My grandfather’s family on my father’s side came to the United States during the potato famine in Ireland. Funny I never thought to talk to my grandfather about what he knew, what his parents told him about the famine and their decision to leave their country. Most of us just assumed that potatoes were a staple crop and when they turned bad, people starved. The next lesson we learned was usually about crop rotation.
As a kid it never occurred to me to ask why they couldn’t eat something else. Sure, potatoes were an important food item but none of us would starve if suddenly potatoes were not available to us. There would be a lot of whining about losing out on MacDonald’s fries (which are the best fast food restaurant fries hands down!). But we’d just eat something else. Pasta. Meat. Rice. Vegetables. Fruit. Vegemite…never mind. I think I’d rather starve that eat that stuff. Tastes like the dregs of something that’s never been palatable.
Turns out that the potato famine story is an ugly one and not just because people were starving. It’s WHY they were starving. You see not everyone in Ireland went hungry. There were lots of other foodstuffs including livestock, grain, vegetables and fruit. It was the peasants who were allowed to die. The poor were left to die of starvation while the wealthy – who employed the poor – would have them harvest their various crops to be exported out of Ireland to other countries who had the money to pay.
Ireland decided to let people die. Because they were poor, because they were the “wrong” religion, because they could.
It’s a vile story about a glut of food in a country that left it’s less desirable citizens to a painful, awful death. It is estimated that during the first winter of famine 400,000 people starved while landlords exported 17 million pounds sterling worth of grain, cattle, pigs, flour, eggs and poultry.
Look around. The ugliness of food exports amidst famine. The contradiction of starvation amidst plenty. Look at the gluttony in today’s United States among the hungry here. We have an epidemic of obesity while people, children in particular, go to sleep hungry each night. And now, right now, our Congress considers a budget submitted to them by our President that cuts out school lunches and Meals for Wheels which feeds poor elderly people who are home bound. Fat cats in Washington D.C. willing to leave our most vulnerable people go hungry, even die.
Drink your green beer, sing Danny Boy and celebrate this day. But remember there are lessons to be learned in addition to crop rotation from Ireland’s horror.
I’ll be on the air tonight on KGO 810 am. Tune in 7p-10p and join the conversation.