Maybe you caught it yourself. I missed the first half of the Sunday Sequence debate, so I went into the Radio Ulster/Raidio Uladh site and listened to it all. It was like watching a couple of duellists, with a sword in one hand and a rapier in the other. I’ m referring, of course, to the debate on the Famine between Tim Pat Coogan and Professor Liam Kennedy from Queen’s University.
The point of difference was clear: Kennedy figured Coogan had written a book (The Famine Plot) which was narrow in its “evidential sources”, a book that was “out-dated and out-moded” and in which it was “terribly difficult to find any redeeming feature”. The rest of us, gentle souls that we are, would have fallen to the floor, skewered for keeps in the face of such an authoritative attack. Not Tim Pat. He cited AJP Taylor ( a historian, he suggested, who might carry a bit more authority than Kennedy) who said that the Famine made Ireland a kind of Belsen. The British welcomed the Famine, and led by the London Times, looked forward to the day when “the Celt will be as rare on the banks of the Shannon” as the Red Indian in the US.
Kennedy said this was misrepresenting the British, that it was in fact history as demonisation. He claimed that the British administrator Trevelyan acted “according to his own lights, trying to save as many Irish from starvation as possible”. “I’m not defending the policies at the time” Kennedy concluded, which seemed a strange thing to say, since he’d been doing that with some energy for several minutes.
Tim Pat’s book, it seems, centres on the question of whether the Famine was an act of genocide. He argues that according to the UN Protocol on genocide, the Irish Famine “ticks all the boxes”. The English saw the Famine coming and did nothing. When it arrived they didn’t close the ports - grain was being exported as people died on the roadside. Yes, the government established soup kitchesn - but one year later cancelled them. He also noted, significantly, that the Famine commemoration committee, set up by the Irish government and of which he was a member, were not able to hold a meeting north of the border, such was the animosity displayed by some there.
Who’s right? Well, maybe if you read Coogan’s book you can decide for yourself. Alternatively, you might like to read something on the subject by the man that Tim Pat referred to as ‘Comrade Kennedy’. That baffled me for a bit, until then I wondered if this could be the Kennedy who ran with spectacular lack of success for the Conservative Party in North Down a few years back? Or maybe that was another of the Kennedys.
One thing’s for sure. The revisionist historians, exemplified by Kennedy, will find it harder to maintain the terrible-tragedy-nobody-could-have-averted line as more writers and historians like Coogan enter the field.