Sunday, November 9, 2014

The Irish Famine and its Modern Legacy

On November 7, 2014, my fiancĂ© and I attended a block party/parade at the Irish Cultural Museum in New Orleans commemorating the Irish Famine. Clergy, Hibernians, historians, documentarians, and general French Quarter folk attended the event. The Poor Clares, an Irish band, reunited for this event, and partygoers paraded from St Louis Cathedral to Conti Street, the home of the museum. Local eateries lined the street, enticing revelers with samples of their food as the band played.  Inside, a minister spoke on the shame of such a blatant form of genocide while people wearing shamrock necklaces drank Jameson on the blocked off street.

These are my people. We come from a fable country that many call the Emerald Isle, a land of green fields and fierce conflict.  The British invaded this country thousands of years ago, suppressing the native Irish and tossing them off their land.  This genocide gained momentum when England embraced Protestantism under the Tudors and grew even more in intensity when Cromwell came to power as the Lord Protector; however, the Brits could never completely break the spirit of Ireland’s people.  We are a feisty, stubborn, and determined bunch.  Still, in spite of our perseverance, one period in this sad history of beautiful Ireland nearly brought these proud people to their knees.  The Irish Famine, or The Potato Famine, as it was often called, was genocide on the Irish people, a punishment on them for their refusal to bend under the English yoke.  To the Brits, this was a dirty and unwashed race—different in religion, in language, and in customs.  They sought to destroy the Irish.

When the potato crop failed in the 1840’s, the Irish poor lost a major staple of their diet.  Ironically, Ireland was still exporting large quantities of food to Britain, enough to feed the whole population, and many British officials remained deaf to the plight of the Irish people.  Sir Charles Trevalyan declared the famine a “judgment from God” and a “way to decrease the surplus population.” His words stink of genocide.  The Catholic population had few rights: they could not vote, hold public office, or even own land.  The education of their children was curtailed, and though 80% of the population was Catholic, they lived in the direst deprivation.  They worked for landlords who were often absentee, and the native population could be thrown off the land when a bad crop threatened their mater’s profit.  In the “Famine Years,” one million people died, and another million left their homeland.  Like many, some of my ancestors died with lips dyed green; they had eaten grass in a vain attempt to survive.

Still, others made new lives for themselves. My man’s ancestor was only in this country ten years when he was in the Louisiana State Legislature.  My late great-grandfather eventually was a foreman in a brewery.  These people and others like them journeyed to the United States, Australia, and Canada, contributing to their new homes and communities; nonetheless, they remained proudly Irish, keeping the memory of the Emerald Isle beating in their hearts. We their ancestors feel the pull of our ancestral land, reveling in its beauty, gracious hospitality, mythic history, and rousing ballads. We often journey back, seeking the spirituality of Patrick, the heroism of Brian Boru, and the courage of men like Wolfe Tone.  Though we rejoice in the lands our forbearers adopted, we still feel pride in the fight of those men and women who went before us.  We remember brave souls like Robert Emmet, Wolfe Tone, and Grace O’Malley as we dance to the Poor Clares, drink Irish coffee, and eat potato soup in a block party in New Orleans.  We can only hope that we make them proud--never fearing to fight the good fight, run the race, or defy the machine that threatens to kill. 

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