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Irish researcher hunts Finnish famine memorials

Irish researcher Andrew Newby is looking for memorials to the Finnish famine that killed some 200,000 people 150 years ago. He says the Finnish famine is much less well-remembered than the Irish one, which could more easily be blamed on an external power.

Luonnonkiveen kiinnitetty kuparireliefi nälkään nääntyvistä ihmisistä. Tekstinä "Näkävuosien 1866–1868 uhrien muistoksi".
Mäntsälän reliefin nälkään kuolleiden muistoksi teki taiteilijaprofessori Heikki Varja. Reliefi on kiinnitetty luonnonkiveen, joka valittiin kahden surunauhoja muistuttavan tumman juovansa vuoksi. Muistomerkki paljastettiin vuonna 1984. Image: Anniina Wallius / Yle

This year marks not just the centenary of Finnish independence but also the sesquicentenary of the great Finnish famine of 1866-68. Several years of cold summers and bitterly cold winters caused successive poor harvests and mass hunger.

Finns were accustomed to a hard life, but from 1866 they began to experience want on a bigger scale than ever before. People left the countryside to find work, beg or even to steal as they lost the means to feed themselves.

Over three years 200,000 people died of famine or diseases that struck down people weakened by lack of food, reducing the Finnish population by about a tenth.

The famine, though, has not played a central role in Finnish history writing. There are memorials here and there, but most contain just a few lines of text. Most often that reads 'give us this day our daily bread', a line from the Lord's Prayer.

On the hunt for memorials

In Ireland things are different. There the famine struck around 20 years earlier than in Finland, and the experience was and remains a central part of Irish identity and history. There are plenty of memorials to the Irish famine, and they are in highly visible locations.

There's even a famine museum, which will in the autumn host an exhibition on the Finnish famine.

Andrew Newby
Andrew Newby has been on the trail of famine memorials in Finland. Image: Anniina Wallius / Yle

Irish researcher Andrew Newby became interested in the differing approaches to famine while traversing the country to follow his son in athletics meets. To pass the time, he rooted around in rural cemeteries, finding the odd famine memorial--and wondering why there were not more of them, as in Ireland.

He's now sought out many of the Finnish memorials that do exist, attempting to map them out. So far he's found 78, and there are pictures of most of them on his Instagram account. There are, he says, glaring differences between the Irish and Finnish approaches to remembering famine.

In the 1800s Finland was an autonomous 'Grand Duchy' under the Russian empire, with broad powers to run its own affairs. Ireland, on the other hand, was a colony of Britain—and Britain was responsible for providing famine relief for the Irish famine.

The famine was therefore used extensively by Irish nationalists to help forge a national identity, as evidence that the Irish were left to fend for themselves when they most needed British help.

Alternative history

Autonomous Finland, on the other hand, had its own government and responsibility for trying to feed the hungry. According to Newby, that's one big reason the Finnish famine does not play as big a role in the history books as its Irish equivalent.

"The same men who wrote Finnish history books were responsible for reacting to the famine," said Newby. "They did not want to blame Russia, but wanted as little to do with Russia as possible."

They wanted to show that Finland did not need Russian help but could stand on its own two feet, according to Newby.

Under the leadership of JV Snellman, who was responsible for the Finnish state budget at the time, the Finnish mark was separated from the Russian rouble and pegged to the silver standard in 1865. Snellman was keen to show the international money markets that Finland was a stable country—and that made him reluctant to borrow money for famine relief.

Even so, Newby is reluctant to blame the nationalist Fennoman government of the time for neglecting to deal with the famine.

"It's easy to say with hindsight that things could have maybe been done differently, but it is still difficult to see how the famine could have been better prevented," said Newby.

Railways as monuments

Famine relief works were necessary in the end, and Finland did start to build canals and railways using labour that had thronged the cities in search of sustenance. Newby has found more than a few memorials to the famine in railway towns.

"The Fennoman rhetoric held that the railways themselves were a memorial," said Newby. "According to them there was no need for statues, because the railway was a monument to the diligent, patient Finnish people and at the same time would be of use to future generations."

Newby also mentions that his research has begun to uncover discordant notes. Some in Helsinki reckoned the rural masses were lazy, saying the countryside labourers should be forced somehow to change their ways.

The roots of the famine lay several years earlier, during the Crimean War, when Britain attacked Finland.

"The British bombed Finland's grain stores on the west coast, destroying the stocks," said Newby. "The first push to relieve hunger was during that time. Recovery was difficult because harvests were poor from then, for about ten years."

Finland was not left to fend for itself during the famine, however. Financial aid came from all corners of Europe, often from private enterprise rather than governments.

"There was help from the British, perhaps because they had a bad conscience over the Crimean War, as well as from the other Nordic countries and the Russian middle class and aristocracy," said Newby. "The Hungarians helped, because they saw the Finns as kin."

Näyttelyjulisteessa on piirroskuva tielle kuolleesta naisesta ja hänen vieressään seisovasta lapsesta; taustalla jono muita nälkäpakolaisia.
The Irish famine museum in Strokestown will this autumn host an exhibition on the Finnish famine. Image: Anniina Wallius / Yle

One possible reason for the different approach is that Finland recovered relatively quickly from the 10-percent drop in population. Ireland lost a million dead and a million emigrated to the Americas, causing the population to fall by about a fifth.

Newby says that Finns might find it easier to view the famine as the labour pain at the birth of a new nation, rather than a crisis caused by external actors.

The Irish academic also notes that maybe Ireland could learn a little from the Finnish approach to the catastrophe.

"The Finnish example shows that a country can have a developed administration which makes its own decisions, and still suffer famine," said Newby. "It could maybe still have been that there was hunger in the west of Ireland even though the government was in Dublin."

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