortly before his 44th birthday in 1867. In some ways though, he truly remained “immortal” – still remembered today, both in Ireland and in the U.S.

With the onset of The Great Famine (also known as the Irish Potato Famine) in 1845, Meagher was drawn into public life to protest the unwillingness of the London government to provide relief for the Irish, in spite of the great stores of food being produced in Ireland by Protestant landowners and designated for export only. (During the famine, approximately one million people died and a million more emigrated from Ireland, causing the island’s population to fall by between 20% and 25%.)

 1846 illustration showing a starving boy and girl raking the ground for potatoes during the Irish Potato Famine

1846 illustration showing a starving boy and girl raking the ground for potatoes during the Irish Potato Famine

Meagher became an Irish nationalist and a leader of the “Young Irelanders” in the Rebellion of 1848. He and others were convicted of sedition, and first sentenced to death. In response to popular outrage all over the world, the group instead were sentenced to exile for life in Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania) in Australia, where Britain had established some notoriously bad penal colonies, sending some 162,000 convicts there between 1788 and 1868. Many convicts were transported for petty crimes while a significant number were political prisoners.

unesco-australia-convict-sites-world-heritage-property

In 1852 Meagher escaped and made his way to the United States, where he settled in New York City. His first wife, whom he met in Tasmania, went to Ireland to give birth, intending to meet up with him later in America, but she died in childbirth. In New York Meagher eventually married a second time, studied law, and lectured extensively on the Irish cause.

When the American Civil War began, Meagher joined the army, recruiting his fellow immigrants for the famous Irish Brigade, which he commanded. The bravery of the Irish Brigade won them respect even by the Confederates.

Thomas Francis Meagher, Brigadier General of the Irish Brigade

Thomas Francis Meagher, Brigadier General of the Irish Brigade

Following the Civil War, Meagher was appointed acting governor of the Montana Territory, a position for which he was never paid, and which undoubtedly led to his assassination by anti-Catholic, anti-Irish “Know Nothings” in 1867.

Egan tells the two stories – of Ireland and of Meagher – with a righteous indignation and passion that animates his prose.

It’s difficult to isolate the most powerful parts of the book, but the limning of the suffering in Ireland during the Irish Potato Famine, along with the shockingly cold-hearted English response, is surely one of them.

Other parts of the story seem like one thrilling action adventure after another, from Meagher’s hair’s breadth escape from Australia, to the sickening carnage of the Civil War that Meagher somehow survived, in spite of serving in some of the worst battles of that war.

Meagher’s fate in Montana seemed like the ultimate irony. After all he endured, through which he managed not only to live but to thrive – to get cut down by hateful nativists in an outlaw part of America was so unjust and outrageous. As we see nativists once again trying to gain ascendancy in the American polity, we can only hope that this time, reason will triumph over fear and prejudice, and that somehow our “better angels” will prevail.

Monument to Meagher in Helena, Montana, erected in 1905

Monument to Meagher in Helena, Montana, erected in 1905

Discussion: Much of American history is conveyed with a political agenda in the deep background. Britain is an important ally, and we don’t go out of our way to recount its crimes except in terms of the American Revolution, an almost acceptable conflict between brothers, and in which America looked pretty good in any event (at least according to our own histories). But Britain’s other, more egregious colonial misdeeds are not often taught, and it is an unfortunate oversight. The Irish who suffered and died deserve to have their plight known in the U.S. as well as in Ireland, and their heroes remembered for all they sacrificed. Egan takes an important step in remedying this omission.

Evaluation: My favorite kind of history is one that reads like an action/adventure novel, and this book certainly meets that criterion. The author, Timothy Egan, has won a number of awards for his nonfiction, including winning the National Book Award for Nonfiction for The Worst Hard Time. The story he tells in this book is one with which we should all be familiar, to help us understand much of the recent history of England and Ireland, not to mention the to get a better sense of the cruelty and injustice of prejudice against others.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published in hardcover by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016

A Few Notes on the Audio Production:

The narrator – Gerald Doyle – is terrific. Gerard Doyle is an actor and experienced narrator who has received over 25 Earphones awards. He has twice been recognized as an AudioFile magazine “Best Voice of the Year.” It adds immeasurably to the story to have it relayed in an Irish accent.

Published unabridged on 11 CDs (14 listening hours) by Brilliance Audio, 2016

The Great Famine of Ireland

“The Great Famine of Ireland” is the name used for the period of mass starvation, disease, and emigration in Ireland between 1845 and 1852. It is also known as the Irish Potato Famine, because so many in Ireland relied on the potato for much of their nutrition, and during that time period potato blight ravaged the potato crops.

The BBC reported:

Altogether, about a million people in Ireland are reliably estimated to have died of starvation and epidemic disease between 1846 and 1851, and some two million emigrated in a period of a little more than a decade (1845-55). Comparison with other modern and contemporary famines establishes beyond any doubt that the Irish famine of the late 1840s, which killed nearly one-eighth of the entire population, was proportionally much more destructive of human life than the vast majority of famines in modern times.”

Ironically, during this same time period, Ireland had sufficient food to alleviate the starvation, but the food was controlled by the Anglo landlords, all earmarked for export, and protected by troops send from England. As Timothy Egan, author of Immortal Irishman, told NPR:

There was plenty of food on the island while a million people died. And was grain, there was beef, corn wheat, oats, barley – food from Irish land and Irish labor, but it didn’t go into Irish mouths.”

Importantly, he added:

…there are all these documents now that have come out and shown there was a British policy called extermination. They thought the Irish had breeded too fast, and this was nature’s way – in some cases they said God’s way – of culling the Irish.”

Sir Charles Trevelyan was the inflexible nobleman chiefly responsible for administering Irish relief policy throughout the famine years.

He devised “a relief policy” which imposed stringent tests on destitution and relied heavily the requirement of hard labor in exchange for an inadequate amount of food. Nonetheless, many signed up for it because they had no choice but to starve.

The resulting disease, deaths, and emigration all seemed fitting to Trevelyan.

Sir Charles Edward Trevelyan

Sir Charles Edward Trevelyan

Trevelyan wrote:

The greatest evil we have to face is not the physical evil of the famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the Irish people.”

In an 1848 article in the Edinburgh Review – at the height of the famine – Trevelyan applauded the fact that starvation encouraged migration and supported the view that God was punishing the Irish Catholics for their superstitious ways and adherence to ‘popery’.

The BBC reports that in Trevelyan’s 1848 book The Irish Crisis,:

Trevelyan described the famine as ‘a direct stroke of an all-wise and all-merciful Providence’, one which laid bare ‘the deep and inveterate root of social evil’. The famine, he declared, was ‘the sharp but effectual remedy by which the cure is likely to be effected… God grant that the generation to which this great opportunity has been offered may rightly perform its part…’ This mentality of Trevelyan’s was influential in persuading the government to do nothing to restrain mass evictions – and this had the obvious effect of radically restructuring Irish rural society along the lines of the capitalistic model ardently preferred by British policy-makers.”

Trevelyan was actually knighted by Queen Victoria for his “handling” of the famine.