Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Neglected Irish History Lesson

Too many of us were taught in school that is was a failure of the potato crops that caused the Great Irish Famine. The truth is that while there was a blight that wiped out the potatoes, the other crops were turning out high yields. The problem was that all the good crops were being exported to England while the people who raised them were literally starving to death.

I'm not sure exactly when, but sometime in England's history the rulers there decided that Ireland belonged to Great Britain, and so they could rightfully claim all the land and the produce for themselves, but the people living there didn't matter that much.

During the reign of King James I, England was declared a Protestant nation and Catholicism was outlawed. Ireland, being separated from England and Scotland  by the Irish Sea,  did not get included in the Protestant Reformation that went through the rest of Europe.  To the English this meant the Irish were little more than primitive savages who would be better off under English rule, such as the natives of India and Africa, even though these people are white like they are, and their nearest neighbors.

Leaving out a whole lot of details that would only make sense to English bureaucrats anyway, the English eventually managed to establish themselves as the owners of the homes where families have been living for many generations, and therefore able to charge them rent if they were to continue to live there. The Irish people grew their own food, and were highly skilled at it, and didn't have much need for money, so they could only pay in produce. The land was highly fertile, the people accustomed to self-sufficient agriculture, and the English saw an opportunity for gain.  They decided they would export all the produce to England for a tidy profit, and allow the peasants to keep only the potatoes for themselves.

The potato, introduced from the New World, proved to be highly successful in the cold damp climate of Ireland, and required only a single acre to produce enough to feed a whole village. Unfortunately the one species of potato they chose to grow, known as the Irish Lumper, was not resistant to a disease that was unknown at the time. Phytophthora infesans, better known as "The Blight." It was thought to be a fungus but is actually a fungus-like plant pathogen called an oomycete, or oomycota, which means "egg fungus." This is what caused the crop failure of the potato, but not what caused the people to starve to death. 

During the first winter of the Irish Potato Famine (1846-47) almost 4000 ships carried food to the ports of Bristol, Glasgow, and London, about 17 million pounds of  grain, flour, livestock, bacon, ham, poultry, and eggs, while 400,000 people died of starvation, the very people whose labor had produced the food. People back in England could not believe there was a famine in Ireland when they were receiving so many shiploads of food from there. What they did not understand was that the people were not allowed to eat any of that food themselves.

People were reduced to eating grass in desperate attempt to stay alive, but unlike horses and cows, human bodies cannot digest grass. Children were seen with green stains around their mouths. Workers were literally dropping dead carrying food to the harbors for export, food that they had raised, food that could have kept them alive, food they were not allowed to have.

It was a long time before the English rulers considered any relief efforts to feed the starving people who had brought them such wealth, even as their corpses were seen on the roadsides. Still, any talk of charity was discouraged for fear of making the Irish "dependent on hand-outs, lest they become idle."

How many American politicians still follow that kind of logic today?

No other people have been known to work harder than the Irish, as was demonstrated in America during the building of the railroads. As for the fear of "idle hands doing the devil's work," most anthropologists will tell you that any people fortunate enough to have any time for other than survival related  activities are less likely to commit crime than they are to commit art.

By the time the famine ended in 1852, an estimated one million people had died in Ireland and another million had fled the country. Many also died on the "coffin ships" due to disease before reaching their destination. Those who did make to America alive were subject to fear and prejudice, no doubt perpetuated by the English to blame the victims for the misfortunes which they themselves had given them. 

We talk about the cruelty white people have committed toward people of other races. Few of us seem to be aware of how cruel we have been to other white people.

Happy St. Patrick's Day

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