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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.

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Is it absurd to try to weather the storm?

stormIs it beyond our ken to maintain a noble purpose as we guide our battered ships of state through the dark shadows of this mild squall of an economic crisis? Whom of us will risk life and limb to keep the ships afloat? Who will cast away possessions for the same purpose? Who will act to subvert these sacrifices? How will the storm weather us, as we weather the storm?

I ask these question because these darkling foreshadows are pallid compared to those that will attend the forthcoming Category Six typhoon of environmental collapse. How will that storm weather us, if we weather the storm? Given the tendency of people to adopt default positions in crisis situations, how we perform now, should give us some indication of how we’ll perform in much more dire circumstances.

Curiously, given the introduction, the point of this post is not to delve into the ugliness which portends. The point of this post is to ask the question, “How should we behave when faced with the absurdity that the cultural virtues that we cherish undermine the existential preconditions of our culture?” In other words, what does a wine-inspired poet do, when he finds that greater amounts of drink are fueling his muse, but not curing his cirrhosis and, in fact, killing him?

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