Great Irish Famine: Crime Against Humanity?

New York City’s Irish Hunger Memorial offers an informative look at the Irish Hunger of 1845-50, perhaps the worst social disaster of 19th Century Europe. Located near the World Financial Center in lower Manhattan, the half-acre site consists of a rural Irish landscape with an abandoned stone cottage, stone walls, fallow potato fields and the flora on the north Connacht wetlands. It is a metaphor for the Great Irish Famine and a reminder that hunger today is often the result of lack of access to land. Artist Brian Tolle designed the 96′ x 170′ Memorial, which contains stones from each of Ireland’s 32 counties. Along the base are bands of texts separated by layers of imported Kilkenny limestone. The text, which combines the history of the Great Famine with current reports on world hunger, is cast as shadow onto illuminated frosted glass panels.

A recent trip to Ireland, especially the counties in the west (County Galway, County Clare, and County Kerry), districts designated the Gaeltacht where the Irish government recognizes Irish as the predominant language spoken at home, made clear the extent of the Irish Hunger. An historic site on the Dingle Peninsula had the ruins of a famine house that gave an historical overview of the Land War in Ireland when English landowners evicted millions of Irish who could not pay rent in the wake of the great famine. The site describes the ruthless tactics that the British used to evict Irish peasants. Ironically, some evicted Irishmen immigrated to America, joined the US Army, and used the same methods to displace Native Americans during the Western expansion, not seeing any connection between the plight of the Irish and that of the Indians.

The Great Famine had its roots in both the dependence of Irish peasants solely on a potato diet as well as the adverse relief policies of the British Government. Irish patriot John Mitchell summed up the tragedy saying “God created the potato blight but Britain created the famine.” The fungus that ruined the potato crop actually came from America by ship; it infected much of Western Europe, but Ireland was affected the most. The earlier 17th Century purges in Ireland under the rule of Oliver Cromwell and the later Penal Laws insured that the Irish peasant could own no land, paid exorbitant rents and subsisted exclusively on potatoes. Interestingly, food was exported from Ireland during the Great Famine, in the form of livestock, grains, fruits and vegetables. The term Famine is arguably a misnomer. An estimated 1 million died of starvation-related conditions in one of the most catastophic food crises in history. For many, migration was an escape from death. Approximately 20% of emigrants died at sea, in coffin ships, and in quarantine stations. The Irish exodus to America was the first large wave of European immigration

The Brooklyn Law School Library’s electronic collection has material related to this period. See the Making of Modern Law’s The Irish Land Acts, 1903 to 1909: Together with the Rules and Forms Issued Thereunder, Tables of Purchase Annuities, and a Form of Final Schedule of Incumbrances: Being a Supplement to Lord Justice Cherry’s Irish Land Law and Land Purchase Acts, 1860 To 1901. This topic from so long ago has gained some currency with the convening of the Irish Famine Tribunal in late April at Fordham University Law School. Organizers of the mock tribunal set it up as an experiment for lawyers and experts to “examine the responsibility of the British Government, under international law, for the tragic consequences of this period.” After extensive testimony, the panel consisting of New York State Supreme Court John Ingraham from Brooklyn and Irish Supreme Court Justice Adrian Hardiman reserved judgment on the case for 60 days until approximately June 20, 2013.