NN-one who has followed the tragedy that has unfolded in Ukraine since the unprovoked Russian invasion could fail to be moved, intellectually or viscerally.
One might suppose a historian would, by virtue of his or her study of past events of a similar nature, be better able than most to process such developments in a calm, detached manner. The reality has been different.
I frankly confess that nothing in my training, or years of teaching and research, has prepared me to cope with this awful spectacle in any rational, measured way. It has been a sobering, disturbing discovery.
Two aspects of the crisis, however, have struck me as being particularly significant from a historical perspective. Both have Irish, and specifically Cork, overtones, and both are worth exploring in a little depth, the better to gain some meaningful perspective of the significance of what is transpiring in the east.
The first is the enormous number of terrified civilian refugees - grandparents, mothers, young children, the sick and disabled - who have been driven from their homes by the fear of being caught in the fighting, and sought refuge in neighbouring countries. The second is the overwhelming sense of patriotism that has swept over the country, manifested most obviously in the popular resistance - passive and active - to the Russian aggression.
I shall briefly come back to the first of these points later, but if one wishes to comprehend why Ukrainian identity in the face of a threat emanating from Moscow has proven to be such a powerful motivating force, one must, as always, go back into history, specifically the events of 1932-3 - the years of the ‘Holodomor,’ the Terror Famine that killed 3-5 million people in the country in months, and which has, since 2006, been officially recognised by the Ukrainian state, and others, as an act of genocide against the Ukrainian people.
The historical debate concerning the origins of the crisis - which was not restricted to Ukraine, but which affected it to a disproportionate extent - is wide-ranging, but two schools of thought stand out. The more benign suggests the deaths were the unintended consequence of the application in inhuman ways of the policy of the collectivisation of agriculture by the Soviet Government in Moscow. More malign, but more widely-held, is the view Joseph Stalin was so determined to stymie the growth of Ukrainian nationalist sentiment, he was prepared to deliberately kill millions of ordinary Ukrainians in this, the most depraved manner imaginable, the better to convey to the survivors the importance of toeing Moscow’s line.
No-one with even the most elementary knowledge of the explanations regarding the origins of Ireland’s own Great Famine, An Gorta Mór, can fail to be struck by the similarities of the two catastrophes in this regard. But it is not in the abstract, rather rarefied academic discussions of historical causation wherein lies the real significance of the two famines in the history of the respective nations, rather in the nightmarish shared lived reality of inexorable, debilitating, debasing mass starvation, and its enduring imprint on their respective historical consciousness - if you will, on their national souls.
In this respect, consider just two descriptions - one Irish, one Ukrainian - of what famine meant ‘on the ground’ - quite literally.
The first, taken from the Illustrated London News of February 13, 1847, describes the situation in Skibbereen: “I saw the dying, the living and the dead, lying indiscriminately upon the same floor, without anything between them and the cold earth, save a few miserable rags upon them... not a single house out of 500 could boast of being free from death and fever, though several could be pointed out, with the dead lying close to the living for the space of three or four, even six days, without any effort being made to remove the bodies.”
The second is a translation of a fragment of a report on April 12, 1933 by the Polish Consul General, regarding the situation in Kharkiv city and its rural hinterland: “All illnesses, mainly typhus, spread throughout the entire country, claiming thousands of victims for whom there is no treatment since even in... Kharkiv, there is a shortage of the most basic disinfectants and medicines... Some villages, … which had 1,000 inhabitants, have become totally deserted and now have some 150-200 people. The people feed mainly on makukha (sunflower seeds) and potato peels; they eat dogs, cats, dead horses, and acts of cannibalism occur more and more often.”
Similar contemporary accounts from both countries sadly exist in abundance.
To me, as a historian, it is no coincidence that the same county of Cork that had witnessed such horrors should have nurtured in its native sons and daughters - the grandchildren of those who died during An Gorta Mór - such an overwhelming sense of patriotism (borne partly out of understandable bitterness but primarily out of pride of place) so as to lead them to take up arms during the War of Independence, to drive out British rule, which was rightly blamed for the Famine, and to assert the right of the Irish people to govern themselves, according to their lights.
For precisely the same reason, and to return to the second point mentioned at the outset, it should equally come as no surprise to find the citizens of Ukraine - the grandchildren of those who died during the Holodomor - are, having been shaped by similar historical trauma, willing to voluntarily serve their country, even until death, to assert the right of the Ukrainian people to govern themselves, according to their lights, without external interference.
Finally, to return to my first point, that of the Cork frame of reference for the Ukrainian refugees now departing their native land in their hundreds of thousands. When seeing the heart-rending scenes being played out at Polish border checkpoints with Ukraine, with fathers and young men being forced to say tearful good-byes to their elderly parents, and to their wives and children - some babes in arms, some as yet unborn - before returning to the fight, not knowing if they will ever meet their loved ones again, I instinctively thought of the port of Cobh, again during the years of the Famine, above all in Black ‘47. Many, many, Irish families were confronted with the same cruel necessity as many, many Ukrainian families now - to flee precipitously, with scarcely their clothes on their back and with what possessions they could carry in their bare arms, to what they hoped would be safe havens in New York, Boston, Chicago and a myriad of other places in the New World.
Is it too much to believe a small proportion of those now being forced to leave Ukraine at the point of a gun might, in turn and if they so wish, find their safe havens, in Douglas, Cobh, Carrigaline, Mallow, Youghal, and Skibbereen, and in all four corners of the rebel county?
Knowing the dizzying heights scaled in war by their forebears 100 years ago, I have no doubt that their descendants can, in peace, climb to the top of the mountain of human warmth and international solidarity.
“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in.”