The Case of Leni Riefenstahl

The Case of Leni Riefenstahl

Die Macht der Bilder (1993) is known in English as The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl. When watching this film, it is hard to ignore even the sparkling eyes of a razor-sharp old lady often condemned as a witch of Nazi propaganda, especially for what she filmed at Nuremberg.

In this documentary, she insisted that Triumph of the Will had to be seen in the context of the time, which was 1934, not 1945. At that time in the Thirties, Robert Musil was living in Berlin. His diaries show that not quite everybody was blind to what was happening. It is seen as a spell of bad weather… a police car with swastika flags and singing officers, speeding down the Kurfürstendamm. It is alarming that Germans today possess so little sense of reality… the streets are full of people – “Life goes on” – even though, each day, hundreds are killed, imprisoned, beaten up

Riefenstahl nonetheless pointed out too that her film contained nothing about anti-Semitism or racial theory. Instead, she argued that in it she conveyed (through Hitler, you may splutter) the themes of work and peace. Her avowed goal had been artistic, once she had accepted the task on the condition that she would never have to make another film for the Nazi Party.

Riefenstahl was more than able for the unseen interviewer who asked her about the responsibility of the artist concerning those who will be affected by the work. On the issue of filming for Hitler, she pointed out that Sergei Eisenstein had worked for Stalin but her more general point was that artists cannot tell the future and that the likes of Michelangelo and Rodin had shown no grasp of politics.

The more she spoke, the harder it was not to feel a certain amount of sympathy for her position. She ridiculed Susan Sontag’s assertion that she had been attracted to photograph the Nuba people in Africa because their black skin reminded her of the SS. She pointed out that a Nazi wouldn’t think black people were even worth photographing.

In a fit of enthusiasm they later regretted, the French had given Triumph of the Will the gold medal at the Paris World’s Fair of 1937 – a decision they vindictively balanced out after the war when they imprisoned its maker. This was after the Americans had decided that she had no case to answer, beyond being a fellow traveller (Mitläufer). This imprisonment also happened despite the fact that neither she nor any close family member had been a member of the Nazi Party.

Her true crime? Perhaps it was to be perceived to have done the impossible and actually produced a ‘fascist’ work of art. The Wagnerian comparisons commonly made in this case tie in with Louis Halle’s observation on Germany and Italy in The Ideological Imagination.

What the fascist movements lacked in philosophy they made up for in theatre. It is surely no accident that the extreme of fascism was realized in the two countries most notable for their contributions to grand opera.”

The Ideological Imagination, 1972, p.99

Though she denied she was proud of Triumph of the Will, given the trouble it had caused her, and she did not think fondly of the extended hard work, editing it and so on, there was evident glee on her part as she showed off certain camera effects she had achieved. She could even remember the geographical origins of specific contingents where they took part in particular shots.

Riefenstahl’s outlook was apolitical at the very least and the future was all there to see in Mein Kampf and so on, but the vast majority of Germans – of human beings – are not lights in the darkness like Sophie Scholl or Willy Brandt. As a boy, Leon Trotsky was suspended from school for a year for inciting his classmates to howl at a teacher who was tormenting a fellow pupil simply because he was of German descent. Trotsky saw that once the protest began the class was henceforth divided into three groups – the frank and courageous boys on the one side, the envious and the talebearers on the other and the neutral, vacillating mass in the middle. Writing about the incident from the perspective of suitably chastened adulthood, he added that these three groups never quite disappeared, even in later years.

In The Drowned and the Saved, Primo Levi expresses anger and revulsion when evaluating a statement made by Liliana Cavani, director of The Night Porter, who said that we are all victims of murderers and that we accept these roles voluntarily. Levi says that to confuse murderers with their victims is a sign of moral disease or artistic affectation, or a sinister sign of complicity rendering a precious service to the negators of truth.

Today the cinematic glorification of serial killers earns vast amounts of money but, in that context, an important distinction can be made between The Silence of the Lambs and Seven, to take two key examples of the genre. In the former, Hannibal Lecter is a satanic figure in the artistic sense of the term, as a snaky embodiment of temptation. He gets all the best lines, his feats are superhuman and, at the end of his satirical quest, he ends up like a guardian angel.

In Seven, the Kevin Spacey character is a grudge-filled little vigilante who trots out his banal motives behind gruesome tortures and murders which have been carefully and cleverly rendered by those behind the camera. Which of these films is a sign of moral disease, a form of sinister complicity?

In the same real world where a gangster like John Gotti gets life without parole, despite never having ordered the carpet-bombing of a Third World country, which of the following pair of even more famous cinema examples answers the same question? Is it Apocalypse Now with its ending that echoes the way Thucydides in The Peloponnesian War makes Pericles sound like Hitler (“It is because your resolution is weak that my policy appears to be mistaken”)?

Contrast that now with a scene from one of the Rambo films, of all things, where Richard Crenna tells it like it is to a Russian in Afghanistan. It’s like us in Vietnam. You shouldn’t be here. In other words, get out. Does the latter example not express the true moral of colonial war?

The application of Leni Riefenstahl’s technical brilliance was ill-advised but one could say too that she was unlucky. Too many artists to mention have buried their heads in the sand or even joined in the madness prevalent at any given time and there was no honest reason for preventing her from ever making a film again. Few others whom we think should have known better actually grasped the destination. They were often simply content to admire the parade.

The Stamp

The Stamp

Photo (c) Paris Match

A parable of Irish unity, with apologies to Félicien Marceau…

After spending two years behind a bank counter in Drogheda, his home town, Victor had just been transferred to Belfast for further training at head office. This meant he could be initiated into the secrets and all the other ins and outs of high finance. To all appearances he was a serious lad with a future and perfectly capable of one day becoming at least an assistant manager.

We don’t need to dwell on describing his happiness. Although he was, as we have said, a serious worker, capable and appreciated by his superiors, and therefore a person of some standing at just twenty-three, he had until now lived with his parents and, in some way, lived in their shadow. It wasn’t that he’d suffered from this arrangement. Besides, he loved his parents. As we’ve said more than once, he was a serious boy.

The cinema every Saturday and a café bar every Sunday afternoon, these were enough for him, socially. For the rest of his free time he spent all his evenings between his father and mother. In summer, he’d be on the doorstep chatting with the neighbours or looking at the cars that were going down to Dublin. In winter, he’d either be reading or arranging his stamp collection that was supplemented with the help of his uncle who was a driver on a bus that regularly crossed the border.

But in the end, of course, freedom is another thing altogether. On leaving Drogheda, Victor was still only a lad, overwhelmed with advice, woolly socks and vests. On his arrival in Belfast, under the big roof of Central Station, he was no longer a boy. Something of the adventurous soul of his uncle had just awoken in him. Proudly, he took a taxi, the first such trip on his own in his life. This taxi was the wave goodbye to his childhood.

The same day he busied himself with finding a studio. The first place he viewed didn’t please him. The owner clearly had a big mouth. The second didn’t tickle his fancy either. At three in the afternoon the owner was still in her bathrobe and, from Victor’s point of view, she looked like she wasn’t into keeping the building clean. He chose the third place he saw because there he was met only with indifference. Victor had already figured out that the indifference of others is linked to freedom.

His stuff put away, he went out, impatient to inspect the charms of Belfast. After a blip when he took the wrong bus that thankfully didn’t take him to any parts where his southern accent wouldn’t have been appreciated, he strolled along wide avenues, well built but otherwise undistinguished, and ate two sandwiches in a neutral city centre bar before returning to his new place.

His room was immersed in the night, in the silence. For a minute he missed the peaceful chit-chat of his mother and the outbursts of his father, a religious man who couldn’t read a newspaper without getting angry. This homesick feeling only lasted a moment, though. Lying on his narrow bed, he felt himself still lifted by the hubbub that had welcomed him when he left Central Station.

Eight days later, as soon as he had got to know his way around, he was in love. It’s a constant: free a man and he thinks of love. Until now, Victor had always shown himself shy around young women but the fluttering wings of freedom tend to lessen one’s timidity. At the bank he often joked with some of the female staff. They liked his southern accent and remarked on it. One of them told him she was going to a nightclub with some friends on Saturday.

There he made the acquaintance of a girl called Iris, a cousin of the fiancé of the lady who’d invited him along. Iris had dark hair and big dark eyes and her long lashes fluttered when she spoke in what he soon recognized as her sharp, assured manner. She spoke a lot but during their first dance, Victor complimented her eyes. Next it was her dress. By the third dance they were practically in love. She told him she didn’t drink but was learning the tango. In general, serious boys are made for the tango.

He suggested a visit to the cinema. “It’s an idea,” replied Iris, deliberately. Wednesday was fixed. Iris wore a lovely sandy coat with a wide belt; the film was funny; and she laughed. It relaxed the normal composure of her face. The next cinema visit took place on a Tuesday. Love is impatient.

Soon he was invited to meet her parents, out in Holywood. She said she’d told them about him and they wanted to meet him. He had almost a week to think about this visit. He loved Iris. They would get married. They would live happily ever after.

Both her parents were dressed in black on the day. The mother spoke more than the father, who was an accountant. It was a rainy afternoon and rather than go out anywhere they looked at photo albums. Mother and daughter talked about shared memories. The men said nothing. It would have been difficult for either to get a word in. By the end of the meeting, Victor had been invited back for dinner the next week.

When they got engaged, Iris’s father expressed a desire to get to know Victor’s parents. To that end, he requested that Victor ask his own father to write him a letter. To Victor it was just a tad formal, if not odd, but in a spirit of conciliation he said he’d take care of it. He sent a text about it to his father, adding, “These people are from the North, please humour them” and his father’s reply gave an immediate assurance on the matter.

The next time he called round, though, he was met with parental long faces. Iris herself was not to be seen.

“Your father wrote,” said Iris’s father.
“I know.”
“A very nice letter,” he continued.
“He’s very happy.”
“Mmm. So how is it, young man, that it came without a stamp?”

He held out the envelope, for which he’d evidently had to pay the postage.

“Oh. It’s a miracle it got here at all. Here, I’ll give you the price of it.”

The elder man lifted his hand to indicate stop.

“I’m not rich but nonetheless I can cover the postage.”

Embarrassed, Victor said “Of course” and then tried to explain that he only wanted to make up for the nuisance. The other man lifted his hand once more.

“It’s not about that. It’s more serious. I know the people of the South. When they don’t want something and they don’t want to say it, they write that they’re in agreement but they don’t bother with a stamp.”
“No stamp?”
“No stamp,” the other repeated gravely. “The way they look at it, a letter with no stamp doesn’t mean anything.”

The mother here interjected a quiet sob. Victor woke up.

“But that’s absurd. I’m from the South and I’ve never heard of that habit.”
“That does you credit, young man, but the habit is dishonest. When people disagree, it’s better to say it openly, like we do in the North.”
“That’s what my father would have done,” retorted Victor.
“Then why didn’t he put a stamp on this?”
“He must have forgotten.”
“Forgotten? For a letter of such importance?”
“Or else the stamp fell off.”
“Young man, I’m fifty-three. There are two things I no longer believe in. Letters that get lost and stamps that fall off.”
“But suppose he did forget the stamp. His letter remains the same.”
“No, that changes everything. He doesn’t want to be involved. The people of the South are like that.”
“What if he writes you another letter? With a stamp, of course.”
“The message remains the same,” came the solemn reply.

Then the mother intervened. Allowing for her husband’s feelings, she still suggested that a new letter just might make for a new start. In this way she talked her husband into agreeing with a few silent nods. Then Iris made an appearance and she and Victor went out for a walk. When Iris observed that a stamp cost very little, Victor got angry and so they parted on rather bad terms. When he got home, though, Victor immediately got in touch with his father.

Unfortunately Victor’s father was one of those men who are happiest when life gives them an excuse to get up on a high horse and wrap themselves in their pride. He wanted to know what right people in the North had to suspect the integrity of people in the South. Moreover he was sure he hadn’t forgotten the stamp and thought it must have fallen off. Anyway, he had written once and he wouldn’t give his honest opinion twice. His dignity forbade it.

Victor began to be worried. He pleaded with his father to write again and, in the meantime, assured his prospective father-in-law that the new letter was on its way. The latter remained quietly sceptical, while Iris just became sarcastic about the price of a stamp and how busy Victor’s father had to be, given the delay with this second letter.

Victor was beginning to be turned off. He thought of writing to the letters page of the Irish Times to ask if anyone knew of a tradition in the South of omitting a stamp to convey displeasure. There was no immediate feedback and still no second letter. The next time he visited his parents he found his father still put out over it.

“These people up North, I know them. He doesn’t want you to marry his daughter. He’s only looking for an excuse.”
“If he hadn’t wanted it, he’d have told me.”
“Is that what you believe? Anyway, I wonder if it wasn’t a sign. You’d be unhappy with people like that.”
“It’s not the father I’m marrying. It’s the daughter. And he only wants a letter.”
“He got his letter.”
“But without a stamp. He thinks it’s a slippery custom down here.”

Then Victor had a brainwave. He posed the hypothetical situation that the other father hadn’t received the letter. When his own protested that he had, Victor pointed out that he didn’t know that, as there had been no reply. In that light, it wouldn’t be undignified to send the same letter again, on the presumption of the loss of the first one. Grumbling at first, his father agreed, secretly pleased by the astuteness of his son. He wrote another letter and this time it got posted with two stamps affixed.

In Holywood, Iris opened the door to Victor without any obvious show of warmth or tenderness. Her father then appeared with a copy of the Irish Times in his hand. He was upset.

“You have me insulted in the press now.”

He showed Victor the letters page. Somebody had finally replied, basically urging Victor to tell his future father-in-law that he was an ass and insisting that there was no such custom in the South as had been proposed.

“But sir, if you’d read my letter, you’d have seen it was completely respectful.”
“And this reply? Who provoked this reply? I’m an ass. In the paper. Me.”
“Nobody will know it’s you.”
I’ll know. Now you’d better leave, young man.”

Iris went to the window and looked out on the street.

“Iris…,” said Victor.

She didn’t even turn around. There would be no wedding. A year later, back in Drogheda, Victor married a local girl who was nice, voluptuous and not inclined to lay down the law. At the reception, his father leaned over to him at the top table.

“No need of a stamp here, eh?”

Victor smiled. For a moment he heard the sharp voice of Iris. No, he wouldn’t have been happy with them but that destiny wasn’t meant to be.

The Ideology of Discipline

The Ideology of Discipline



26 June 2002

M. called here at 9.30 and we went to the Employment Appeals Tribunal on Adelaide Road. There we trawled through five years of unfair dismissals cases. He’s doing some diploma in human resources to accredit his hatchet-man role with Dell. Some of the stuff was hilarious.

There were two cases of “very serious” fighting in the workplace. One guy had a broken collarbone after the use of an unwanted nickname, while another was chased through a factory with an iron bar. Then there was the young barman whose troubles began when in his wages he received a dud twenty with his name (“Carl”) written on it.

Overall, there was no empirical support for ideologies of right or left. In other words, there was probably an even split between injustices and employees simply taking the piss. The company that figured more than any other was Dunnes Stores*

*Irish chain of department stores


Being Michael McDowell

Being Michael McDowell

Graham Greene’s memoir Ways of Escape contains a final chapter called The Other. This title, from a poem by Edward Thomas, heads an epilogue that deals with the writer’s long and unfulfilled search for at least one conman who had passed himself off as Greene on several continents.

The current Senator Michael McDowell was first elected to the Irish parliament in 1987. Some years still had to pass, though, before people began to mistake a harmless nobody called John Flynn for him. That can be put down to the lookalike spending more time in Dublin and less time combing receding hair. It all began late in 1993 with a tap on the back from an old lady on a bus. She was echoed one night on Dorset Street during the noisy nearby convergence of an ambulance and some squad cars. It was then that another old dear approached him on a street corner.

Sorry, love, I thought you were Michael McDowell and you’d know what was going on.”

By 1999, McDowell was Attorney General. That August, a pal and I were in a pub on Camden Street that is known to be popular with the police. A new barman went out of his way to be nice. He even brought the pints down, unbidden, to where we were sitting. He then set them down with an attitude of reverence. Later another barman did a background check, while I was in the toilet.

Eh, what does your mate work at?

McDowell had an even better result in 2002. During the election campaign a homeless man approached me at a bus stop but I didn’t have any spare change. As he walked away he looked back for a moment. You look like Michael McDowell. Following the election the great man was appointed to the Cabinet. This extra power was soon reflected in the same bar when another chap asked the lookalike to settle a bet.

Are you the Minister for Justice?

When people ask such questions often enough, you can get into character.

Do you want to be thrown into prison?

The man hung his head and said sorry. He was shrinking away when granted an exasperated reprieve.

No, I’m not him. Would you ever cop on?

In February 2005, as his crowning absurd achievement, McDowell ordered the payment of €30 million for a north Dublin farm at Thornton Hall, which was to be the site of a new super-jail. By the summer of 2010, more than €42 million had been spent there, including seven million on professional fees, three million on “site preparation” and half a million on landscaping. No brick was ever laid.

In 2018 a different Minister for Justice admitted there was no plan to do anything with the site. By then the project had cost well over €50 million, while securing and maintaining the property still required tens of thousands of euro every year. The only prisoners to come to the Thornton Hall site had been those on probation and community schemes. They planted fruit, flowers and vegetables on nine acres, with the food then donated to charity.

Shortly before Christmas 2007, it was a dark morning when I rose in a Waterford city hotel. There was no bottled water at reception (“But you can have all the drink you want”). The night porter then suggested asking at the nearby McDonald’s.

Two deaf guys in t-shirts had got to the locked door of the outlet first. They seemed to have had a long night and were indifferent to the frost. It then turned out that one of them could speak because he translated some giggles and sign language going on behind my back.

I’m sorry, my friend thought you were Michael McDowell.”

As for Greene’s quest, he never came closer than a couple of photographs and a letter from an impostor who had got himself into some trouble in India. Greene himself was later accused of being the fraud by a newspaper during a visit to Chile. It was then that he was assailed by metaphysical doubt as to which was the real impostor all along. All he was left with was the Edward Thomas poem’s ending.

Even though the Baron of Thornton Hall had seemingly left the political scene, back in late 2007, these lines could ever only sound a bit sinister, given that I always knew he was out there, waiting.

He goes: I follow: no release
Until he ceases. Then I also shall cease.

JF at Jack wedding 2009

The Quarry at Mauthausen

The Quarry at Mauthausen

Austria, 28 December 2015

The train from Linz to Mauthausen took only about twenty minutes. There were no taxis at the station and I did the 5k winding hike uphill to the camp. “This is some hike, man,” I said to myself before I realized that the phrase rhymed with Eichmann. When I got high enough away from the wet Danube fog, the sun lightened the soup but I still could see f*ck all except some of the road in front. I was even wondering was it just the murk or was it the effort of the climb too. I started wiping (steam?) off my glasses.


Higher again, the sun was just beginning to burn off some of the fog in the afternoon. The Lager loomed, finally, as a long stone fort of no great height on top of the hill. A woman at the visitors’ centre – a concrete maze – told me it was closed and she unlocked a door to get me a brochure – so I wasn’t going to see the gas chamber – but she added I could walk around the exterior.


Past the monuments, past the wall with a moving verse from Brecht’s poem Deutschland (see below) the highest fog had cleared, there was a piece or two of metal building site fencing across the top of the path down to the Todesstiege (death stairs) and the quarry but it was possible to get around that with no trouble. This was the place I most wanted to see.


I was the only one down there, where the fog was brightly waxing and waning. At the time it didn’t feel eerie. Oddly peaceful and even beautiful, by the black pond below the cliff, the site showed the birds did sing. I even heard a distant cock crowing but the suffering that was inflicted there was and is just unimaginable.


Forty nationalities were consigned to hell in that place. It was like the UN of concentration camps. There is even a monument to the Albanians. Of the 23,000 Spaniards who had fled to France in 1939 to escape from Franco only to end up at Mauthausen or one of its satellite camps, 16,000 were killed. All the first consignment of Dutch Jews sent here in 1942 were thrown off the quarry cliff that the SS nicknamed die Fallschirmspringer Wand, the Parachutists’ Wall. Many other prisoners saved the SS the trouble and just jumped.


On the way back up the leafy Todesstiege I counted the 186 steps, stopping to straighten my legs on nos. 75, 100 & 130, though I wasn’t carrying any granite block and the steps are a lot neater now than they were back in the day. I took a look then around the back of the camp. Though the entrance is on the left-hand side, where I got a photo of the gravelly yard via the gap under the wooden gates of the entrance arch, the front is really the long side wall facing the road. Anyway, around the back there was no wall but a fence topped with barbed wire. The remaining huts could be seen across a wide open space drenched in sunshine. From there a short-cut made for a steeper descent into the fog that gloomily took me back to Mauthausen village.

O Deutschland, bleiche Mutter!

Wie haben deine Söhne dich zugerichtet

Daß du unter den Völkern sitzest

Ein Gespött oder eine Furcht!

(Oh Germany, pale mother / How your sons have abused you / That you sit among the peoples / A mockery or a dread).


Final Solutions – Globočnik, Trevelyan & the BBC

Final Solutions – Globočnik, Trevelyan & the BBC

Photo: Sir Charles Trevelyan

Hella Pick’s Guilty Victim (2000) states that the spin that Austria was the first victim of the Nazis was a product of Cold War collusion between the state and the western powers after the Russians had agreed to pull back to Hungary and Czechoslovakia. The book adds that, in a state where the citizens provided half a million Nazi party members, an proportionally excessive contribution to the SS and an extraordinarily high presence among the ‘staff’ at concentration camps, the principle of denazification was even less a priority than in Germany. It should nevertheless also be noted that the proportion of Austrians later deemed Righteous Among the Nations was double what it might have been, going on the comparable figure for Germans and on Austria’s share of the population of the Reich.

In a post-war climate of stability, prosperity and considerable diplomatic leeway, Austria’s long-time chancellor Bruno Kreisky (1970-83) claimed that Austria had withdrawn from history and was quite happy about that. Nevertheless, though the country had become a refuge for hundreds of thousands of refugees, mostly from the Eastern Bloc, this harmless image didn’t last and Austria took a lot of international stick over Haider and Waldheim in the Nineties.

The posturing abroad overlooked the strong likelihood that at least 20% of any population is more or less fascist anyway, if that means including those inclined to worship the strong, despise the weak and inform on the neighbours. The classic eponymous study of the authoritarian personality by Adorno et al (1950) suggests that one in three of us has a taste for dictatorship and, after a few minutes’ reflection on what we hear in bars and radio phone-ins and what we see in comment sections, it is hard to argue that any of this is too much of an exaggeration.

Do we really think if Britain retook the whole island and told the Irish, who have never been imperial, that they could freely kill certain unpopular neighbours slash fellow citizens, that there wouldn’t be many takers? The hypocrisy of some of Austria’s critics, such as the French, who were responsible for huge colonial wars after 1945, was highlighted by Tony Judt in 2000.

Until Jacques Chirac put out a… statement about Vichy in 1995, French governments had resolutely refused any such responsibility for past crimes… Mitterrand… a former Vichy official, made a particular point of denying it again and again. It was the same Mitterrand who manipulated the French electoral system to engineer the parliamentary success… of [the] National Front… Thus when François Hollande… expresses the “très vive émotion” of his party at the rise of Jörg Haider, it is hard to take his distress very seriously. And as French and other commentators fall over one another to castigate Austria as a nasty little amnesiac Alpine redoubt full of unreconstructed neo-Nazi xenophobes, they sometimes forget that… Austria has had a better record of welcoming… refugees… Moreover, it wasn’t an Austrian chancellor who conducted an American president on a tour of SS graves in May 1985.

From an Irish perspective, of course, the hypocrisy of the French about mass murder is much less interesting than that of the British. The 1841 census showed a population of just over eight million in Ireland. Catholics made up eighty per cent, the bulk of which lived in poor or very poor conditions on rented scraps of land. At the top of society stood the Ascendancy class, made up of landowning families either of British descent or descended from Irish converts to Protestantism, which enabled advancement in the colonial context. Only the potato could be grown in sufficient quantity to maintain the system of monoculture that supported this class of parasites.

The potato blight first appeared in 1845. In 1846, the Conservative Prime Minister Robert Peel moved to repeal the Corn Laws, which maintained tariffs on grain imports and kept the price of bread artificially high. The measure split the landowners in the Conservative Party, leading to the fall of Peel’s government on 25 June. Ten days later, Lord John Russell of the Whig Party assumed office. The Whigs opposed state interference in the economy and believed in letting ‘nature’ take its course. Peel’s relief programmes in Ireland were shut down on 21 July 1846 on the orders of Charles Trevelyan, the new Treasury Secretary.

The Irish temperance preacher Father Theobald Mathew soon wrote to Trevelyan, saying that on 27 July he had passed from Cork to Dublin and “this doomed plant bloomed in all the luxuriance of an abundant harvest”. He compared the return journey on 3 August when he saw “one wide waste of putrefying vegetation”. The priest saw that “in one week the chief support of the masses was utterly lost”. Russell’s government introduced short-lived and useless public works projects in the winter of 1846-47, the period of highest Famine mortality, when weak, severely malnourished people were forced to do hard labour to prove their destitution. Then it turned to a mixture of indoor and outdoor direct relief. The former was administered in workhouses; the latter through soup kitchens. The cost of this relief was nonetheless landed mainly on the landlords, who in turn often attempted to reduce their liability by evicting their tenants, like dead souls.


On 16 February 1940, Odilo Globočnik declared in Lublin that the evacuated Jews should feed themselves and be supported by their countrymen, as these Jews have enough. If this does not succeed, one should let them starve. Half a million people were evicted in Ireland between 1845 and 1851. The Great Hunger clearances in just one county out of thirty-two, Clare, began at the end of 1847 and centrally involved a landlord and land agent named Marcus Keane, who quickly became known as the Exterminator General.

Of Clare’s 153 landowners, 63 were absentees and Keane controlled nearly a quarter of the county. A fanatical Protestant, though Keane is not a colonist’s surname, he promoted forced conversions and even sometimes grotesquely offered a fiver to his tenants to level their own cabins. Keane also maintained an Einsatzgruppe of forty thugs to carry out his massive eviction programme. By early 1849, 90,000 people in Clare were dependent on inadequate rations at workhouses or soup kitchens for any hope at all of survival. In 1851, the census showed a population drop of 74,000 in the county in just ten years. Globočnik killed himself after his capture by the British in 1945. Totally unpunished, the pillar of society Marcus Keane died of natural causes in 1883. His lead coffin was soon stolen from its crypt at night but it was so heavy that the funny thieves decided to hide it in a newly used grave nearby, where it lay undiscovered for many years.

In the absence of any humane state intervention, large sums of money were donated by charitable sources. The British Relief Association was formed in January 1847 by Lionel de Rothschild, a Jewish banker in London. Its international fundraising activities raised almost £400,000. Even the poor Choctaw Native Americans famously sent a few dollars to help. The Ottoman Sultan declared his intention to send £10,000 but then the British consul quietly requested that he give less than Queen Victoria had (£2,000). Victoria did publish two letters appealing for public donations. Her letters were widely criticised at the time, notably by the London Times, namely for encouraging people to throw money into an Irish bog. In 1847 the American government fitted out two ships and loaded them with food supplies. The Jamestown was commanded by a Captain Forbes who accompanied Father Mathew on a tour of the terrible sights in the city of Cork.

I saw enough in five minutes to horrify me: houses crowded with the sick and dying, without floors, without furniture, and with patches of dirty straw covered with still dirtier shreds and patches of humanity; some called for water to Father Mathew, and others for a dying blessing. Forbes also described a soup kitchen where hundreds of spectres stood… begging for some of the soup which I can readily conceive would be refused by well-bred pigs in America.

There was a stark choice for the poorest people: flight to America on the coffin ships or certain death. It is true that much opinion at the time was sharply critical of the Russell government’s response to the crisis. This condemnation was not confined to outside critics. From Dublin, officially the second city of the United Kingdom, even their own Lord Lieutenant, Lord Clarendon, wrote to Russell on 26 April 1849, urging that the British government introduce additional relief measures. I do not think there is another legislature in Europe that would disregard such suffering as now exists in the west of Ireland, or coldly persist in a policy of extermination.

The British government spent just seven million pounds on Famine relief between 1845 and 1850. Contemporaries noted the sharp contrast with the figure of over twenty million pounds given to compensate British slave-owners in the Caribbean in the 1830s. When Ireland had experienced crop failure in 1782-83, the ports were closed and local food prices promptly dropped. That, of course, was before the Anschluss of the Act of Union in 1800, when the semi-independent Irish parliament, composed entirely of Protestant landowners, voted itself out of existence with the assistance of massive bribery. There was no export ban in the 1840s thanks to the Whigs and their avowed devotion to free trade. Ireland thus remained a net exporter of food through most of the Famine.

In response to the biological weapon, Phytophtora infestans, that had fallen in his lap in the form of the blight, Trevelyan described the Famine in 1848 as “a direct stroke of an all-wise and all-merciful Providence” and he was soon knighted for his Irish services. He died in his bed aged 79. As recently as 2014, the BBC felt able to publish this sickening biographical sketch. He has come to represent the British government’s controversial policies of minimal intervention and attempting to encourage self-reliance, and he remains a contentious figure in Ireland. His most lasting contribution, however, began in the 1850s with the publication of his and Sir Stafford Northcote’s report on ‘The Organization of the Permanent Civil Service’.

BBC Trevelyan

To put this snow-job in some context, a BBC viewers poll in 2002 ranked another keen exterminator of Irish civilians and prisoners, Oliver Cromwell, as the tenth greatest Briton of all time. Then again, to give just one crude example of how the spirit of collaboration is endemic in Ireland too, as in France and Austria, it was only a year earlier that a book by an Irish printer – Cromwell, An Honourable Enemy – received respectful, serious reviews in several Irish broadsheets. The same crank had another go at his theme in 2014, which at least then gave occasion to a funny demolition in the Irish Times by Pádraig Lenihan. I am not sure why Reilly includes a report that Cromwell had his penis shot off at Drogheda. But I am glad he did.

As for the academic “revisionists”, those West Brits bent on whitewashing the Famine as something that just happened – es ist passiert, to borrow the words of Robert Musil – and sneering at folk memory as ‘myth’, well, they had a much longer free run of media propaganda but that too has had its day, not least because (i) the Troubles in the North are over and (ii) the mainstream media are in steady decline. These characters are now often reduced to figures of fun, like the Trinity College Dublin professor hired in 2013 by a private TV station to dig up a 1920s IRA ‘killing field’ in Co. Laois. To the professor’s bewildered disappointment, they found nothing but at least they left the field nicely ploughed for its owner. The same professor subsequently opened Department of Justice files in Dublin to discover the skeletons he’d been looking for had been of men who hadn’t been killed at all.

In contrast to those Irish campus quislings who invented a version of Irish history that most British scholars would greatly hesitate to endorse, it was the English historian Robert Kee who more honestly observed that the Famine could be seen as comparable in its force on “national consciousness to that of the Final Solution on the Jews”. The round figures themselves are uncontested. A million people died. Another two million had left the country by 1860.