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 (http://en.wikipedia.org/...). 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 (http://andromeda.rutgers.edu/...). 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 (http://www.blupete.com/...). 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.