Thursday 20 June 2019

Was this the most wicked man in Irish history?

He has been accused of standing idly by while millions of people starved, his sins immortalised in 'The Fields of Athenry'. But was Charles Trevelyan all that bad? John Meagher sifts through the conflicting evidence

'For you stole Trevelyan's corn

So the young might see the morn

Now a prison ship lies waiting in the bay"

On Tuesday night, during their Champions League game against FC Copenhagen, fans of Glasgow Celtic chanted those lines - from The Fields of Athenry - over and over. A couple of days earlier, golf aficionados at the K Club had offered another rendition of the song as Europe swept to victory.

Everybody seems to know the words, but how many are aware of Sir Charles Edward Trevelyan, the man immortalised in the lyrics? Charged with overseeing emergency food supplies to Ireland during the Great Potato Famine, and heavily criticised for his hardline policies which involved withholding relief, Trevelyan has become perhaps the most vilified figure of that traumatic time - something his great-great-great-granddaughter, BBC reporter Laura Trevelyan, found out during a posting to Northern Ireland in the mid-1990s.

"I was interviewing a member of Republican Sinn Fein in south Armagh and she asked if I was related to Charles Trevelyan," she says. "I said I was and she asked me how I could live in Ireland when I had the blood of the Irish on my hands. She wasn't joking.

"I was constantly surprised by the amount of people who knew about Charles Trevelyan and the impact that the famine has in Ireland, more than 150 years later, yet I felt ashamed that I didn't know all that much about him."

Laura's journalistic instincts urged her to investigate his life story and discover a far more complex man than the demonic caricature so readily bandied about. Her book, A Very British Family: The Trevelyans and their World, examines the legacy of Trevelyan - who helped create a meritocratic entry system in the British civil service - and four other Trevelyan relations who came to prominence in the 19th century.

"I'm not defending him or endorsing some of his actions, but I want to show that he was more humane than has been portrayed," she says. "He did work very hard to try to improve the situation in Ireland and had a genuine concern for the welfare of the people.

"He is vilified in Ireland - and not wrongly - because the policy enacted by the government at the time is impossible to defend. A policy of effectively withholding relief and allowing market forces to take their course is brutal. However, what I'm taking issue with is the "portrayal of him as someone who wanted the Irish to die. Yes, he was a providentialist who felt the famine had been the will of God, but that is not the same as saying he wanted the Irish to die - which is what some of his critics say."

Yet, Trevelyan's fundamental Protestant beliefs make for sobering reading. "The greatest evil we have to face is not the physical evil of the famine," he wrote, "but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the Irish people."

In an 1848 article in the Edinburgh Review - at the height of the famine - he applauded the fact that starvation encouraged migration and supported the view that God was punishing the Irish Catholics for their superstitious ways and adherence to 'popery'. He was knighted by Queen Victoria that same year for his work on the famine.

Interest in Charles Trevelyan resurfaced in the 1960s thanks to a damning appraisal by historian Jennifer Hart. "Her work on him was very influential in helping to demonise him, but the picture painted of him was not entirely accurate," Laura Trevelyan says.

"She took selected quotes from his writings - and he wrote everything down - but neglected to mention others. For instance, he wrote repeatedly that the people should not be allowed to starve, but that wasn't mentioned.

"He used to work until three and four in the morning to work on how the policy could be best implemented so that the suffering and the distress was relieved. After all, he was carrying out a policy that was based on the laissez-faire economics of the time. The Government didn't believe in intervening that much."

Laura Trevelyan's book is not the first one to re-assess the man's deeds. Last year, Australian historian Robin Haines's Charles Trevelyan and the Great Irish Famine showed how Trevelyan's most severe critics have re-circulated half-truths and misinterpreted evidence to create a picture of an anti-Irish evangelical bent upon preventing food reaching those most in need of it. Haiens offers instead an appraisal of an opinionated, principled man man working against the odds, to assist a country to which he was attached by ties of affection, sympathy and ancestry.

But criticisms remain, not least from Christine Kinealy, author of A Death Dealing Famine: The Great Hunger in Ireland. "Trevelyan's responses have to be viewed in the context of a weak minority government, an economic recession in Britain, and an aggressive press campaign which reflected a wider public resistance to giving more relief to Ireland," she insists.

"There was a greatly inadequate response from the government - and from Charles Trevelyan - and it is a mistake to see him in a more favourable light than his actions permit."

Laura Trevelyan now lives in New York, where she works as the BBC's UN correspondent. And Irish people still playfully sing The Fields of Athenry to her.

"I have to say that I am haunted by that song," she laughs. "I have heard it so much over the past dozen years or so. It certainly brings my ancestry back to me."

'A Very British Family: The Trevelyans and their World' by Laura Trevelyan is published by IB Taurus

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