The Famine and ‘front-line workers’

Published in Issue 3 (May/June 2021), Letters, Volume 29

Sir,—Your review of The Hunger: The Story of the Irish Famine (‘Seen on TV’, HI 29.2, March/April 2021) concentrated mainly on how the story was presented. This excellent documentary necessarily presents a broad-brushstroke account of a complex situation. The wider public appreciation of the history of the Great Famine is often obscured by an emotive narrative. It is popular to describe a malicious British government with a range of cruel servants carrying out a policy of ‘genocide’.

This narrative conveniently ignores two facts. Firstly, the government was that of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Responsibility for the disaster rests proportionally on the Irish component of that system of government.

Secondly, many, if not most, of the servants carrying out the instructions of that government were far from heartless or cruel. Many were voluntary members of organisations such as the workhouse committees who had to operate within a constrained and underfunded system. They were completely overwhelmed by the scale of the disaster. The minutes of their meetings display a compassionate concern and frustration in trying to cope with an unprecedented situation.

One group that never gets mentioned is the Navy, or that small part of it available to Admiral Pigot at Cove. This small fleet of naval steamships was involved in transporting ‘relief’, mostly corn meal, to various harbours around the coast. In some cases, ships were moored in harbours and served as depots from which smaller vessels could carry the relief to areas not accessible to the larger ships. This flotilla and its crews were pushed to the limits of their capabilities, with the seamen showing a compassionate concern for the starving people and willingly putting themselves at risk of contracting the contagious diseases which were so prevalent. The sailors even made collections from their wages to contribute to aid for the situation. Pigot in his report remarks on the general compassionate concern which is characteristic of seamen towards those in distress. He also remarks that in all the time the flotilla was engaged in this work there was not one case of punishment for desertion or other misbehaviour (like drunkenness), in spite of plenty of opportunity for such.

So let us hear a little more balanced account concerning the ‘front-line’ workers during the Great Famine.—Yours etc.,

DAIRE BRUNICARDI

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