Saturday is St. Patrick’s Day and Irish and nonIrish alike will be donning green to mark the day.
Since the New World was “discovered” by Europeans, there have always been people of Irish descent in America. Many are descended from the initial wave of settlers of that Heinz 57 mix of people of the British Isles, not only a little bit Irish, but also English, Welsh and Scottish. Then others are descended from the wave that hit in the 1800s, made up of mostly Catholic Irish fleeing the potato famine.
Like many people in the U.S., I’m descended from people in both groups. My father’s side of the family had lived in Appalachia since before the American Revolution, spreading from those lands into the Ozarks and beyond.
On my mother’s side of the family, I’m descended from those who fled the potato famine in the 1800s. They went to Canada first, whose census in the 1800s included religion, which recorded them as members of the “Church of Rome” aka Catholics. Back then, the border with Canada was pretty fluid, with people going back and forth with ease that would be unthinkable today.
The potato famine, or Great Hunger, is something that everyone has heard of, but its effects on how it influenced not only the future of America, but also Ireland, are lost on many who don’t take history seriously.
Most historians say the potato famine began in 1845 when a fungus infested and destroyed three-fourths of the potato crop that year. At the time, most Catholic Irish were tenant farmers working under Protestant landlords. These tenant farmers relied on the potato as a main source of food. This was quite an accomplishment for the potato, which had only been introduced to the island a century before.
The potato wasn’t the only food that was produced in Ireland. The island also produced and exported livestock and butter, which the wealthy landowners who controlled Ireland had plenty of access to while the impoverished tenant farmers did not. It’s this lack of access to the food they themselves produced that made the potato famine hit the tenant farmers so hard.
According to historians, in 1847 alone, peas, beans, rabbits, fish and honey continued to be exported from Ireland, even as the Great Hunger ravaged the countryside.
In 1841, the population of Ireland was approximately 6.5 million (some put it at 8 million) people. By the time historians say the Great Hunger ended, 1852, the population had declined to 5.1 million.
More than 1 million deaths are attributed to the famine, though some scholars believe that the deaths were greatly underestimated During the same time, hundreds of thousands emigrated to North America (mostly Canada) and Australia.
Many also emigrated to England and what now composes the United Kingdom. So many, that approximately one-fourth of Britons claim to have Irish ancestry.
Even after the famine officially ended, millions still continued to emigrate from the island, which saw its population drop to a low point of 2.8 million in 1961.
It’s still debated whether the British lack of response to the famine was intentionally malicious or a result of indifference that put the profits of the exports over the lives of the tenant farmers. But, whatever the cause, it doesn’t change the fact that it could have been prevented if the tenant farmers were allowed to eat at least some of the food they produced for export. The famine did not have to happen.
In the decades following the potato famine, Ireland would rebel against English rule not once, but several times, culminating in the Irish War for Independence, which lasted from 1919 to 1921, finally ending in self rule for most of the island, which would become the Republic of Ireland which we know today.
That wasn’t the end of it, though, as the war for independence led to a civil war between factions, the Irish Republican Army and Irish National Army. The factions did not agree on the terms of the treaty with England, which kept the English monarch as the head of state and allowed what is now Northern Ireland to remain part of Great Britain.
The National Army won that conflict, but the Republican forces would ultimately achieve one of its major goals, which was becoming a republic without an English monarch as its head of state, which happened in 1937 with the adoption of the Irish Constitution and the establishment of a president as head of state.
The violence didn’t end with that, with the IRA and Loyalist militias launching a guerrilla war in Northern Ireland and England, which included car bombs and other terror tactics. In 1998, the Good Friday Agreement, which Arkansas’ former governor and former U.S. President Bill Clinton was an architect of, brought a peace, if uneasy at many times, to the island. The agreement reached was that Northern Ireland was part of the United Kingdom, and would remain so until a majority of the people both of Northern Ireland and of the Republic of Ireland wished otherwise. According to Clinton, the Good Friday Agreement was his greatest foreign policy achievement.
It didn’t end all the violence, as a group called the Real IRA and loyalist paramilitaries still carry out attacks, though they are nowhere near the level that was seen during the troubles. The worst attack by the Real IRA was carried out just months after the Good Friday Agreement was signed, which killed 29 people in a bombing. Since that attack in August 1998, 116 people have been killed. That’s in 20 years, compared to 3,532 killed during the 30 years of the troubles from 1968 to 1998.
Just a year before the Good Friday Agreement was reached, then Prime Minister Tony Blair did something that was still controversial for many: He said Britain was to blame for the potato famine.
“The famine was a defining event in the history of Ireland and Britain,” Blair said. “It has left deep scars. That one million people should have died in what was then part of the richest and most powerful nation in the world is something that still causes pain as we reflect on it today. Those who governed in London at the time failed their people.”
While it may have been too late to apologize to those who lost their loved ones directly to the famine, a nation accepting its part in a great wrong is a stepping stone, if ever so small, and is making progress. Doing so isn’t a sign of weakness, but a sign of strength, and can be a step to better things, whether they be improving relations or making things right for those who are still being affected by the great wrong inflicted upon their ancestors.
But where ever the relations between Ireland and Great Britain go, and they could go many directions since Brexit, the little island has had a massive impact on its former oppressor, America and the rest of the English-speaking world as well.
Have a happy St. Patrick’s Day.