The year was 1846. The potato blight wasn’t new; it had first started turning potato crops across Ireland to black mush during the harvest of 1845. But in 1845, it had blighted only about 30% of a bumper crop. Difficult, but survivable. 1846 proved to be an entirely different story.
I discovered the Irish History Podcast on a long drive for work the other day. I needed to fill about five hours, round trip, and I didn’t want to pull over every half hour to find something new to listen to. I tried an audiobook about getting things done, but got itchy. I wanted a story. An important story.
I went to one of my go-to podcasts, Money for the Rest of Us, which has a narrative style I like. I had just listened to their Tulipmania episode and thought something along that vein might do the trick. They had an immigration episode – right up my alley – except I was too fidgety for that, too. Below it, a few episodes before, I saw, “Free Markets and the Great Famine.” Interesting. I clicked.
The host had come to the topic in a roundabout way, too. While researching his immigration episode, he’d asked himself, “I wonder if any of my ancestors were undocumented.” (He called it “illegal”). He learned what many of us that care about the modern immigration debate know: that prior to World War I, there was no such thing as “illegal” here in the U.S. No visas. No green cards. You came over, and if you were in reasonable health (determined by that great diagnostic tool, the visual inspection), you were in. That’s how the forebears of most of the loud-mouthed, anti-immigrant politicians came: penniless, in steerage, escaping poverty and violence. He discovered that some of his ancestors had come over after the Great Famine in Ireland and so came to research that story.
After that episode, I wanted to know more. How can an entire country starve? How can the world let it happen? I’ve always had a soft spot for the Irish in my heart, scrappy, treated poorly by the English, charming with their lilting brogues and gift for blarney. I’d heard stories growing up of the “Black Irish,” and the theory that they’re descended from Spaniards who went ashore after the disaster of the Spanish Armada. Although this is just a theory, I always liked to think I had distant Irish cousins somewhere, descended from my Spanish ancestors who had been up to no good. So I wondered, how did this famine happen in Ireland?
The Irish History Podcast is a gift, and I can’t recommend it enough. Hosted by a man named Fin Dwyer, with a charming Irish accent, it honors the Irish storytelling tradition. When I searched for episodes on the famine and first saw that something like fifteen of the Irish History Podcast episodes were dedicated to it, I balked. How could he fill fifteen 30-minute-plus blocks of time with the story of the Great Famine?
Oh, but he could. Mile after mile, I listened to him set the scene. The potato was not native to Ireland, but grew well there. Brought over in the 1600s from Central America, it was more calorie-dense than native grains and supported a population explosion. By 1841, the population had grown to somewhere around 8.5 million souls. And millions of the poor subsisted almost exclusively on the potato.
When the first crop failure happened, people were slow to understand. Communications were scant, and rural Ireland had an inadequate system of roads. Seeing the catastrophe unfold, a government official made a secret deal to import maize from the U.S. That did something to stave off calamity that winter as potato stores ran out in late 1845.
He had to make that deal secretly, because one of the forces in ascendancy in Irish politics at the time was the idea of the free market. Adam Smith, the Scottish father of modern economics, had introduced the concept in the previous century, and it was taking root. The concern of the “free marketers” was that if they brought in food to tide over the Irish poor, they would disrupt food markets. Also, they considered the subsistence farmers naturally lazy, and thought that if food was made available for free, they’d become even more so. Additionally, “Corn Laws,” which imposed high tariffs on grain imports to benefit British merchants, restricted the ability to bring in sufficient food. The issue became politicized, and people who supported the Corn Laws became “famine deniers.” They refused to acknowledge the problem because doing so might affect their financial interests. (Sound familiar?).
The blight spread and worsened in 1846, ruining three fourths of that fall’s harvest. By the time that 1847 (“Black ’47”) rang in that winter, things were so dire that people were dying en masse. The podcast tells the tale of a small town in the south, Skibereen, where the famine hit particularly hard, and of a woman there trying to buy a coffin for her dead husband. The idea that “idleness” should not be rewarded meant that instead of food, the government created public works programs, often requiring back-breaking labor of the starving in exchange for a pittance with which they were supposed to buy their food. But the work was so hard, and this man’s body so emaciated, that he had had to stop working from time to time. Whenever he did, he was fined, and went unpaid for three weeks. He needed those wages to buy food, but didn’t get them, although the public works were ostensibly starvation relief. The man died. This was one of countless tales of families struggling to bury their dead when they were barely more than skeletons themselves.
Here’s the lesson for the modern day: coldness in the face of suffering and disaster is not a modern invention. British government officials and landed gentry knew of the crop failures with plenty of time to buy food on the open market, or even to stop the exporting of other Irish crops for profit, which continued unabated during much of the catastrophe even as people died in the streets. They knew people could starve, but through a series of miscalculations and epic greed, they failed to act in time to stop it.
Over a million people died of starvation and related diseases in those years, a bland statistic that fails to capture the countless personal tales and unimaginable individual suffering that scarred an entire land. Millions more were taken to a life of tenements and “Irish need not apply” signs across the sea. The population numbers of Ireland have never recovered. Today, 172 years after the onset of the crop failure, the population of Ireland is at 4.772 million, almost four million less than before the blight.
Our impulse is to tell ourselves, “that can’t happen here,” or “that was a long time ago.’ But if we learn one lesson from this past year, it’s that humanity’s capacity for cruelty, and for turning its back on the suffering of others, remains unabated. How else do we explain how casually so many can accept the prospect of the loss of health care insurance for millions, many of them children? How else do we square the general inaction in the face of this administration’s move against Dreamers, shrugging while nearly one million kids who grew up here face the prospect of being sent “home” to countries they don’t remember and where they lack the skills, and sometimes the language, to survive? How else do we justify the willful muddying of the issue that police brutality against black people is real, and that caring about black lives in no way means lack of gratitude for the hard, dangerous work of the good cops? How else do we countenance the general apathy about the people without water and electricity in Puerto Rico, right this minute?
No, a million people aren’t dying here. But that’s just a matter of luck. Given the wrong circumstances, any of us could find ourselves facing calamity and destruction. Besides whatever natural force is causing it, we’d have one other major thing to fear: humanity’s vast capacity to ignore suffering.
So, the takeaway? Do something.
This isn’t just a tale of nearly two centuries ago. It’s a story about the need for each person of conscience to do something, anything, to bring more goodness and caring and justice to the world. Spend one hour in a soup kitchen. Sit with one lonely, old person. Make one phone call to your representative. Give toys to a local battered woman’s shelter. Volunteer to walk dogs at an animal rescue facility. Pick one. Stand for the light that matters to you. We make the world, collectively, and we choose whether it’s a place of empathy or indifference.
Do something today.
Find volunteer opportunities near you: click here.
Listen to the Irish History Podcast: click here.