Here it comes, the hype and hoopla that surround St. Patrick’s Day. Yes, folks, let’s yet again galvanize the popular delusion that those who are Irish are little more than drunks.
It’s a racist stereotype, not unlike the cloud of derision that overhangs Native Americans when it comes to affinity for drink. Do the Irish drink? Of course.
Poles drink, too, as do Russians. Germans drink, as do Australians. So do some recovering Baptists. And so on.
The racist depiction of the Irish as being too fond of drink is a modern-day artifact of an era in which characterizations of the Irish people were incredibly harsh. British newspapers in the 19th century relished in depicting the Irish as sub-human, depicting them in editorial cartoons as ape-like creatures, not yet worthy of ascension up the evolutionary ladder to the human condition, much less the hubris then engrained of all things British.
On the floor of the House of Lords in 1848, during the height of five years of mass starvation due to a failure of Ireland’s potato crop, the Irish were characterized as wicked, indolent, ignorant and perverse. One Whig economist, Nassau Senior, expressed his disappointment that the famine that year would reduce the “surplus” Irish population by only a million souls. The famine was seen by many in Britain as “divine intervention.”
This racist undertow helped fuel the carnage of the potato famine between 1845-51, which claimed well over 1 million souls and drove countless hundreds of thousands trying to escape the famine onto “coffin ships,” seeking new lives to America, Canada and Australia. All they had to do was survive weeks at sea in squalid conditions, which many did not.
How many died in Ireland of starvation, cholera and other infectious diseases over those five famine years will never be known. Conservative estimates put the figure at 775,000. Respected Irish historian Joel Mokyr recently put the number at 1.9 million.
I’m Irish on both sides of my genetics. Walsh is the third-most common surname in Ireland, after Murphy and Kelly, and my mother was a Fitzgerald, a family considered ancestral royalty in the Irish scheme of things (think John Fitzgerald Kennedy). Nonetheless, I’m no fan of St. Patrick’s Day. Its focus on green beer (which is not Irish) and corned beef and cabbage (which is Jewish, not Irish) ignores the harsh realities of Irish history, which include the political genocide of the 1845-51 famine. The effort to flee famine is the reason why there are nearly 50 million Americans who claim Irish descent, which is somewhat amazing in that the population of both Ireland and Northern Island is now 6.3 million.
While mass starvation and death will never be the celebratory centerpiece of an international party like that triggered by St. Patrick’s Day, they are also the mettle by which Irish identity is defined. It’s the core reality of Irish animosity toward the British, which persists into the 21st century.
And why not?
Famine was nothing new in 1845, the Irish having endured 14 partial or complete potato famines between 1816 and 1842. But Ireland had seen nothing like the horrors of mass starvation and disease brought on by the extended famine of 1845-51. British Prime Minister Robert Peel dismissed the first reports of the potato crop failure as typical Irish exaggeration. When he finally accepted the grim reality of the famine, he repealed taxes on grain imports to lower the price of bread, never understanding that those at risk of starvation in Ireland couldn’t afford bread at any price.
Peel’s actions and the many inactions to follow made things worse. The harshest critics of British ambivalence to the famine accuse them still of genocide.
A more balanced view suggests that hundreds of thousands died needlessly due to British economic dogmas requiring minimum interference with the forces of supply and demand and insistence that government charity not undermine private initiatives nor interfere with private enterprise. It was a dogma that saw Lord Brougham declare in the House of Lords that the rights of property take priority over the rights of Irish tenants to survive.
Given that political cover, greedy Irish landlords exported food raised and processed in Ireland to stable markets in England and France, instead of using it to feed their starving tenants. On a single fall day in 1848, amid a period of famine-induced cholera and cannibalism, exports from the Irish port of Cobh included 1,996 sacks and 950 barrels of oats, 300 bags of flour, 300 head of cattle, 239 sheep, 542 boxes of eggs, 147 bales of bacon, 5 casks of hams and 120 casks and 135 barrels of pork.
So, why would it be any surprise that the myopic British insistence on self-reliance and free trade in the face of famine would bring a lingering plague of death to England itself. Those who survived the famine and the offspring of those who did not provided ready recruits for the Young Islanders, the Fenian Brotherhood and the Irish Republican Brotherhood.
The millions claimed by the famine provided the martyrs for causes with sacred oaths to drive the British from Irish soil at any cost, by any means, oaths that subsequently gave rise to the Irish civil war of 1916 and, in time, the Irish Republican Army.
So, if you must, hoist a green beer on Sunday to the this-too-shall-pass reality that the potato fields of Ireland will blossom this spring, despite the fact that the great famine’s harvest of death lingers in Irish genetic memory, kindling a modern-day free market in Irish-Anglo derision and suspicion.
Tom Walsh is a graduate of Dublin City University and a lifelong student of Irish and Irish-American history. He is a journalist and writer living in Maine.
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