The So-Called Potato Famine

I hope I can be excused for violating the number one rule of this blog: “It’s not about me. It’s about the books.”

My tour of the West of Ireland was so exhilarating and informative that I would like to share a little of what I learned from the scholars there who help so many travelers to understand the country’s history.

The lead for my story on GoNOMAD is going to be “The West of Ireland: Stories in Stone”. That’s the first thing you notice about the place, the stones. I don’t think I saw a single house made of wood. There just aren’t any trees to speak of.

The stones tell us the story of the Irish people, and a grand uplifting story it is, though surely not a cheery one.

The stone tombs of an area called The Burren tell us about the people who farmed there in the late Neolithic Age — two thousand years before the sack of Troy that the blind Greek guy wrote about.

The giant ring forts of Inis Mor tell of the Iron Age warriors who predated the Celts by about five hundred years, probably the same folks who built Stonehenge. About all we know of them is that they were able to transport enormous stones for hundreds of miles and set them upright in the ground — clearly a guy thing, if you know what I mean. And the center of their civilization was on the Island of Malta, so they were clearly expert mariners.

Then there are the thousands of stone walls enclosing patches of land, some as small as an eighth of an acre. These tell us about the Penal Laws imposed on the Irish which required each family to subdivide its land among its sons. These patches were so small that the only way the farmers could support their families was to grow potatoes.

Which brings us to the so-called potato famine. It was not really a famine, you know. There was no shortage of food. There are countless proofs of this, but one is enough: when relief ships loaded with food arrived from Canada, they had to wait three days while a bunch of other ships were loaded with grain for EXPORT.

No it was not a famine; it was an act of war, an atrocity committed by a ruling class that had lost all sense of decency and humanity. Of a population of about eight million, a million and a half people starved to death and another three million emigrated, many to my home town of Boston, Massachusetts, known as the thirty-third county of Ireland.

Those who stayed held wakes for those who left, for they knew they would never see them again in this world.

I have taken some time to contemplate this terrible crime, committed out of arrogance and greed. As I biked around that idyllic landscape, I tried to picture what it was like to see more than a million people — men, women and children — starving to death while others who had plenty stood by unmoved. That’s about fifty Fenway Parks worth of people.

It’s not just a matter of nationality. Our friend and tour guide John Heagney pointed out that some English landlords like John Darcy did all they could to help their tenants and some Irish landlords were as cruel as their English counterparts.

It was yet another example of man’s inhumanity to man, and I believe it should be studied and taught and remembered, just as the Nazi holocaust should be studied and taught and remembered, not just as a lesson of history, but as a manifestation of that eternal evil which, I fear, will never cease to rear its ugly head.

I believe that those who come after us should know what it looks like, what it smells like, how it hunts and captures the souls of men and binds them to its bidding.

As Ralph Ellison said in reference to another holocaust — slavery in the good old US of A — “Learn it to the young’uns!”