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Irish-British History

Reader comment on item: Britain's Encounter with Islamic Law
in response to reader comment: Let the British suffer, they asked for it.

Submitted by Brian Riley (Ireland), Mar 11, 2008 at 23:26

Thank you,Mr.Coughlan, for YOUR history lesson! I am always willing to learn and appreciate the nature of a discussion, rather than a debate or argument. Unfortunately Irish history has been taught over the years in a very partial way, with complete neglect of British history, although both countries were joined at the hip for about 800 years.

I recently spoke to an Irish secondary school history teacher whom I asked if she also taught British history to her students - and was amazed at her answer , "Oh, no! We only teach IRISH history!"

No wonder that much Irish history is an unrelenting tale of British bloody-minded oppression, without any "counsel for the defence" being summoned to explain the English/later British reasons for their behaviour. It was assumed that the only reason was that the "British" were simply evil and hated the Irish from the beginning....................

May I, from some 16 years living, as an Englishman, in Ireland, and with some knowledge of Irish AND British history attempt to remedy this misconception?

As far back as Henry VII - maybe even Alfred the Great - England's defence strategy was based upon the fact that it is on an island. This meant that, unlike European states, the sea around them was a defensive moat, so no enemy only needed to cross a frontier, unlike Europe up to the present day. But the weakness, or downside of this was the enormous costline, offering enemy forces endless possibilities of making a landing and establishing a bridgehead. The only course was to concentrate on building a powerful navy, capable of preventing enemies from reaching the coast, as well as later defending the mercantile ports and harbours from blockade.

But the Achilles Heel, of course, was Ireland - an island only a few miles from the larger island, which was of great strategic importance. Ireland offerered an ideal base for mounting a full-scale hostile attack through the back door. England's two main enemies at that time were France - the greatest European power of the day and Spain, a world-power - both Catholic and both determined to add England to their already large assets.

After the disaster of the Spanish Armada in 1588, which was narrowly defeated more by the weather than the navy, it had still been a pretty close-run thing, England was even more nervous of her coastline's vulnerability. And then, to make matters worse, O'Neill and O'Donnell, two Ulster chieftains, invited the Spanish to land in Ireland, while they would march an army south to meet them. The Spanish landed at Kinsale, where they were joined by the two Ulster Earls and the plan was for a joint invasion of England.

Fortunately for England, Lord Walsingham, founder of the Secret Service and who had spies everywhere, tipped off Queen Elizabeth who dispatched an Eglish army to attack the Spanish/Irish forces at Kinsale. There was slaughter!! The Spanish ran for home, the Irish were massacred and the Earls legged it into exile.

The English then decided to keep a very tight watch on Ireland and became, understandably, very controlling, which, naturally made the Irish even more rebellious. Thus a vicious spiral emergerged with the English ever more oppressive and the Irish increasingly more rebellious. Then in 1798, led by the Protestant lawyer, Wolf Tone, the United Irishmen called in the French to aid them in their rebellion against the Crown.

Didn't the men of 1916 try to enlist German help prior to the rising? Vide Roger Casement.

As you are aware, even in modern times, Churchill was considering occupying the neutral Free State before the Germans could land there and establish around Dublin an invasion harbour to finally catch Britain in a pincer movement between Ireland and the other invasion port on the French coast. AND the IRA sent representatives to try to obtain weapons and support from the Nazis.

That deals with why the British acted as they did towards Ireland.......only an outline.....!

Now the Famine...........

Prior to the Great Hunger which began in 1845, there had already been a number of potato crop failures, but nothing as bad as the last one which goes down in (partial history) as a glaring example of British cruelty. But the facts are more complex.

By 1845, the population of the whole island was around 8 million, a great proportion of whom were completely dependent on the potato, particular in rural Ireland. The northern counties were somewhat more protected by the new industries which alleviated much of the effects. But the population of the rural south and west were wholly dependendent on potatoes as the staple diet, thereby supporting an artificially high population which, without the potato, the land could not sustain. It was a catastrophe waiting to happen and in 1845, it did. A very high period of rainfall allowed the blight to blow in from Belgium and the harvest failed. The following year conditions worsened.

In Parliament, where there was a Tory government, many demanded that wheat should be sent to Ireland as a matter of urgency - BUT - and this is the weakness of democracy - they were opposed by MPs with vested interests in the wheat business, who claimed that this would weaken the price of wheat on the markets. Nevertheless, under the Tories, efforts were made to help the Irish, but with the fall of the Tories, a Whig, or Liberal government was formed, dedicated to Free Trade and Market Forces to the point of obsession - and determined not to give the Irish "free food"! Witrh their Protestant "Work Ethic", they maintained that the Irish misfortunes had been visited upon them by some sort of Divine agency as a punishment for their incompetence and laziness!!!

There was, however, plenty of food in Ireland -but the farmers who grew it - Catholics as well as Protestants-were certainly not going to give it away for nothing,and the Whig government were not going to buy it for the Irish. At the same time, Britain was involved in the Crimean War and offered a good price for Irish-produced food to feed the Army, and that was why cartloads of food were being loaded onto ships under armed guard as the starving Irish could only look helplessy on.

In the North of England, however, in the industrial cities such as Birmingham and Manchester, collections were organised among the workers and money was collected from people who hadn't much themselves, but gave what they could.

Republican propaganda says that Queen Victoria only sent £10, but in fact she sent £1,000-although the Sultan of Turkey wanted to send more, but he was asked not to send more than the Queen in case it made her look mean! Even a North American Indian tribe sent money to help.

Finally, under pressure, the government allowed the importation of maize from America, but distribution was delayed and when it was finally issued, no instructions were given as to the need to boil it for a considerable time to render it eatable, and so many ate it only half-cooked or even raw, leading to dysentry, so great that it was callled, "Peel's Brimstone", after Robert Peel, and was seen as an attempt by the English at genocide against the Irish population. For those who fled,some to England, many to America,there were always "entrepreneurs" who offerered cheap passage on barely-seaworthy "coffin ships" on which the emigrants, packed in under appalingly un-hygienic conditions died like flies from fever - in some cases the rotten ships broke up and sank with appalling loss of life.

Many went from England to Ireland to give what help they could - partuclarly notable were the Society of Friends, (Quakers) who opened industrial schools for lads to learn a trade and gave money to fishermen to buy back their boats and nets which they had sold for food...........

Sorry that this is so long, and doubtless you are aware of much of this, but I have endeavoured to deal with some of the points you made and to explain that "the English" were not responsible for the Famine. Many, farmers, politicians and profiteers acted out of unfeeling self-interest, but many other English people did what they could to help.

And finally, today we are accustomed to the use of planes, lorries and helicopters to bring help swiftly to famine areas, but look, even today, at the West of Ireland. Areas such as Leenane in Connemara, where one can still see the ghostly outlines of the "lazy beds", the potato furrows still visible from that dreadful time - and imagine that landscape devoid of today's roads - and then think back to what sort of transport existed in those mountainous regions in 1845-50! Horses, donkeys, carts and rough tracks. Even with the best will in the world the distribution of large quantities of food to a starving and scattered population would have been impossible.

And at government level there was not the best will in the world.

I rest my case, Sir, for NOT blaming an entire nation for the failures of its government. (I won't even bother with Cromwell!!)


Brian Riley


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