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The black lake’s secret

Once a year, a ritualised walk marks the Irish potato famine

Louisburgh is a typical small town in the west of Ireland.

Situated in the south-western corner of Mayo close to the Atlantic coast, it is arranged around a crossroads and has its shop, its post office, a couple of pubs, a Chinese restaurant, a Gaelic games pitch and a hotel, where on the night I arrived a big family celebration was under way – old men in their best suits, top buttons undone and ties loosened, sipping Guinness as small girls in party dresses chased small boys in shiny shoes among the forest of grown-up legs.

It’s a happy town, and a very quiet one the next morning when I head out into the warm early spring sunshine, a pint glass half full of porter sitting on a windowsill and a pink balloon bobbing gently on the kerb the only evidence of the previous night’s carousing.

For me, however, Louisburgh is atypical for one important historical reason.

I was heading south on foot, following the route of one of the most tragic episodes of the famine that ravaged Ireland between 1845 and 1850, killing an estimated million people and forcing a further million to emigrate.

One hundred and sixty years ago Colonel Hogrove and Captain Primrose arrived in Louisburgh to inspect the paupers claiming famine relief there. It would have been a pitiful task: the famine was in its fourth year in a county hit harder than most – where one-third of the Irish population depended on the potato for subsistence, in Mayo that figure was 90 per cent.

The British government had been keen to let market forces solve the problem: Indian grain was imported but supplies were released slowly to control the price (throughout the famine years Ireland remained a net exporter of food).

A system of public works had been introduced – into a country where most of the population lived an entirely subsistence existence – so that the people could earn money rather than expect handouts.

The only people allowed to claim poor relief were those who had less than a quarter of an acre of land. It was these poor, starving folk that Messrs Hogrove and Primrose had been sent to inspect, and to issue with a 3lb allowance of grain, at Louisburgh.

According to a letter sent to the Mayo Constitution dated 5 April 1849, the two inspectors instead set off immediately for Delphi Lodge, roughly 12 miles to the south, leaving instructions that the poor should assemble there for inspection on the morning of 31 March.

“In obedience of this humane order, hundreds of these unfortunate living skeletons, men, women and children might have been seen struggling through the mountain passes and roads to the appointed place,” said the letter.

On a fine spring day it’s a beautiful walk from Louisburgh to the fishing lodge at Delphi. The American writer Harold Speakman wrote of the route in the 1920s that it “was the fairest I had seen in Ireland. After the village and fjord which was Norway, and the mountain torrent that was Switzerland, came a canyon which was Montana, and beyond it, a lake like a miniature Sea of Galilee.”

As you leave Louisburgh the unmistakable outline of Croagh Patrick, Ireland’s holy mountain, rises in the morning haze away to your left and accompanies you for most of the journey.

On the night of 30 March 1849 the conditions were quite different. There was rain, wind and sleet for most of the night as the half-starved wretches made their slow, agonised way south. Many had already walked miles to reach Louisburgh, clad in little more than rags: a sunken-eyed, sallow-cheeked procession of skeletons, dehumanised by starvation. This slow, pathetic nocturnal march – some estimates say as many as 600 set out that night – must have presented a hellish appearance.

When they arrived at Delphi, those that had survived the night were made to wait until the inspectors finished lunch before the inspection took place. They were given no grain, nor anything to eat at all.

They set off back for Louisburgh but many of them didn’t make it.

According to local tradition, up to 400 people may have perished between Louisburgh and Delphi; many of them so light and weak that they were blown into the lake by the strong wind. Corpses were found by the roadside, some of them with grass in their mouths from one last futile attempt at nourishment.

I passed two memorials on the shore of Doo­lough – which means “black lake” – one a simple stone commemorating the Doolough tragedy of 1849, the other quoting Gandhi: “How can men feel themselves honoured by the humiliation of their fellow beings?”

In mid-afternoon I reached Delphi Lodge itself, now a friendly and welcoming country house hotel popular with salmon fishers and people seeking peace and quiet. There are no televisions and there’s no mobile phone signal.

I looked out of the window of my room on to the lawn where the Doolough victims would have gathered 160 years earlier. I wondered how the people inside could have carried on with their lunch when those who were starving outside would have been clearly visible, collapsing on the neatly tended grass just feet from their table.

Nobody knows for certain how many perished at Doolough. Estimates range wildly from 20 to 400.

An annual charity walk along the route commemorates them, however, and draws attention to human-rights abuses around the world. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Chernobyl children and Kim Phúc, famously photographed as a girl running naked from a napalmed village during the Vietnam War, are among those who have made the journey.

Night fell over Delphi as I dined possibly in the same room as Hogrove and Primrose, the surrounding mountains looming black against the night sky outside as if drawing themselves up in indignation at the horror that took place here.

We’ll never know exactly how many nameless husks of humanity died at Doolough at the end of March 1849. The lake will never tell. I felt curiously uplifted, though, knowing that as long as people, many of whom have also suffered incredible hardship, travel from all over the world to walk in their footsteps, the Doolough dead will never be forgotten.

Charlie Connelly’s latest book is “And Did Those Feet: Walking Through 2,000 Years of British and Irish History” (Little, Brown, £12.99)

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.