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Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Irish Famine? Not so much...

Like so many of my entries on this blog, this one will not even begin to scratch the surface of the topic. I'm only trying to give you a diving board - the pool's there if you feel like a dip. I'll try to include some quick links at the bottom, in case you're feelin' froggy. I'll also link some of my references (sorry if you think wikipedia is a bad source...look somewhere else, and you'll probably find the same info, less concisely stated.)

Who remembers middle school history? I recently found out that someone I know teaches 7th grade Texas history. She told me that when most people find out what she does for a living, the standard response is "Oh, I'm sorry." I have caught myself saying that exact thing before, so I wasn't too surprised (poor middle schoolers - as if life isn't hard enough for them, they are automatically written off as the most challenging age group). Regardless of whether or not it's an unfair stereotype, I think it would be quite an uphill battle to teach some of the standard history curriculum, because I am beginning to notice that "standard" doesn't necessarily mean "accurate."

I grew up in North Carolina, where the history of the horrors brought upon the Cherokee during the tail end of the "Trail of Tears" was downplayed until high school. Not exactly fare for a 4th grader, I suppose, but it was very confusing to feel that everything I was taught was so insufficient when I learned the whole story a few years later. After all, no one spared me from the evils of the Nazis during the Holocaust. There are other "misleadings" of our education. I was scandalized to find out that my Government teacher in 9th grade didn't believe that the lunar landing had ever happened (as it turns out, some estimates state that 1 out of every 4 Americans think the film was made on a sound stage). And let's not even going into the whole "magic bullet" discussion.

I think I first heard about the "Great Potato Famine of Ireland" in 5th or 6th grade. I remember political drawings of starving mothers with countless children and a lot of talk about the word blight (look it up in the glossary in the back, then answer the questions on pg. 67). Oh shoot, I'll do the busy work for you.

Irish Famine Cartoon, pretty standard.
blight. n : a disease or injury of plants marked by the formation of lesions, withering, and death of parts (as leaves and tubers)

famine. n : an extreme scarcity of food

I recently stumbled across a Facebook page called "Irish Holocaust- Push to Educate the Facts." Although the info section is clear that the forum is not tolerant of any bigotry or racism against the British, they have made it their mission to change the way we think about and remember this aspect of history. I think they put it best when they say, 
"Is i gcás ina mbeidh neart bia ann, ní fhéidir go mbeadh aon ghorta ar chor bith."
Where there is plenty of food, there can be no famine at all
Another drawing. They're countless. 
To put it very quickly (see my italicized paragraph at the top), here's how to break down the miseducation:
The "Great Famine" was not caused by blight. The disease that struck the potato crop was not the sole, or even main, contributor to the 750k deaths and 1 million forced emmigrations (by the most conservative estimates). If the Irish people had other sources of food, they could have relied on those crops. They simply did not. Why?

No other food. The penal laws placed on the Irish by Colonial England essentially made it impossible for Irishmen to grow any crop other than potatoes. If the plant/livestock wasn't prohibited by law, another law forbade anything but the export of the goods. The limited land the Irish actually had was devoted to the one crop that could grow at 3 times the rate of others. When the potatoes failed, Hunger simply had to sweep in and take what was hers.

No right to land to grow food.  Because 95% of Irish land was owned by the British Ascendency Class, those who worked the land were forced into poverty in the deepest sense of the word. Their absentee landlords paid their Irish tenants rock-bottom wages to grow crops and raise livestock for export, while they retained all revenue. Men worked the land and yielded a product that they could never eat. The Irish farmer was already set up for failure long before his potatoes were rotting.

Left: British Protestant, Right: Irish Catholic
No place in civilized society. Though 80% of the Irish population at the time of the "famine" were Catholic, the bigotry against this demographic both locally and in Mother England was atrocious. When the colony was in trouble, there was no sympathy from the only source of help. On the contrary, the workhouses provided as aid to the dying Irish actually account for an estimated 26% of Irish deaths during this period.

Obviously, if this is a point of history where there are differing opinions on the cause, there are a lot of biased sources out there. What I have found leads me to believe that, for the most part, what I was taught about the Irish dying because of a fungus on their crops was only the final checkmate on a long and painful chess match between the poor Catholic farmer and his British landlord, who believed him to be less than human. There are some really angry sources of information out there - but can you blame them? I am not in any way promoting a British hatred, vengeance, or retribution. They were probably equally victims to the structure of their society as the dying children of Eire. But if it's true - if it was an inevitable genocide after years of suppression and the worst kind of discrimination - I think it's worth a second look. After all, we all have our dark times (American's Trail of Tears and the Nazi-driven Holocaust barely scratch the surface). But what is that old cliche about history being doomed to repeat itself? Perhaps we need a re-education.

I'll end with a lyrical conclusion, from a popular song during this dark time:
Weary men, what reap ye? Golden corn for the stranger.
What sow ye? Human corpses that wait for the avenger.
Fainting forms, Hunger—stricken, what see you in the offing
Stately ships to bear our food away, amid the stranger's scoffing.
There's a proud array of soldiers—what do they round your door?
They guard our master's granaries from the thin hands of the poor.
Pale mothers, wherefore weeping? 'Would to God that we were dead—
Our children swoon before us, and we cannot give them bread.

Some resources for a quick touch on this subject:

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Reminds me of my best friend, teaching his then small boys to play baseball by throwing walnuts into the air, then knocking them firmly into the field behind his house while enthusiastically exclaiming "just pretend they're the bloody English, boys!"

Bigotry is an ugly thing and this, and the vicious British colonialism of the 19th century, are long passed and paid for in the UK's decline, but we should never forget. Even as we rinse and repeat.

Erin B. said...

Beautifully said, Anonymous.

Jason B. said...

We should tip-toe carefully so as not to hate the British, but we must always remember. There are millions of people in America claiming Irish heritage, yet most of them don't know a thing about it. They'll wear the green on St. Pat's and they'll put on a shamrock pin, but ask them if they know one County in Ireland and they're bound to ask, "County?" Awareness is of the utmost importance here, as it is especially the responsiblity of "exiled Irish in America" as many of us are, to ensure that our brothers and sisters know our history. Rock on, wife!