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This diary was triggered by a question someone raised about the number of Irish in police departments, and the clergy.  I knew the issue was tied to the Irish potato famine, which ran from 1846 through 1848. I had known about the potato famine for some time and realized something of the impact it had on Irish society. As I dug into the topic, I began to realize the origin of the vitriolic hatred Irish Catholics have had toward the British.  I will cite two sources, "The great Irish famine" by Cathal Poirteir, 1995 and the almost unbearable 1982 book by Thomas Gallagher entitled "Paddys lament."

First, the potato. This is a tuberous vegetable that is native to the Andes of South America.  Following the Spanish exploration and exploitation of the South American Indians,  the potato was introduced to Europe where it had a profound, beneficial effect on diets of Europeans from Ireland well into Russia. It was a marvelous foodstuff, high in calories and a variety of vitamins and minerals (it also contains trace amounts of Diazepam, or Valium). It grew well all over Western Europe and Eurasia.  A population explosion followed and continued well into the 19th century.  The potato grew prolifically in Ireland and was a product grown on every Irish farm.  With few exceptions however, the Irish farmers were tenant farmers and had absolutely no rights on the land that they farmed. If they grew wheat, or barley or other foodstuffs, or raised cattle on their land, that produce was taken by the absentee landlords most of whom lived in England or on the continent and placed on English ships for export. The British Empire was maintained by so-called English beef, English wheat and barley, and English pork, all of which was produced in Ireland.

Conventional wisdom has it that the Irish were too stupid to grow anything but the potato, but they will barred from planting anything else. Their nutritional status was high because potato skins could be fed to hogs, one or two of which could be kept by a household, as well as chickens. If a farmer was fortunate enough to have a milk cow, their diet, based on the potato was highly nutritious.  But we leave out an important evolutionary point. If the potato is so prolific, why haven't potatoes taken over the world? Potatoes have predators. One of them is a fungus, the potato blight, which will destroy the entire potato plant from aboveground leaves to tubers below the ground ( At some point in the mid-1840s, one ship sailing from South America introduced potato fungal spores into Ireland.  The result was absolutely catastrophic, with every Irish farm infected with the blight by 1846.  With their primary food source cut off, the Irish began starving by the millions.  Exports of Irish produce ("English beef")  continued unabated throughout the famine. All over Ireland, the odors of dead potatoes and starving, dead people permeated the countryside.

The potato blight did not just affect Ireland, but extended its reach all across Europe. Potato crops failed in France, Germany, Poland, and Russia but those countries stopped exporting food so they could feed their own people. No such thing happened in Ireland.  It took weeks or months during 1846 for the news of the ghastly condition of the Irish people reached the United States and other countries. In the states, the Quakers and wealthy Jews from New York collected money and shipped shipped vast numbers of foodstuffs to the starving Irish. The ships were stopped when they entered Irish ports and were required to be offloaded into English ships, which ended up distributing the food to horses owned by the British Army. If you want to understand why the Irish hate the Brits, this is the time period you must focus on.

English authorities claim the population of Ireland was 8 million at the time of famine, but we have to believe their census figures. A number of Irish writers have claimed that the population of Ireland was 11 million. If that was the case, over 5 million people in Ireland starved to death, cutting their population almost in half. Regardless of what figures you use, the 1846–1847 Irish potato famine ranks as one of the great famines in human history. Nothing today even compares to it.

With few exceptions, the response of English society was one of denial and ridicule.  Some writers, such as Jonathan Swift, recognized the horror for what it was and made his modest proposal about using Irish babies as food (  Ironically, the collapse of the food supply dropped the birth rate down close to zero and there would have been no babies available for consumption anyway. Most people in England viewed it as a superb opportunity to cleanse Ireland of their poor, ignorant tenant farmers. Absentee landlords stepped forward with offer to pay passage to any starving Irish who were willing to emigrate.  The ordeal aboard the ships that carried them to the United States was horrendous. The passengers were emaciated, filthy, near death, and lice-ridden.  Many ships were lost at sea, and the mortality rate aboard the ships approach 20% of all Irish emigrants. Conditions on board these ships were so dreadful that some English writers compared them to the slave ships that carried Africans to the United States.  Deaths were so common on board that the dead were slipped over the side of the ship without so much as a word of prayer or comfort said over them. Survivors reported that toward the tail end of the voyage from England to the states there were daily splashes as bodies were tossed into the sea.

When they got to the states the exploitation continued as soon as these poor souls stepped off their ships into The South St., Seaport they were accosted by people who promised them room and board, and alcohol and proceeded to steal whatever few belongings they had left. But survive they did.  The Irish went on to dominate politics all over the country, perhaps as a result of their gregariousness and wit. They became masters of the English language.

Now we get to the point of the diary. Prior to the famine the Irish were swingers. The average age of marriage was 16 and they had large, healthy families supported by their potatoes and small group of livestock. After the famine, the average age of marriage rose to 25, and sex was something that was to be avoided. The Irish were the first nation in history to practice Malthusian methods of birth control (   In later editions of his work, Malthus expanded on his views on how to limit population. They included deferring procreation, emigration, and entering the clergy. With the horrible conditions Irish survivors experienced on their farms they avoided farming when they entered the United States. By and large, the people who settled in the Midwest and upper Midwest were Swedes, Norwegians, Germans and Russians. The Irish by and large became an urban population. They settled in the cities and gravitated toward occupations that had some job security. That led them into civil service jobs such as police, fire, and sanitation departments. In large cities such as New York and Chicago you could almost argue that the Irish have an ethnic lock on police departments and fire departments.

The other story of course, is their dominance in the clergy. Not only in Catholicism, but also in Protestant denominations.  Again I emphasize the supreme irony that the Catholic Church is dominated by Irish clergy who are the result  of a massive experiment in birth control, that was a direct result of the Irish potato famine. Full disclosure–my paternal grandparents came here from counties Mayo and Meath. I don't know how they survived.

Originally posted to CT yanqui on Fri Jun 22, 2012 at 03:18 PM PDT.

Also republished by Shamrock American Kossacks.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Swift was 80 years dead and buried (13+ / 0-)

    when the Great Famine happened.

    Catholic Irish weren't legally forced to grow potatoes - just forced by necessity.  They were the only crop available that could feed a family from half an acre.

    Huge numbers of the Irish, upon arrival in the US, went into work as hired hands on ranches or into the mines.  While it's true that few became farmers, that's partly because most arrived with literally nothing and they did not have the means to purchase the essentials necessary to prove up a claim even if free land were available.

    The hatred of the English doesn't start with The Great Famine -  Cromwells Conquest (much of which Cromwell did not personally lead) arguably killed a larger proportion of the population and was the first massive loss of farmland by the Irish.

    Earlier invasions had not displaced the people from the land (except in the Pale) and generally had just resulted in a Norman or English lord ruling people once governed by their own chieftains.

    Thinking the "food stamp challenge" teaches you about being poor is like thinking a camping trip will give you insight into being homeless.

    by JesseCW on Fri Jun 22, 2012 at 03:34:28 PM PDT

    •  Though I have read about the Irish Famine and (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      the English were pretty freaking cold (one might even say Libertarian or Republican) about the deaths. What always amazes me is what did the English expect when they started fighting back the only way they could - terrorism born of being mashed under the English heels for so long. Rage like that at the treatment they had at English hands gets passed through the generations and takes a long time to die off even if the situation is better. We see it in our Civil War results over a hundred years on.

      I was reading something about a new Irish Diaspora in addition to the one from Greece. Is it really happening and will we see the most daring leave thier homeland for here? When is Scotland, Wales and Ireland gonna break free or are they gonna stay as part of Great Britain. I am not down on the English ... I love thier literature and mysteries... But man they can be arrogant to the non-English.

      Anyway what I really would like is books to read : title and author please. Anyone else reading Christopher Hayes new book about the 1%. It is pretty good.

      How can you tell when Rmoney is lying? His lips are moving. Fear is the Mind Killer

      by boophus on Fri Jun 22, 2012 at 04:09:26 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  Roger, Jesse- (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      palantir, for 6 too

      My bad on Swift.  I never said the Irish were forced to grow potatoes.  The 1846-48 famine was the most proximal event in the memories of Irish immigrants.  Cromwell was a distant memory.

      The last sound on earth will be the squawk of an optimist.

      by CT yanqui on Fri Jun 22, 2012 at 04:48:22 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  republished (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Gordon20024, paulitics, palantir, Ojibwa

    To Shamrock American Kossacks.

    If you think you're too small to be effective, you've never been in the dark with a mosquito.

    by marykk on Fri Jun 22, 2012 at 03:50:18 PM PDT

  •  The Population Dropped by Half From Famine AND (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    palantir, Ralphdog

    emigration, emigration I've always seen credited with the bulk of it. I've never seen anyone claim that 5 million died, only that by the time the population stabilized it'd dropped by that amount.

    Keep in mind that the Scottish Highland lords were at this moment well along in the process of emptying their territory of most of its people, which began after the last uprising in just 100 years earlier in 1745. That's how that wing of my family are Americans and not Highlanders.

    So deporting Gaelic Catholics was a known solution in that part of the world in that period.

    We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

    by Gooserock on Fri Jun 22, 2012 at 05:00:57 PM PDT

  •  Another good source (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    palantir, tharu1, marykk, for 6 too

    The Great Hunger by Cecil Woodham-smith is another good source on this genocide.

    Thanks for this diary. It's impossible to understand the Irish and Irish-Americans without understanding the famine.

    If my soldiers were to begin to think, not one would remain in the ranks. -Frederick the Great

    by Valatius on Fri Jun 22, 2012 at 05:23:01 PM PDT

  •  During the Bengali famine in 1943 (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Churchill refused to send food to India.

    In response to an urgent request by the Secretary of State for India, Leo Amery, and Viceroy of India Archibald Wavell, to release food stocks for India, Winston Churchill the Prime Minister of that time responded with a telegram to Wavell asking, if food was so scarce, "why Gandhi hadn’t died yet."

    "We don't need someone who can think. We need someone with enough digits to hold a pen." ~ Grover Norquist

    by Lefty Coaster on Fri Jun 22, 2012 at 06:03:30 PM PDT

  •  A couple of quibbles here. (5+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    TiaRachel, FG, marykk, pimutant, grover

    I also am part Irish-American, as is the wife. Much of your tale is accurate, but you're routinely putting the most malevolent possible stamp on English actions. The historical record is a lot more complicated. Many English clerics and officials expressed dismay early on in the course of the Potato Famine, and there were many attempts to do something about the catastrophe. Most were ineffective, and most began far too late to accomplish anything. Surely there were some evil English (and Scottish) landlords delighted to see 'the herd culled'; but far more were aghast as the disaster unfolded, and many did their (utterly inadequate) best to mitigate it.

    Because here's the thing about famines: they're most often subtle slow motion disasters. People generally aren't starving in droves right in front of your eyes, turning into human skeletons. That's not how it works. Instead the gradual onset of malnutrition causes a slow but steady uptick in the background mortality from all causes. Old folks start dying of pneumonia at slightly higher rates, slightly younger than before on average. Infant mortality trends slowly but steadily higher due to lower birthweights and inadequate breast milk production in undernourished mothers. Pertussis starts killing 30% of infants instead of 20%. And so on. For the victims, even for physicians on the ground, it's not at all obvious what's happening, until things are very bad indeed. And that's certainly the case for Ireland. By the time the famine was widely recognized, things were long past the tipping point to catastrophe, and even a robust response would have failed to prevent many of the deaths that resulted from the famine. This is not to excuse the remarkably feckless and half-hearted English response.

    The huge number of Irish who became clergymen wasn't due to the famine per se; it had a lot more to do with this simple reality: the Roman Catholic Church was quite literally the only avenue to an education and a reasonably secure life for the male children of an Irish tenant farmer. Think Saudi Arabia and Islamic studies and you'll be on the right track.

    The Irish were most definitely not 'swingers', at least not in the current understanding of the term. Even before the Potato Famine, Irish culture was profoundly Catholic, and illegitimate childbirth an enormous no-no. Morris's excellent book American Catholic documents how thoroughly observant and pious the Irish immigrants were, in sharp contrast to the far more...relaxed...observance of German, Italian and other Catholic immigrants.

    Finally, asserting that Irish immigrants advanced in politics because of their 'gregariousness and wit' is a bit, well, stereotypical. Sort of like asserting that Italians like to talk with their hands, or Asians are studious. True in some cases, sure. But I had plenty of Irish family members who were sour, cranky and solitary. Just sayin.

    •  I know this sounds a little crazy (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      but i always thought there was a particular aspect of Catholicism that contributed to the irish rise in political circles:  the veneration of the saints.

      As a Catholic, you're taught that the saints are able to intercede on your behalf with the Almighty.  that is, when you have a problem, instead of taking it straight to the top, you find out which saint has that beat, and you pray for their intercession.

      This, I  have thought, is not unlike the ward boss sytem.  One does not bother the mayor with a street light out, or a need for garbage cans or some other municipal attention.  Instead, one locates the ward committeeman, who in turn knows how to locate the resource.  But instead of veneration, he is rewarded with the promise to vote for the candidate he endorses.  Or maybe that is veneration.

      In any event, it made it easy to move between the disciplines.  That's my story, and I'm sticking with it.

      If you think you're too small to be effective, you've never been in the dark with a mosquito.

      by marykk on Fri Jun 22, 2012 at 08:31:10 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Yeah, that sounds crazy. (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        But St Dymphna, the Patron Saint of mental illness --and therefore crazy ideas -- was the daughter of a pagan Irish king.

        And she's also the patron saint of snake bites-- I guess that's in case St Patrick didn't get around to driving them ALL off the island?

        So it sounds like totally works in a roundabout way.

         I'll pray to her for insight. But I bet you're right.


        © grover

        So if you get hit by a bus tonight, would you be satisfied with how you spent today, your last day on earth? Live like tomorrow is never guaranteed, because it's not. -- Me.

        by grover on Sat Jun 23, 2012 at 12:13:59 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

    •  important corrections. (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:


      © grover

      So if you get hit by a bus tonight, would you be satisfied with how you spent today, your last day on earth? Live like tomorrow is never guaranteed, because it's not. -- Me.

      by grover on Sat Jun 23, 2012 at 12:06:02 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  I've heard, and I'm confident that folks here will (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    let me know if this is a truth or a falsehood, that the Irish were forbidden to use their own language and made to adopt English.
    And it was this proficiency in the language of the USA that led to the large Irish profile in police departments, fire departments, etc.

    The problem for the Republicans is that they can't get scientists to figure out how to get women to give birth to more old white guys.

    by jazzmaniac on Fri Jun 22, 2012 at 08:44:37 PM PDT

    •  In conquered Ireland they (1%) tried to stamp out (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      the traditional language, culture and religion; and during the famine kept telling the Irish that help was right around the corner, and that all would be well if they just buckled down, worked hard, supported the bosses and waited for prosperity to magically trickle down.  It didn't work then, and it isn't working now.

      The job of policeman in America at the time was not a very well paying one, and kinda dangerous, but new immigrants need money.

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