The statistical evidence presented in David McWilliams’ column in the Financial Times would have confounded the man’s absurd arguments, not that he would have listened, not that he ever listened.
It was in the summer of 2010 that I first met him. Stepping out the front door of where he lived, I had turned and commented that the weather was bad; especially bad for the time of year.
“It’s because of badness,” he said.
“Sorry?” Did I really hear him?
“My father always told me that Ireland had done so many bad things that it would always be punished.”
On one occasion, during a wet winter, he shared his opinion with a Catholic neighbour. “This bad weather is God’s judgement on Ireland for throwing out the English.”
The neighbour had been quick to respond. “Then why are there floods in England?”
When it was pointed out to him that if England were so virtuous, it seemed odd that it had so many problems, there had been no response.
It was a shock to discover that in the 21st Century there were still people who believed the country to be under some sort of national judgement. This was the stuff of the 1840s. Charles Trevelyan, Assistant Secretary at the British Treasury during the years of the famine wrote:
The judgement of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson, that calamity must not be too much mitigated. …The real evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the Famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people.
Trevelyan saw the famine as punishment for a failing in the national character. Protestant evangelist Edward Nangle saw the famine as divine punishment for much more specific actions:
The Government resolve to endow in a permanent form the fountain-head of Popery in Ireland — the Royal (?) College of Maynooth. The Universal Protestantism of Great Britain and Ireland revolts, and with a million and a half voices deprecates the measure. This is of no avail. The miserable minority of men in power accomplish this infatuated purpose. It is done ; and in that very year, that very month, the land is smitten, the earth is blighted, famine begins, and is followed by plague, pestilence, blood! The work of encouragement to Popery proceeds; the essentially Popish Board of Irish National Education has been doubly, trebly endowed and chartered; the Popish priesthood are flattered, and unconstitutional, illegal titles are heaped upon the Hierarchy. A state endowment is lavishly offered to them, and, parallel with all this, pestilence grows and increases, famine spreads, civil war and rebellion stalk through Ireland.
It almost defies belief that anyone who claimed to believe in the preacher of the Sermon on the Mount could see the death of a million innocent people as a reasonable outcome of God being cross at the Government giving money to the college at Maynooth. What sort of God could so entirely miss the target of Nangle’s wrath and instead hit hapless men, women and children? What sort of God would let them die crossing the Atlantic? What sort of God would have allowed the infection and the fever of the ports they reached?
This is the logic that still persists in religious fundamentalism; the sort of reasoning that argues God causes disasters and sends catastrophes. If that is the case, why does God not hit those he dislikes directly? It is perverse thinking.
The Financial Times figures showed Irish people to be 25% more wealthy than their English counterparts – having lived in both jurisdictions I can vouch for their veracity.
If the idea that Ireland was being punished was pursued and that bad weather and poverty were a judgement for badness, then fine weather and wealth must similarly also be a judge, and God must be construed as being pleased with all the changes of recent years. How would Nangle have explained the prosperity?