Saturday, June 23, 2012

Britain in the Dock: An Irish Famine Tribunal Set

By Liam Murphy / WG Heritage Editor

Department of Irish Folklore, University
College Dublin
"The Discovery of the
Potato Blight in Ireland," by Daniel
McDonald. A stunned family looks
over their ruined potato crop.
New York -- An Gorta Mór -- the Great Hunger of mid-19th century Ireland -- is probably the most contentious issue among nationalist, revisionist and post-revisionist historians.   The population of Ireland was reduced by a half, with those missing who did not die surviving through emigration, mostly to America.

Historian Christine Kinealy, in “A Death-Dealing Famine: The Great Hunger in Ireland” (London: Pluto Press, 1997) points out that, among European nations, only Ireland today has a population smaller than its 1840 population.  This suggests an impact more devastating than the effect of the Thirty Years War upon Germany.

Historian Christine Kinealy delivers the 
key-note remarks at Friday evening's 
 'Famine Soup Night,'

Singer, songwriter, and musical historian Derek Warfield, former front man for The Wolfe Tones, hypothesizes that the population of Ireland on the eve of the Great Hunger was actually some 10 million souls, approximately 20 percent greater than the census records indicate, due to the reluctance of a significant number of the people, including many Irish speakers, to be enumerated by an occupation government. 

What this has to do with anything is to suggest that the quantitative magnitude of the tragedy may have been some 20 percent greater than historical research has thus far confirmed.  The immediate impact upon the United States was a dramatic increase in the numbers of immigrants arriving from Ireland, as well as in the proportion of poor, unskilled or destitute among those “Famine” immigrants.

Alexis de Soyer

Recipe for Famine Soup

To make 100 Gallons of Soup:
12 lbs of solid meat (16lb with bones)
3 lbs 2 oz of dripping
12 lbs onions, sliced thin
6 lbs leeks
6 lbs celery
8 lbs turnips
37 and a half pounds of flour (2nd class)
25 lbs of pearl barley
9 lbs of salt
1 lb 7 ozs of sugar
New York attorney Owen Rodgers has organized a committee (still in formation), The Irish Famine Tribunal, comprising experts in law, history, sociology, and other disciplines, to undertake a fresh scholarly and legal analysis of The Great Hunger.  The Tribunal will assess the Impact of the Irish Famine on the Irish population, assessing its political, economic, and cultural legacies, within a legal framework.  The Tribunal will bring together expert witnesses and lawyers from Ireland, Britain and the United States to explore this tragedy from this unique perspective.   

The Tribunal will sit, formally (including arguments pro, con and otherwise), at Fordham Law School, in Manhattan, on the 19th and 20th of October, with the trial being held on Day 1, and the consequences of the “Famine” discussed, in light of the findings, on Day 2.  We will present more details, as they become available.
To launch this important and groundbreaking event, a  “Famine Soup Night” -- a genuine attempt to ameliorate, not to be confused with “Taking the Soup” anti-Catholic proselytizing -- was held June 15th at O’Lunney’s Times Square Pub, in bustling midtown Manhattan.  The recipe for the soup was developed by Alexis de Soyer, an upscale London chef, in 1847 to be a nutritious food for the poor and destitute, but, despite his good intentions, the plan often failed in execution because, as Kinealy pointed out, “soup for the poor, when watered-down, becomes poor soup.”

More than 3 million on the bread line
Attorney Niall MacGiollabhul discusses the
Irish Famine Tribunal he and his colleagues
have planned for Oct. 19-20.

The evening recalled the period in 1847, the worst year of The Great Hunger, which had begun with the failure, due to blight, of the 1845 potato harvest. Then, more than 3 million starving Irish received daily rations of soup.  It also honored the memory of the hundreds of thousands of people who died or emigrated in the year that is simply, and tragically, remembered as “Black ’47.”

Speakers at this first public meeting included: Robert Ballagh, Ireland’s ‘Citizen Artist,’ as well as Kinealy,  lawyer Niall MacGiollabhui and celebrated Dublin-born actress Fionnúla Flanagan. 

It quickly became obvious to those in attendance that a lot of work has already been put into this project.  Among the other committee participants, already committed, are playwright Brian Friel; Rúan O’Donnell of the University of Limerick; Frank McManus, former Irish Independence Party MP for Fermanagh-South Tyrone; writer Pete Hamill; Liam Kennedy, Queens University, Belfast; Charlie Rice, formerly of Fordham and of Notre Dame Law Schools; and Dr. Garrett O’Connor, of the Betty Ford Clinic in California.

The Tribunal will analyze John Mitchel’s charge that the English government encouraged and aggravated the effects of the “Famine” in Ireland for the purpose of thinning the population will be analyzed, along with the “Nuremberg” defense, which questioned how men can be guilty of the violation of laws not yet codified.  The question of culpability will be raised.  The panel will discuss the subject of the Natural Law among nations, as well as the role “Famine” played in the formation of Irish America.  The event will explore the Famine’s psychological and cultural consequences.  Conor Cruise O’Brien, writing as historian, hypothesized that The Great Famine shattered the Irish nation, half of us learning to speak English, and the other half, American.

Dub-born actress Fionnula Flanagan with The Wild 
Geese's Heritage Editor Liam Murphy.

Flanagan delivered an impassioned plea for understanding the magnitude of the difficulties facing most of the “Famine” emigrants, who were mostly Irish-speaking, and arriving overseas already stigmatized in cartoons by the press, both in London and in New York.  A picture, she reminded her audience, is worth a thousand words.  Theirs was a struggle, just to survive.  (Flanagan was also in town for her performance, the following night, at Symphony Space in Manhattan, of “Molly Bloom’s Soliloquy” from James Joyce’s Ulysses.)

The committee is compiling a bibliography to allow interested parties to become better prepared to study the issues, supervised by Kinealy, plus other materials, posted on the website, at

Friday’s event concluded with music appropriate to the subject, and to the period, with a rendition of the traditional tune “The Praties They Were Small,” by John McManus of the County Tyrone Piper Band. WG


Anonymous said...

This is fascinating and encouraging to see so many people gettng involved. I hope to help in any way... Eamon Loingsigh.

Anonymous said... - I cannot find as a weblink, I get an error.

Gerry Regan said...

I don't believe they have a site though you might check for one using a search engine and the appropriate key words. They do have a Facebook page. Gerry Regan

Tyrone D Murphy said...

Hi all

Can you please support our latest project, a feature film on the Great Hunger/Famine