Friday, March 16, 2012

The Great Hunger

Tomorrow is St. Patrick’s Day and since Irish Catholics played a significant part in America’s politics and culture – a culture that is swiftly dying or at least severely under attack — it’s fitting to share with you some facts about Irish history that you may not know much about. Let me assure you that they are very timely today.

And no, this is not going to be a damn recipe for Irish Whiskey Cake.

Tomorrow I’ll post another article that will specifically address how the Irish Catholic ethos changed America. Today I’m concentrating on how that ethos was forged out of pain and misery and came to define a people.

It will tell you why a real Irishman will say “there but for the Grace of God go I” and not “that man’s in trouble because he deserves to be…”

And therein is the heart of the difference between Irish Catholicism and the Protestant Calvinist ethos and why they are in continual battle for the American soul.

We need to start with the story about an Gorta Mor which is Gaelic for “The Great Hunger” and sometimes also called “The Starvation.” You may know of it as the Irish Potato Famine. It was a period of mass starvation, disease and displacement that permanently changed Ireland’s demographic, political and cultural landscape – and also America. Approximately 1.5 million Irish died as the result of starvation and starvation-caused disease. Another million emigrated (the Irish “diaspora”).

Cataclysmic events in history have both remote and proximate causes and the Irish famine that began in 1845 was no different. The proximate cause of this disaster was a fungus commonly known as “potato blight.” The blight ravaged potato crops throughout Europe during the 1840s and caused widespread suffering but the consequences of the blight were significantly more devastating in Ireland than other countries. The blight, of course, was not caused by the English. The ensuing disaster, however, was – both by their oppression before the blight and because of their reaction to the blight.

Let’s look at the remote causes first: Ireland suffered an anguished, bloody history evolving around English invasions, English colonization, and multiple uprisings and civil wars for roughly 600 years before the potato blight. The country was repeatedly devastated by brute force and English law, as well as forced deportations. It is estimated that over 50,000 men, women and children may have been sent to Bermuda and Barbados in the 1700s as slaves. Most well known of all the English laws were the infamous Penal Codes. The laws were designed to obliterate Irish culture, Catholicism, and in the end human dignity.

Here is a sample of the Penal Laws imposed against Irish Catholics; if you know anything about the infamous Nuremberg Laws enacted in the Third Reich against the Jews you’ll see a chilling resemblance between the two:

Under the Penal Laws an Irish Catholic was forbidden to: receive an education, practice a profession, hold public office or vote, own firearms, live in a corporate town or within five miles thereof, own a horse of greater value than five pounds, purchase land from a Protestant, receive a gift of land from a Protestant, or inherit land or chattel from a Protestant. Irish Catholics were also forbidden to educate their children in their own homes, send them to a Catholic teacher, bring a Catholic teacher into come to the home, or send them abroad for an education. The laws were not always rigorously applied and sometimes were even ignored; but the point is they give grim evidence to the brutal realities of English domination over Ireland.

English policies toward the Irish during the famine years exacerbated the famine crisis and turned a natural crop disaster into a disaster of epic proportion. When the Irish call the famine the Starvation or The Great Hunger or an Gorta Mor it contextualizes the disaster as less of a recurring natural tragedy or act of God and more accurately as the consequence of deliberate national policy. Throughout the famine, the English never stopped importing massive amounts of crops and livestock from Ireland. Christine Kinealy, the author of Irish Famine: This Great Calamity and A Death-Dealing Famine, documented that Irish exports of calves, livestock (except pigs), bacon and ham actually increased during the famine. The food was shipped out of Ireland under British armed force from the most famine-stricken parts of Ireland.

British policies toward Ireland during the famine were greatly influenced by a refusal to allow the crisis to harm the English economy and English business interests. There is debate about whether British policies toward the Irish during the famine were merely callous or deliberately sinister. Cecil Woodham-Smith wrote in The Great Hunger; Ireland 1845–1849 that no issue has provoked so much anger and embittered relations between England and Ireland as “the indisputable fact that huge quantities of food were exported from Ireland to England throughout the period when the people of Ireland were dying of starvation.”

England had long talked about the “Irish Problem” and during the famine it became more than a political metaphor; historians have found statements in newspapers and Parliament about how the starvation of the Irish could finally free England of its unfortunate problem. What was the problem? Apparently, a stubborn refusal to die off and give the English absolutely every inch of Irish soil. To give a measure of what they had lost over a hundred years, the Irish owned 45% of Irish land in 1760. In 1850 they owned less than 5%. At the time of the famine they were squatters in their own land.

These discussions of fact are not inconsequential. At issue is whether an Gorta Mor represents the first genocide in modern history. International law defines “genocide” as certain specified acts “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”

In 1996, Francis Boyle, professor of law at the University of Illinois at Urbana, wrote a report commissioned by the New York-based Irish Famine/Genocide Committee, which concluded that the British government deliberately pursued a race and ethnicity-based policy aimed at destroying the group commonly known as the Irish people and that the policy of mass starvation amounted to genocide per the Hague convention of 1948. Famine stories have burned deeply into the Irish cultural consciousness – an effect seen in cultures that have survived genocide. Based on Boyle’s impressive scholarly research, New Jersey now includes the famine in its “Holocaust and Genocide Curriculum” at the secondary education level.

The English had long viewed the Irish as a separate and inferior race. They were likened to swine and monkeys and called every other abominable name. The racial aspects of Irish oppression are very interesting.

After the Reformation and the devastating religious wars that followed, Catholics and Protestants learned to live side by side each other in their respective nation states, such as in France and Germany. This never happened in Ireland. The English oppression of Ireland, which reached its most devastating period after Cromwell invaded in 1649 during the Counter-Reformation, incorporated a racial component that transcended religious intolerance.

In order to justify its continued political oppression of Ireland, which became increasingly more difficult to do for religious reasons alone, it became necessary for the English to think of the Irish as racially inferior. Race hate needed to be layered over their denominational differences – which were, after all, very limited. The Anglican Church and the Catholic Church are barely distinguishable in doctrine and practice. An Anglican has more in common theologically with a Catholic than with a Lutheran or a Methodist. Therefore, hatred based on religion alone would not seem logical. Defining the Irish as racially inferior and incapable of civilized behavior made oppression more reasonable.

The English definition of the Irish as a separate and loathsome race followed the Irish to America and easily fit within a culture that was already severely racially divided by law and custom. Toward the end of the nineteenth century pseudo-scientific beliefs about race and the rise of eugenics, as well as social-Darwinism were also in place. Vilifying and discriminating against the Irish was as easy for the nativist WASPs in America as it had been for the English.

The Irish, however, weren’t buying it. Like post-Holocaust Jews they said “Never Again.”

Some references:

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