A Perverse And IllFated People English Perceptio

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A Perverse And Ill-Fated People- English Perceptio Essay, Research Paper A “Perverse and Ill-Fated People”: English Perceptions of the Irish, 1845-521It is a fatal assumption to ascribe these calamities exclusively to the errors and infirmities of the Irish character; and set about alternately coercing and cajoling, as if it were a child or a maniac we had to deal with. No empire has ever yet treated a whole section of its subjects as inferior in heart and mind without incurring the condemnation of posterity.2This question of race is the very last topic that English writers and politicians should have broached. . . The fallacy of referring Irish evils to Celtic causation, is one very likely to be wiped off in blood.3The 150th anniversary of the Irish potato famine in

autumn 1996 is already stirring a highly emotional reappraisal of the history of English treatment of Ireland. The belief that the racist English refused substantial famine relief to Ireland because of their hatred for the Celtic race is widespread both within and outside the scholarly community. Recent demands by the Irish Republic for an official British “apology” for the famine reflect this belief, which sometimes extends to the assertion that the English sought to perpetrate racial genocide by engineering mass starvation in Ireland. This understanding of the famine poisons English-Irish relations to this day, just as memories of 1641 or 1798 stirred anger and bitterness in the Victorian period. Lewis Perry Curtis, Jr. is the most prominent of many historians who conclude

that race was the defining element in nineteenth-century English perceptions of the Irish. The English, according to Curtis and others, looked with a self-conscious sense of Saxon superiority at what they considered to be a childlike and inferior but dangerous Celtic race. This attitude, it is assumed, shaped policy and lay at the root of Irish oppression. Irish nationalist historians have used these arguments to place their people among other victims of colonial racism and genocide in Africa, Asia and North America.4 Anti-Irish racism in this sense appears as an inevitable manifestation of colonialism. It is easy to forget, however, that prejudice takes many forms, not all of them based on a concrete conception of the victim as a biologically distinct race. Those who forget this

fact have trouble interpreting English policy toward Ireland in the 1840s. Some writers misjudge, for example, the motivations behind the insistence of many Englishmen in the early famine period that Celt and Saxon and even Protestant and Catholic were fundamentally equal. Liz Curtis hails John Stuart Mill, who repeatedly rejected the notion that the Irish were racially inferior, as one of the few Englishmen who understood the true nature of “British exploitation” of Ireland.5 Mill also, however, asserted at the height of the famine thatWe must give over telling the Irish that it is our business to find food for them. We must tell them, now and forever, that it is their business.6K.D.M. Snell sees Alexander Somerville’s lack of religious or racial bigotry as evidence that

Somerville was not “prejudiced” against the Irish.7 Yet Somerville also wrote in early 1847 that the starving Irish were willingly foregoing food and using English charity money to buy arms, and that continuing to give them relief would only “make the people think that the government should do everything.”8British perceptions of the Irish in the 1840s were more complex than they may at first appear. During the first months of the crisis, advocates of the tight-fisted government policy drew on what may be called a Liberal discourse of moral improvement which explicitly denied the racial inferiority of the Irish and saw the famine as a Providential opportunity to civilize and improve them. The Liberal understanding of human nature gave the great majority of the public