Book review: Unhappy the Land: The Most Oppressed People Ever, the Irish?

Ryle Dwyer reads the argument that the Irish uprisings of the first decades of the 20th century were a series of civil conflicts, not wars, and they were essentially between Irish people.

Liam Kennedy

Merrion Press, €22.50

LIAM KENNEDY, professor of economic history at Queen’s University, has produced a seminal book that poses fundamental questions about the social and political history of Ireland. He challenges readers to reconsider some depictions of the past.

War, oppression, and social unrest may have been more common in Ireland than in many other countries, but the author questions the aptness of comparisons on the internet between the Great Irish Famine and the Jewish Holocaust.

“For over our seven centuries the history of the people who lived in Ireland had been a folk-trauma comparable in human experience perhaps only to that of the Jews,” Robert Kee wrote.

The coffin ships” of the famine period have been compared with the ships of “the slave trade or the boxcars of the Holocaust”.

Dysentery and cholera epidemics were the biggest killers during the Great Famine. In the wake of deaths from starvation, those diseases wiped out not only the famishing but also people who had ample food.

The internet has been responsible for gross exaggerations, with hundreds of thousands of references to “Irish famine genocide”. 

A syndrome of attitudes that could be summed up by the acronym Mope — which stands for most oppressed people ever — is distorting the history of the Irish famine. 

These attitudes are based on “only limited reference to evidence-based research,” the author warns.

It was only the potato crop that failed, so the British-controlled government could have minimised the Famine by blocking the export of other foods from Ireland. However, they were so wedded to the laissez faire thinking that they refused to act for fear undermining the whole economy of the United Kingdom.

“While laissez faire economics was naive in its assumptions, wrong-headed in its application to the Ireland of the 1840s, and brutal in its consequences,” Dr Kennedy argues, “it was not intended as an instrument of destruction.”

Of course, the people who died were just as dead as if the government had deliberately killed them. 

The author believes that depicting the Great Famine as a deliberate plot to exterminate Irish people — on a par with the Nazi holocaust in Europe — is a gross distortion. 

He is dismissive of Tim Pat Coogan’s book, The Famine Plot, he notes, “received such a cool reception from scholars, that there is little merit in pursuing it further.”

Surely, if he was not going to examine the book himself, he should not dismiss it in such an unprofessional manner.

Dr Kennedy is not only dismissive in his historical treatment of the Great Famine but also of the War of Independence. He treats as absurd the idea that the struggle for Irish independence merited being called a war.

Certainly it was not comparable with either world war, or a number of other European wars.

What happened in Ireland was a series of civil conflicts, according to the author. 

Those began as a struggle between the Catholic Nationalists and Protestant Loyalists in the northeast corner of the island, and then developed into a confrontation between Irish Republicans and members of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC). Those on all sides were essentially Irish.

The British did not wage war on Ireland. Instead they treated the conflict as more like a police action, using the RIC, then eventually bolstering it with Black and Tans and Auxiliaries, who were largely British, though each contained a significant number of Irish people.

After the conscription crisis of 1918, Seán Treacy foresaw the need for a desperate remedy.

We’ll have to kill someone, and make the bloody enemy organise us!” he argued. Treacy was therefore one of the architects of the Soloheadbeg ambush in January 1919 in which two RIC men were killed. 

“That, in fact, was how the spiral of confrontation and polarisation was accomplished,” according to Dr Kennedy.

The two policemen killed were James McDonald, a widower with five children from Belmullet, Co Mayo, and Patrick O’Connell from Clonmoyle, Co Cork.

The parish priest, Monsignor Arthur Ryan, roundly condemned the Soloheadbeg ambush.

“God help poor Ireland if she follows this lead of blood!” Monsignor Ryan declared.

“Let us give her the lead in our indignant denunciation of this crime against our Catholic civilisation, against Ireland, against Tipperary.” 

Dan Breen, another of the leaders of that ambush, later said that his “only regret” was that they only killed two policemen that day. 

“Six would have created a bigger impression than a mere two,” Breen said.

Michael Collins sought to undermine British intelligence in Ireland by eliminating the most effective detectives. 

Once those were eliminated, he realised that the British would likely react blindly and would inevitably lash out at innocent people and thereby drive the Irish people as a whole into the arms of the republicans.

This is essentially what happened during the struggle for independence, whether one calls it a war or not. 

There is merit in the author’s contention that the British did not wage a war against the Irish republicans, but this was largely because British public opinion would not have stood for it. 

“It was liberal opinion in Britain, disdaining the massive coercion force available to it, which was the key element in securing political independence for (most) Irish nationalists,” according to Dr Kennedy.

“Far from there being an Anglo-Irish War, the Irish nationalist people were presented with a series of fait accomplis,” the author contends. 

He recoils from suggesting that the Irish republicans won the conflict. He obviously prefers to believe that the British lost it, but surely this amounts to the same thing.

There should be disquiet over the way a number of historians have distorted aspects of the story, especially in relation to the way that some people have been depicted as national heroes, despite very questionable judgement.

“To me, a united Ireland of two million people would be preferable to an Ireland of four and a half million divided into three or four different factions,”, said Dan Breen.

“The totalitarian impulse revealed here anticipates the kind of sentiment soon to find radical expression in Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union,” Dr Kennedy contends.

“Images of ethnic cleansing — seemingly a cultural fantasy in some corners of republicanism and in loyalism also — and purges within nationalistic Ireland rush to mind.”

Breen was a fervent admirer of Adolf Hitler. When the Allies took control of the German legation in Dublin in May 1945, they found a recent letter from Breen asking the German minister to forward his birthday wishes to the Fuhrer, just days before Hitler committed suicide. 

If someone like Breen with such lousy judgement was a national hero, then God save Ireland from her heroes!

Those old enough to remember will easily relate to the distorted picture that was painted by the Christian Brothers over 50 years ago. 

My abiding memory is of the distortions of one particular brother whose colossal historical ignorance was fanned by a kind of national persecution complex.

Dr Kennedy convincingly challenges the exaggerated myths that distorted our history of the past couple of centuries with his well argued, stimulating, and thought provoking analysis.


Breaking Stories

Irish couple injured in Turkey minibus crash

Restrictions possible for free under-sixes GP scheme as doctors raise workload concern

Man killed while working on roof repairs on West Cork farm

Traveller couple with one-year-old baby sleeping in van after losing caravan roof in Storm Ophelia

Lifestyle

A helicopter put a piano on the 150-foot roof of Blarney Castle and other stories from the Cork Jazz Festival archives

Jazz Memories: Famous faces share their favourite moments

Live music review: The Horrors - Icy genius in a thrillingly intimate setting

Choosing a sheltered spot for Maples is vital

More From The Irish Examiner