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A bit of history: The Great Famine of Ireland

Bridget O'Donnel and her children

I can’t remember what free association web surfing lead me to the history of the Irish Potato Famine of 1845-1851.  Some have referred to it as genocide.  But it is a genocide of a peculiar sort, not necessarily motivated by racism.  Maybe the resentment of the English for the Irish had its roots in the era of Reformation when the Irish stayed with the Roman Catholic church.  Maybe it had something to do with Charles I using the Irish to quash his opponents during the English Civil War.  Maybe Oliver Cromwell’s brutal revenge on the Irish had something to do with the punitive laws that lead to widespread poverty in Ireland distinct from any other country in Europe.  Half of the country was dependent on a single crop, the potato, for sustenance, while the fruits of their labor in service to their absent landlords were shipped away to England.

When the potato blight struck, the effects were devastating and the news of the horror of the famine spread far and wide.  The Choctow native Americans contributed money for the starving in Ireland.  This was not the first failure of the potato crop.  In the late 1700’s, another failure threatened widespread starvation.  But during that crisis, the government ordered the ports closed so that crops and livestock raised in Ireland would be used to ameliorate the conditions of the starving.  No such measures were taken in the 1845 famine.  During the famine years, the Irish exported more food to England than it received.  The landlords’ agents used the famine and loss of rent revenue to throw the tenant farmers off their lands.  Their houses were torn down.  A new law was passed prohibiting a farmer in possession of more than a quarter acre of land from receiving food relief, to prevent him from getting lazy and too dependent on help.  To qualify for food, the farmer had to give up his land.  This further exacerbated the problem.  Farmers couldn’t plant crops without land and that land reverted back to the landlord to be used as pasture for more lucrative livestock.

The suffering from starvation and disease was severe but human kindness was in short supply.  The absent aristocracy, some of whom rarely set foot in Ireland, were spared the gaunt visages of peasants and their dying children making their way to the coasts to board coffin ships for America and Canada.  What counted was how much rent each peasant could bring.  When they couldn’t pay, they were better off dead.  John Mitchel, the blogger of this time wrote, “The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the Famine.”

Lest we forget…

You can make a donation to Feeding America here.

16 Responses

  1. English aristocracy of the 1800’s = the republican party of today.

    • I wouldn’t say that. You can but I wouldn’t.
      I set up a monthly donation to Feeding America last Christmas. Let’s feed some hungry kids so they can go to school and learn and never let it happen again.

  2. Very interesting post. It’s helpful to view the history of what happens to people when a population becomes ” inconvenient” to a stronger force. I’m thinking Native Americans, Warsaw and Gaza as well many others….dare I say the Gulf? The stronger force is relentless in their attempts to destroy the inconvenient, weaker group in the way. If we want to know the powers that be plans for the peons,( us) look to such history . Such history is not dead

  3. Good piece.

    • Edge, the funny part is homosexuals are in their showers and have been since they had showers. think If only they would show even a fraction of this concerned about the problem of women soldiers sexual safety from the straight soldiers…nope.
      That’s a warrior perk

  4. My mother always talked about that famine in terms of how strong the Irish are as a people. Yep. It’s cold out here — who on earth makes things like a gratin in the middle of summer?

    But yesterday I got some potatoes for just that purpose. The old fashioned green grocer I go to is across the street from a baseball park by the ocean. Every time I drive by I see new homeless people of all colors sitting there in clumps or huddled — sleeping under the palms.

    So this place gives you a green paper ticket if you remember to bring your own bag or basket. You get your choice of agency to donate to. I think they give fifty cents? Per ticket. They have these plastic boxes up for all the charities in town from Food Bank to Girl’s Inc. I drop in the ticket to the box of my choosing but sometimes I just stand there not knowing where to place it?

    Because each of the agencies has had so much funding cut. The other day I hung out watching TV all day. There were three movies on about Abe Lincoln. All I could think of was how fab he was. Honest Abe. His speeches? Fab. He was loved. Those houses I was looking at back east? Some of them date from his era. Huge Antebellum mansions for a few hundred thousand. My mom’s fave film was Gone With The Wind and we used to watch it every year.

    I think the country is resembling Lincoln’s era right now — but for much different reasons this time. As the states split apart? You can’t help but wonder…

    It’s amazing to think that some of these predate Lincoln? You almost get an art history lesson from the styles.

    I thought RD would get a kick from the fact that this one is 1836! (in her state)
    Wow. Imagine that. Lincoln was just a young man at that time — and the world was a lot simpler. But nothing changes, as RD has gracefully pointed out. To see that famine you only have to look at the streets in my city circa 2010. Or maybe yours…

    http://www.oldhouses.com/cf/search.cfm

  5. A lot of the hostility of England toward Ireland is based in the stubborn refusal of the Irish to give up their Catholic faith and conform to state-sponsored Protestantism. That goes back to the 16th century, when the English began to expand their presence in the north, and clans such as the O’Donnell made alliances with Catholic Spain, which both supplied priests for oppressed Irish Catholics and served as a refuge for priests, nuns and others forced to flee persecution. It got much worse in the 17th century with overall English occupation under William III. Farmers, of course, were mostly poor–or at least living barely above subsistence level–and almost all Catholic. In the age of British imperialism and “muscular Christianity” they faced oppression on both political and religious fronts. They had no value to the ruling class.

  6. Thank you, RD for remembering this sad history. Much of what’s going on in the Gulf right now echoes the same cold-heartedness of the ruling elite to the plight of the people. Those with the power and money diddle in order to protect their wealth while the people they’ve deemed inferior suffer needlessly.

    There were earlier invasions of Ireland by the Vikings and Normans but it was the English under Henry the VIII who set out to destroy the Irish people. Henry’s goal to eradicate the Irish continued under the rule of Elizabeth I (reign 1558-1603). She “seeded” Ulster with Protestant nobility, fought the nine years war and it has been an occupied country ever since. (The southern counties won their independence in 1921 but the north remains under British rule.)

    That’s 500 years of foreign rule. And yet the Irish fight on. A resilient people to say the least. Thiocfaidh ar lá!

    As always, occupying forces dehumanize those they have subjugated. The English disdained the Irish ostensibly for being papists but, in truth, it was because they wanted their land. The English perception of the Irish as sub-human savages was firmly entrenched in the culture by the time of the famine. There was food enough but it was being shipped elsewhere for profit.

    Please indulge my rather dark mood but I see parallels between current events and the occupation of Ireland and Great Famine. For example, since post Civil War, Southerners are routinely ridiculed for being dumb, crackers, in-bred, uneducated, backwards etc.

    The ruling elite, in this case the oil oligarchy, wants the Gulf to pillage as they please. If only those pesky coastal dwellers would get out of the way. How much easier to effect a land grab if those your taking from are perceived as just plain ignorant and better off elsewhere? Or that really there’s nothing else you can do. It’s an act of nature.

    History shows us this kind of stuff goes on all the time.

    Plus ça change, plus c’est la même choses.

    • corrections:

      … if those you are taking from …

      Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

  7. Food insecurity has indeed increased especially with economic uncertainty. 1 of 4 children is food insecure. & w00t to Feeding America! I work for the food bank in south jersey. AT least NJ only ranks in the 30s or 40s when it comes to hungriest states.

    • I think I heard once that my ancestors (on my dad’s side) were from that area. I’m not sure where my mom’s side were from. Her side was here before the civil war becAuse some of her folks fought in it. I’m probably here because of the famine. My dad’s family was staunch Catholics and I have a feeling they held a long grudge generations later. Some things get passed along in the genes.

  8. The potato famine, and the response of the landlords, had been foretold in part 100 years earlier, when the absentee Scot landlords did roughly the same thing to their highlander peasants. Lowland peasants, in Scotland, Wales and England, suffered the same as well during the ‘inclosure’ period when the previously open Medieval field systems were enclosed and removed from peasant access, if not control. This happened from the 1700s to about 1860.

    All of these things were part of the British Agricultural Revolution which saw the peasants moving to the cities and towns to become factory workers, etc. It’s arguable if this improved their lives one iota. I, personally, doubt it. But then I chose to become a farmer rather than an academic and to live in the country rather than the heart of Philadelphia.

    We small farmers in this country are undergoing some of the same thing, without the famine part (for most of us). We are losing our lands to development, crooked taxing, and laws that force us out in favor of huge agribusiness. Check out S. 510, the ‘food safety’ act, for example. There are provisions in there which could be interpreted as outlawing small farms and farmer’s markets. Or the Animal ID system proposed (several times now) by the USDA. Or any of the farm raids taking place, FBI participating, across the country. The crime? Legally selling raw milk to customers begging for the milk.

    I guess what I’m saying is, the little guy is always getting pissed on by the big guy. Always. Ok, time to go milk the goat and put up my umbrella. 😛

  9. There was racism involved. The Irish spoke a different language (Irish) and were Celts, with not just a different religion but also different folk traditions and beliefs. There are cartoons from the same era depicting Irish immigrants to the US as monkey-type subhuman beings, lazy and with filthy habits, below African Americans on the job ladder. There is rarely subjugation of any people without the portrayal of that group as unworthy of humane treatment. Irish were considered a race and they were treated with racism, in the US and in Ireland, by the occupying British. It is only today that we consider Irish and English as so similar as to be indistinguishable, but even today, someone in England can detect a lingering Irish accent and despise it.

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