Family Trauma: Then (1850) and Now

By Kevin O’Neill
Special to the Reporter

In 1850 the family of Catherine and Martin Davitt of Co. Mayo, Ireland, were evicted from their small farm. Like many other victims of famine era evictions, their search for survival took them to the local workhouse where Catherine Davitt discovered that in order to enter the workhouse the family would be separated, husband from wife, and both parents from their children. This was a requirement of the British Poor Law policy intended to discourage the poor from seeking help.

Catherine Davitt refused to surrender her children and instead the family took to the roads as famine refugees. They walked the 140 miles to Dublin and then made their way across the Irish Sea to Liverpool and then walked another 40 miles to find work.

Eventually the family found employment in the cotton mills of Lancashire, where their 12-year-old son Michael lost his arm in a machine accident. Later in his life, Michael would say that this was the luckiest day in his life because it freed him from child labor and gave him an opportunity for education in a Methodist charity school. Only the grim reality of famine and English child factory labor make Davitt’s perspective on losing his arm understandable.

Making sense out of such unusual perspectives has been an important part of my life over the last 40 years as I have taught Irish history to some of our best and brightest students. Much of Irish history is challenging to modern American students – who are thankfully far removed from the nightmares of conquest, famine, and mass emigration. But, narratives of lives like those of Michael Davitt can help make sense of it.

In his adult life, Davitt would be an Irish revolutionary who spent 7 years in a British prison for his efforts; a land agitator who helped end the Anglo-Irish landlord system; a member of the same UK parliament that created the workhouse system – and an early supporter of the fledgling British Labour Party that would undo it.

Such narratives can help make sense of Irish history. But, one thing a great many students still have trouble understanding is how a British government led by proudly Christian elites could devise such an inhuman system for people who were already facing the most severe challenge that any of us can face – the survival of our children.

I can’t say I am very much help to my students in understanding this peculiar policy. I do explain the utilitarian philosophy that supposedly balanced the benefit of feeding the starving with the pain demanded of those suffering in order to receive it; but I cannot explain the diabolically deficient moral sense that found this separation of parents and young children as an ‘acceptable’ pain. I find it even more difficult to understand how the government of the United States in the 21st century would devise a policy to separate refugee children from their parents who are seeking asylum.

All descendants of immigrants to the United States should be ashamed of the Trump administration’s current policy to separate parents and children who lawfully present themselves seeking asylum. And, if any of those who designed this program are the descendants of Irish immigrants, their shame should be so much the deeper.

History may not repeat itself, but as Michael Davitt’s contemporary, John Stuart Mill, noted in 1867: “Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.”

Kevin O’Neill is a professor of history at Boston College.