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Saturday, March 31, 2012

Who Created the Irish Potato Famine, God or the English?

In 1845, blight stuck the potato crop of Ireland. Potatoes were the mainstay of the Irish diet. At first the causes were only guessed at; some blamed railroad locomotive smoke while others thought it was toxic vapors from underground volcanoes. In fact it was a fungus travelling to Europe from Mexico. It infected potato crops across the continent but in Ireland the results were more devastating. Other diseases such as cholera, dysentery, typhus, and scurvy resulted due to weakened immunity among the people who were near starvation.
Historical research confirms that this serious situation was transformed into a human disaster by the social policies of the British government. Irish writer John Mitchel famously proclaimed “The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the Famine.”
How could this be? At that time the Irish Catholics (80% of the total population) were considered by the English Protestant-oriented government as an inferior race (or ethnic group). The Irish Catholics were prohibited from owning or leasing land, and voting or holding office; despite a few reforms around 1830. They were forced into almost an indentured servitude status. They were only allowed to rent very small plots of land. Potatoes were grown as they were the only crop abundant enough to feed the renter’s family. When the potato crop failed so completely, the Irish had no hope left.
The British lack of relief efforts worsened the situation. After 18 months of famine, the government set up “soup kitchens” and emergency work relief; but the aid was cancelled when a British banking crisis occurred in 1847. All during the famine, British landlords and merchants in Ireland continued to export food to England, which could have been used to reduce the suffering Irish.  Eventually the British government created a system of “work houses” where poor families could sleep and eat in close quarters. More than 2 ½ million Irish entered these overcrowded work houses. More than 200,000 died there.
Other countries offered aid to the starving Irish people. The Turks offered money directly to the Irish farmers to relieve the suffering, but Queen Victoria felt that it was an amount (which was greater than the British government provided) that would embarrass the crown and denied its use. The Turks did secretly ship boatloads of food to Ireland but it was too late to save a majority of the poor. Even some Native American Tribes, who had starved during their forced migration to Oklahoma a decade earlier, sent a little money to help the Irish.
Could the actions of the British government be considered “genocide” of the Irish Catholics? The 1948 United Nations’ definition of genocide requires that actions against a people must be “intended.” Many, especially the Irish, believe the British neglect represents the intention to eliminate Irish Catholics. This is debatable because the English Protestant land owners in Ireland needed the Irish peasants to farm the land to produce their income. But it does seem that the other conditions of the U.N. definition had been met.
As a result, 750,000 Irish died and two million emigrated elsewhere. But what comes around goes around. Today Ireland’s economy is booming. The 2010 Human Development Index ranks all U. N. member countries according to the level of human well being; Ireland is ranked #5 in the world, Britain is ranked #26. This spread is not a fluke and is estimated to continue for the next 20 years.

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