Monday 17 March 2014

The politics of hunger - for St Patrick's Day

So back to the Adelphi Hotel, and the teddy bears' picnic, and why the infant Mrs Angry was in Liverpool, aged four, waiting for a ship to take the family across to Ireland. (And terrified of this prospect, having been told that the family car would be winched by crane up in the air, from the quayside onto the ship, in a giant net, and so it was: unfortunately my father had omitted to explain that we would not be in the car at the time, which was a cause of no little anxiety to me, as you might imagine).

The reason we were off to Ireland was that my mother had a fancy to go and see the place where her grandmother Mary Ann was from, a formidable woman whose own mother's life began in the shadow of the Famine years, somewhere on the Mayo/Sligo borders. Mary Ann and had been a central part of my mother's young life, throughout the hardest of times, caught in the continual fight to survive on what was then a miner's pittance, then through the depression, the miners' strike and general strike, and worst of all, the loss of a brother and sister in one of several epidemics that hovered, as my aunt once put it, like the angel of death over every slum terrace in the village, taking young victims from almost every family. Two generations on, and the family driven from Ireland by poverty and famine were still on the borderline between life and death.

They survived, supported by the bonds of family, and good neighbours: if one family in the street was struggling, the other women would help them with food, and housework, and look after their children, as a matter of course. How odd that we should have to explain what was once a normal way of life, for working class communities everywhere. And they survived because they were genetically programmed, like all refugees, to be pioneers in a foreign land, and adapt to a new way of life. And that, in truth, is the real luck of the Irish.

Arriving in Mayo, all those years ago, we ended up in the small market town of Louisburgh, in a rough and ready hotel looking onto a street where, in the early hours, bachelor farmers would come in from their farms, way out in the wilds, to buy and sell their livestock, and then be off to the bars for a drink, and the craic. 

I sat one morning in the bar cum shop at the front of the hotel,  and watched with fascination one of these old boys singing tunelessly, and playing a terrible version of It's a long way to Tipperary with spoons on his knees. As I did so, my mother was talking to the woman behind the bar, who told her about her sister, Mary, who had more children than you could imagine, and lived out in the middle of nowhere, on a small farm, at the bottom of Croagh Patrick. My mother, who had grown up in want, and understood the challenge of managing a large family, asked if she perhaps needed any spare clothing for them, and wondered if her sister might be able to use the clothes my brother and I grew out of, rather than see them go to waste. 

That conversation, with a complete stranger, was the beginning of a relationship between my mother, and Mary, that lasted for the rest of their lives.

Several times a year, clothes would be parcelled up, in a box covered in brown paper and lashed with string, taken to the post office, its contents declared to a bureacracy suspicious of packages going to Ireland, and probably even more suspicious of the ones that returned, full of unpredictable gifts, including, once, a dead turkey, still with all its feathers, fresh from the farm, a source of sheer horror to me, glad to see the thing carried away to the butcher, for plucking and who knows what else. To my horror, the Thing returned naked, bald, and scrawny, barely the size of a large sparrow, or so it seemed. 

Best of all, though, were the letters that passed between the two families: Mary's unpunctuated stream of consciousness, with her tales of life in rural Ireland, and my mother's prim and proper missives, giving what must have been a mystifying insight into our stilted suburban English domesticity. 

When I heard Mary had died, just before Christmas, I felt truly bereft, not to receive any more of those letters, from Bouris, near Kilsallagh, near Westport, at the edge of the world.

When I was a teenager, we went at last to visit her at home, on another visit to the west of Ireland. This was after I had spent a week with my godmother in Tipperary (it was a long way), the place of her birth, which her family had fled because her father had been in the hated Black and Tans. In the seventies, she had thought it might be safe to come home, all being forgiven. In that she was misguided, and she returned to England, eventually. 

Time, in Ireland, runs at a different rate to other places, and what happened sixty years ago, and even a hundred and sixty years ago, still has the power to cause painful memories, and even conflict.

Two of Mary's eleven children came to meet us at our hotel in Westport, to direct us to the farm, which would otherwise have been impossible to find, in a patchwork landscape of fields and peat bogs, lying in the shadow of Patrick's mountain, with no roads other than mud tracks to follow. When we got there, the whole family came running out to meet us, dressed with a certain amount of eclectic style, in a collection of familiar garments. 

They lived in a three roomed cottage: eleven children, the parents and a grandmother, with no electricity, no running water, no bathroom. The only heat and cooking facilities were from the peat fuelled iron range, and the only light from oil lamps. There was no bathroom, and the toilet facilities ... were some sort of mysterious arrangement to the side of the cow shed, which I decided not to investigate. 

Off we went, the girls and I into the fields, to walk about the lanes, the boreens, in the spring sunshine, smelling the peach-like, honeyed scent of the yellow gorse in flower everywhere. We sat on a stone wall, looking out onto the islands of Clew Bay, talking about  Granuaile, the pirate queen Grace O'Malley, who had her stronghold there, and who once came to the court of Elizabeth I, and made it clear she was not impressed by her English rival, refusing to bow before her, as she did not recognise her as the Queen of Ireland.

Over the fields, along another track, in the distance, right on cue, and in perfect cinematic order, appeared a May procession, led by the local priest, saying the Rosary, heading past the one roomed village school towards the church. They stopped when they reached us. The girls greeted them, introducing me. She is from London, they announced, with great solemnity, and a dramatic flourish. The procession of parishioners stared at me with a cool eyed curiosity, as if I were from outer space, or a sort of mythological creature.

Then they moved on, and we moved on, in search of a holy well, a spring at the side of one of the fields, associated with one of the local saints and the ancient pilgrimage route. I managed to slip into it and get my feet wet, and we went back then, to dry my socks by the stove, fired by the peat the father had shown us how to cut, and stack, with a special spade. We sat  drinking strong tea made with sweet, warm milk straight from one of the cows, and as we sat, me worrying about Louis Pasteur, I realised I was experiencing a lifestyle from another time, and one that would not last much longer.

Years later, when I had children of my own, and we were in Westport, we went back to visit Mary. Apart from one son living nearby, and working the farm for her, most of the children were far away, in England, or Dublin. The Celtic Tiger had not quite retracted its claws. And there were other changes, of course. 

Since the last visit, subsidies from the EU had made life a little easier. Electricity, water, some made up roads, at last. A bathroom had been built on the back of the cottage. Otherwise, little had changed, surprisingly. 

Mary was keen to show us the wider countryside, and took us on a tour: she directed us on a drive through the Maumturk, the wilderness at the back of Croagh Patrick, leading into Galway. A woman of limited education, but great intelligence, and faith, she had a purpose to the route she wanted to take.

On her instructions we stopped in Doolough Valley, and got out of the car, to see the mountains gathered around us in a hostile embrace, looking down on a dark lake: an ominous setting.

Look up, she said: up into the hills. Do you see those ridges, those lines running horizontally across, right far up? We looked, and saw the clearly discernible markings, like scars in the half scrubland area, far above us. That, she said, is where people were living, during the Famine, moving further and further up, more and more desperate, crowded out, from over population and continual blighted harvests. The ridges were the ghostly traces of the potato beds they hacked out of the hillside, a hundred and sixty years ago. 

It was impossible to see how human existence could be sustained at such extremes, beyond even the reach of the sheep and goats that live still wander about freely there.

And then she pointed to something else.  A stone marker in the valley, a monument commemorating the Doolough tragedy of 1849. 

This terrible incident occurred during the long years of famine in Mayo, when two local officials, Colonel Hogrove and Captain Primrose, from the Westport Poor Law Union, compelled a group of hundreds of starving applicants asking for relief to walk twelve miles overnight, in dreadful weather, from Louisburgh to Delphi Lodge in order to be seen at 7 am the next morning, and granted some help. When they got there, the officials kept them waiting outside while they lunched, and then refused them any further assistance. 

By the time the wretched group of people returned to Louisburgh, many of them, including women and children, had died, their bodies left lying by the side of the road, some, it is said, with their mouths still stuffed with grass, in a futile attempt to stay alive.

They were expendable: the dependent poor, and Catholic poor at that: such a fate was the judgement of God - the Anglican God, and the God of the British government.

Every year there is a walk through the valley to remember the victims of Famine, past and present. People come from all over the world to take part: Desmond Tutu, she told us, had been one year. Mary would complete the walk, even in her later years, just as she did the annual pilgrimage to the summit of Croagh Patrick.

On the monument there is a quotation from Mahatma Ghandi:

"How can men feel themselves honoured by the humiliation of their fellow beings?"

This is a question which increasingly becomes relevant once again, does it not, as we witness the impact of the iniquitous policies adopted by our present government?

It is of course ironic that the Cabinet is stuffed full of the descendants of those in power during so many previous eras of injustice, directed at punishing the poor for being poor - amongst the ranks of Etonians and inherited privilege sits our local Barnet MP, now Northern Ireland Secretary, Theresa Villiers, whose forebear Lord Clarendon was Lord Lieutenant of Ireland during the famine years, when government policy, by design or default, instigated a virtual act of genocide on the Irish people.

And humiliating the poor, and punishing them for their moral weakness, and starving them into submission  - that's all  back in fashion, of course, through the medium of agents like ATOS, and the degrading treatment of disabled citizens; the terror of job centre sanctions handed out without mercy in order to meet targets, and the burden of financial hardship, via the imposition of taxes on those unable to leave their homes when someone decides they may not have the luxury of one bedroom too many.

The Poor Law that guided the merciless hands of the commissioners dining in Delphi Lodge was an English law, introduced  in the 1830s, which created a new system of social 'care', meant to terrify the lower orders into self-reliance, by means such as the infamous workhouses, all part of a move to stigmatise those in need, and enshrine the idea of the deserving and undeserving poor. Whereas support for the elderly, infirm and paupers had been the responsibility of the charitable organisation of parishes, the state now took control. The compassion of christian values no longer applied: the assumption now was that if you were poor, it was your fault, a moral failing.

Who would have thought, that in the era of the new Coalition poor law, that the politics of hunger would be revived as a way of controlling the masses? 

In one family's journey, over generations, from the indigestible pap handed out to famine victims, earned by pointless labour, building roads leading to nowhere, by men and women half dead from starvation, to the soup kitchens of the striking miners - and after the reforms of the post war welfare state, would any of us have thought to see a time when a woman has to do without food in order to feed her child, or depend upon the generosity of a foodbank to keep from hunger when she cannot afford to buy enough to eat? Yet here we are again, at the mercy of the authorities, dictating who deserves to be housed, and when, and where, and who may eat, and when, and why. 

There are now at least three foodbanks in Barnet. 

On Saturday I went to visit the Finchley foodbank, which opened last month, and deals mostly with the needs of residents of the Strawberry Vale estate, in the borough's worst pocket of social deprivation, just ten minutes away from Bishops Avenue, Billionaires Row, the second most affluent stretch of properties in the country.

Finchley Foodbank was started by Father Terry, the Catholic priest of St Mary's, East Finchley, and the parish volunteers run it in conjunction with other local churches in the area. It is the only foodbank in the borough that does not operate on a voucher system, in which users must be referred by a job centre, or social services, preferring to follow the ideals of compassion and christian charity, rather than bureacracy. 

As I arrived, a young man was leaving, furtively, the hood of his gilet drawn over his face, carrying two bags of supplies. Another man, older, confused, was trying to find the door. Pushing it open, we entered and were immediately greeted by helpers. There were a dozen or so people sitting at tables, having a coffee, provided by volunteers: it was a place to sit and be treated not as some sort of nuisance, but as a human being, with a right to dignity, and support.

One of the organisers, Helen, a vicar whose duties are not based at one parish, but focused mainly on Strawberry Vale, showed me the range of supplies that come in from local people, and leave with local people, supply and demand being fairly well matched at the moment, but uptake will inevitably increase as the enterprise becomes better known.

At the moment they are particularly short of tinned meat, tinned fruit, UHT or powdered milk, sugar, coffee, shampoo, deodorant, shaving foam, razors, washing up liquid and washing powder. The opening hours are 12.30 to 2pm on Saturdays, in the Church hall.

From Louisburgh, and Doolough, to East Finchley. A long journey, but a common theme, social injustice and the abuse of law to secure your hold on power, and subjugate the people who might seek to challenge it, by humiliation, by exploitation - or by starvation: the tactics of class war by a government of the privileged, for the privileged, and a desperate flirtation with the politics of hunger.

Lá fhéile Pádraig sona dhaoibh.

The National Famine Monument near Westport, with Croagh Patrick in the background

1 comment:

Ron said...

Who said: "We have an outstanding history of compassion. After all we introduce the Poor Law..."