Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: Jonathan Swift

Thinking about the “G”-word

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on March 16 2015

Colman's Column3

“’When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’ ’The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’ ’The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’”

The purpose of language is to convey ideas as succinctly and accurately as possible under the aegis of a common understanding. Definition is crucial. We must define our terms logically, sensibly and consistently if we are to have a productive dialogue – otherwise we are talking at cross-purposes.

Way back in the mists of last century, I worked in the child protection field. The NSPCC (National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children) sent me a report alleging that 50% of girls and 25% of boys under the age of 16 in the UK had been victims of child sexual abuse. This was shocking news. When I analysed the raw data of the NSPCC survey, a different picture emerged. One is horrified at the idea of innocent children being raped. However, one might be less upset at girls encountering a flasher or hormonal boys seeking out pornography. The NSPCC’s definition of sexual abuse of children encompassed consensual sexual relations between teenagers below the legal age of consent and took in the use of obscene language. The NGO was pursuing its fund-raising agenda by propagating sensational statistics, which covered a wide continuum of behaviour. Reading the small print one could see that: “Sexual abuse takes many forms: explicit sexual talk; showing pornography; sexual touching; lack of privacy to bath or undress; masturbation; and sexual intercourse.”

The Northern Provincial Council of Sri Lanka passed a resolution alleging that successive national governments of Sri Lanka have been following a policy of genocide against Tamils in Sri Lanka.

What is genocide? The etymology is hybrid, coming from genos (Greek for family, tribe, or race) and -cide (Latin for killing). Has the entire race of Tamils in Sri Lanka been killed? Has there been any official plan or policy to exterminate Tamils in Sri Lanka? Is Humpty Dumpty a member of the NPC?

The word “genocide” did not exist until 1943. This does not mean that there was no genocide before that date. Many Irish people believe that Oliver Cromwell engaged in genocide. The ground for Cromwell’s actions was prepared under the Tudors in a manifesto written by the poet Edmund Spenser. In his “View of the Present State of Ireland” (1596), Spenser argued that starvation was the best way to control the fractious Irish. Spenser described how the starving Irish population would “consume themselves and devour one another”.

The Irish quite naturally resisted . Cromwell re-conquered Ireland with a death toll of possibly 40% of the entire Irish population. There was wholesale burning of crops and killing of civilians and many were sent to the West Indies as indentured labourers. A recent book, God’s Executioner by Mícheál Ó Siochrú, is a forceful restatement of the prosecution case that Cromwell’s campaign was genocidal. Cromwell’s programme achieved the almost complete dispossession of the Catholic landed elite. The native ruling classes were destroyed and replaced by the Protestant Ascendancy.

There was a plan. Hitler, Mengele and Baldur von Shirach might have learnt a thing or two from Sir William Petty (1623-87) – mathematician, mechanic, physician, cartographer and statistician – who devised a public-private partnership for “fusing science and policy”. Petty explored the idea of breeding the “meer Irish” out of existence by deporting 10,000 Irishwomen of marriageable age to England every year and replacing them with a like number of Englishwomen.”The whole Work of natural Transmutation and Union would in four or five years be accomplished.” Jonathan Swift wrote A Modest Proposal to lampoon Petty’s ideas. Swift suggests that impoverished Irish might profit by selling their surplus children as food for the rich.

Because of the famine that followed the potato blight of 1845, Ireland’s population fell by 25%.  One million people died of starvation and typhus. It may be that dead children were eaten. Millions of Irish people emigrated over the following decades. Some 2.6 million Irish entered overcrowded workhouses where more than 200,000 people died. In his book Three Famines, Thomas Keneally, the Australian novelist who wrote Schindler’s List, quotes a contemporary observer: “Insane mothers began to eat their young children who died of famine before them; and still fleets of ships were sailing with every tide, carrying Irish cattle and corn to England”. The 1911 Census showed that Ireland’s population had fallen to 4.4 million, about half of its peak population.  Broadcaster and historian Robert Kee suggested that the Irish Famine of 1845 is “comparable” in its force on popular national consciousness to that of the “final solution on the Jews,” and that it is not infrequently thought that the Famine was something very like, “a form of genocide engineered by the English against the Irish people”.

Kee mentioned the horror that is the benchmark for genocide in the 20th Century. There is no doubt that Hitler had long had a plan to exterminate all the Jews in Europe and he succeeded in killing six million of them. It is an affront to logic to give the name of genocide both to what happened to the Jews under the Nazis and to what happened to Tamils in Sri Lanka.

Raphael Lemkin (June 24, 1900 – August 28, 1959) coined the word “genocide”. Lemkin was a Jewish Polish lawyer who immigrated to the United States in 1941. He first used the word in print in Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: Laws of Occupation – Analysis of Government – Proposals for Redress (1944), and defined it as “the destruction of a nation or an ethnic group.”

By Lemkin’s original simple definition, it would seem obvious that many Sri Lankan Tamils are using the word genocide incorrectly and mischievously. Whatever heinous crimes may have been perpetrated against Tamils in Sri Lankan the “ethnic group” has clearly not been “destroyed”. According to the 2012 census, there were 2,270,924 Sri Lankan Tamils in Sri Lanka, 11.21% of the population. Sri Lankan Tamils constitute an overwhelming majority of the population in the Northern Province and are the largest ethnic group in the Eastern Province. The current Chief Justice is Tamil and Tamils occupy many senior positions.

Lemkin took an interest in the subject of genocide while studying the killing by Turkish forces of 1.5 million Armenians. In 1913, a triumvirate of Young Turks, consisting of Mehmed Talaat, Ismail Enver and Ahmed Djemal, assumed dictatorial powers and concocted a plan to  create a new Turkish empire, a “great and eternal land” called Turan with one language and one religion. On 24 April 1915, Ottoman authorities rounded up and arrested some 250 Armenian intellectuals and community leaders in Constantinople. There had been prior preparations. In fact, one argument for defining this as genocide is that it had been brewing for at least a century. In 1913, Turks disarmed the entire Armenian population. About forty thousand Armenian men served in the Turkish Army. In the autumn and winter of 1914, all their weapons were confiscated and they were employed as slave labour  to build roads or  used as pack animals. There was a very high death rate. Along the way, they were frequently set upon by Kurdish tribesmen, who had been given license to loot and rape. Kurds are seen today as victims of the Turkish state but they played a major role in the persecution of Armenians.

It is still dangerous in modern Turkey to talk about the genocide. Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk was accused of having violated Section 301 of the Turkish penal code, which outlaws “insulting Turkishness.” An optimistic feature in today’s Turkey is that many non-Armenians are prepared to speak out and many Kurds in particular are taking reconciliatory measures to atone for the crimes of their ancestors.

The simple definition of genocide – the attempt to exterminate an entire race-  has been expanded to cover a continuum that undermines the usefulness of genocide as a concept. Tamils who support the NPC resolution say that it fits the UN convention of 1948. According to that  genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group:

  • killing members of the group;
  • causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
  • deliberately inflicting conditions calculated to bring about its physical destruction;
  • imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
  • forcibly transferring children of this group to another group.

To say that the whole GOSL campaign against the LTTE was a genocide against the Tamil people is just plain wrong. To say that genocide has been going on since 1948 is ludicrous. It does not help victims of real child sexual abuse to bump up the statistics by including minor offences. While dirty talk might be unseemly and inappropriate, it is not the moral equivalent of raping a baby.  Action should be taken against sexual crimes and against violations of human rights. However, racial discrimination is not on a par with the extermination of a race. It does not help victims (Sinhalese and Muslim as well as Tamil) of the GOSL to pretend that Sri Lanka has had a Hitler or a Stalin or a Mao or a Pol Pot or a Cromwell or an Ahmed Djemal. (Although a successful Tamil businessman spoke to me vehemently in those terms about Dickie Jayewardene.)

Martin Shaw is a research professor of international relations at the Institut Barcelona d’Estudis Internacionals and Sussex University best known for his sociological work on war, genocide and global politics. He is a frequent contributor to the website Open Democracy. I asked Professor Shaw about the question of genocide in Sri Lanka but he hedged and prevaricated. Commenters on Open Democracy have been critical of his writings on genocide. “What Shaw and his post-modernist ilk contend is that we should move in the opposite direction and expand definitions to points ad infinitum.”

Dr Rhadhika Coomaraswamy has been described as a brilliant scholar and there is no doubt that she is a doughty champion of human rights. She was the Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations, Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict until 13 July 2012.  She wrote in response to the NPC resolution: “some Tamil nationalist lawyer has suddenly woken up to the fact that if we use the “G” word then there is a legal case for a separate state. This of course is a delusion of theoretical lawyers… Accountability for war crimes and human rights violations is a completely different frame of action than the claim for a separate state”. She continued: “We as a community have had enough of all this name-calling- genocide, traitor, nation- all that is just unnecessary hyperbole at this time in our history. There are so many problems that have to be solved through discussion and dialogue that affect people in their everyday life”.

Dr Coomaraswamy argues that it is time to abandon the victim mentality that lies behind the NPC resolution: “Let us regain our self -respect and our self-confidence, stand tall, look our Sinhalese and Muslim brothers and sisters in the eye, start acting as their equals and begin to build lasting partnerships.”

Reconciliation in Ireland Part 3

This article appeared in The Nation on Sunday August 26 2012


Jonathan Swift wrote A Modest Proposal to lampoon the ideas of William Petty. Swift suggests that impoverished Irish might profit by selling their surplus children as food for rich gentlemen and ladies.

Genocide by Famine?
In his book Three Famines, Thomas Keneally, the Australian novelist who wrote Schindler’s List, quotes a contemporary observer of the Irish famine: “Insane mothers began to eat their young children who died of famine before them; and still fleets of ships were sailing with every tide, carrying Irish cattle and corn to England”.



As a result of the famine that followed the potato blight of 1845, Ireland’s population fell by 25%.  One million people died of starvation and typhus. Millions emigrated over following decades. Some 2.6 million Irish entered overcrowded workhouses where more than 200,000 people died.
The 1911 Census showed that Ireland’s population had fallen to 4.4 million, about half of its peak population. The population of Ireland has never got back to pre-famine levels.


Enforced Monoculture


According to historian Cecil Woodham-Smith, “the unreliability of the potato crop was an accepted fact in Ireland.” In 1851, the Census of Ireland Commissioners recorded 24 failures of the potato crop going back to 1728 of varying severity. In the first two decades of the 18th century, the potato became a base food of the poor because it could be easily stored. The British rulers forced Irish peasants to subsist on a potato diet since a farmer could grow triple the amount of potatoes as grain on the same plot of land. A single acre of potatoes could support a family for a year.


Unnatural Causes of Famine


Under British rule, Irish Catholics were prohibited from entering the professions or even purchasing land. Instead, many rented small plots of land from absentee British Protestant landlords. Half of all landholdings were less than five acres in 1845.
The Earl of Lucan owned over 60,000 acres of land stolen from the indigenous population. Many absentee landlords lived in England where rent revenue was sent collected from impoverished tenants who were paid minimal wages to raise crops and livestock for export.




Rent collection was left in the hands of the landlords’ agents, Gombeen men. This assured the (usually Protestant) landlord of a regular income and relieved them of any responsibility. Gombeen man is a pejorative Hiberno – English term for a shady, “wheeler-dealer” or businessman on the make and take.  Mudalali might be a Sri Lankan equivalent.
The landlords regarded the land as a source of income from which to extract as much money as possible. This caused resentment among the tenants and their hostility encouraged the landlords to stay away, some visiting their property once or twice in a lifetime, or never.
A great mass of evictions came in 1847, although records were not kept until later. Police recorded a total of almost 250,000 persons as officially evicted between 1849 and 1854. Historian James S. Donnelly Jr. believes this to be an underestimate. If those pressured into ‘voluntary’ surrenders were included, the figure would almost certainly exceed half a million. There was little voluntary about tenants being  persuaded to accept a small sum of money to leave their homes, cheated into believing the workhouse would take them in. The Earl of Lucan was one of the worst evictors. He was quoted as saying “he would not breed paupers to pay priests”. After evicting over 2,000 tenants in Ballinrobe, he then used the cleared land for grazing.




Broadcaster and historian Robert Kee suggested that the Irish Famine of 1845 is ‘comparable’ in its force on ‘popular national consciousness to that of the ‘final solution on the Jews,’ and that it is not ‘infrequently’ thought that the Famine was something very like, ‘a form of genocide engineered by the English against the Irish people’.
However, Irish Historian Cormac Ó Gráda disagreed arguing that “genocide includes murderous intent and it must be said that not even the most bigoted and racist commentators of the day sought the extermination of the Irish.”  Ó Gráda thinks that a case of neglect is easier to sustain than that of genocide.


Voodoo Economics and God’s Will


Charles Edward Trevelyan was responsible for ‘relief’ but thought it heretical in terms of religion and economic philosophy. Trevelyan believed the famine had been sent by God “to teach the Irish a lesson. 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.”

In his book Late Victorian Holocausts Mike Davis argues that cyclical weather shocks were survivable in the early 19th century but later, in the golden age of liberal capitalism, they were transmitted directly to the poor through the newly established system of global commodity markets. This was what made the failure of the Irish potato crop so disastrous. It was a man-made disaster.
John Mitchel, one of the leaders of the Young Ireland Movement, wrote the following in 1860: “The British account of the matter, then, is first, a fraud; second, a blasphemy. The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the famine.”
Alex de Waal, author of Famine Crimes, writes: “western nations still preach the fundamentals of a single path to development through integration into the global market. Is not the ghost of Trevelyan stalking Africa?”

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Soap Opera: futility and fertility

Let us not listen to Malthus and “court the return of the plague” just yet.


This article appeared in Ceylon Today on May 28 2014


Colman's Column3



On May 12 2014, the London Independent published an article claiming “research has shown” that chemicals in soap can cause male infertility. Professor Niels Skakkebaek, of Copenhagen University Hospital, said: “For the first time, we have shown a direct link between exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals from industrial products and adverse effects on human sperm function”.

When someone shared the article with me telling me it was “important”, I made the flippant and not very original retort that there were too many people on the planet anyway, so why should male infertility be a problem. I discovered that many people had taken the same line in the paper’s comment thread. Many also repeated the same joke that if men stopped using soap it would not help the fertility rate because they would be too smelly to attract sexual partners.


The sharer told me that Thomas Malthus had, in 1798, recommended that poor people be killed in order to ensure that there was enough food to feed the world. I knew that Malthus had recommended various strategies for limiting population growth, such as contraception, abstinence and later marriages. I had not been aware that he was in favour of extermination. Swift in his Modest Proposal had suggested that the Irish poor should sell their babies to the rich as gourmet meals. This was satire. Swift did not mean it.

My Facebook friend, that gentleman scholar, television personality, wit, raconteur, and all-round good egg, Francis Wheen, pointed me in the direction of a passage which indicated that Malthus was more pro-active than I had thought. As well as adopting a kind of “do not resuscitate” approach, he also suggested putting the poor in harm’s way. In Book IV, Chapter Vof An Essay on the Principle of Population, Malthus wrote:

“Instead of recommending cleanliness to the poor, we should encourage contrary habits. In our towns, we should make the streets narrower, crowd more people into the houses, and court the return of the plague. In the country, we should build our villages near stagnant pools, and particularly encourage settlements in all marshy and unwholesome situations.”

Ironically, Malthus proposes to curb the fertility of the poor by depriving them of soap.

Population Bomb

In his best-selling book of 1968, The Population Bomb, Paul Ehrlich warned “the cancer of population growth must be cut out” or “we will breed ourselves into oblivion.” The world population has continuously grown since the end of the Great Famine and the Black Death in 1350, when it was near 370 million. In America in 1790, women bore an average of 7.7 children. Benjamin Franklin saw children “swarming across the American countryside like locusts.”From 1750 to 1950, global population increased from one billion to two and a half billion. According to the UN Population Fund, the total reached seven billion on October 31 2011.

The population bomb might be a damp squib. Today there are concerns that not enough babies are being born. When I worked for the Social Security Advisory Committee way back in the last century, we were even then scratching our heads about the time bomb of we baby-boomers living to grand old ages and being a burden on the state at the same time that numbers of workers were falling. In 1955, there were nine American workers to support each Social Security recipient. Today there are three. By 2030, the number is expected to be two.

So we are today in that peculiar situation where over-population is straining the globe’s resources, at the same time that fertility rates are falling below replacement level. Look at World Population Prospects: the 1996 Revision, a reference book published by the UN.

Declining TFRs

In his book, What to Expect When No One’s Expecting, Jonathan Last argues that demographic trends will undermine America’s competitive position in the world. The aging of the population will bankrupt the retirement system or divert spending from other priorities, or lead to an increase in taxes. It will weaken America’s capacity to project military power in the world because families with few offspring will be reluctant to sacrifice them in battle. It will diminish the proportion of innovators in the economy and lower America’s rate of economic improvement.

British environmental journalist, Fred Pearce, argues that we are heading not for exponential population growth, but a slow, steady decline. In his book, The Coming Population Crash: and Our Planet’s Surprising Future, Pearce argues that children will become a rare sight and middle-aged culture will replace youth culture. For Pearce, environmentalists’ scaremongering about overpopulation transfers the blame to poorer people when the real problem is overconsumption in the US and Europe. Over breeding is almost entirely in countries with a very low per-capita footprint on the planet. The carbon emissions of one American are the same as that of 20 Indians, 30 Pakistanis, 40 Nigerians and 250 Ethiopians.

Population growth continues but it will stabilize. TFR in Somalia is 7.0. For Eastern Africa as a whole, TFR is 5.7. Western Africa (5.9) and Middle Africa (6.3) have high TFRs. In Muslim Tunisia, over three decades the rate has fallen from 7.2 to 2.9.Birth rates even in Africa and Asia are falling. Indian women are having fewer than three children on average. Around the world, fertility rates have halved.


For the world as a whole, the TFR (Total Fertility Rate) is 2.7. Much of North America, Northern and Western Europe, as well as Australia, are at below-replacement fertility (a TFR of less than 2.1). Eastern and Southern Europe are very low fertility regions with TFRs averaging at 1.3. Italy, a Catholic country, has a fertility rate of 1.2. The demographer Antonio Golini says such rates are “unsustainable.” By the year 2060, Europe will have lost 24 percent of its people.

Making Babies

During the early 1970s, several Asian countries including Sri Lanka, experienced steady declines in fertility. The TFRin Singapore declined dramatically from 6.4 in the 1950s to 2.6 in 1975. Even though the total fertility rate for Asia as a whole is 2.3, there are regional variations. In 2006, the TFR for the East and North-East Asian region was well below replacement level at 1.7 births per woman. The TFR for South and South-West Asia is three births per woman, while in South-East Asia, the total fertility rate is 2.3. The TFR of Macao, which was already low at 1.5 in 1995 declined further to 0.8 by 2005.


Old in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka will have to face the challenge of a growing elderly population. Sri Lanka’s fertility levels began to decline during the early 1960s. TFR fell from 5.32 children per woman in 1953 to 3.45 in 1981, dropping further to 2.26 during the 1988-93 period and to 1.96 in 1995-2000.


A person reaching the age of 60 years can expect to live another 20 years. There needs to be a welfare system for the elderly. There will more elderly widowed women and fewer children to care for them.


There are policies that influence fertility directly by offering direct cash incentives to families with children. Studies show that in OECD countries, the level of family cash benefits is positively correlated with total fertility rates, but the relation is weak. Studies have shown that there is a strong positive correlation between tax exemptions and fertility.


The Sri Lankan government has introduced several policy measures to improve the status of women and children. Maternity leave enables mothers to care for their babies during the first year of their lives. Plantation companies provide childcare facilities to women who have pre-school children. It is necessary that policies be in place to enable women to return to the workforce following childcare responsibilities without loss of accrued benefits.

In his book The Birth Dearth, published in 1987 Ben Wattenberg argued: “Eventually, demography blends into psychology. There is likely to be a lot more personal sadness ahead. There will be missing children and missing grandchildren.” The demographer Nicholas Eberstadt, writes that “we may live in “a world in which the only biological relatives for many people — perhaps most people — will be their ancestors.” Many people will be without brothers or sisters, uncles, aunts or cousins, children or grandchildren — lonelier people.


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