Contribution by Donal O’Kelly at the Famine Walk 2024

‘On Thursday I heard Palestinian writer Adania Shibli, banned from receiving her prize at Frankfurt Book Fair, talk about how her parents kept silent about what they endured in the Nakba of 1948. It took her thirty years to realise they couldn’t talk about it. As humans we find it hard to talk about the memory of being rendered powerless.

In May 1849 in Doolough 100 people weakened by hunger and forced displacement in search of food died on the road from Delphi Lodge to Louisburgh.

At the same time young Scot James Redpath got a job in the New York Tribune. Redpath made a career for the next decade documenting the injustices of the slave plantation system in the Southern US states, at great personal risk.

After the US Civil War, he took administrative roles in the 12-year period from 1865 known as Reconstruction, when the Black population of America hoped equality could be attained. By 1878 the Jim Crow apartheid era ruled in the Southern USA and lynch law became a constant threat for Black Americans.

James Redpath arrived in Ireland in 1880, 30 years after An Gorta Mór. People were starting to realise how their parents had been rendered powerless by landlordism. One evening he was in County Mayo, in the village of The Neale, between Ballinrobe and Cong, where Lord Erne’s agent, Captain Charles Boycott, served eviction notices on eleven families. The families sought and got the backing of the newly-formed Land League. Redpath was with Father John O’Malley, parish priest of The Neale.

Redpath was looking for a word to describe the shunning of landlords and their agents. Social ostracism wouldn’t do. Then O’Malley said ‘how would it do to call it to Boycott him’? The New York Tribune had the word ‘boycott’ from Mayo on its front page next day.

Boycott was a new word, but the strategy had been used before. The first of modern times was the sugar ban, an organised movement mainly by English women in the 18th century to stop the household consumption of sugar supplied by slavery in the Caribbean.

In 1887 Arthur Balfour embarked on his imperialist political career by introducing his Irish Coercion Act with the aim of destroying the Irish Land League boycott movement. It introduced concepts such as:-
• Hard labour without trial for three months, renewable thereafter, for anyone found on the word of a magistrate to be involved in boycott;
• imposition of martial law and collective punishment on any area where land agitation took place, described as ‘outrages’ by the government;
• Unlike other emergency legislation, it was made permanent so that it covered Black and Tans to engage in terror with legal impunity 1920-21.

In 1922 200 Black-and-Tans were transferred to the British Mandate for Palestine. A version of Balfour’s 1887 Irish Coercion Act was introduced to subdue Palestinian Arabs. This culminated in the brutal suppression of the Palestinian uprising of the 1930s.

In 1933 the Nazis came to power in Germany. The American Jewish US Veterans’ Association organised a global boycott of German produce in protest against the anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws introduced by Hitler:- dockers refused to unload German exports; massive rallies took place, countries cancelled shipments; the entire Bosch sales order for South America vanished. The German government was set to fall from power.

What saved the Nazis? Zionism did. The leaders of the German Zionist movement made an agreement with Hermann Goering to oppose the boycott in return for the right of German-Jewish emigrants to transfer property to Palestine and food trade from Zionist settlements in Palestine. This destroyed the global movement behind the boycott of Germany, resulting in more anti-Semitic legislation and the mass transportation to Nazi death camps of more than six million European Jews, as well as Roma, Sinti, LGBTQ and Communists. The settlements in Palestine became by violent repression and mapping manipulation the state of Israel in 1948, destroying 500 Palestinian villages and expelling three-quarters of a million Palestinians.

The Israeli leaders know from history that boycotts work. That is why they invest so much in opposing BDS in the US, the EU and the UK. They know that Israel’s long-time ally for more than forty years, apartheid South Africa, was brought down in significant part by the power of boycott. Not least, by the refusal of the twelve Dunnes Stores strikers of Dublin to handle South African apartheid goods. All the Dunnes Stores strikers support the Palestinian call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions on Israel.

37 US States have introduced laws against the Palestinian demand for BDS. Germany has outlawed BDS activism, and the UK are introducing legislation. The policy making elite know that mass boycott has a significant effect on the downfall of apartheid regimes and those built on slavery.

Itamar Ben-Givr, Israeli Justice Minister uses as his catch-phrase ‘We are the masters of this house’. The advocates of structural inequality are determined to maintain the Zionist state as the manifestation of supremacist ideology. They must be defeated as South African apartheid was.

I encourage everybody to sign up for BDS activism. The Mayo IPSC stall is down the back of the hall. There are sign-up sheets. It is one concrete action we can take to support the people of Palestine, and Gaza in particular at present, in their struggle for parity of esteem. It’s the struggle of humanity. It’s the duty of us all to join in that struggle. That’s the minimum. You don’t have to stop at that. Disrupt, occupy, block, interfere, protest, let no business as usual continue – hear the voices of Gaza now! Let’s not wait to interpret with difficulty future silence. Let’s walk today in active memory of those rendered powerless in Doolough in 1849, as two-and-a-half million Palestinians of Gaza face the same genocidal threat as took through death and exile a quarter of the population of Ireland in An Gorta Mór. Resist!’

Donal O’Kelly is a Dublin-born writer, performer and activist who has been involved in many Afri projects over the years since the Dunnes Stores anti-apartheid strike in Dublin in 1984. He considers the genocidal attack on the Palestinian people a culmination of the repressive forces operating since then, such as the arms industry of the rich white world, the beneficiary in money and political infuence of the slaughter in Gaza. He is writing a book on twenty-five years of Direct Provision in Ireland and the criminalisation of migration.

Photo by Larysa Karankovich


Published by