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22 February 2001 Edition

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Denying the Protestant Famine experience

The Hidden Famine: Hunger Poverty and Sectarianism in Belfast 1840-1850
By Christine Kinealy and Gerard MacAtasney
Pluto Press
Price £13.99
A couple of weeks ago the Irish Platform for Peace and Reconciliation published a report entitled Peace Building in the Republic of Ireland. In it, the authors write that the culture of the 26 Counties is one of ``general ignorance'' of conditions in the Six Counties and that it continues to labour under selective ``cultural and historical amnesia''.

``This distortion has many manifestations'' they continue, allowing ``whole swaths of people to be airbrushed out of history'', the most obvious examples being the reluctance to acknowledge the Irish people who fought on the British side in the world wars and the belief that only Catholics were affected by the Famine.

There may be much truth in these comments but, in the case of the Famine, the selective amnesia is not only suffered by nationalist Ireland. Turn the clock back to 1997, when the DUP's Sammy Wilson, speaking in opposition to a motion before Belfast City Council to erect a stained glass window in City Hall commemorating those who had perished in the town during the Famine, declared that to erect such a monument would give Sinn Féin a propaganda victory. ``There is no evidence that the Famine played any part in the history of Belfast,'' he said.

This incident, recounted in Christine Kinealy and Gerard MacAtasney's new work, is prima facie evidence of such amnesia and, as it happens, provides a neat summary of the book's central thesis. Why should there be this reluctance on the part of the Protestant community in the Six Counties to acknowledge its own suffering during the Famine? Contrary to Wilson's assertion there is, as this book demonstrates, no shortage of historical evidence on which to draw. The answer, it seems, lies in the twin demons of religion and ideology and it is impact of these which Kinealy and MacAtasney set out to explore in their account of Belfast during the 1840s.

On arrival in Ireland, the Protestant community, under the guidance of its clergy and British patrons fought, often with great savagery, to maintain its view of itself as separate and superior to the indigenous population; theologically, culturally, racially and, not least, economically. To be Irish was to be poor, backward, barbaric, idle and in the thrall of a dark, false religion. Conversely, to be Protestant was to be British, well-off, self-reliant, civilised, enlightened. The rise of Belfast as an industrial powerhouse during the first half of the 19th century provided visible proof of the righteousness of that belief. The bustling, seemingly wealthy city saw itself as decidedly ``un-Nationalist'' as one contemporary visitor noted.

Despite the reality of endemic poverty and their often appalling living and working conditions, working class Protestants also subscribed to this view and saw themselves as a ``plebian aristocracy''. Being Protestant, in itself, made one socially superior to one's similarly impoverished Catholic neighbours. Thus when famine hit the city, there was a deep reluctance - or even inability - to acknowledge any difficulties; and as Kinealy and MacAtasney show, the abiding fiction that the Famine did not affect Ulster has its origins in the period itself.

For example, in April 1846 the nationalist Belfast Vindicator attributed reluctance of the city authorities to avail themselves of whatever meagre help was offered by the British to the `fine philosophy that would starve the poor for the honour of the rich'. Moreover, the newspaper asserted that the rich hated to be reminded of the existence of distress `because it is a disgrace to the province, and [yet] wonder that persons will not be content to linger, sigh and die in silence, sooner than sully the credit of Ulster'.

And in 1849, in order to avoid new taxes imposed by the British in response to the Famine, they ``depicted themselves as having ridden the Famine with ease. The reasons were generally related to the perceived religious and economic superiority of that portion of Ireland compared with the rest of the country. The hardships of the preceding years were marginalised and ... served to create an impression that Ulster was both different from, and superior to, the rest of the country. In February, the Belfast News-Letter cautioned that `The sturdy men of the north will now be compelled to feed the starving masses in whom bad landlordism, disloyal teaching, a false religion and an inherent laziness have combined the share of canker of their country'.''

Even once the situation had finally become too critical to ignore, religion still exerted a malevolent influence. The starving residents of Ballymacarrett, a working class Protestant suburb of Belfast, made it known that they would accept aid only if it came ``though Protestant channels''. The sheer bloody pity of such pig-headedness is almost beyond comprehension.

The Famine was also regarded in providential terms, another factor which reinforced the need for Protestant Ulster to try and disassociate itself from its effects. It was God's punishment, inflicted on a population which continued to subscribe to Catholicism. Mass starvation was seen as a, literally, God-given opportunity to rid the island of the Catholic church forever and the Protestant clergy was unashamed in its pursuit of a souls-for-soup policy.

``... the hunger of the poor was used to promote a Protestant crusade in Ireland. The main perpetrators of this campaign were the Church of Ireland and the Presbyterian Church, but it also had the tacit support of some members of the British government. The links between Protestantism and British national identity had been clearly demonstrated... For Irish Protestants, it distinguished them from the Catholic majority and unified them with the British state... The food shortages also provided an opportunity for renewed attempts at proselytizing. Conversion was also underpinned by political salvation. The motivation of the missionaries was to rescue the people from the darkness of popery and bring them into the pure light of the gospel. In turn, this would make the people peaceful and more open to political integration.''

This is an immensely interesting and important work; it covers historical ground which has largely been ignored by even the most eminent Famine historians and comprehensively explodes some of the most enduring myths surrounding the 1840s. It demonstrates that the Famine was not only a class issue but that it was an urban as well as a rural disaster and that its effects in Belfast, as well as much of the rest of Ireland, were hugely exacerbated because of stubborn political and religious considerations.

It is a constant source of puzzlement to republicans that the Protestant working class still maintains such a passionate attachment to the union and to a state which has historically treated it with such utter contempt. This book goes a long way towards providing an answer, although it is a depressing and familiar one. Sectarianism.

The British state was - still is - nominally Protestant and Irish Protestants preferred to identify themselves with other Protestants even as those same Protestants, in defence of the work ethic, were willing to stand by and watch them starve.


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