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?