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150 Years Later, Scholars Try to Find Lessons in the Irish Potato Famine

October 07, 1993|PATRICIA WARD BIEDERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WESTCHESTER — The Great Hunger that devastated Ireland between 1845 and 1851 was, in the words of historian James Donnelly, "the defining event in Irish history."

Last Saturday, almost 150 years after potatoes began to rot in fields all over Ireland, scholars and other interested people gathered at Loyola Marymount University to consider the ramifications of the event that changed not only Ireland but the United States as well.

For many Irish and Irish-Americans, the bottom line was first expressed by the Protestant Irish revolutionary John Mitchel, who wrote that "The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the famine." But as guest historian Kerby A. Miller said, the view that the Great Hunger was the inevitable result of "perfidious Albion's" genocidal policy toward the starving Irish is too simple an interpretation of an event of enormous complexity.

The facts are not in dispute. As Donnelly summed up, a terrible, previously unknown fungus-- Phuytophthora infestans --struck the Irish potato crop in 1845. What might have been merely an agricultural disaster soon became a national and cultural catastrophe because of Ireland's extraordinary poverty and because the potato was the exclusive diet of more than 40% of the population. Many farm workers ate more than 10 pounds of potatoes a day, with no additional nutrients except those in milk.

The blight persisted year after year, and the hunger that resulted was exacerbated by a punitive Poor Law that drove the starving into hellish workhouses and forced them to choose between life and land.

The British government also chose to export food from Ireland as its native sons and daughters starved. A million Irish died of hunger and disease before the blight burned itself out. Two million--a quarter of the nation's population--emigrated, most of them to the United States. In the decade following 1845, more people left Ireland than had emigrated in the previous 250 years, Miller pointed out. After the Great Famine, Ireland was a changed nation--a country far less Gaelic and more Anglicized than it had been.

But the facts do little to suggest the cruelty and the horror of the Great Hunger. Even as the first potatoes turned black, landlords took advantage of their tenants' desperation. Half a million people were evicted from their homes, which were often burned in front of them. Hundreds of thousands of the homeless died on the roads. Dead women lay in ditches with babies still suckling at their breasts. Hunger destroyed people's minds before their bodies. It was as if entire villages had gone mad.

According to Miller, the Irish people's first reaction to the famine was that it was an act of God, even punishment for Irish sins. But the event was soon politicized. Mitchel's view, which called for "revenge for Skibbereen" and other towns laid waste by Britain's demonic Irish policy, quickly took hold, especially in the United States, where so many famine refugees had fled.

In Miller's view, the radical anti-British reading of the hunger flourished among famine refugees in part because many of them had done things best forgotten in order to stay alive. For those who had saved their own lives at the expense of others, it was a relief to curse a villain outside oneself.

John Menaghan, a Loyola Marymount English professor who helped organize the conference, said that, in recent years, revisionist historians have tended to put less blame on the British for their role. There has also been a movement in modern Ireland to de-romanticize violent aspects of Irish nationalism, as Ireland has become more and more involved with the European community.

But during the famine, there were unquestionably those in England who reveled in the demoralization and even destruction of the Irish. Consider the glee of the editorial writer for the Times of London, cited by Miller, who wrote: "In a few more years, a Celtic Irishman will be as rare in Connemara as the Red Indian is on the shores of Manhattan."

The famine commemoration conference was sponsored by the California American Irish Historical Society. Garrett O'Connor, a psychiatrist who is a member of the society's board, compared the famine to the Holocaust. "Irish people need to keep the memory of the famine alive, because if we don't, who will?"

Among the honored guests at the conference was Betty Ketsheshawno, a member of the Choctaw Nation. During the Great Hunger, the Choctaw, who had only recently been forcibly relocated in the Oklahoma Territory, donated $710 to famine relief.

Don Mullan, the Irish director of the Third World relief organization AFRI (Action from Ireland), urged conference-goers to remember the famine by helping to relieve suffering in nations where "artificial hunger" is being created by unjust governments.

"Famine is a lie," Mullan said. He speculated that Ireland has recently taken a lead in worldwide social-action projects because of its vivid collective memory of how profoundly individuals suffer when a natural disaster is manipulated for political ends.

As to just how deep the Irish memory of the famine goes, Mullan pointed out that in his native Derry, people don't say "I'm freezing" when they begin to shiver from the cold. They say, "I'm starving."

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