As just about everyone knows, March 17 is St. Patrick’s Day.  It is a day when the color green, in all its various shades, is worn by just about everyone.  Green beer is ordered at pubs, Irish music is played on the radio, cities across the North American continent, northern Europe, Australia, and New Zealand will be having parades either today or on the weekend.  Everyone claims to be Irish and most won’t have any idea what being Irish really is.

I am 100% Celt.  My grandparents came from Roscommon, Sligo, and two hailed from Cork.  Most people whose grandparents and great-grandparents made the trip to the US in the coffin ships don’t know the stories that forced them onto the ships.  Most who left Ireland in the mid-nineteenth century never talked about life in Ireland, preferring to forget what life was like in a land governed by another country whose policy toward the Irish was that of genocide.

Most have heard of the Irish Potato Famine but it is a misnomer.  In the 1950’s, a British historian, Cecil Blanche Woodham-Smith (birth name Fitzgerald and, indeed yes, the writer is a woman) wrote a book entitled THE GREAT HUNGER.  A famine exists when there is no food.  Ireland had plenty of food; the Irish just weren’t allowed to eat it.  Since the time of Elizabeth I, Ireland had been a thorn in the side of the British government.  The  Irish refused to convert to the Church of England when Henry VIII wanted his divorce.  The Anglo-Irish belonged to the Church of Ireland (little if any difference from the one in England) and they were given all the land.  The Irish became tenants of their own country.  Their language was forbidden and they were not allowed an education beyond the basics of reading and arithmetic.

As grain crops and the raising of cattle became more financially rewarding to the land owners, the Irish tenants found that the bit of land they were allowed for their own use was becoming too small to support any crops other than the potato.  In time, the potato became the only food available to the Irish peasants.  The potato is high in nutrition and the people were able to survive on it but when it failed, they were left without any alternative source of food.  The dire situation in which the peasants found themselves did not relieve them from their obligations to the owners of the land on which they grew their potatoes.  When they couldn’t pay the rent they were evicted.

Woodham-Smith’s book is filled with the facts and figures of the great hunger including the decision by the British Parliament to keep grain sent by the United States and aid from as far away as India away from the Irish for whom it was meant.

PADDY’S LAMENT was written by Thomas Gallagher and published in 1982.  The full title is PADDY’S LAMENT, Ireland 1846-1847: Prelude to Hatred.  Gallagher is second generation Irish, born in New York City in 1918.  His approach to the same topic is different than Woodham-Smith’s.  The book is divided into three sections.  The first, titled “The Doomed Country”, tells of Ireland immediately before the failure of the potato crop and the ensuing treatment of the Irish by the English landlords and the government of Britain.  Gallagher writes of one landlord who canceled the rents of his tenants for two years and then wiped their slates clean, showing them as owing nothing.  He deserves to be canonized.  When another land owner was asked how the owners felt about their tenants dying of starvation he responded, “delighted to be rid of them.”

The Protestant churches in Ireland did begin programs to offer food to the starving peasants.  There was one requirement before a ladle of soup was handed over.  All a person had to do was renounce his Catholic faith and convert to whichever branch of Protestantism was offering the watery broth that day.  The only group which did not require that a man exchange his soul for soup were the Quakers who came from America.  The majority of Irish did not accept the offer, remaining true to their faith.  Those who did accept the deal were referred to as “soupers” and they became outcasts in their communities.

The second section of PADDY’S LAMENT is “Escape” which recounts the difficulties in finding passage to America and then the hell-like conditions of the “coffin ships” that took them across the Atlantic.  The last section, “Through the Golden Door”, describes the problems faced by the first of the Irish immigrants to land in large numbers in a country that was decidedly Anglo-phile.  All immigrant groups have faced great difficulties as they tried to assimilate into this new culture but the Irish faced particular problems because of their Catholicism.  The Ku Klux Klan was founded to rid America of blacks, Catholics and Jews.  The WASP ruling class of the United States was not going to be kind to the people for whom the British had a policy of “negligent genocide.”

Ireland is an island, surrounded by water teeming with fish.  The land is fertile and it isn’t an exaggeration that it is described as a country that is forty shades of green.  It is dotted with rivers, another source of food.  During the famine years, food grown in Ireland was exported to England.  Before the famine there was no great animosity between Ireland and Britain.  But, as someone wrote, “the potato blight was an Act of God but the famine was an Act of Parliament.”  The British government took action to ensure that starvation would change Ireland’s population statistics.  During the famine years, one million of the Irish poor died of starvation and its attendant diseases.   Another million emigrated to the United States and Canada.  They had no money so they stayed wherever the ship set them down and, thus, New York and Boston found themselves with an influx of Irish Catholics who would change the politics of those cities forever.

And so, today, Fifth Avenue in New York City will have its sidewalks lined with the Irish, the almost Irish, and those who dye their hair green for a day.  Even if the parade goers don’t realize it, they will be celebrating all the things that Ireland suffered and survived and all her people who spread across the world.  Did we ever think we would see the day when Liam Neeson would be narrating something on PBS?

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  1. Condorena says:

    This is a wonderful article. My father’s family came from Ireland and we never heard a word about the lives lived in Ireland. His was a large family and none ever felt the call to back and see the Ireland of today. I am not even sure from which past of Ireland they came. Once County Clare was mentioned, but nothing else is known.

    I have some Irish on my mother’s side and the story there is pretty much the same.

    Thanks for the history lesson Beth.

  2. kathy d. says:

    Very good post here for St. Patrick’s Day. Half of my ancestry is Irish, my great-grandmother came from Sligo, and married a man whose background may have been English, although no one ever confessed this. I consider all of one side of my family to be Irish.
    Good that you–and the authors–point out the truth about the “famine.” I had read that the English landlords forced the Irish farmers to grow other grains, and then ship them to England, taxing them to the maximum also!
    I’m glad you called the English policies genocidal; it’s important that the truth be told.
    On a side note: My love for potatoes is in my genes, I think, between Irish family history and the other half of the family being Jewish/Polish/Russian and very poor; potatoes were an important staple. So I grew up eating every kind of potato, including latkes (pancakes), and then cornbeef, cabbage and potatoes.
    There is now a memorial to those 1.5 million who died during the “potato famine,” not far from the World Trade Center site in NYC.
    Also, there is a surge in “Emerald Noir” at this time, and I’ll do my part for this holiday; since I don’t imbibe in spirits, I’ll bloat my budget and buy Celtic crime. Tana French’s new book, “Faithful Place” is good. Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

  3. Dorte H says:

    Wonderful pictures!

    I didn´t know you were a Celt. I often include Irish authors or themes in my classes, and next week we´ll begin reading an Irish drama, Martin McDonagh´s The Beauty Queen of Leenane. It is about a mother and a daughter living in remote Leenane (Galway), and it is every bit as exciting as any thriller.

  4. Has anyone here read “The Irish Trilogy” by Walter Macken? The first is titled “The Silent People”, #2 “The Scorching Wind” and #3 “Seek the Fair Land”. I found them in Ireland. When I came home I tried to find them here but couldn’t. Got Amazon on the job and was able to find some used copies. Next time I went over I purchased several sets so my children could have copies. At this time I have only my copies, so that is a good excuse to go back 😉

  5. Eamonn Mc Carthy says:

    Your article is a very good read, and for the most part, reasonably accurate.

    Both books that you have highlighted are decent reads, with “Paddy’s Lament” by Patrick Gallagher being one of the most heart wrenching reads I have ever had to plough through.

    However, and with all due respect, I think you are a little of the mark to say that there was no real animosity between the Irish and the English Aristocracy prior to the Great Famine.
    (Note; not the common English people themselves).

    The Irish had been fighting the English Establishment ever since Strongbow paid them a “friendly” visit in the 12th. Century. Ireland’s long oral traditional history, of both song and verse is filled with tales of countless battles won and lost, public floggings, hangings, and scrappy fights prior to the famine years.

    Cromwell’s cruel legacy in the 1600’s still brings forth a wellspring of resentment emotions when talked about in Wexford and Enniscorthy where he burned the towns to the ground after brutally murdering evey man, woman and child within.

    Wolfe Tone’s speech from the dock after he was found guilty of high treason and scheduled to be hung in 1798 for leading the rebellion of the United Irishmen is a noteworthy read. (note; A wonderful non sectarian rebellion rooted in the style of the French and American Revolutions).

    And who has not read or quoted from the infamous dock speech of the patriot Robert Emmett who was executed for leading the rebellion of 1803 with its oft quoted closing stanza:

    ” Let no man write my epitaph; for as no man who knows my motives dare now vindicate them, let not prejudice or ignorance, asperse them. Let them and me rest in obscurity and peace, and my tomb remain un-inscribed, and my memory in oblivion, until other times and other men can do justice to my character. When my country takes her place among the nations of the earth, then and not till then, let my epitaph be written”.

    Please understand, I seek not to glorify or stoke the flames of bigotry or hatred, but rather take time to remember those who paid the ultimate price to shake the yoke of colonial tyranny and oppression. In my opinion, it take a certain kind of person to take a stand against the “Establishment”. Especially when they pay for it with their lives.
    By the way, I was born in Ireland, but, I am a very proud American Citizen for the past 30 years.

    Most Respectfully Yours,
    E. Mc Carthy

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