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Replay: The Great Potato Famine

I wrote this a couple of years ago in anticipation of the day when the landlords and plutocrats decide to take everything that isn’t legally nailed down.  They’re busily prying up the rest with generous campaign contributions and they will continue to take as long as we don’t defend ourselves.  What’s theirs is theirs and what’s yours is theirs.

Well, it’s just our misfortune to be born poor or not have wealthy fathers who leave us everything in the will.  Or maybe it’s because we don’t work hard enough- in unpaid internships.

There was a study released recently that said pessimists live longer.  I don’t consider myself a pessimist because sooner or later, this will all turn around.  Like Dorothy, we have always had the power to go home, to hit the reset button.  There’s no reason why 300,000,000 people have to put up with being treated badly.

But first we must recognize that bad things *can* happen here.  Oh, yes they would cut your social security benefits even if you’re 74.  Just because they swear they’re going to stop with the people who are under 55 doesn’t mean they’ll actually stop.  Besides, generational warfare is just what they want.  The under 55’s will soon resent paying for someone else’s retirement while they have decades of debt and diminished wealth to look forward to.

What Americans are failing to comprehend that to the wealthy and well connected, the rest of us merit no more consideration than the starving Irish or the flooded Bangladeshis.  Our suffering is remote.  You might as well board a coffin ship and decrease the surplus population.

Optimism does not serve the American people well right now.  We are threatened and they mean business. As Savita Subramanian said today in the NYTimes, “the market wants more austerity.”

I hear the echo of the English bureaucratic Census Commission of 1851 in Subramanian’s words:

“In conclusion, we feel it will be gratifying to your excellency to find that although the population has been diminished in so remarkable a manner by famine, disease and emigration between 1841 and 1851, and has been since decreasing, the results of the Irish census of 1851 are, on the whole, satisfactory, demonstrating as they do the general advancement of the country.”

**********************************************

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.