Remembering the Royal Irish Constabulary

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has taken the bizarre decision to commemorate the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) and the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP). Charlie Flanagan, the Minister for Justice, has stated specifically that the commemoration will not honor the Black and Tans nor the Auxiliaries. The latter two organizations were particularly notorious for sectarian brutality against Irish Catholics.

But what of the commemoration of the RIC and DMP? On the one hand, these forces were largely made up of Irish people. On the other hand, these Irish people were acting as agent’s of the British government, and they opposed the democratic wishes of the majority of Irish people to be fully independent from Britain. Still, many living Irish people in Éire have ancestors who were members of the RIC and DMP; they might argue that their relatives were merely doing a job, and that their relatives didn’t actively oppose the Irish people who fought for independence. Indeed, many members of these forces abandoned their jobs when the people began to boycott them–they were socially ostracized, which became extremely painful. So, the taoiseach may intend to honor the memory of these people, some of whom died in the War for Independence.

I’d say there is legitimacy to that point of view. HOWEVER, Varadkar is choosing to include the commemoration of the RIC and the DMP as part of the Decade of Centenaries, which is designed to honor the fight for Irish independence. This choice is definitely strange.

I recommended on Twitter yesterday that, instead, Ireland/Varadkar/Fine Gael consider instituting akin to the German Volkstrauertag, a day that remembers the war dead from all nations around the world, including victims of violent oppression. Such a day of remembrance could include the RIC and DMP without giving them a place of honor alongside freedom fighters such as Michael Collins, Richard Mulcahy, Pearse, Connolly, et al. Surely we can all agree that the RIC and the IRB were not morally equal forces in Irish history, right?

There’s one other important issue to consider here: the on-going fight for Irish unity. Remembering the RIC and DMP is some fashion could be extremely meaningful to Unionists. Will Unionists have a place in a future 32-county republic? Will their history be honored in a unified Irish state? Will their ancestors have a place in how Irish people learn about their history, and what will that place be? We have an obligation to remember the past as it was, and to attempt to have empathy for historical actors. We can recognize that individual members of the RIC/DMP, forces of the British government in Ireland, were bad people who committed atrocities against Irish people– because that is the truth. But that wasn’t true of all members of these forces. To see these people as a monolith is an inappropriate black-and-white view of history, which really exists in infinite shades of grey. If Unionists are to feel welcome in a united Ireland, we must find a way to include their history in a way that doesn’t condemn all Unionists and their ancestors in the way that we characterize Nazis (why which I mean all members of the NSDAP).


Defending Men’s Right to Procreate via Rape: Lessons from Ireland

In October 2012, Savita Halappanavar, a 31-year-old Indian woman living in the Republic of Ireland, died from a septic miscarriage. Doctors at University Hospital Galway detected a fetal heartbeat, but, fearing prosecution, they refused to perform an abortion that would have saved her life. Ireland’s now-repealed 8th Amendment recognized “the right to life of the unborn” and the state guaranteed, “with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother,” that it would “defend and vindicate that right.” The state failed: both Savita and her fetus perished.

Memorial to Savita Halappanavar

Memorial in Dublin to Savita Halappanavar, who died from a septic miscarriage because doctors refused to perform an abortion. Photo: Buzzfeed.

Pro-choice activists have written widely about the dangers that will befall American women if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade. Still, these stories sound melodramatic to many anti-abortion activists. Like anti-vaxxers who have never seen polio, most opponents of abortion have never seen women suffer the agony of carrying an unwanted fetus, and believe these horrors to be the province of “third-world” countries. The example of Ireland is difficult to ignore, however, because the country is western, wealthy, and highly developed. Proponents of fetal-heartbeat laws such as the measure in Alabama that a federal judge blocked on October 29th, which made abortion a class A felony punishable by life imprisonment, should learn from Ireland’s experiences so the ranks of our obituary pages don’t swell with American Savitas.

Alabama’s law refuses exceptions in cases of rape and incest, and here, too, legislators can learn from Ireland. In 1992, in the X Case, Irish courts attempted to block a 14-year-old rape victim from leaving the country for an abortion. The girl was suicidal because of the rape and psychological trauma of pregnancy. After initial rulings that the child would be forced to carry the pregnancy to term, protestors held signs that declared “Ireland Defends Men’s Right to Procreate by Rape.” In the end, Ireland’s Supreme Court ruled that X could obtain an abortion because her life was at risk. The original actions of the Irish government in X’s case, like Governor Kay Ivey’s statement that the Alabama law is a “powerful testament to Alabamians’ deeply held belief that every life is…a sacred gift from God” are nakedly hypocritical: they demonstrate a clear preference for the life of the fetus over the mental and physical well-being of women.

Savita and X were paradigm-changing cases in Ireland because both figures were innocent victims who could not be written off as “sluts” who sought abortions in order to avoid taking responsibility for their “sins.” Savita was a married woman; X was a child who was victimized by a predator. Both Savita and X represented the familial nation in crisis: their families were at risk not because of abortion, but because they could not access one.

Ireland has learned from its past and the government has put the nation on a cultural and legal path toward fully valuing women in society. Also on October 29th, the Irish government welcomed the report of the Working Group on Access to Contraception, which endorsed the provision of free contraception, including long-term methods such as intra-uterine devices and implants. Guaranteed access to contraception and sex education will prevent more cases like these two tragedies–and minimize abortion rates. 

Yet Alabama fails on this measure, too. The state does not require sex education in schools, and schools that do offer sex ed endorse abstinence over information. It is unsurprising, then, that the state has some of the highest teen-pregnancy rates in the country. It is misogynistic to refuse to provide information on sexuality and contraception, and then force women to bear the burden of an unwanted pregnancy. 

To be sure, anti-abortion activists will argue that even if abortion is legal only in cases of rape and incest, a flood of women will cry rape–so abortion should just be outlawed altogether. But Ireland also shows that this scenario is pure fantasy: after the X case, Ireland recognized suicide risk as grounds for abortion, and Ireland didn’t see a glut of pregnant women claiming to be suicidal. This theory represents a deranged view of women as manipulative Eves, willing to do anything to erase evidence of their alleged wrongdoing. Regardless, women deserve to have the law dignify our full humanity by allowing us control over our bodies; arguments about rape and incest are adendums to that point.

Spurred by activism in the wake of Savita’s death, in 2018, the people of Ireland voted by an overwhelming majority to legalize abortion. Upon the repeal of the 8th Amendment, Irish people left notes at a memorial to Savita expressing sorrow that the measure was too late to save her. America must learn from Ireland before we have a Memorial to the Women Who Died in Forced Pregnancy. 


The Irish Potato Famine was NOT Genocide


Lumper potatoes. Photo credit: National Geographic Magazine


The Irish Potato Famine of 1845-1849 was not a genocide, and almost all serious scholars of Irish history agree with this assertion.

The word genocide was coined by a Polish-Jewish lawyer named Raphael Lemkin in 1944 in his book “Axis Rule in Occupied Europe.” The United Nations defines genocide as “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

  1. Killing members of the group;
  2. Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
  3. Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
  4. Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
  5. Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

The British government did not cause the blight that annihilated the potato crop in Ireland. Rather, the fungus, phytopthera infestans, arrived via the Americas and spread widely enough to devour the potato crop in part during the first years of the famine, and in full during the worst years including “Black ’47.”

Intent is the overgrown canary in the historical coal mine on the question of genocide. No one denies the estimated one million deaths from starvation and disease, or the one million (possibly as many as two million) Irish people who emigrated to Britain, the United States, and Australia. In the crime of genocide, the “mens rea,” or guilty mind, is an essential element; without intent, genocide cannot exist, regardless of the number of people who died or fled the country. So, how do history scholars address the problem of intent?

Historians who operated from a nationalistic standpoint, most famously Cecil Woodham-Smith in her best-seller The great hunger: Ireland 1845-1845, indeed maintained that the British committed genocide against the Irish. In a review of her book, A.J.P. Taylor (who was a scholar of Germany) wrote that the British government was responsible for the death of two million Irish people. And, of course, as a reader of the “Irish Echo” noted in a letter to the editor, John Mitchel himself believed that the Great Hunger was an artificial famine. These accounts emphasize the “forced export” of grain, the impact of laissez-faire economic policy, and the callousness of Charles Trevelyan, the reviled assistant secretary of Her Majesty’s Exchequer.

Still, while there is truth in these assertions, accusations of genocide cannot withstand deliberate scrutiny. As much as Irish patriots and other Gaelophiles may want to condemn the British for the tragedy, and while the government certainly could have enacted more policies to attenuate the impact of the potato blight, the underlying cause of the Great Hunger was an act of god, not an act of humans. Accusations of genocide are based in animosity toward the former (and current, depending on perspective) colonial power, and not historical fact.

Two long-term positive developments in Ireland contributed to the severity of the Famine. The population of Ireland skyrocketed in the preceding 75 years, at least in part due to the abundance of the potato crop. Although twenty-first-century Americans may not consider the potato to be particularly nutritious—probably because of its abundance in deep fryers—the lumper potatoes that Irish peasants cultivated in the early 1800s provided sufficient nutrients to sustain them. Indeed, a hard-working Irishman commonly consumed as much as fourteen pounds of potatoes per day on the eve of the hunger. The potato regimen, combined with a sprinkling of milk and meat, supported a population boom. Unfortunately, these same factors intensified the destructive power of P. infestans when it arrived in Ireland, most likely in 1844.

Her Majesty’s government aggravated the impact of the potato blight, but that fact in itself doesn’t constitute genocide. In his authoritative account The Great Irish Potato Famine, historian James S. Donnelly Jr. lays out the actions of the British government as “sins of omission” and “sins of commission.” Donnelly acknowledges that Trevelyan’s failure to prohibit the export of grain certainly exacerbated the Famine, although he also notes that Irish middling and large farmers were largely in charge of exports—not the British. Accusations of genocide leveled against Trevelyan carry emotional weight because he held racist views of the Irish, and he interpreted the Famine as divine punishment for a sinful people. Plus, merciless Irish landlords (some would say English landlords) evicted tenant farmers, forcing families of paupers to beg along Ireland’s roads, a situation that would have worsened the dual problems of hunger and disease.

And yet, while the British didn’t provide enough relief—for whatever reason—the governments of Sir Robert Peel and Lord John Russell did take measures to help the starving people. Peel famously repealed the Corn Laws in order to allow imports of grain. The government later established soup kitchens, which were probably the most effective means of alleviating starvation. Unfortunately, the government ended this program in late 1847. Public-works programs provided jobs for the poor, though they didn’t pay quite enough. Also, Irish grain exports were greatly reduced during the Famine years, even if they weren’t stopped altogether. Moreover, as Donnelly demonstrates, imports of grain from North America actually exceeded exports of grain from Ireland in the years after 1846, sometimes “by a factor of almost three to one.”

So, yes, the British government took some actions and failed to take other measures that aggravated the Famine in Ireland. But, Westminster did not cause the potato blight, and parliament did take steps to help alleviate suffering, ineffective though these measures may have been. Therefore, the Potato Famine does not fit the definition of genocide laid out by the United Nations. While the millions of people Ireland lost to death and emigration should certainly be considered a major tragedy, comparisons with the Armenian genocide and the Holocaust are not appropriate or useful. Instead, students of Irish history might learn more by comparing the Great Hunger with other famines such as the Persian famine of 1917-1918, widely considered the deadliest famine in history, in which millions of Iranians died, and for which many people also blame the British government.