Why we must rescue our African cousins

As part of my preparation for walking El Camino Santiago in 2010, I started to walk long distances on flat hard surfaces.

It made sense as it was a different physical challenge than hiking up boggy mountains in Ireland.

One of my training walks was to go from Westport in County Mayo out to the beautiful village of Murrisk.

There and back was about 16km, so it was approaching a Camino length day on the tarmac.

We took our halfway break at the National Famine Memorial, designed by Irish artist John Behan, and it is a troubling creation.

In metal, it depicts a coffin ship filled with dying people.

Just to stand beside it is humbling.

My walking companion was Spanish and as she explained to me the cultural nuances of Galicia when we were on the Camino, I had a go that day at explaining why a million Irish people starved in the 19th century.

In doing so, it was difficult to avoid the lexicon of genocide.

I have been thinking of that place in Mayo more and more over the last couple of weeks.

Perhaps it is the folly of every generation to think that they are somehow exceptional and that things that happened in the past cannot re-visit them.

My generation stupidly thought that genocide could never return to Europe after what had been discovered in Auschwitz and Treblinka in 1945.

The idea of organised ethnic slaughter happening once again on the European mainland was not seriously considered as a possibility.

The bitter experience of the   Bosniaks in the 1990s is a testament to the naiveté of that view.

Now once more we have coffin ships like the one sculpted at Murrisk. These floating nightmares are the product of oppressive historical circumstances and like An Gorta Mór the situation is entirely man-made.

The Western powers broke Libya, and it is now the classic failed state.

There is now an appalling internal security situation inside that country and the state, such as it is, has little control over its borders.

Into this vacuum have flowed human traffickers. Once they have taken the money from the desperate people trying to seek a better life in Europe they do not care if they make the journey safely or not.

As long as they can recover a capsized vessel it can be towed back to port and re-filled with another desperate human cargo.

Ah yes human…

Not insects, but humans like you and me.

It would be possible to write a social history of the Atlantic by looking at the desperate people in the cargo holds of ships over the centuries.

It would include the street poor of London sold into effective slavery in the New World in the early years of the 17th Century, and the Irish sent to Barbados as slaves after the Cromwellian genocide.

The coffin ship depicted at Murrisk did not have slaves interned in the cargo hold, but they might well have been.

Cromwell had made the order “to hell or Connaught “in 1650 and in 1847 the Famine left ordinary people on this island with little choice.

For the genocide of An Gorta Mór to happen all the British government had to do was sit back and let nature do the rest.

Those powerful men in London had created the conditions for this disaster in Ireland and then they sat back.

It was death by laissez faire.

When the ‘Famine Irish’ arrived in huge numbers on the eastern seaboard of North America, there was immediate nativist hostility to them.

Bizarrely at first the Irish were not considered to be members of the white race by the WASP locals.

Of course ‘local’ meant the descendants of, in the main, British settlers not the real natives of America.

There are always specific modalities in any genocide.

Perhaps the one that might be unfolding now in the Mediterranean is because the powerful are deploying a Malthusian shrug instead of Puritan swords or Nazi gas.

If the elite who run the European state continue with their no rescue policy and they do not intervene on the high seas to arrest the traffickers then they are, at best, lacking any humanity.

Perhaps their job is made easier when commentators in the media can refer to the pitiable occupants of these death trap boats as “cockroaches”.

Some of my kin on my father’s side made it across the Atlantic in the awful years after ‘Black Forty Seven’.

They survived and made a small corner of Madison County Ohio their own, and two of them wore the blue of the Union in the 10th Ohio Infantry.

In the time of An Gorta Mór the North African Coast was within the Ottoman Empire.

The Sultan of that vast polity sent aid to the starving Irish when he learned about what was happening on this island.

Every person on this planet is either an African or a descendant of an African.

The Riff Valley has been called “the birth canal of humanity”. 

I did finish El Camino in 2010 and it is meant to be a journey of personal discovery that each Pilgrim undertakes on the long road to Santiago.

Perhaps some of those in the media who appear to have lost their humanity on this issue should set out on their own journey.

Then they might understand why, at some point in our lives, all of us need to be rescued.

I intend to be at Murrisk again this summer.

I do not think I will be able to look at John Behan’s creation without thinking of the modern coffin ships in the Mediterranean and why those in power are happy to let this maritime slaughter continue.

Ar scáth a chéile a mhairimíd…

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