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Rupert, Guinness and the Potato Famine


Happy Saint Paddy’s Day!

In honor of this day, Rupert Murdoch is promoting Guinness in a reverse psychology PSA.  I had almost completely forgotten about stocking up today so, thanks, Rupert, for reminding me that Guinness is standing up for equality.


Timothy Egan, author of The Worst Hard Time, wrote an Op/Ed in the NYTimes this past weekend on Paul Ryan’s Irish Amnesia.  Egan says that Ryan has adopted the same attitudes towards the poor as the British politicians that let the Irish starve during the 1840’s.  It’s an attitude that a lot of older white conservative voters, who don’t have a clue about what it’s like to find a job these days, are thinking and saying about the less fortunate.  It’s an attitude of harshness, lacking in compassion and kindness.  It is absent of the values they once held dear.  It’s judgmental and narcissistic.  (more on that in another post)

But Egan is wrong when he says that Irish historian John Kelly was the first to pick up on the similarities between the Famine Years and The Great Recession.  I picked up on it back in 2010.  So, here’s my reprise of that post that I wrote back then when it dawned on me that America was getting ready to go full blight:

A bit of history: The Great Famine of Ireland

Posted on July 11, 2010 by riverdaughter | Edit
Bridget O’Donnel and her children

I can’t remember what free association web surfing lead me to the history of theIrish 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.

6 Responses

  1. A song about the time of Trevelyan’s power over Ireland, sung by Rachel Fitzgerald

  2. It’s worth noting that Ireland was occupied by the English for a long time, often brutally. Cromwell did quite a number on the country in the 1660’s. English troops in Ireland dated back to at least the 1100’s. The affect of that occupation was long lasting. The Irish problems with authority were cultural as well as historical. Protection came through the system with the traditional jobs of policeman and fireman . My mother’s side of the family is Irish and my grandfather worked as a fireman.

    Another protection was political. Irish politicians quickly became congressmen and mayors in the mid 1800’s. This tradition continued well into the twentieth century with John McCormick, Tip O’Neill, the Daleys and to a lesser extent the Kennedys. Forty years ago Paul o’Dwyer regularly ran for major offices in New York City and, IIRC, once for state-wide office. One of the first of these politicians was Dan Sickles, a New York City congressman who became one of the heroes of the Battle of Gettysburg. In an impossibly picturesque life, Sickles found his best friend, Phillip Key (the son of Francis Scott Key) in bed with his wife. Sickles shot and killed the man but became a social outcast by not only sparing his wife but also repairing the marriage. His lawyer got Sickles acquitted by pioneering the defense of temporary insanity. There’s also something about Sickles’ leg being buried separately.

    Ironically, (and partly due to the Depression) my mother’s upbringing was an economic drag on her children. My brother and I both had problems with authority but were steered towards jobs with the government or big employers. He had a law degree from UVa and I had an MBA from Harvard but we each underachieved. it wasn’t enough to cripple us but it certainly limited the upside.

  3. The English were teaching the Irish the value of austerity; that is, austerity for thee but not for me.
    Who can blame the citizens of Crimea for wanting to jump (back) on the Russian oil/gravy train and telling Ukraine and Europe take your austerity shit sandwich and shove it up your dupa.

  4. The suffering from starvation and disease was severe but human kindness was in short supply… What counted was how much rent each peasant could bring. When they couldn’t pay, they were better off dead.

    Sounds like the attitude of today’s right wingers towards the poor.

    • I think we can say that the British Overlords of the time took advantage of the potato blight to stage a Holodomor.

  5. When I think of the 1990s and the mighty Celtic Tiger, I could weep.

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