'Cannibalism and the Irish', by Ultan Banan. Ruminations on written history.

Cannibalism and the Irish

I came across an article recently about the ill-fated trip of James Jameson – son of whiskey magnate, John Jameson – into the Congo in the late 19th century. A harrowing tale, for those of you unfamiliar with it, it goes something like this: In 1888, James ‘Sligo’ Jameson joined an expedition into the Congo with Henry Morton Stanley, the Welsh colonial hatchet man for King Leopold II of Belgium (surely one of the most insidious cunts of the 19th century). The undertaking had as a cover some expedition of ‘relief’, the real reason for it being the expansion of Leopold’s colonial empire in the Congo. During the expedition, Jameson chanced upon a remote tribe in the midst of a ceremony of which it was said would be concluded with a feast of human flesh. Intrigued, he spurred them on with the purchase of a ten-year-old girl for the price of six handkerchiefs, the girl then knifed and dismembered and cooked before their eyes. Jameson had the wherewithal to sit and make sketches of the event, bless him, for posterity.

This, I presume, was the only Irish legacy in the Congo, until a few years later when Roger Casement (who also worked with Morton Stanley, incidentally) lifted the lid on European brutality in Africa and instigated the retreat of Belgian policies in the Congo basin.    

I relate the incident now, I think, as someone who has featured cannibalism in his novels. Not that I’m intrigued in the practice as an anthropological curiosity. In my first novel, cannibalism became my metaphor for dehumanisation, but by the second had perhaps morphed into something else.

Ireland itself has no great history with cannibalism, but there are a handful of documented instances of it during the many Irish periods of hunger. The Irish population in the early 1840s was over eight million. Only a generation later, due a devastating famine and gross misintervention by the British colonists, the population had fallen to about fifty per cent of that number (and remains around there to this day). Many left, others stayed and fought to survive, large numbers of them dying in the attempt.

One of the documented instances reports a husband and wife from Galway, who, in 1848, after being dismissed from the workhouse and driven into poverty and starvation, were arrested after stealing a calf and transported to jail in Clifden. Upon incarceration, the husband related to the jailer that his wife had become so hungry and desperate, that after the death of three of their four children, the wife had cut the feet from one of the corpses and eaten them.   

Yet another report from 1849 tells of an episode, once again in the West of Ireland, wherein a man ate the heat and liver of a shipwrecked corpse. There seems to be some confusion as to whether the man in question was actually starving, or in fact was merely ‘a man of singularly voracious appetite’. Cause when you’re hungry, right?

Colonial Agendas

Other than these extreme examples, it is not my belief that Ireland has, or has ever had, a history of cannibalism. Racist history, however, paints a different picture. The Elizabethans had a few tales to tell about the Irish, which naturally depicted them as filthy, degenerate beast-men. Edmund Spenser was fond of outlandish yarns:

. . . the Gauls used to drink their enemies’ blood and paint themselves therewith. So also they write that the old Irish were wont. And so have I seen some of the Irish do but not their enemies’ but friends’ blood as namely at the execution of a notable traitor at Limerick called Murrogh O’Brien. I saw an old woman which was his foster mother take up his head whilst he was quartered and sucked up all the blood running thereout, saying that the earth was not worthy to drink it, and therewith also steeped her face, and breast, . . . crying and shrieking out most terrible.”

Perhaps there’s truth in it, there’s no way of knowing, but it doesn’t take away from the fact that such tales were used as justification for the genocide of the native population of Ireland on the basis that they were savage, devoid of civilised morality, in much the same way that stories of native Americans tearing the beating hearts from the chests of their victims was used for the decimation of Latin America by the Spanish and Portuguese. No doubt Columbus felt a little bit better about his genocide of the native Indians of the Caribbean, since those filthy animals were eating their own babies, true story.

In relation to Ireland, the Elizabethans were quick to pick up on earlier, ancient depictions of Hibernia. In Geographia, the Greek philosopher Strabo (who to my knowledge never visited Ireland, but drew on predecessors such as Pytheas of Massalia) wrote: “Concerning this island [Ireland] I have nothing certain to tell, except that its inhabitants are more savage than the Britons, since they are man-eaters.”

Well, the Brits just loved that. It paved the way for men like Cromwell only a few years later to step in and wage destruction across the island, burning cities with the men and women still inside.

As an interesting aside, I was, myself, teaching a summer language course in a very prestigious and highly regarded grammar school in England only a few years go. It was a residential post, and all of the teachers were assigned a dormitory each for the duration of the course. The dormitories were named after famous Brits, those held in the highest esteem in the history of Great Britain. Churchill was one (another high up on the Big List of Insidious Cunts). Nelson, another. Cromwell had his own dormitory too, go figure. The organiser of the language course, in her delightful ignorance, decided that I, an Irishman, would be spending three weeks in the Cromwell room. Just goes to show, that history has many faces.

As a relic of humanity’s ancient past, I have only a passing interest in the act of cannibalism, but regard it as a mere footnote to the acts of barbarity perpetrated in the name of the advancement of ‘modernity’ and ‘enlightenment’. When it comes to barbarity and savagery, more often than not it comes hiding beneath the cloak of civility.      

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 ‘Cannibalism and the Irish’, by Ultan Banan. Please note: flash fiction, nonfiction and all other content is the sole work of Black Tarn. Ask before republishing.

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