the feast of st. patrick, potato famine, and the consequences of injustice

the feast of st. patrick, potato famine, and the consequences of injustice March 18, 2017

Now that the soil has thawed, and isn’t too muddy, I was able to spend a good part of the afternoon digging potato trenches. The potatoes themselves will go in probably around Good Friday, because I follow the liturgical calendar as often as possible, in my plantings. Prior to planting, I will add composted organic matter to the trenches, as well as certain mineral amendments – hi-calcium lime, greensand, rock phosphate – because my goal is to build up my soil ecosystems until my reliance on any off-farm organic fertilizer sources is merely optional.

The more time I spend gardening, the more I understand that no action of any organism takes place in a vaccuum. What I add to the soil not only changes the soil: the product itself ties me to any number of complex interdependencies of ecology, economy, and culture. The reason why I believe eco-growing is important is that it takes into account not only the relation between food and consumer, but all of the other relations that make the moment of devouring possible.

Planting potatoes makes one especially aware of this, because any member of the solanaceae (nightshade) family is susceptible to a variety of diseases, and needs to be planted according to careful rotation schedules. The most destructive of these is “Late Blight,” which can wipe out an entire crop in only a few days. One day you have beautiful luxuriant plants – the next day you notice a few odd grey, watery splotches on fruit or leaf – the next day the splotches are eveywhere – then the whole crop just rots and dies. Of all the disasters to strike dread in the heart of the grower, Late Blight is up there with any of the plagues of Egypt.

Potato planting season comes around St. Patrick’s Day, when the topic of Late Blight might come up in a very different context: this is the same disease that wiped out the potato crops of the poor Irish, and contributed to the Great Famine of 1845-1852. Contributed, I say – because, of course, it wasn’t just crop loss per se that caused the Famine. A contributing factor was widespread monoculture (extensive cultivaiton of not just one crop, but one variety, the “Irish Lumper” potato). But this monoculture was itself the result of an oppressive imperial regime, in which native Irish, especially Irish Catholics, had almost no land rights, and depended heavily on that single crop, potatoes, because they were cheap, and easily cultivated in less than ideal soil – all the best land having been seized by the British, for the use of their beef cattle. The English taste for luxury meat had hit an all-time high, but needless to say, the Irish tenants weren’t sinking their teeth into any steaks or roasts. It was all about the potatoes, for them – until there were no potatoes. English efforts to “solve” the problem were anemic at best, abusive at worst. By the end of it, approximately one million people had died, from starvation or disease, and another million emigrated. If you have Irish heritage, chances are your ancestors came over as a result of the Famine.

The political and economic forces behind the famine were massive unregulated capitalism and the resultant income inequality, imperialist oppression, and racism against the native Irish. The political and economic results of the famine were the loss of probably 25 % of Ireland’s population, due to the deaths and the emigration; the increased impetus for revolution; and the wave of Irish immigrants to the New World. Of course, the Irish, fleeing their desperate situation, were looked upon with scorn and suspicion by most American citizens who had settled in there already. Those who, today, look with scorn and suspicion on immigrants from Mexico and refugees from Syria might do well to take a look at their own heritage, and ask which side they want to be on.

So, yes, bad agricultural practices are connected with bad politics are connected with unjust economics are connected with anti-life culture are connected with some oblivious middle-class folks sitting down to dinner, without thinking of where their food came from, or what deaths and injustices made their cheery family meal possible.

But the net of injustice that brought about the Famine is spread even wider, beyond just the case of imperialist oppression in Ireland, and xenophobic nativism in America. As my friend Joshua Lore pointed out, on his Facebook page:

I saw a lot of people today talking about how the Irish potato famine was a product of global capitalism — emphasizing the oft neglected fact that food production in Ireland was actually more than sufficient to support the population, but there was, even in the midst of the famine’s most brutal years, a greater priority and pressure given to exporting that food than keeping it in the country.

There’s another capitalist and colonialist dimension to The Great Hunger worth pointing out as well:

The blight that led to the famine was the result of a fungus called Phytophthora infestans, imported to England and Ireland from Peru where infected bird guano was harvested by indigenous slave labor under inhuman and often deadly conditions and exported for use as a cheap but profitable fertilizer in Europe. Dangers of the blight were well known and warned about, including by Charles Darwin, who was particularly concerned and invested a significant amount of his own money towards finding a solution. But as the story too often goes, profit won out.

And, as this article from Wired points out, we probably wouldn’t even be celebrating St. Patrick’s Day here in the U.S., if it weren’t for the Blight:

And so we get St. Patrick’s Day. Originally, in Ireland, it was a religious holiday, an officially sanctioned interruption of the strict fasts of Lent. In the US, from the 1700s, it was an expression of immigrant pride. To the famine refugees — and their descendants as recently as my grandparents — it was an assertion of ethnic and religious solidarity in the face of discrimination and suspicion. And now, of course, Worldwide Drinking Day.

St. Patrick’s Day, as we celebrate it now, is a holiday of dispossession, begun in the US and exported back to Ireland only in the past few decades. It would not be what it is, if not for Ireland’s vast diaspora. And those waves of emigration might never have begun, were it not for a disease that crossed borders, spanned continents and sailed oceans, ravaged a society, beggared a nation, and sparked an imperishable longing for home.

So if indigenous slaves hadn’t been forced to harvest bat poo in Peru, and if greedy capitalists hadn’t placed profit over common good and justice in Ireland, you wouldn’t be drinking your green beer in America in 2017. This should make you pause a moment and consider whether our celebration of St. Patrick’s Day needs to shift its emphases. Shouldn’t we be thinking about the conditions under which that beer is brewed, what the environmental impacts are? And how about your green leprechaun hat or shamrock beads? Who manufactured those, and where, and under what conditions? And what are the long-range repercussions of the beef industry that produced that delicious nitrate-laden brined brisket?

And if are you toasting St. Patrick and the Old Country, while at the same time voting to reject desperate refugees who come over seeking relief and safety, just as your own ancestors did, perhaps you should ask yourself just what, exactly, you are celebrating.

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