Was the Irish Potato Famine a Genocide?

by JoHarrington

Between 1845-1851, nine million Irish people starved. At the same time, food was being shipped out of the country into England. It was enough to have fed eighteen million people.

England had the motivation, the power and the will to destroy the Irish people. There are many who would argue that, in the mid-Victorian period, a genocide was attempted.

One contemporary British prime minister resigned over the shame of it all. 150 years later, another one felt the need to apologize to the people of Ireland. Guilt over the Great Hunger does prevail.

But was it genocide? Some would say that it was opportunism or, at worst, neglect. Others would call those people apologists.

Image: Mural on Whiterock road, Belfast. An Gorta Mór.
Image: Mural on Whiterock road, Belfast. An Gorta Mór.

An Gorta Mór and the British Free Trade Market

Ever wonder how Ireland's economy boomed in the 19th century? The answer is very disconcerting.

It's a shocking concept to imagine.  Worse still, when you realize that it's actually true. That it happened; and millions of people died as a result.

During 1845-1851, Ireland was one of the world's largest net exporters of food. 

This period has gone down in history as An Gorta Mór, the Great Hunger; or An Drochshaol, the bad times.  It is better known to the world as the Irish Potato Famine. 

But the clue there is in the title.  It was only the potatoes which were blighted; only the spuds which were inedible.

Throughout the country, cattle were still producing milk and butter, or being slaughtered for their meat. The oceans, rivers and streams still contained fish.  The fields were yielding bumper crops of grain. 

So why were the Irish people starving?  Mostly because all of the rest of the food was being exported across the Irish Sea into England. The free market protected the trade; and red-coated men with guns escorted the food convoys right away from Ireland's ports. 

Some Statistics on Irish Food Exports During the 'Famine'

This is just a sample, based on statistics largely compiled by historian Dr Christine Kinealy.

  • £100,000:  The average monthly value of food exports from Ireland into England during 1845-1851.
  • 4,000:  Vessels, carrying food from Ireland, landed in the ports of Bristol, Liverpool, Glasgow and London during Black '47.
  • 3,000,000:  The number of livestock exported into England from Ireland during 1846-1850 (4,000 of which were horses or ponies).
  • 9,992:  The number of calves exported into England from Ireland during 'Black '47' alone (increase of 33% on those exported during 1846).
  • 1,336,220:  Gallons of grain-derived alcohol exported from Ireland during just nine months of Black '47.
  • 822,681:  Gallons of butter exported from Ireland into Bristol and Liverpool during the worst nine months of Black '47.

Other exports included peas, beans, onions, rabbits, salmon, oysters, herring, lard, honey, tongue, animal skins, rags, shoes, soap, glue and seeds.

The Irish Did Not Just Sit Back and Do Nothing

There is some kind of grim, romantic ideal that the people of Ireland wallowed in despair, starved, then left or died. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Over half of the British army was stationed in Ireland during the potato blight.

Seventy-five different regiments were guarding the food convoys. The ports of Ballina, Ballyshannon, Bantry, Dingle, Killala, Kilrush, Limerick, Sligo, Tralee and Westport were like fortresses.

This may adequately explain why Irish resistance to their own starvation and eviction found little success. 

Yet the population did not die passively, as so many history books would imply.

There were food riots and notable assassinations of land-owners. Daniel O'Connell, the Young Irelanders and the Tipperary Uprising were just three of the larger rebellions.  There were many more on a smaller scale. 

Black '47 was the year when the worst of the hunger led to the greatest number of emigrants; and it saw the most deaths through starvation and pandemics. It was also the year when agrarian violence reached an all time peak. 

In short, the Irish were fighting back. In tiny, local skirmishes - that never individually made the history books - they fought and sometimes died in attempts to keep that food for their own survival.

Books About the Great Hunger in Ireland 1845-1851

There have been many, many histories written on this subject. I've highlighted these because they're easy to read, though their subject matter isn't.

How Britain's Policies Contributed to the Irish Famine

The British Government appeared to go out of its way to ensure that the Irish would starve; while also using the circumstances to remove other human rights.


The Devon Report of 1845 was supposed to safeguard tenants against landlordism. People could not be evicted from their homes without some financial recompense.  However, in the light of what was transpiring in Ireland, this recommendation was quietly left to rot.

If it had made it onto the legislature, then hundreds of thousands of Irish people would have been maintained in their homes; or given the financial aid to feed themselves once homeless.

It wasn't even heard in Parliament until late in 1847, when the measure was defeated by 112 votes to 25.

Free Trade

The Repeal of the Corn Laws, in June 1846, effectively made it possible to starve the Irish people. It was through this legal change that food was able to be shipped out. 

In contrast, ports had been closed during a famine earlier in the 19th century.  That measure had saved the Irish from starvation.  By refusing to do the same now, the British government ensured that the opposite would occur.

Many acts and bills were passed which protected property over people during this period. For example, the Encumbered Estates Act (1849) allowed the wealthy British to snap up land in Ireland, without also being liable for the debts incurred by bankrupt Irish landowners.

Decentralization of Health

In August 1846, the Central Board of Health was disbanded. This stopped a single center monitoring the spread of pandemics; and advising accordingly. 

A year later, it finally dawned on the British government that this was a little silly.  It was reinstated the following February.


While emergency legislation was passed to permit the opening of fever hospitals, the same law demanded weekly reports.  The reality was that the administrators had so many forms to fill in, that the hospitals could barely function.

Funding was not forthcoming without the reports; and the money could be stopped at any time.

Food relief programs also found themselves bogged down in paperwork.  Often stocks spoiled before they could be distributed, due to official wrangling over the best way to share it out.

The Gregory Clause

During Black '47, there was an amendment made to the Poor Law.  Named the Gregory Clause, it stated that any Irish person in possession of a quarter of an acre of land was not entitled to any food or work aid at all.

This also freed landowners from giving aid to their tenants. The result was a mass clearance by landlords, who were no longer bound to keep people in their homes.

Legal Removal of Civil Liberties

During the time of the famine, the Irish lost many of their previously existing civil rights.  Between 1845-1851, there were no less than ten Acts of Parliament, which restricted the legal recourse of the Irish.

These included the Crime and Outrage Act, which removed the right to bear arms and made it a legal requirement for the population to hunt down assassins; the Treason Felony Act, which made it illegal to even think bad thoughts about the Queen or her realm; Suspension of Habeas Corpus, which did what it suggests that it did.

Work Programs

Lord John Russell's government, in 1846, refused to spend money on food aid.  Instead, it demanded that Irish land-owners create relief employment.  This often took the form of road-building, or the breaking of stones.

While Irish people queued up to work, only 750,000 positions were created. This was hard, back-breaking work, which exhausted those already suffering from malnutrition. The wages were not enough to keep a starving man alive.

By 1847, even the British government was forced to concede that these programs weren't working. So it set aside £45m to create its own.  The work was deliberately made arduous, so that only the most desperate would partake. But the wages were not enough to cover the soaring price of food.

Crippling Debt

Lord John Russell's government made it clear that any monetary aid coming from Britain (including the work program funds) was a loan. 

This debt incurred a high level of interest and repayments had to be started immediately.  Thus the Irish administration found itself struggling to cope financially too.  It couldn't spend on feeding its own population, when debt repayments were owed across the Irish Sea.

Books About the Politics in Ireland During the Famine

More was happening in Eire during the 1840s than the Great Hunger. Read these histories to learn more about the bigger picture.
Irish Peasants: Violence and Political Unrest, 1780-1914

"The strength of this volume cannot be conveyed by an itemisation of its contents; for what it provides is an incisive commentary on the newly-recognised landmarks of Irish agra...

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Why Ireland Starved: A Quantitative and Analytical History of the Irish Economy, 1800-1850

Technical changes in the first half of the nineteenth century led to unprecedented economic growth and capital formation throughout Western Europe; and yet Ireland hardly partic...

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Landlords, Tenants, Famine: The Business of an Irish Land Agency in the 1840s

A fascinating study of the relationships between landlords and tenants in Ireland during the Great Famine period of the 1840s is principally based on a large uncatalogued archiv...

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Britain's Motivation in Wanting an Irish Genocide

How long have you got? The difficulty here will be rendering it concise enough not to fill a novel-length thesis!

At the time of the potato crop failure, Ireland was ruled by Westminster. It was a British government which took the decisions that would prove so fatal to the Irish population.

There is not the scope here to traverse the entire history between those two nations.  However, it is no understatement to say that it had been an unhappy one.

Ireland has always had the bad luck to be perfectly positioned for an invading force upon the British mainland. In the past, French and Spanish troops had been granted permission to attack Britain from there. (During World War Two, German ammunition found its way onto Irish shores too.) 

It was in the interests of Britain to subsume Ireland into its own borders, as part of the United Kingdom, as a matter of national security.

There was also a religious impetus.  Ireland is a Catholic nation, while Britain has largely become Protestant. For the state religion of the Anglican Church, there was ever the threat of Irish assistance in Catholic matters.  Not least support, when the Papists were subject to persecution.

It was to Ireland that James II turned, when his throne was usurped by William and Mary.  The disastrous Battle of the Boyne was the result.

For centuries, various tactics had been attempted.  Elizabeth I and Oliver Cromwell had each sent in troops and/or Protestant plantation families, desperate to convert the Irish to Anglicanism. The Troubles in Northern Ireland, which are still on-going, are the direct result of their policies.

On each occasion, the Irish had resisted.  The continued wars, insurgencies, attacks and counter-attacks had long been a drain on British military resources.

Then there was the larger Celtic issue.  It's without question that English policy has long been one of cultural genocide against all of the Celtic countries surrounding it.  At the time of the famine, the majority of Irish people were monoglot Gaelic speakers.  Their Celtic national identity was perhaps the strongest of all.

Finally, we come to economics.  Ireland is still a country with abundant agricultural wealth.  Being able to control it made a lot of absentee British landowners very rich. They would be richer still, if they didn't have tenants taking up space and eating some of the bounty.

This latter was probably the most important consideration of them all in 1845.

Did the Irish Famine Constitute Genocide?

An interview with Dr Francis Boyle, Professor of International Law at the University of Illinois. He was the first legal academic to rule that it was genocide.
United Ireland, Human Rights and International Law

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Famine Ghost: Genocide of the Irish

Famine Ghost: England's Genocide of the Irish,/i> Famine Ghost is a book of historical fiction, the story of the Irish Famine (1845-1850) as seen through the eyes of young Johnj...

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Contemporary Charges of Genocide Against the British

Dr Boyle is not the first (nor the last) to reach such conclusions. People were saying it at the time.

In 1861, Young Irelander John Mitchel wrote a pamphlet.  In it, he stated that, 'Ireland was actually producing sufficient food, wool and flax, to feed and clothe not nine but eighteen millions of people'. 

Furthermore, he contended that every ship bringing a cargo of food relief for the starving masses, would meet another six ships packed with food exports on the way out of the same harbours.

His most famous line was his conclusion: 'The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the Famine.'

For this, John Mitchel was first charged with sedition.  When that looked set to fail, the prosecution hurriedly changed it to Treason Felony.  Mitchel was found guilty by an English jury and deported to Australia.

However, it wasn't only the Irish who were levelling charges of genocide at the English government. Its own prime minister, Robert Peel, felt the same way.  He was forced to resign, when he was out-voted and out-manoeuvred on the Repeal of the Corn Laws.

Entering the legislate on June 26th 1846, these measures allowed 'money crops' to be taken out of Ireland without incurring any taxation at all. 

Peel's closing speech railed against his profiteering peers, as he demanded, "Good God, are you to sit in cabinet and consider and calculate how much diarrhoea, and bloody flux, and dysentery a people can bear before it becomes necessary for you to provide them with food?"

His successor, Lord John Russell, openly reassured the business community that his government would no longer interfere with the grain market.  By the following winter, prices on maize alone had 'virtually tripled'.

It was not an issue which was only determined by hindsight.  In March 1847, the leader of the Conservative Party, Lord George Bentinck, was moved to question the ruling Whigs. 

He spoke accusingly in Parliament, saying, "They know the people have been dying by their thousands and I dare them to inquire what has been the number of those who have died through their mismanagement, by their principles of free trade. Yes, free trade in the lives of the Irish people!"

During the same month, Queen Victoria herself was leading a Day of Atonement.  The idea was for Christian people to have a day of fasting, as penance for the situation in Ireland.  With such a patron, English congregations flocked to join her, but not to petition their government to do anything about it.

No doubt those Irish who heard about the gesture found it to be very cold comfort.  But it is extremely telling that even the monarch judged that they had something about which to feel penitent.

Occasionally, a prominent member of parliament let slip their real motivation.  Writing to an Irish landowner, the Chancellor of the Exchequer Sir Charles Wood actually stated, "I am not at all appalled by your tenantry going. That seems to be a necessary part of the process... We must not complain of what we really want to obtain."

Those representing the interests of the British government, actually inside Ireland, sometimes found the 'process' too much to bear.  Edward Twisleton, an officer of the Poor Law Commission, resigned in 1849.  He claimed that he was an 'unfit agent for a policy that must be one of extermination'.

His words were echoed a few months later, when Lord Claredon, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, wrote to his prime minister.  He did not mince his words, raging, "I don't 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."

His appeal for aid, like so many others before him, was solidly ignored.

The Economics Behind the Irish Great Hunger

Buy these books to learn more about the powerful business interest in ensuring a genocide in Ireland.

Genocide, or Circumstantial Neglect with Tragic Consequences?

There are those who act as apologists for the British government at the time. They also believe that referring to the famine thus belittles the true meaning of genocide.

No-one has tried to argue that the British government acted well during the Irish famine, but was it genocide?

There is a tendency to judge the early Victorians by the moral standards of today.  We're sitting cosily here on the other side of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Victorians were a century away from even conceiving of it.

Lord John Russell (pictured) was under a lot of public pressure NOT to help the Irish. When his government proposed more food aid, this party lost seats in a by-election.

Newspapers, like the London Times, staged a long campaign to keep public opinion against the Irish beggars. Then, as now, the news was in the hands of wealthy businessmen.

It's been pointed out by countless historians that the governments of both Sir Robert Peel and Lord John Russell did help Ireland. Their work programs may have been deeply flawed; and their financial hand-outs came with crippling interest.  But they did exist.

In the utter devastation of Black '47, government run soup kitchens were established.  (Then just as quickly demolished in the same autumn.)

The aid was largely insubstantial, ineffective and laced with bumbling bureaucracy, but the fact that it was there at all meant the British government wasn't entirely malicious. For some commentators, the charge sheet adds up to neglect rather than genocide.  Ignorance about what would work rather than targeted killing.

For those people, the British were not so much the villains, as the product of their time.

Do You Consider the Great Hunger to be Genocide?

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No, it wasn't genocide because...
Kate on 09/06/2012

I would want to look again at a definition of genocide before I make my mind up, but I can see how the british singleminded pursuit of self interest could be interpreted as the deliberate irradication of a culture.

Yes, it was genocide because....
JoHarrington on 09/05/2012

I don't subscribe to the patronizing view that the Victorians were somehow too childlike not to know what they were doing. The policies of the British government were very clear on what was what!

A British Prime Minister Apologizes (Sort of) for the Great Hunger

Tony Blair's 'apology' for the Irish Famine has been viewed as both a landmark and not quite hitting the mark.

In 1997, a memorial concert was held in County Cork to mark 150 years since Black '47.  The actor Gabriel Byrne was given a statement to read out. It was written by the then British prime minister, Tony Blair.

The text said:

The famine was a defining event in the history of Ireland and of Britain. It has left deep scars. That one million people should have died in what was then part of the richest and most powerful nation in the world is something that still causes pain as we reflect on it today.

Those who governed in London at the time failed their people through standing by while a crop failure turned into a massive human tragedy. We must not forget such a dreadful event.

For many, including the media on both sides of the Irish Sea, this was a long-awaited apology from the British government.

Some cheered. Some were annoyed.  As recently as February 2012, Jeremy Paxman - a political television journalist and historian - was dismissing the statement as 'moral vacuousness'.  It was his contention that Blair can't apologize for the events of 1845-1851, because he wasn't there.

However, the statement never actually said 'sorry'.  Blair did little more than criticize his predecessors at the time.  It's hardly an admission of out and out genocide.  It's merely a recognition that it's not going to go away for Britain any time soon.

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Updated: 12/21/2013, JoHarrington
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JoHarrington on 07/06/2014

Then please tell us what you learned from your Grandad. I can cover all the stuff that can be found in books. That's not particularly useful, because others can read the same books and discover the same information. What your Grandad told you and what you see around you every day, that is what's needful. New information to be shared.

Tell us about things like this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CBE0t...

And if you ever need the history facts and figures, you shoot a private message over to me and I'll provide it for you to include in your articles.

Michael Maguire on 07/06/2014

Oh Jo!! I'm honoured and humbled that you think I may be capable of writing something worth reading. :)

It is a terrible shame that you never spoke with my Grandad before he died, you two would have had a lot to talk about, now there was a man who could have written an encyclopaedia, never mind an article!

I would have to do a LOT more study to be anywhere near ready to write articles. What I know I learned from speaking with my Grandad and from reading the books he owned. To write articles I feel that I would need to either be or have studied history full time as to make a mistake while purporting to know what I'm talking about would be unforgivable!!

JoHarrington on 07/06/2014

I can shed some light upon the evolution of the names for our islands. I wrote this one: http://wizzley.com/difference-between... for foreign visitors here.

Michael, I would love for you to join Wizzley and write articles here on the issues under discussion. I've been planning plenty for Ireland myself - particularly with the Easter Rising century coming up in a couple of years time - but I've been focusing on Scotland and Wales just recently instead. It would be great to have a real mix going on.

As for history, it's never over. Three days ago, I was looking at the Tamar River and there were tears in my eyes, as I recalled battles that happened there over 1000 years ago. The Cornish NEVER gave up, yet they've been side-lined to the point where so many believe Kernow is part of England. It's not and it never was. It's not an armed occupation there, but one of economic sanctions, blockades and neglect. They're being dismissed into compliance.

Then there's Scotland. To me, it's such a no brainer which way people should be voting up there. Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes! For all those who would vote no, and keep Scotland in the Union, then I want to ram history books down their throats until they choke on the knowledge and precedents that they are ignoring. It's said that the definition of madness is to do something over and over again, with the same result, yet expect the next iteration to be different. With all due regard to the history books, it would be utter madness to vote no.

And for all those who say, 'but that's only history, it means nothing now; we've all grown up and we're all soooo much more fluffy and lovely than in the past, I say LOOK AT CORNWALL!' Every law passed in Westminster RIGHT NOW is illegally pressed onto the Cornish. When their Stannary is allowed to sit again, then perhaps Westminster might have given up on the Empire.

I should stop, because I'm full of cold/flu/virus/whatever it is, and exhausted too. I could rant forever. I'm Cymry and we have long, long, long memories. But Eire gave us heart. Thank you for that.

Michael Maguire on 07/05/2014

"the term, British Isles, is rooted in history."

And there it should remain. It was an inaccuracy to begin with when coined by whomever initiated the moniker........(someone british I'd wager) and then became indoctrinated into acceptance as the norm by educational sectors. But because it has been written, does not make it so.

"I spent a year,1969-1970, living in County Cavan on the border; and on one hike I nearly ran into the B specials [in Fermanagh]. Is any more comment needed? I was afraid, but escaped with my life. I have been followed down the Falls Road by soldiers, who spend the whole journey looking down machine guns at me, and I did not feel comfortable or safe. So I have lived with the Northern Irish problem, and I have felt fear."

A year is a year and I am glad that you experienced the truth of living here, however it is not lifetime and certainly not a drop in the ocean in the history of this land.

Again, I agree with some of your opinions outlined below but as this conversation has served to reveal, there are still deep wounds living inside the hearts and minds of the people here and abroad. Unfortunately, I do not see them being resolved any time soon. Certainly not without full acknowledgement, admission of guilt, sincere apologies, full military withdrawal and a guarantee of no further involvement in the affairs of this sovereign nation.

I feel that this discussion could go on indefinitely (especially if history is anything to go by), I also feel that I have made my position clear and I appreciate and understand your sentiments and point of view so I thank you for your time and thoughts and will exit now.

frankbeswick on 07/05/2014

I spent a year,1969-1970, living in County Cavan on the border; and on one hike I nearly ran into the B specials [in Fermanagh]. Is any more comment needed? I was afraid, but escaped with my life. I have been followed down the Falls Road by soldiers, who spend the whole journey looking down machine guns at me, and I did not feel comfortable or safe. So I have lived with the Northern Irish problem, and I have felt fear.

Delineating a rational possibility does not mean that you support it. There are several rational possibilities, but the present situation is not one. My preferred option is a united Ireland that has strong friendship with a united Britain. Breach of friendship between the two islands would rip my family and friendships apart. Only tonight I spent the evening with my best friend, who is a Mayo man, and my wife is of a Mayo family, her maiden name was O'Rourke. I do not want to create splits or dissension.

The term British Isles is difficult, as I do not want to establish any British power over Ireland, but the term, British Isles, is rooted in history. The whole archipelago was known in ancient times as Prydain, of which there was Albion and Eire as the main islands, besides Mona, Mann. Vectis. Ebridae and Orcades. The Isles are geographically connected,and this should be the basis of co-operation between them. We need to move forward,as the legacy of past hatred only means pain

Michael Maguire on 07/05/2014

Frank, I'll have to disagree with you on those points. I don't think any of those options are feasible.

Firstly, nobody in Ireland accepts the moniker of "british isles". That is a title forced upon this country by centuries of occupation by a foreign power determined to delete the independent identity of this nation. I wholeheartedly reject any notion of this country being referred to in any way by the term british.

Secondly, even Scotland at present does not wish to be part of the current UK and they share an island with that nation. We have no connection whatsoever besides the military occupation of the North of Ireland.

The time for domination of, and identification by, what was the British empire has come to an end. Any nation is entitled to its identification by its own wish and definitions or the path will never be cleared for peaceful coexistence.

Unless you have lived here and seen armed soldiers belonging to a foreign power on your home soil then you honestly can not fully understand the situation.

To give you some perspective on this; think how you would feel if Germany had won WW2 and there were armed soldiers in German uniform walking the streets of the UK, stopping you from going about your daily business, searching and arresting you. WW2 was only 70 years ago. We've been putting up with that for centuries.

frankbeswick on 07/05/2014

I believe that rational politics should adopt the principle that political entities should correspond to geographical, cultural and ethnic boundaries. There are two rational options in the British Isles:
1: A united, independent Britain next to a united, independent Ireland;

2: A united British Isles [with devolution to geographical and culural divisions]

[Choose which of the two suits you or what you think is best.]

Option 3 is not rationally justifiable: the present situation, in which Britain is united with a bit of Ireland.

JoHarrington on 07/05/2014

Michael - We are definitely of the same opinion here. I'm very, very well aware of Irish History. Where possible, I undertook Irish history modules during my MA, and I've got bookshelves worth of history books about the country. I've written several articles on Wizzley about it too, so I'm trying to get the word out. :)

I too would love to see Eire united. I really, really would.

JoHarrington on 07/05/2014

Frank and Michael - My apologies, gentlemen. I should have mentioned that I was heading off into the wilds of Somerset and Kernow for a couple of weeks. Hence I wasn't here to reply. I'm back now though!

Frank - It's good to see that you have some of the Gailege left too!

Those contemporary politicians showed no remorse, because they didn't seem to think it wrong what they were doing. It was 'only' the troublesome Irish dying in droves.

Michael Maguire on 06/24/2014

Hi again Frank, I am of the same opinion. I have no issue with the british public. I have many acquaintances in the UK from doing business there and have always found my encounters with the people of britain to be very pleasant in all aspects. I would like to see a time where apologies have been made and friendships forged from that, your Queen Elizabeth came almost as close as Mr. Blair did on her visit here and to hear her speak in Irish was a very unexpected but welcome part of her visit.

I also have many members of my family who are not nearly as interested in the history of the country so I understand where your brothers are coming from. History is just history to some of us where others of us find it more interesting and revealing.

I hope as our nearest neighbour and also our main trading partners, the future holds much brighter times than the past.

Slán go fóil mo chara. (Goodbye for now my friend) if you didn't already know!!

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