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The Role of Ideology in the Genocide of the Irish in Ireland: A comparison between the periods of 1565-1603 and 1845-52


Sociology 251

Dr. Lutz Kaelber

December 8th, 2010


Throughout history it seems that where there is colonialism, there is genocide. Inspired by the romance and power of the Roman Empire, Britain set off to conquer Ireland without regard for the natives settled there, and what occurred was a massacre of the people that shrunk the population to a mere 750,000 by the year 1603 (Kiernan 2009:212). The 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide defines genocide as “acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical or religious group as such” (Kiernan 2009:10). Since this is the standard to which courts judge what constitutes genocide, this definition will be adhered to in this paper. While the British conquest of the late 16th century constituted genocide absolutely, another period in Irish history, the Great Famine of 1847, showed no intent to destroy through the implemented policies, despite the consequences. By comparing the ideologies during both the Great Famine of 1847 and the British conquest of the late 16th century, this paper will demonstrate the difference between genocide and the Great Irish famine.

In order to analyze ideologies, an accurate definition is necessary. Ideology is “any system of ideas underlying and informing social and political action” and further, “any system of ideas which justifies or legitimates the subordination of one group by another” (Jary & Jary 2006:289). Given this definition, it is clear why ideology is important in the study of genocide. The ideas that support and justify the actions of a certain group should be studied for their origins. In this way, it may be possible to identify how these ideologies of genocide come to be, and perhaps prevent such destructive ideas in the future.

Theoretical Orientations:

Peter DuPreez writes about two main categories that a particular genocide may fall into. The first is an ideological genocide in which a group attempts to impose a view of the world influenced by reason or faith (DuPreez 1994:66). Nazi Germany is an example of an ideological genocide, in which a vision of a “cleansed” world was imposed. The second category is pragmatic genocide that is devoid of the vision seen in ideological genocide. This type is driven by “fear, a desire for revenge, or by a wish to make examples so that enemies will not give further trouble” (DuPreez 1994:67). The main goal of pragmatic genocide is to demonstrate superiority and prevent other groups from attempting to gain power.

Ervin Staub discusses different possible instigators of genocide. The first being difficult life conditions in a society. In a situation like this, the group in power can identify another group as the enemy, essentially making them a scapegoat. This hatred toward a group can quickly escalate into genocidal violence (Staub 2000:369-70). What makes genocide more likely is a history of devaluation of a group in the social structure (Staub 2000:370). If it has been ingrained in a certain society that one group is inferior, any kind of difficult condition in a society can be blamed on them. Staub also mentions the role of bystanders as often being passive, instead of playing a possible active role in the situation (Staub 2000:371). This allows for destructive ideologies to be spread without an opposing force.

Chirot and Edwards give a very general definition of genocide: “politically motivated mass murder” (Chirot & Edwards 2003:15). Convenience, revenge, fear, and purification are the four motivations listed by which a motivation for mass murder would arise. Convenience suggests that it is just “expedient” to get rid of groups that are getting in the way (Chirot & Edwards 2003:15). Revenge as a cause for genocide implies a situation in which someone is upset over a perceived injustice and wishes to prove their power through mass murder. This is a very emotionally charged cause for genocide (Chirot & Edwards 2003:16). The fear of destruction by another group also can evoke a genocidal outcome. In this case, the motive is to get rid of enemies that are potentially stronger than you or pose some sort of threat (Chirot & Edwards 2003:16). The final motivation for genocide, according to Chirot and Edwards, is purification. The most common example of this would be the Holocaust. There is a fear of pollution of a certain group by another and usually requires very deeply engrained cultural beliefs (Chirot & Edwards 2003:18).

In his book Blood and Soil, Kiernan explains five ideologies that commonly lead to genocide; racism, a utopian ideal, a “cult of antiquity”, a “cult of cultivation” and fear of economic competition. Racism stems from the “imagined inferiority or threat” of a subgroup (Kiernan 2009:22). Since race is a socially created phenomenon, racism can be manipulated to include whoever the superior group wants it to include. A utopian ideal as an ideology for genocide occurs when a group imagines how wonderful a world could be without a certain group (Kiernan 2009:23). This, obviously, leads to genocidal actions against the targeted group. While looking at how the world could be is one way to motivate genocide, another is looking at the world and how it was. By using models of conquest, one in power can easily be motivated by past civilizations who conquered and cultivated many lands and killed anyone that stood in the way, which illustrates the “cult of antiquity” (Kiernan 2009:28). Another ideology comes from a “cult of cultivation” in which the group committing genocide believes that their superior place in the world is shown by their superior land cultivation skill (Kiernan 2009:29). Lastly, Kiernan recognizes a fear of economic competition as a motivating factor for genocide. Because being able to cultivate the land is so important, and shows both skill and superiority in the human sphere, it is clear that a group who is able to produce surplus and prosper are a threat (Kiernan 2009:31).

Applying the Theory of DuPreez:

Using DuPreez’s theory on genocide, it is clear to see that the conquest of Ireland in the late 16th century was ideological. The British envisioned that their neighboring island would become an extension of their country. They were enchanted by the idea of conquest (Kiernan 2009:168) and believed that it was their duty to implement their ways into new lands that would eventually become part of the empire. There was no initial fear that the inferior group, in this case the Irish, would become a threat. In fact “little thought was given to resistance by Queen Mary, who initiated the invasion of the island (Bartlett 2010:85). Eventually, though, there was fear of the violent Irish to the point that Queen Mary wanted to make examples of them. She made her wish known that everyone who doesn’t respect authority must be killed (Kiernan 2009:189). In this way, the conquest of Ireland was both ideological and pragmatic genocide.

While the Irish were more unknown in the sixteenth century, the year 1800 brought the Act of Union which officially merged Ireland and Great Britain into one United Kingdom (Curran & Fröling 2010:1302). The Irish were no longer much of a mystery during the time of the famine, and the government did not fear them. In this way, it is not useful defining the famine as potential pragmatic genocide. Ideological genocide can certainly be explored as an option. Many Irish nationalists insist that the British treasury had a vision of a world without the Irish, who seemed to be so different. Through the implementation, of strictly calculated policies based on the laissez faire principle of economics, Irish civilians were left starving during a time when surplus food was both stored within and exported from Ireland (Kinealy 1995:79). Using this basic knowledge of the famine, it is plausible to assume that the Great Irish Famine could classify as ideological genocide.

Through closer examination of the exact policies implemented during 1845 through 1853, it seems necessary to distinguish the will of extermination of peoples, from a will to drastically alter the way they live. The British treasury, led by Charles Trevelyan, who set up and gave money to relief during the potato famine honestly wanted to change the way the Irish lived through their policies and gave little thought to a world completely devoid of the Irish people. Through the public works, soup kitchens, relief committees and local workhouses that were set up, it is clear that aid was on the mind of the Treasury. The way they implemented this aid, in a slow and reluctant manner, allowed for the one million dead in Ireland after starving during the famine (Bartlett 2010:281). While there was a vision of a better society in Ireland on the part of the British government, that vision did not involve the killing of the Irish population. This idea refutes the theory that the Irish famine was ideological genocide.

Applying the Theory of Staub:

Staub emphasizes that a negative view of the inferior population is certainly necessary for the incipient stages of genocide. There are many sources which suggest that this was the case during the late sixteenth century between the English and the Irish, but only once the conquest has begun. Writing by Edmund Campion expresses that the Irish are “very glorious,” “excellent horsemen,” and “mirrors of holiness and austerity” (Myers 1983:24). Campion goes on to express the faults displayed in the performance of their rituals when it comes to Christianity, and their system of primogeniture which are the major issues he finds within the Irish people (Myers 1983:26-30). This emphasizes the fact that the customs of the Irish people, not the people themselves were disdained prior to the conquest of Ireland in the late 16th century. Once violence began, a negative view of the Irish was becoming apparent in what is most likely a justification for the killing of the Irish that were getting in the way. Edmund Spencer writes in 1596 that Ireland is a “barbarous nation” which doesn’t know or accept law (Myers 1983:66). While it is clear that a negative view of the Irish people became common, it was not the reason for violence against the Irish people.

Staub suggests that the hatred for a specific group of people is often due to bad circumstances in the society. First of all, the Irish and the English were separated by a large body of water, so their interactions were limited. Both groups of people led their own lives with their own government, so any bad circumstances would be felt by each group individually, and using the Irish as a scapegoat would not be plausible. Secondly, the British were not feeling the pressure of bad times during the time of the Conquest. In fact, they were in a time of prosperity and colonization. This is clear by the fact that little opposition was expected when the British went to divide Irish land. No opposition was expected, which demonstrates the confidence and the power of the British government. In this way, the conquest of Ireland in the late sixteenth century was not genocide, according to Staub, but this shows that his theory needs to be expanded to encompass more than one type of genocide.

During the time of the Irish famine, there are sources that demonstrate a negative view of the Irish peoples. Ireland was a colony of the British Empire, and the famine was a test of their management of colonial life. It seems clear that the government did want to manage the colony as much as change their agriculture, work ethic, and population growth. The members of the Irish colony were seen as people who did not understand how to use the land correctly, and their dependence on the potato was evidence of this to the British (Nally 2008:727). This dependence also attested to their alleged laziness. The insistence that workhouses be used as a major form of public assistance shows that the government was attempting to change the lifestyle of the Irish into something better understood by the British. The growth of the population was also of concern. In the pre-famine era the Irish population grew to eight million and seemed to still be growing (Curran & Fröling 2010:1304). This growth could be a problem for a government in control of a colony with growing needs. A negative view of the Irish is illustrated by these three perceived problems.

There are also sources that insist that the negative view of Ireland did not exist in the pre-famine era. This view is supported by the idea that Irish moral improvement was possible. While the Irish “backwardness” was acknowledged, it was also accepted that moral improvement was indeed possible with the help of consistently enforced English law (Lengel 2002:10). It can be argued that the Irish were pitied for their perceived lack of knowledge on certain issues rather than looked at with scorn. It was commonly believed before the famine that the Irish were improving both morally and economically under the union (Lengel 2002:97). The famine seemed to be a way to speed up the process of improvement by forcing them to change their ways. In this way, the Irish were seen as people who were not hopeless, but only needed English guidance.

According to Staub’s theory, the conquest of Ireland in the late 16th century does not classify as genocide, while the famine more closely adheres to his theory. Poverty was being felt in many countries at this time, including England (Kinealy 1995:344), which adheres to Staub’s first point that there are bad times being faced in the society. His second point, that there must be a negative view of an inferior group can also be supported if you accept the evidence previously noted in this paper. Staub’s theory gives one idea of how genocide might emerge in a society, but ignores any other options. There are many reasons that genocide might emerge, which will demonstrate that the conquest of Ireland in the sixteenth century was genocide, and that the famine was not.

Applying the Theory of Chirot and Edwards:

Chirot and Edwards give a much more broad theory on genocide than we have previously discussed. From the ideologies of convenience, revenge, fear and purification they provide as an explanation for genocide, convenience echoes the acts of the 16th and 17th century conquest of Ireland. Since the Irish were not as subservient to the idea of conquest as the English would have liked, it became convenient for leaders like Arthur Grey de Wilton to kill “‘forty-six leaders, 800 notorious traitors, and about 4,000 common people’” and Sir William Pelham to kill six hundred Spanish, allies of the Irish, in 1580 (Kiernan 2009:204). It was simply convenient to kill, rather than work to enforce the Queen’s order to remove the false impression that the English ‘“have a determination as it were to root them out”’ (Kiernan 2009:204). There was a clear distinction between the views of those sent to Ireland and those who stayed in England. The difference in view due to location is also apparent when looking at the famine.

English men who were in Ireland during the famine begged for more aid to be distributed, while those in charge of the treasury in England were able to hold fast to their plan and keep aid tied up until the specified date (Kinealy 1995:81). Placing a temporary embargo on exports from Ireland would have been a good short-term solution to the food shortage problem, but Trevelyan insisted, as did others, that interrupting trade would cause future economic problems for Ireland (Kinealy 1995:89). The refusal to immediately help the Irish people in the time of a natural disaster can be seen as an attempt at genocide for convenience’s sake. The English felt that the Irish did not know how to properly cultivate their land and use animals for their benefit. The delay of proper aid to the people can be seen as a mode of quickly getting rid of a group of people that are falling behind in the trends of agriculture, to make way for more English settlers who are more skilled in working the land.

This accusation of genocide for convenience cannot be backed up by illustrating actual intent to kill one million Irish. While it might have been more convenient to replace Irish farmers with English farmers, the goal was to slowly mold the Irish into farmers that more closely followed English agricultural practices. To do this, a strict laissez faire policy was carried out, since it was thought to be best. Letting the economy fix itself was thought to be much more beneficial than creating an entire country that was dependent on England (Kinealy 1995: 79). This view is illustrated in the reply of Trevelyan when the British treasury was asked to lower the prices on corn so the starving could afford to buy it: “If we make prices lower, I repeat for the hundredth time, that the whole country will come upon us” (Kinealy 1995: 79). The economy was on the mind of those in charge of handing out aid, not the actual people affected by the policies. In this way, the thought that mass killing would further the goals of England was not the motivation of the English government. The Irish famine is not genocide in the name of convenience.

Applying the theory of Kiernan:

While it is certainly clear that there were some British that were sympathetic to the Irish and their perceived lack of culture, during the conquest of the 16th century, there were many racist ideas being discussed. Edmund Spencer, and English poet, wrote “A View of the Present State of Ireland” which was well read when it was published in 1596. In it, two men are in a conversation about Ireland; the man who has never been there is sympathetic to the people’s while the man who has been there is trying to convince him otherwise. He writes, “besides their salvage brutishness and loathly filthiness… it is very hard to discern [their] thievish countenance” (Myers 1983:83-4). Through their increasing use of violence to fight the British conquest, the Irish became more and more despised, as Spencer shows. The “barbarous” Irish had no right to the land because of their horrible traits as a people, or so it was argued by writers as the time.

Another ideology Kiernan discusses is the “Cult of Antiquity” (Kiernan 2009:27) which certainly plays a role in the genocide of the Irish in the 16th century. The English were strongly influenced by the Roman model of conquest. The works of Homer, Virgil and Livy were widely read in England that demonstrated the ancient models of conquest and the pride they brought to the victors (Kiernan 2009: 171). Roman military strategy was thence discussed by influential men, and eventually put into action shown by the invasion of Ireland, the first country to be conquered. The Romans are known for their brutal treatment of those who were conquered, and the English military leaders seemed to embrace this mindset. This is shown in Sir William Pelham’s actions of setting cabins on fire and killing all the Irish that tried to escape (Kiernan 2009:204). It is horrible enough to kill someone mercifully, but to watch “blind, feeble, women, boys and girls, sick persons or old people” (Kiernan 2009: 204) die a painful and extended death with a notion that it is just, is a trait of both the English in the 16th century and Roman conquerors.

The ideology of the conquest also followed, what Kiernan names, the “Cult of Cultivation” (Kiernan 2009:29). It was a widely spread thought that the Irish did not “plant any Gardens or Orchards, Inclose or improve their lands,” as the attorney general for Ireland stated in 1584 (Kiernan 2009: 179). This was thought to explain why the country needed English help. And since Edmund Spencer, among many others, believed that if the Irish were “left unto themselves and their own inordinate life and manners, they [will forget] what they were taught,” (Myers 1986:64-5) then it was obvious that the English were going to have to take on the job of cultivating Irish land. Keeping the Irish on the land seemed useless since they would not remember anything or be willing to help. Of course, there were some British who thought the Irish could be used as tenants, but this could be seen as a problem. Sir Thomas Smith, the royal secretary, expressed his fears that if the Irish proved to be good workers, it would “hinder the countrie much in the peopling of it with the English nation” (Kiernan 2009:183). For these reasons, the English thought it paramount to repopulate Ireland with a superior race (Kiernan 2009:184).

Kiernan brings up a type of genocide that does not involve the death of persons, but of culture. His “cultural genocide” idea (Kiernan 2009:13) is one that can be brought to the interaction between the British and the Irish in both the 16th and the 19th century. In the 1540s and beyond, the English attempted to persuade the Irish to replace their Gaelic names, language, dress and even hairstyles to English ones (Kiernan 2009:179-80). Evidence of this cultural genocide is perceptible today in modern Ireland, where English is spoken by the majority of the population. In the 1840s, the Irish way of life and agriculture was declared elementary and the British attempted to impose a more commercial system of farming. By providing a minimum amount of relief during the famine, and placing the maximum burden on local resources, the English were attempting to force the Irish to restructure their agricultural system that was part of the Irish culture. Because the English saw Ireland as a place they could conquer and rule over, getting rid of the non-English culture was essential and in effect, cultural genocide took place.

I have demonstrated, earlier in this paper, evidence that racism was prevalent during pre-famine era and also evidence that it was not. We looked at Edward Lengel’s point of view that racism was not a factor in the English actions during the famine due to a common belief that Irish moral improvement would be possible after generations of tutorship under English law (Lengel 2002:10). Irish backwardness seemed to be an assumed effect of the poor economic circumstances in Ireland, and not the other way around. So, while there were certainly hints of racism, the solution to the circumstance of Ireland was not genocide, but a change in the farming system. There was a more complicated ideology than simply racism involved in the policies enacted by the British. While the Irish were seen as inferior during the conquest if the 16th century, in the 19th century the criticism is placed solely on the agricultural system.

This emphasis on altering the agriculture in Ireland brings up the “Cult of Cultivation” ideology once more. It is clear that the English assumed that their farming system based on productivity and surplus was superior to the system in place in Ireland. This truly shows that the cult of cultivation ideology was strong. Through policies of laissez faire economics, Trevelyan attempted to change the farming structure with as little involvement as possible. Little thought was given to the citizens of the country. Evidence of this is shown in the Bengal famine of 1873-1874 in India, another British colony. The policies implemented during the Irish famine were used as an example of appropriate famine relief; to import some food into famine-stricken regions, but not to stop exports (Bender 2007:137-40). While one million died during the Irish famine, none died due to the Bengal famine. This shows the emphasis placed on the land and the economy in both Ireland and India, and the lack of thought to the actual people affected.

The ideologies given by Kiernan apply well to the conquest of Ireland, but not well to the famine. Racism did not play a strong role in the policies implemented during the famine. Also, while there was a cult of cultivation, its focus was tuned in to agriculture rather than civilians. In this way, it seems that the Irish famine cannot be classified as genocide of peoples in accordance with Kiernan’s theory. Cultural genocide was attempted in both time periods, however. While the Irish were not always blamed for their inferior ways by the British, that did not stop their will to change them. The British successfully provided the Irish language with an association to poverty and the un-educated and, in effect, killed an important aspect of the Irish culture.

1948 United Nations Convention and Genocide:

We have been looking at how scholars classify genocide up to this point. Now, we will look at the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide’s definition: “acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, racial, ethnical, or religious group, as such” (Kiernan 2009:10). Intent is important here and this paper has attempted to demonstrate that intent was prevalent during the conquest of Ireland, but lacking in the Irish famine. While the famine provided the effects of genocide, there was no intent for genocide of the Irish people, as such.1

Summary and Conclusion:

The conquest of Ireland falls neatly into the theory of genocide for DuPreez, Chirot and Edwards, and Kiernan. DuPreez would classify the conquest as ideological genocide since the British had a vision of obtaining the Irish land without a problem, and when the Irish got in the way, they were gotten rid of. Chirot and Edwards’ theory of convenience genocide works well also because it was simply expedient to kill of the Irish for their land instead of dealing with the opposition. Kiernan’s theory of racism, “cult of antiquity, and “cult of cultivation” all describe the genocide of the Irish in the 16th century conquest. The English saw the Irish as an inferior race that needed to be transformed, they used Roman models of conquest to influence their actions, and idolized the land as the measure for their superiority. It is clear that the intent of the English during the conquest was to exterminate the people of Ireland who were opposed to the crown and the British vision of conquest.

The Irish famine can be examined using the theories of DuPreez, Chirot and Edwards, and Kiernan, although their relevance in proving that the famine was genocide on the part of the British can be refuted. Staub’s theory is most interesting because it supports the idea that the famine is genocide in the way that there were poor conditions in English society at the time due to poverty, and there was a negative view of an “inferior” group, the Irish. The reason that the famine is still strongly believed to fall apart from the classification of genocide in spite of this theory is that, when using this theory, the genocide of the 16th century is not classified as genocide, which is accepted by numerous scholars. It is clear that the intent of the English during the Great Irish famine was to exterminate the agricultural system of Ireland, and leave little thought to the people being affected. While there are ways to find theories that coincide with famine as genocide, overall the intentions of the British government were not malicious as they were in the conquest of the last 16th century.

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Curran, Declan and Fröling, Maria. “Large-Scale Mortality Shocks and the Great Irish Famine 1845-1852.” Economic Modelling. September 2010. Vol. 27. Iss. 5. Pp. 1302-1314.
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Jary, David and Jary, Julia. 2006. Collins Web-Linked Dictionary of Sociology. Harper Collins Publishers.
Kiernan, Ben. 2009. Blood and Soil: A World Histroy of Genocide and Extermination from Sparta to Darfur. New Haven: Yale University Press.
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Myers, James P. 1983. Elizabethan Ireland: A Selection of Writings by Elizabethan Writers on Ireland. Archon Books.
Nally, David. “That Coming Storm: The Irish Poor Law, Colonial Biopolitics and the Great Famine.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers. September 2008. Vol. 98. Number 3. Pp. 714-41.
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1 Francis Boyle, a professor of International Law at the University of Illinois-Champaign, sent a formal legal opinion entitled “The Great Irish Famine was Genocide” to the New Jersey commission on Holocaust education on March 16, 2010. He provides a terse statement with little evidence to back up his opinion especially when it comes to the intent of the British. It is difficult to find any scholarly source that agrees with his statements, and therefore this paper continues to support the idea that the Great Irish Famine was not Genocide.

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