Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Irish Famine and Its Lessons For Today

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Irish Famine



Yesterday, a review of the New York Time's dismal history as a sleeping watch dog on my site focused on the "Holdomar " the man made famine in the former USSR in from 1932 to 1933. The generation that experienced this even as children is now dying out. It is important that this horrible chapter in the history of the former USSR be taught and passed to to new generations.
Where I grew up outside of Boston, there were many people of Irish descent. Massachusetts and America would be very different without the contribution of Irish immigrants. When I was a child, there were still older Irish people who were a living scrapbook of Irish memory. Stinging recollections of social exclusion and talk of the Irish famine were a part of their collective memory. Although none of my ancestors are Irish, the stories told to me in my youth by Irish American teachers and neighbours form a critical frame of reference for how I view history.
The Ukrainian famine was totally man made. It was not a begrudging sky or blighted earth that denied the Ukrainian people sustenance. It was people, stripped of human compassion in their allegiance to a godless ideology. The starvation was intended to batter the Ukrainian people into submission.
The mother of the Irish famine was the diseased soil in which its potato crop withered. But Ireland was an integral part of the United Kingdom. A rigid class structure formed a social framework in Ireland inwhich Irish people were held in contempt. Even before the birth of the Anglican Church under Henry the Eighth, the English looked down on the Irish. Irish were sold as slaves by the English. Even today, descendants of the deported Irish celebrate St. Patrick's day every year in the West Indian island republic of Montserrat.
Ireland continued to export food during the famine. Rather than declare a state of emergency, the English rulers and absentee landlords of Ireland continued to demand from Irish sharecroppers whatever the begrudging earth might yield. In England there was pious pontification over whether soup kitchens and relief drives might prove detrimental to Irish diligence and self reliance. According to one observer, six ships left Dublin with agricultural exports for every ship that came in with relief supplies. Over a million Irish died of starvation in Ireland. Death aboard ships in steerage was common among desperate emigrants who left Ireland with nothing but a desire to work and survive. Like the Ukraine in the following century, Ireland lost a quarter of its population. London under Queeen Victoria, like Moscow under Stalin considered the famine to be a net social and economic gain . To this day, the memory of British cruelty to the Irish is a part of the Irish historical narrative. It provided vivid proof that Irish well being would not be sought in London. The memory of Irish famine lent a visceral urgency to the struggle for Irish independence.It remains vivid for those who grew up among the Boston Irish.
Historical memory should not be a mental exercise. The study of the past should colour our vision of the present. It would be a monumental error to suppose that there is no man made component to famine today. Zimbabwe is a classic example of a country whose productive economy was destroyed for political reasons. The leftist rhetoric of Robert Mugabe deafens the world to the cries of the Zimbabwean people. His leftist enablers would far rather question the legitimacy of George Bush's electoral victory than to challenge the blatantly thuggish electoral triumph of Robert Mugabe. Khuzestan in Iran is another region where its Arab natives languish as oil revenues are shipped elsewhere. In Nigeria as well is heated debate as to how fairly oil revenues are distributed to benefit the local population.
History has been far kinder to Britain than it has been to Stalin and deservedly so. Yet countries such as Belgium and Portugal have left a legacy of strife and destruction in the wake of their parasitic rule of former colonies. We need to ask ourselves today how fairly the wealth produced today benefits workers and farmers that produce it. It is better for such questions to be asked by men of good will than by demagogues such as Lenin and Stalin who only seek to dress a new slavery in the rhetoric of their godless ideology.
History has much to teach us. The book of our mistakes can offer no wise counsel if it remains unopened.

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