Editorial: We need to remember the Famine to help us address future

Charles Trevelyan


Suggestions of compensation by Britain for Irish Famine devastation, almost 180 years ago, are kind and well-intentioned. But they are impractical and unhelpful for a host of good reasons.

The issue arises because a descendant of 19th-century British aristocrat, Charles Trevelyan, has said that if the Irish Government asked her family to pay compensation over the Famine, and its calamitous aftermath over the ensuing years, they would consider such a request.

Trevelyan is the one who merits an infamous citation, in the anthem, The Fields of Athenry, relating to corn and other foodstuffs exported from Ireland in the 1840s while one million Irish people died from hunger and resultant disease.

Laura Trevelyan, a former BBC international journalist-turned-slavery reparations campaigner, accepts that her great-great-great-grandfather was among the British establishment who “failed their people” while governing Ireland during the Famine of 1845 to 1847.

The question arose as a spin-off issue for a new grouping called Heirs of Slavery, set up last month in Britain by people from long-tailed and well-established British families, whose forebears effectively built their clan’s fortunes from profits of the slave trade. This group has great potential to support poor nations still suffering the long reach of slavery via promotion of debt forgiveness, and investment in health and education, and global advocacy. Mr Trevelyan, who profited from slavery in a private capacity, has long been a contentious figure in Irish history, a talented young British civil service administrator, he is credited with creating the UK civil service as we know it today. By extension he had a role in establishing the Irish administration modelled on the original colonial set-up.

In the Irish Famine years he was a senior administrator in the British treasury and able to strongly influence a weak London government. Historians differ on the extent of his racist or sectarian views towards famine-stricken Catholic Ireland.

Some argue that he was of his time, and his theories on economics and population trends were largely shaped by a one-time teacher, Thomas Malthus. It is clear that Trevelyan strongly felt that Ireland’s population structure was untenable and overly dependent on one crop, the potato, which failed, leading to inevitable calamity.

Trevelyan’s utter dedication to untrammelled market rules meant famine intervention was limited, ineffective and temporary. One million Irish people died, two million were forced to emigrate, and almost two centuries later, the population of the island is still lower than it was in 1840. But Ireland is also by now, a modern, largely prosperous land, and it is time to look forward and outward, forging a more equal relationship with Britain.

Ms Trevelyan does deserve credit, however, for reviving dialogue about the Famine and lessons for our contemporary world. It is important to remember history and recall its lessons – but important also to address the future.

Irish foreign policy must, in part, be informed by a race memory of past injustices and prejudices, which can help us empathise with the beleaguered and stricken, in a very unequal and oppressive world for far too many people.