Echoes of the Great Famine in today’s refugee crisis

Echoes of the Great Famine in today’s refugee crisis

THE TRAGEDY earlier in August, which saw at least six people lose their lives while trying to cross the English Channel in a small boat is a reminder of parallels with the Irish experience in the 1840s, during and after the Great Famine.

The Channel deaths have led to calls in both the UK and France for the introduction of ‘safe and legal routes’ where people can claim asylum, without having to risk their lives at sea. At present, such routes to the UK are largely confined to people from Ukraine, Hong Kong and to an extent Afghanistan.

The Public and Commercial Services’ Union (PCS) has accused the Government of having ‘blood on its hands’ over the handling of the crossings, with its head of bargaining, Paul O’Connor, saying:

“It’s clear they have no desire to prevent these dangerous crossings. Instead, they’re pouring taxpayers’ money down the drain on policies which are unlawful, unworkable and doomed to failure.

“Why? Because they want to scapegoat refugees to deflect from their own catastrophic failings on people’s living standards. They don’t care that people die as a result. They have blood on their hands.

“The government’s approach is a moral disgrace. The British people should not fall for it. We call upon every person in this country with a shred of humanity to support our call for safe passage.”

In 1845-52, about 1.3 million Irish passed through the port of Liverpool, many on their way to the United States or Canada, but many settled. At the 1851 census, 22.29 per cent of the city’s population was Irish-born.

Then as now, there were fears of the new arrivals and in June 1847, under the Poor Law Removal Act, about 15,000 people were deported back to Ireland. In Liverpool in 1847, about 35,000 people, mainly Irish, lived in cellars in the Vauxhall and Scotland Road areas, and diseases like typhus, dysentery and cholera were rife.

The Channel crossings also remind us of the many Irish who died on the ‘coffin ships’ on the way to the United States and Canada.

Up to two million Irish sailed to North America during the Famine. An estimated 5,000 ships made the crossings, which could last up to two months.

Many were cargo vessels hastily outfitted with makeshift passenger accommodations. Tens of thousands of starving, disease-weakened immigrants died in the dark holds of what came to be known as “coffin ships.” Some who survived the journey, subsequently died at dockside quarantine stations, most notoriously at Grosse Île, Québec, Canada, says Mark Holan in a contribution to the US National Archives.

In April 1847—“Black ’47”—Anglo-Irish Member of Parliament and immigrant advocate Stephen De Vere voluntarily travelled to Quebec in steerage to observe the typical conditions. This passage of his report is frequently quoted by historians, and it notes the presence of newborns: “Hundreds of poor people, men, women and children, of all ages from the drivelling idiot of 90 to the babe just born, huddled together without light, without air, wallowing in filth, and breathing a foetid atmosphere, sick in body, dispirited in heart.”

Two well-known 19th-century writers observed Irish women and their infants as they waited to board ships on the crowded Liverpool waterfront. Herman Melville in 1849 wrote of “puny mothers holding up puny babies.” Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1853 described “ragged, pale . . . women nursing their babies on dirty bosoms.”

The fact that so many expectant mothers, in the final stages of labour, got on ships to leave Ireland indicates the severity of conditions. John H Davis has written how rape was a common experience for women on these ships.

No surprise then, that today’s Channel and Mediterranean crossings are, for many Irish, an echo of our country’s own past.

Declan McSweeney