Poor Relations

(Photo by Trudy Wischemann)
Local writer of the column 'Notes From Home'

I will miss Ireland forever.

Juni Fisher
“Tumbleweed Letters,” 1999

I thought it was Gaza that made me dig up a book on the Irish potato famine I’ve had almost 20 years. The unrelenting, heart-searing stories of Gazan’s starvation and thirst amid bombing and gunfire which seem so “unprecedented” unfortunately are not. But it was awareness that came from revisiting my family history that actually pulled the book from my shelf and allowed me to check out another episode of humanity’s capacity for ignorant abuse and violence.

The book is “The Great Hunger: Ireland 1845-1849” by Cecil Woodham-Smith, 1962. It tells the story of the humble potato and the people who depended upon it, as well as the seven centuries of English control over Irish land. The roots of Irish emigration to North America, both forced and voluntary during that period, help clarify where the bias came against them. Most of those who survived the Atlantic crossing (and many did not) arrived barely alive, often ill and largely penniless. Although I don’t know when my own Irish ancestors arrived on this continent, the book helped me see where the term “poor relations” might have come from.

This story provides an explanation for our current, unrelenting divisions about immigration, about borders, about violence exploding everywhere as people leave home just trying to find a place to lay their heads. It doesn’t provide an answer, however.

Prior to the arrival of potato blight in 1846, Ireland’s poverty was higher than any other country in Europe. “All this wretchedness and misery could, almost without exception, be traced to a single source—the system under which land had come to be occupied and owned in Ireland, a system produced by centuries of successive (English) conquests, rebellions, confiscations and punitive legislation,” the author wrote. Absentee landlordism was predominant, along with other land management strategies that gave no regard for tenants’ needs, much less rights. 

By the time the blight arrived, a huge percentage of the native population depended upon the potato almost exclusively. This in itself was not inherently bad. “The potato, provided it did not fail, enabled great quantities of food to be produced at a trifling cost from a small plot of ground,” Woodham-Smith wrote. It was also endlessly “useful,” for raising livestock as well as families, and could be cultivated with only a spade on ground too wet or steep for a plow. (It took 4 to 6 times as much land to raise an equivalent amount of grain.) The potato didn’t store well, however, and if it did fail, there was no crop to replace it. Between crops some years there was nothing to eat but meal that had to be purchased on credit, since there was no cash. Indebtedness was the Irish peasant’s real blight.

Despite these hardships, by and large the Irish people did not want to leave Ireland. They loved their country, their beautiful land, their lives and their potato patches. Any threat from England to their meager rights to use land was a call to rise up and revolt. 

Even before the blight England was suffering a guilty conscience over its poor land relations there, but every attempt to improve tenants’ rights then (and many years afterward) were defeated. In the prior 45 years, “114 Commissions and 61 Special Committees were instructed to report on the state of Ireland, and without exception their findings prophesied disaster,” she wrote. When disaster did hit, rather than make even tiny adjustments that might help the Irish people feed themselves, the fearful conservative political forces in England succeeded in simply making it harder for them to access the wealth England had accumulated, largely from their colonization of places around the world. It was almost as if the English were angry with the Irish for starving to death, a kind of “let them eat cake” response.

We have learned nothing from history. That same pattern of poverty-making poor land relations, which cause hordes of poor, sick but incredibly determined people to hit the road for some hope of survival is with us now at our own border. 

Resentment toward the poor is nothing new. Either way, though, through genetics or accumulations of wealth, we’re all related to them. May we find some new way to relate soon. 

Trudy Wischemann is ¼ Irish with a German last name. You can send your upwelling stories of true ethnicity c/o P.O. Box 1374, Lindsay CA 93247.

This column is not a news article but the opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of The Sun-Gazette newspaper.

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