An Interdisciplinary Journal of Irish Studies
THE IRISH AMERICAN CULTURAL INSTITUTE
CHRISTOPHER MORASH, author of the article of which we respectively reproduce, unamended, the first pages below, lectures in the National University of Ireland, Maynooth. His publications include The Hungry Voice (1989), Writing the Irish Famine (1995), and 'Fearful Realities': New Perspectives on the Famine, co-edited with Richard Hayes (1996). He is currently writing a history of the Irish Theater for Cambridge University Press.
MY title is deliberately provocative: "Famine/Holocaust." The placing of those two words -- "Famine" and "Holocaust" -- in conjunction can almost be guaranteed to stimulate a response which, for reasons that will become clear later on, I want to call "aggressive." This "aggressivity" can be expected both from those who believe that the Famine can and should be equated with the Holocaust, and from those who insist, for a variety of reasons, on their radical difference. For the moment, it is enough to observe that the scandal of the conjunction is not the scandal of novelty; the Famine and the Holocaust have, we might say, a history together, at least in historiographic terms. It is to a large extent a subterranean relation, part of what could be called the "unconscious" of Famine writing. This historiographic unconscious is my subject.
We are most aware of the latent metaphor of the Holocaust in Famine writing when it becomes manifest. Last year, for example, the New York State Legislature passed a bill introduced by Queens Assemblyman Joseph Crowley, mandating the teaching of "the mass starvation of Ireland from 1845 to 1850." The bill was offered as a codicil to a 1994 law that prescribed a "course of instruction in patriotism, citizenship and human rights issues, with particular attention to the inhumanity of genocide, slavery and the Holocaust" (Hernandez). This is a wide palate of issues, ranging from the very general ("citizenship") to the particular ("Ireland from 1845 to 1850"), and rich with potential contradictions (How many human rights violations -- torture, for instance -- have been carried out in the name of patriotism?). However, the public response to the legislation (guided in part by the syntax of the statement, which makes "genocide," "slavery," "the Holocaust," and "the mass starvation of Ireland" at least grammatically equivalent) concentrated on one particular alignment out of the many possible: the Famine and the Holocaust, with the term "genocide" providing something of a middle term.
In a letter of protest to New York's Governor, George E. Pataki, an official from the British Embassy in Washington wrote that "it seems to me rather insulting to the many millions who suffered and died in concentration camps across Europe to imply that their manmade fate was in any way analogous to the natural disaster in Ireland a century before" (Mundow 13). Although the "manmade/natural" opposition offered an obvious avenue for counterresponse, many supporters of the bill instead replied that they had not intended to equate the Famine with the Holocaust. "We have less a case of the deliberateness of a Buchenwald and much more a case of the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia," Albany Assemblyman John J. McEneny told the New York Times (Hernandez). His statement clearly distanced the bill from any sort of Holocaust/Famine comparison -- and at the same time, made no effort to appease affronted British diplomatic sensibilities. Later in the year, John J. Lahey, Grand Marshall of the 1997 New York St. Patrick's Day Parade and one of the bill's most vocal proponents, made an even more emphatic statement in The Guardian: "The term Holocaust has been used almost exclusively to describe the conscious and concerted government policy of Nazi Germany to exterminate six million Jews, and this term should not be used to describe any other human rights violation. The Holocaust was very different in nature and magnitude from Ireland's Great Hunger, and no comparison of the two should be made" (Lahey 13).
That supporters of the New York bill should have been perceived as aligning the Irish Famine with the Holocaust is not surprising, given the interpretations of the Famine many of them presented to the media. "The descendants of Famine emigrants whom I've met in over thirty years in this country [USA] may not have the refinements of recent scholarship at their disposal," writes Cóilín Owens, the Washington chair of Conradh na Gaeilge, in a related context. "But they are clear about one thing: British culpability in sending millions to their graves or overseas" (3). It is increasingly difficult to maintain this kind of certainty about questions of historical guilt at a time when recent historical evidence is creating an increasingly complex picture of conflicting causes and motivations. Hence, placing the Famine in the same frame as the Holocaust, where there is at least much wider agreement on issues of intentionality, has an obvious purpose. Having said this, it would be a mistake to look for the Famine/Holocaust comparison (whether intentional or not) solely among the proponents of a populist, emotive version of Irish history.
Eight years earlier, the same drama of Famine/Holocaust comparison was played out to a very similar script, albeit away from the glare of the media, and with a very different protagonist: Roy Foster, the historian who, whether rightly or wrongly, has become the public face for a form of Irish historical writing that is accused of minimizing the elements of trauma and recrimination that the proposers of the New York bill are so committed to preserving. When Foster's Modem Ireland 1600 -- 1972 first appeared in 1988 (and was equivocally hailed as a "revisionist milestone" by Kevin O'Neill in the Irish Literary Supplement , before the debate on "revisionism" had reached its current state of exhaustion), his chapter on the Famine twice referred to events of the late 1840s as a "holocaust" (both times with a lowercase "h"). The first instance occurs early in the chapter. In the 1988 Allen Lane hardback edition of Modern Ireland, Foster writes of mortality figures: "At least 775,000 died, mostly through disease, including cholera, in the latter stages of the holocaust" [324, emphasis added]. However, in the US Viking Penguin edition of that same year, and in subsequent UK and Irish Penguin paperback editions, "holocaust" has been changed by a silent editorial hand to "catastrophe" (324).
Even more dramatic is what happens in the chapter's penultimate paragraph, when Foster writes in the 1988 Allen Lane hardback of how the "unpredictable, haphazardly defined political nation. . . was shaken up by the demographic holocaust" (343, emphasis added). In subsequent editions, the word "holocaust has been amended to "contraction" (343) -- hardly cognate terms in the average thesaurus and certainly enough of a change to give anyone a reputation for minimizing the pain of history.
What interests me here is that in spite of the considerable differences between the Foster of Modern Ireland and the public supporters of the New York bill, both placed the Famine in the context of the Holocaust -- presumably unintentionally and without making a direct comparison in either case -- and then both made hasty retreats.
* Various parts of this paper were presented to the Parnell Summer School. the Irish Studies Group at Cambridge, and the Bath Institute of Higher Education. In May of 1997, a more complete version was presented to the School of Arts at the University of North Staffordshire. On each occasion, thoughtful contributions from the floor made me refine or rework parts of the argument; I am grateful to those who organized and took part in these sessions. I would also like to thank Kenneth Bergin, Richard Haslam, John O'Brien, and Rob Savage for their help. This is not to suggest, however, that anyone mentioned here necessarily agrees or disagrees with me.--Chris Morash
DAVID IRVING writes: As early as 1975, when the typescript of my book Hitler's War was submitted to The Viking Press for editing, I had exactly the same experience. Stan Hochman, their editor, informed me that I would not be allowed to use the word "holocaust" to describe what RAF Bomber Command did to Dresden in February 1945. "That word is now reserved for what the Nazis did to the Jews," he explained to me.