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A People's History of the Great Irish Famine and What it Means for us Today

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Message Grant Lawrence

Weary men, what reap ye? Golden corn for the stranger.
What sow ye? Human corpses that wait for the avenger.
Fainting forms, Hunger--stricken, what see you in the offing
Stately ships to bear our food away, amid the stranger's scoffing.
There's a proud array of soldiers--what do they round your door?
They guard our master's granaries from the thin hands of the poor.
Pale mothers, wherefore weeping? 'Would to God that we were dead--
Our children swoon before us, and we cannot give them bread.[64]

Between 1845 and 1852 the population of Ireland dropped by nearly 25%. One Million people died and One Million people left Ireland. This is referred to as the Great Famine.

Like many Americans, I have descendants that made their way to the United States from Ireland because of the starvation and the desperation that arose during this period. Thankfully, there were countries open to taking us. The crossing to the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and other countries was brutal. My great, great grandmother made the voyage with her family and lost a small child on the way.

Here in America, those of Irish ancestry and those that appreciate the Irish celebrate St. Patrick's Day with too much food and drink. Few if any spend time to remember the Great Famine that caused the mass deaths, migration, and suffering of the Irish.

History tells us that the Great Famine was caused by the potato blight. But, the potato disease shouldn't have created the misery of what came to be known as the Great Famine. The starvation and suffering that arose from the potato failure could have been drastically reduced or even eliminated if the British had implemented governmental policies against exploitation to protect the Irish people. Instead, the British did just the opposite.

In response to the Irish famine the British instituted free market policies and work houses for the poor.

....Initially, England believed that the free market would end the famine. In 1846, in a victory for advocates of free trade, Britain repealed the Corn Laws, which protected domestic grain producers from foreign competition. The repeal of the Corn Laws failed to end the crisis since the Irish lacked sufficient money to purchase foreign grain....Source: Digital History

.....Records show Irish lands exported food even during the worst years of the Famine. When Ireland had experienced a famine in 1782-83, ports were closed to keep Irish-grown food in Ireland to feed the Irish. Local food prices promptly dropped. Merchants lobbied against the export ban, but government in the 1780s overrode their protests. No such export ban happened in the 1840s.[62] Cecil Woodham-Smith, an authority on the Irish Famine, wrote in The Great Hunger; Ireland 1845-1849 that no issue has provoked so much anger and embittered relations between England and Ireland as "the indisputable fact that huge quantities of food were exported from Ireland to England throughout the period when the people of Ireland were dying of starvation." Ireland remained a net exporter of food throughout most of the five-year famine....Source: Wikipedia

Tenant farmers held short-term leases that were payable each six months in arrears. If the tenants failed to pay their rent, they were jailed or evicted and their homes burned. During the time of the Great Hunger (1845-1847), approximately 500,000 people were evicted, many of whom died of starvation or disease or relocated to mismanaged and inadequate poor houses.(29) The alternative to eviction, poorhouses, or starvation was emigration.... Source:

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, 150 years after the Great Famine, issued an apology to the Irish people and blamed the massive deaths and suffering on "those who governed in London at the time failed their people."

So that is the people's history of the Irish Great Famine. Massive starvation, death, and migration in a land that probably had enough food to feed its people. The British could have instituted different policies to save the Irish people, but instead they opted for greed and exploitation. In another century, a British Prime Minister recognizes mistakes were made.

But history keeps repeating itself.

Today countries have instituted free trade policies, like the North American Free Trade Agreement, that are exploiting the poor all over the world. Unfortunately, unlike my ancestors there is often not the option of escape in migration for the poor of the world.

For example, the city of Juarez, a border city in Mexico, is a killing field. Small Mexican farmers have been forced to sell their lands and move to the cities in search of work because they can't compete with the wealthy corporate farming conglomerates. Many found work in factories in the border towns, but a lot of those factories have been shut down because of Asian competition.

You can see the poverty from across the border from El Paso, the dilapidated houses on the hill. But in the city, there is not only poverty but tremendous fear. No one goes out at night and everyone watches their back. In 2008, citizens in Juarez had a three and a half times greater risk of being killed than in Baghdad, and it hasn't gotten any better. The drug lords and drug money rule the city.

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