It’s such a sad song. Like most Irish ones. It’s set in the mid-19th century Great Irish Famine. The Irish call it the Great Hunger. The song tells of young woman standing outside a prison, calling out to her love behind bars. She tells him that he is going to be shipped off to Australia to work in British labor camps as punishment. His crime was stealing corn from an English settler and landowner so that their child would not starve to death.
By a lonely prison wall
I heard a young girl calling,
“Michael, they are taking you away
For you stole Trevelyn’s corn,
So the young might see the morn.
Now a prison ship lies waiting in the bay.”
The young man’s response pierces, unexpectedly, the hearts of listeners:
By a lonely prison wall
I heard a young man calling,
“Nothing matters, Mary, when you’re free
Against the Famine and the Crown,
I rebelled, they cut me down.
Now you must raise our child with dignity.”
The song ends with the young man being ripped forever away from his family, to face a life of slavery in the British prison colonies in Botany Bay, Australia. Mary watches him go, helpless, hoping for the impossible—that she might see her love again.
By a lonely harbor wall
She watched the last star falling
As that prison ship sailed out against the sky
Sure she’ll wait and hope and pray
For her love in Botany Bay
It’s so lonely round the Fields of Athenry.
A little background might fully paint the picture for you: The Great Hunger is commonly blamed on the potato blight that spread across Europe in the mid-1800′s. Before the blight hit, the condition of the Irish people was already bleak. By that time, the English had occupied most of the fertile land of Ireland. The Empire installed settlers, wealthy English landowners, who now reaped the rewards of the stolen land. The Irish were forced to work on these plantations—land which was once theirs and their fathers—as serfs (in actuality slaves would be a more accurate description—the Irish received almost nothing for their grueling work, were not allow to get an education, and often ended up paying their landowners to work). This state of affairs left the Irish in abject poverty, nearly a third of the population unable to find food or money enough to feed their families.
And then the blight began spreading across Europe in the 1840′s. England had ample enough time to counterbalance the infestation and thereby prevent any significant hardship for its colony in Ireland. Needless to say, England staunchly refused to help. Instead, like any good conqueror, they utilized this opportunity to the full—for, in English eyes, the blight was a blessing.
Travelyan, the landlord referred to in the song (he was also the Secretary of the Treasury for Irish Relief) said of the Famine that it was “a direct stroke of an all-wise and all-merciful providence” and “an opportunity to clear the land of surplus population.” To give an idea of the extent of the racism toward the Irish, the Prime Minister Lord John Russell, was an adherent of the renowned 16th century English poet Edmund Spenser’s views on Ireland. Spenser had written a genocidal pamphlet on how to deal with the “Irish problem.” In it, he recommends ways in which to cause famine and calculates “how far English colonization and English policy might be most effectively carried out by Irish starvation.”
The educational institutions of England propagated this bigotry on a popular level. One such Oxford professor of economics at the time lamented that the Famine “would not kill more than one million people, and that would scarcely be enough to do any good.”
We must allow this professor to be an excellent economist at least, for his estimate was nearly accurate. The Famine killed between 1.1 and 1.5 million Irish people. Over another million Irish were forced to flee to America, never to see their homes or families again. By the end of the five years of famine, the Irish lost over 25% of their population. 150 years later their population is only half of what it was before the Famine.
Over and above the 2.5 million deaths and departures, the Famine laid the groundwork for even more English repression of the Irish. Their increasing impoverishment during this time made it impossible for many to pay their rent. This gave an excuse to their English landowners to push them off their land (as if it were not enough that they were forced to work their land like slaves). The number is unknown, but hundreds of thousands of Irish were evicted, forced to flee to the barren tracts in the west of the country.
They destroyed the Irish language. Before the Famine the majority of the Irish spoke Irish (or Gaelic). After the famine—their culture broken, their history shattered, their future departing before their eyes across the sea, never to be seen again—Gaelic began waning and English became the number one language of the island. It still is today.
Starvation as Genocide
The Famine was, undoubtedly, a watershed event in Ireland’s tragic history. The political pretext of the Famine may have been the potato blight that spread across Europe. But nowhere else in Europe did starvation occur. An Irish political writer at the time, John Mitchel, said notably that “the Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the Famine.”
That the Famine was really genocide has been (and continues to be) a hot political issue. But in cases like these, thankfully, history speaks for itself. Without a doubt, England could have prevented the famine completely. While potato was a main food for many of the Irish (being too poor and not having enough land to grow anything else), Ireland continued to harvest much grain and other food sources throughout the Famine—it is not called the Emerald Island for nothing—all of which was being exported to England by the settlers for a profit. Historian Cecil Woodham-Smith has said that it is an “indisputable fact that huge quantities of food were exported from Ireland to England throughout the period when the people of Ireland were dying of starvation.”
The horror and violence of starvation as a means of genocide is recorded in the descriptions of the emaciated bodies of babies. English Quaker William Bennett recalled the scene of “three children huddled together, lying there because they were too weak to rise, pale and ghastly, their little limbs…perfectly emaciated, eyes sunk, voice gone, and evidently in the last stages of actual starvation.”
Law professor Francis Boyle (Urbana-Champaign) has said that “the British government pursued a policy of mass starvation in Ireland with intent to destroy in substantial part the national, ethnic, and racial group commonly known as the Irish people.” This, he said, constitutes an act of genocide.
Repetition in the Holy Land
Humankind has not changed much in the past 150 years or so. Genocidal starvation seems to be a favorite political tool for heartless oppressors, people infected with malignant arrogance. For nearly two years now, the Zionist Israeli government has been starving out the 1.5 million Palestinians of Gaza. It has set up a blockade against the area of Gaza, allowing nothing in and nothing out—an open-air concentration camp. Gaza is the most populous place on earth, and one of the most impoverished. Throughout the blockade, life saving medicine, food, gas and other necessities have been severely limited.
And then on November 5th the Israelis sealed off the borders completely, pushing Gazans to the brink of disaster. Banks collapsed, further dragging Gazans into poverty. Nearly 50% of Gazans at the time were unemployed and workers had not been paid since the 19th of November.
Richard Falk, a UN representative for human rights in occupied Palestinian territory has called this blockade of Gaza a crime against humanity. Falk was arrested upon landing in Tel Aviv in the third week of December. He was kept in a disgusting, crowded cell over night before being deported to his native California. He has reported, however, that about 46% of Gazan children suffer from acute anemia and 18% have stunted growth. 75% of all Gazans suffer from some degree of malnutrition.
The vast majority of Gazans depend on charity food providers, but because of the blockade the charities were forced to suspend their food distribution in mid December, only sporadically being opened after that. The vast majority of bakeries in Gaza have also shut down because they ran out of cooking gas. The lack of cooking gas has made it impossible for the people to raise chickens (the gas is needed to incubate the chicks), depriving the Gazans of their prime source of protein. Water is also short, many Gazans during this time had access to water for only six hours every three days.
They also were deprived of fuel to run the pumps for sewage systems and power for electricity. They spent at least three quarters of their day with no electricity. The effects of this were catastrophic—people could not cook, kids could not go to school, and hospitals were running out of fuel to run their generators. Because of the frequent power outages much of the medical equipment has been destroyed. And because of the blockade, medicine is scarce and, as most of the exit visas for Gazans have been revoked by the Israelis, people who needed outside medical help simply could not get it. 230 people died last year because of this, many at checkpoints waiting to cross.
The psychological and emotional scarring of this sort of violence against a population cannot be stressed enough. Over 50% of Gazan children under the age of 12 do not have the will to live. And a shocking 71% of kids interviewed said they want to be martyrs.
All this was before the 27th of December. That Saturday morning, just as kids left school to go home for their morning recess, the bombs started dropping. Panic spread through the streets of Gaza. By the end of that day over 200 people were killed and over 700 were injured (many critically). Within minutes hundreds of wounded people flooded hospitals—hospitals that already suffered from lack of proper equipment and medicine.
As I write, the third week of bombing is nearly over. Day twenty of the massacre has begun. Tanks pound to death unarmed Palestinians in the streets. Reservist soldiers shoot to kill during the dark nights. The skyline of Gaza, as I watch the news, looks like a scene of Hellfire. The deep night sky is lit up with shockingly massive bursts of flame, sparks flying everywhere, fireballs explode, and smoke shoots up like columns. The noise of drones overhead never ceases.
The Israelis ignore the UN call for a ceasefire and prepare for “phase three,” the letting loose of ground troops onto the shattered and blood-filled streets of Gaza. 13 Israelis have been killed (four by friendly fire). The Israelis have slaughtered more than 1,030 Palestinians (not including people yet to be found under rubble). They have injured more than 4,750. Forty-some percent of the deaths (according to the UN) are women and children. All are innocent—prisoners of the Israeli-run Gaza concentration camp. Each single death is a murder. Entire families have been killed in their beds, 2-ton bombs dropping on their houses as the sleep. Trapped children suck the toes of their dead mothers as they wait for days to be rescued.
At least 21 medics, clearly marked, have been shot and killed by Israelis. Ambulances have also been targeted. Because of the barbarous “security measures” taken by the Israelis, medics are prevented from going into many areas. In other areas they are not allowed to drive in, so they walk miles just to retrieve some of the dead and wounded. Israeli snipers have shot medics as they rush to retrieve dead bodies.
Nowhere is safe at all. Frightened people fled for refuge to UN schools. In cold blood, knowing the coordinates of the schools, the Israelis bombed two such schools last week. They killed three people in the first school. In the second, blood ran down the steps and across the courtyard as panicked and grieved people struggled to get the 43 dead bodies to the hospital.
It’s a truly horrific sight, watching the footage of Gaza, so close and yet so far away. Countless fathers weep over their still and bloodied daughters. Women raise their hands in the air, crying out for help from somewhere, anywhere. Somber young men sit on bits of rubble, amid debris that was once called home. Young girls cry in the streets, terror etched in their otherwise pretty faces.
One father asks, holding up his dead baby, a bullet in its head, “what did this child do to [Ehud] Barak? Did he throw anything at him?” He then asked, “what did these children do to Barak?” indicating two little boys with bullet holes in their chests, killed by Israeli snipers, “you did all this for the election, is this the way you treat children?”
The hospitals bear witness to the savage barbarity of the Israeli genocide. Infants covered with shrapnel scream as doctors try to hold them down and work on them with no anesthesia. Little boys lay, oddly still, but eyes wide with fright, tubes pushed through their nose and mouth. Ambulances, minivans, and cars rush—one after another—to the doors of the hospitals, young men jump out to drag out the bodies—some wounded, others dead. It’s mayhem. A young man here sobs like a child as he sees his bloodied friend die at the entrance to the hospital. A woman, hysterical, slaps her face repeatedly, wailing and shrieking as the medics tell her that her children are dead. And grown men rock themselves with grief, howling at the death of their mothers, their wives, and their babies.
People around them—their voices raw with emotion, their bodies shaking with rage and pity—try in turns to drag the mourners off the bodies of the dead, hold them up, and counsel them: say the shahada, “I bear witness that there is no god but God and I bear witness that Muhammad is the messenger of God.” Shouts of the shahada echo through the pandemonium-filled hospital halls.
Every day in the past twenty days, an hour or so before dawn, the noise of the bombs exploding and the roaring of the planes overhead slightly hushed by the beautiful, melodious calls to prayer coming forth from the numerous mosques of Gaza. Over a dozen mosques have been blown to pieces. The people still pray in the rubble though. “If the Israelis want to deny it for us, we’ll worship despite the bombings,” said one Gazan. “God only strengthens our convictions after these attacks,” says another.” An imam said after the Friday prayer: “To the people around the world and in Arab and Muslim countries, I say your silence allows for this aggression to continue. And to those praying here, I say this is our mosque and I will pray here till Judgment Day. And we will rebuild this mosque even bigger.”
And throughout all this, the starvation continues. There is still barely any food. And even if there was, many fear leaving their houses to go out and scrounge for it. Still others venture out to find some. They risk their lives to feed their families. Yet others have no money to even risk their lives to buy food. And some who do have money cannot buy anything, for bakeries are shut or empty. Electricity is still out most of the time. So too is the water. And of that precious water, much of it is used to put out the fire created by the explosions (including the incendiary white phosphorus which is illegal to use on civilian populations as it is extremely flammable and very toxic).
The emaciated bodies of those yet living bear witness to this human catastrophe. Hell on earth, a UN aid worker called it. The UN aid ceased their programs for a couple days as the Israelis have repeatedly targeted (and killed) their workers (who are clearly marked).
I’ve seen women sobbing in shelters, demanding “what have our kids done?!” They hold their hungry, screaming babies—no more milk to feed them, “where is the world?!” they demand. “Is the world blinded?!” shouts an old man. “Why can’t we go home to our beds and eat and drink like everybody else?!” It’s heartbreaking to see these individuals driven mad by the terror and hunger this way. Some try to reason with the mindless violence, they scream in absolute desperation: “we have no Hamas here! There is not Hamas here!” some old women shout from their windows. They look as if they are on the brink of total mental and emotional derangement.
And yet, Tzipi Livni, the Israeli foreign minister, has said, and everyone should note, that “the humanitarian situation in Gaza is exactly as it should be.” Just another indication of the harder than stone hearts of these butchers.
The Plan of Attack
Perhaps all this would be easier to stomach were this holocaust done on a vengeful whim. But the indigestible reality is that this was meticulously planned out for at least half a year. It was internationally coordinated as well. If you do not believe my loaded accusation then look at the facts yourself.
The Israelis, along with their cohorts in the US, the EU, and the Arab world, had their plan of attack worked out to the tee. Their extremely lame pretext ran something like this: We needed to attack Gaza because Hamas has been firing rockets into our city. Hamas broke the ceasefire in this way, so we were forced to attack.
This statement is a bald-faced lie. Hamas was very cooperative with the Israelis. They abided by the ceasefire even while the Israelis never lived up to their side of the agreement. The Israelis laid siege to Gaza breaking the ceasefire and Hamas still did not react. The Israeli soldiers killed several Palestinians breaking the ceasefire and Hamas still did not react. Israel then killed six people on the 4th of November breaking the ceasefire yet again. Only then did Hamas retaliate with rockets.
This reality has been convoluted and contorted by the Israelis and the US. Israeli Tzipi Livni, said, hours before the attack that “Hamas needs to understand that our aspiration to live in peace doesn’t mean that Israel is going to take this kind of situation any longer…enough is enough.”
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert also said, “I’m telling them now it may be the last minute. I’m telling them stop it, we are stronger…there will be more blood there. Who wants it? We don’t want it.”
Cabinet Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said, “We are sending [the Gazans] a message that the Hamas leadership has turned them into a punching bag for everyone. It is a leadership that has turned schoolyards into rocket launching pads. This is a leadership that does not care that the blood of its people will run in the streets.
They sound like typical wife-beaters, don’t they? Typical burly men who smash the living daylights out of their wives or girl friends: “I don’t want to hurt you, why don’t you just listen to me? Why do you make me do this to you?” And, as we all know, when the timid little wife decides she’s had enough, Wife Beater aggresses with even more force and violence. Many times he ends up killing her. These stories are sickening enough. But it becomes an outrage—a communal crime—when the entire neighborhood stands up for Wife Beater, condemning the wife and telling her to crawl back to her humiliating and harmful existence. This has been the role of the US and the governments of the world (most of them, the “ones that count,” anyway).
The US government and American politicians have defended, zealously, the holocaust in Gaza. President Bush said that he understands “Israel’s right to protect itself.” The White House spokesman said: “the United States understands that Israel needs to take actions to defend itself.” He also blamed Hamas for the massacre: “In order for the violence to stop, Hamas must stop firing rockets into Israel…”
Democrat Majority Leader Harry Reid has said: “What the Israelis are doing is very important…” The supposedly progressive Democrats, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, House Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Howard Berman and others all support Israel in this massacre, couching it in terms of “defense.”
For those who are waiting for January 20th for some sort of magical change, well, dream on. Obama has appointed for himself a rabidly Zionist administration—Rahm Emanuel, Hilary Clinton and Joe Biden are just a few. He has remained rather quiet about the Gaza holocaust, only making an extremely ambivalent comment. But his senior advisor David Axelrod said that Obama understood Israel’s urge to respond to Hamas. Axelrod also reminded the public about Obama’s statements while in Israel (on his visit he ignored the Palestinians completely) in July 2008 when he said: “If somebody was sending rockets into my house where my two daughters sleep at night, I’m going to do everything in my power to stop that. I would expect Israelis to do the same thing.” As Palestinian activist Ali Abunimah said in a recent article, “This allegedly post-racial president appears fully invested in the racist worldview that considers Arab lives to be worth less than those of Israelis and in which Arabs are always the ‘terrorists’.”
It’s quite reminiscent of the English reaction to the Irish Famine. And as Mitchel, the Irish political writer said of the British parliament that, despite their differences, “they agree most cordially in the policy of taxing, prosecuting, and ruining [the Irish].”
Our politicians may be content, for the sake of power, to comply with the lies of Israel, one such lie is that they sincerely try not to kill civilians. But, as Robert Fisk, Middle East correspondent for The Independent, wrote after the massacre at the UN school that “every president and prime minister who repeated this mendacity as an excuse to avoid a ceasefire has the blood of last night’s butchery on their hands.”
The UN’s impotence played out before the world when it, with a great flourish of blue paper, basically stated that it “hoped” for a ceasefire. That is to say, even though it called to a ceasefire (which is legally binding), it has done nothing to ensure that it is implemented. [Especially when the US abstained from the vote, basically nullifying it completely]. When masses of innocent people are being slaughtered every single day, “hope” from the world leaders is not enough. Nor is it acceptable at all that the UN views the holocaust in Gaza as a two-sided war. In this way it upholds the PR lie of the Israelis.
The Metaphor They Killed By
Namely that Hamas is the problem. We’ll blame it on Hamas. The world should buy it, right? After all, Hamas is labeled a terrorist organization. They’ve been firing rockets onto our colonial settlements. We can tell the world that we gave them water and electricity. We left their land two years ago. But they still fired rockets and actually killed a couple people.
It’s a crafty explanation, no doubt. But, like Swiss cheese, it’s full of holes.
First of all, Israel never left Gaza. That’s why they continue to control the water and the land passages in and out of Gaza. That’s why they have been able to sustain the blockade of Gaza. If Palestinian fishermen go beyond six miles out at sea they are shot by Israelis. Airplanes have been flying over Gaza and shooting missiles since they “left.” Israel never stopped occupying Gaza, they just changed the form of occupation.
In the past year alone (before this latest massacre) 546 Palestinians (76 of then children) were killed. Only 16 Israelis (most of them soldiers) have been killed. Israel is a nuclear power. Israel is the 4th largest military exporter in the world. Israel’s economy has been booming (due to its “dabbling” in security technology) while every other economy in the world has been crashing. Israel also receives billions of dollars a year from the United States.
How dare Israel—or the rest of the world—place Hamas on the same footing as a superpower of that caliber? Even Olmert admitted it saying, “we have enormous power, we can do things which will be devastating. And I keep restraining myself and I keep restraining my friends all the time and I tell them ‘lets wait, let’s wait, let’s wait. Let’s give them another chance.’”
If the Israeli government can do things that will be devastating, they obviously do not have a security problem and have zero need to defend itself. It is an insult to human intelligence to place these two groups on equal footing: the occupier and the occupied, the oppressor and the oppressed, the warden and the prisoner. And apt analogy would be equalizing a rapist with the one being raped. There is no equalizing in that situation. There is only an entity in absolute power abusing it to the absolute full and an entity in absolute weakness unable to effectively defend itself at all.
Hamas is an impoverished government (democratically elected) trying to scrap together some semblance of autonomy for the Palestinian people. It has set up hospitals in Gaza, the university and other civil services. Its people have been starved, deprived of the most basic aid and all of their dignity. The Palestinian people are a people were kicked off their land 60 years ago. They were brutalized, massacred, and forced to flee. Many of those who remained were shoved into the concentration camp called Gaza. The infamous rockets that Hamas has been firing have been landing on land that is rightfully owned by the people now crowded in Gaza. People forget, or try to ignore, the fact that 60 years ago most of the people in Gaza were living in the stolen “Israeli” settlements that Hamas is targeting.
That is why Gaza is so crowded, why the vast majority of Gazans are refugees (80%)—because they were kicked off their land which was then claimed by Jewish settlers who then christened themselves Israelis with the blood of Palestinians.
So before people ask why Hamas continues to fire rockets. Let them be brave enough to remember these facts. Let them remember the history of Palestine and the present conditions of Palestinians. Let them face the truth. The disgracing truth that 60 years ago something took place—you can call it a holocaust, you can call it ethnic-cleansing, you can call it establishing the State of Israel—whatever you call it, we stood by and let it happen.
And when a people have been humiliated to the extreme degree that the Palestinians have been humiliated just remember the words of Michael in the fields of Athenry: “Nothing matters, Mary, when you’re free. Against the Famine and the Crown I rebelled. They cut me down. Now you must raise our child with dignity.”
Human beings will do whatever it takes to retrieve their dignity. And even if they end up dying in the act, or getting shipped off to a life of slave-labor, they will do it for their children, so that they, at least, may live in dignity. And they will pass this grievance on to their children—their children who still suffer from the injustice of the same oppressors. And they will remember.
The Irish political writer, Mitchel, warned that the Irish did not attribute the Famine to the “rule of heaven as to the greedy and cruel policy of England.” He continued, saying that the people “believe that the seasons as they roll are but ministers of England’s rapacity; that their starving children cannot sit down to their scanty meal but they see the harpy claw of England in their dish.”
And the Irish did, indeed, remember England’s tyranny. The song I quoted in the beginning may have been set in the 1840′s, but it was written in the 1970′s when the Irish were, once again, being driven from their homes, beaten, tortured, imprisoned, and starved: “Against the Famine and the Crown I rebelled. They cut me down.” And they did it for the dignity of their children.
And people will never stop striving for this. For, with every crime of a transgressing power—whether it be first impoverishing and starving and then imprisoning an Irishman for attempting to feed his child, or whether it be first entrapping and starving and then killing a Palestinian for attempting to fight its occupier –people will always remember. Like Mary in the song, they will hunger for the loss of their inalienable, God-given rights. And nothing will satiate them except justice:
By a lonely harbor wall
She watched the last star falling
As that prison ship sailed out against the sky
Sure she’ll wait and hope and pray
For her love in Botany Bay
It’s so lonely round the Fields of Athenry.
Low lie the fields of Athenry
Where once we watched the small free birds fly
Our love was on the wing
We had dreams and songs to sing
It’s so lonely round the fields of Athenry.
To listen to a nice version of this song please go here.