Michael D Higgins challenged over ‘xenophobic’ Britain comment regarding Irish famine

A Northern Ireland historian has challenged claims from Republic of Ireland President Michael D Higgins that Britiain’s conduct during the Irish famine of the 1840s was “xenophobic”.

By Philip Bradfield
Monday, 17th May 2021, 2:42 pm
Updated Monday, 17th May 2021, 3:40 pm

Mr Higgins was speaking at the National Famine Commemoration 2021 in Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin on Sunday.

He said: “The notion that the fundamental defects from which the native Irish suffered were moral rather than financial – was widespread among educated Britons of this era who ascribed serious defects in the Irish national character, including disorder or violence, filth, laziness, and worst of all, a lack of self-reliance, as the cause of the Famine.

“This was unambiguous xenophobic, racial and cultural stereotyping. In distancing themselves from the Famine and its consequences, it was suggested, the Irish could be taught to ‘stand on their own feet’, to wean themselves from their dependence on British support.”

Sign up to our daily newsletter

Irish President Michael D Higgins was giving a speech about the Irish famine. Photo credit should read: Brian Lawless/PA Wire.

He added that Britain could have helped those suffering by;-

:: Prohibiting the export of grain from Ireland, especially during the winter of 1846-47 and early in the following spring, when there was little food in the

:: Continuing its soup-kitchen scheme for a longer time which was effective for just six months, from March to September 1847, despite it providing food for up to three million people,

:: Restraining the “ruthless mass eviction” of 500,000 people from their homes, as landlords sought to rid their estates of pauperised farmers and labourers.

Historian Gordon Lucy contested the comments by the Irish president.

Mr Higgins added: “Last, and above all, the British government should have been willing to treat the Famine in Ireland as a humanitarian crisis, an imperial responsibility, and a responsibility to bear the costs of relief after the summer of 1847. In an atmosphere of rising ‘Famine fatigue’ in Britain, Ireland at that point and for the remainder of the Famine was left to survive on its own woefully inadequate resources in a misguided effort to promote greater self-reliance and self-exertion among the poor.”

But Northern Ireland historian Gordon Lucy challenged Mr Higgins’ comments, saying that the Tory government, and many landlords and clergy worked sacrificially to support the poor - some of them paying with their lives.

“You could be forgiven for thinking the speech was a vehicle for Anglophobia,” he said.

“Some people come out of the Famine well and others do not.

“The Conservative government of Sir Robert Peel emerges with a great deal more credit than Lord John Russell’s Liberal administration. According to the nationalist Freeman’s Journal, ‘No man died of famine during his [Peel’s] administration’.”

He added: Some clergy of all denominations behaved well and sacrificially. For example , in 1847, 40 Protestant clergy died of ‘famine fever’.

“William Archer Butler was reputed to be ‘the cleverest man in Ireland’, becoming Professor of Moral Philosophy at Trinity College, Dublin, when he graduated and Rector of Raymochy near Dunfanaghy. While engaged in famine relief, he caught ‘famine fever’ and died very suddenly in July 1848.”

“Some landlords had … taken advantage of the Famine to clear their overcrowded estates by evicting the poorer tenants. Others had devoted themselves and their whole resources to the work of relief. All had suffered economic loss; and some had been brought to bankruptcy.”

A message from the Editor:

Thank you for reading this story on our website. While I have your attention, I also have an important request to make of you.

With the coronavirus lockdown having a major impact on many of our advertisers - and consequently the revenue we receive - we are more reliant than ever on you taking out a digital subscription.

Subscribe to newsletter.co.uk and enjoy unlimited access to the best Northern Ireland and UK news and information online and on our app. With a digital subscription, you can read more than 5 articles, see fewer ads, enjoy faster load times, and get access to exclusive newsletters and content. Visit https://www.newsletter.co.uk/subscriptions now to sign up.

Our journalism costs money and we rely on advertising, print and digital revenues to help to support them. By supporting us, we are able to support you in providing trusted, fact-checked content for this website.

Alistair Bushe