Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Irish Potato Famine And The Diaspora

There are 80 million people of Irish descent living across the globe, on all the continents, largely as the result of having been forced out of their own country by the British genocidal ethnic cleansing, land theft, and brutal and barbaric laws which turned Ireland into nothing more than a slave colony for the benefit of England.

The entire nation of Ireland today only has 6 million people. Yet between 1845 and the early 1900s, 1 million Irish were allowed to starve to death by the exceedingly well-fed English who had food to spare, and who took food from the starving Irish and used it to feed their animals, and 3.5 million citizens of Ireland were driven out of the country in one of the first, and still one of the biggest instances of modern ethnic cleansing and land theft.

The great majority of the Irish people, whose history, art, literature, land, language, music, poetry and tradition is Irish, belonging to the land of Ireland, are themselves scattered against their will across the globe, in the largest diaspora of human beings in modern times.

The Irish Constitution acknowledges the millions of people from the Irish land who live in other countries, in Article 2, which reads: "the Irish nation cherishes its special affinity with people of Irish ancestry living abroad who share its cultural identity and heritage."

The English took control of Ireland, claimed its land, then forced the majority of the Irish to live under conditions of brutality, hunger, extreme poverty and deprivation. Laws were passed to prevent the Irish Catholics from ever having the opportunity to improve their own lives.

England used military and police power to control Ireland, including its politics and its economy. The people of Ireland were kept poor by the economic conditions imposed by England. The people of Ireland did not have capital or access to capital, and England made sure that remained true. They also did not have access to equipment that might have made their lives better. Therefore, they were forced (much like third world countries today) to depend almost solely on agriculture.

The English stole the land, the Irish did all the work. The English stole all the crops, and paid the Irish poverty wages. Further, the Irish were forced to grow specialty crops to be exported to the more well-off English as the only way they could earn any money, instead of growing food to feed the Irish people. The majority of the people did not own land, and at most could rent a piece of land and hope for a good enough crop to pay the landlord. In years when there were crop failures, the people were thrown off the land which meant they had no work, no food, and no place to live.

The English confiscated most of the land of Ireland and claimed it belonged to England, although they would allow local Protestants to manage it on their behalf.

The English passed laws which made it illegal for any Catholic to purchase land, and they also stole any Catholic land inheritance. By 1750, only 5% of the land of Ireland was owed by the Irish Catholic majority, and most of the land had been stolen by the English. The English would dictate what crops could be grown, then demanded those crops be shipped to England for the benefit of the English people, even when that meant the people of Ireland would starve.

The English did not believe the Irish were human beings. They hated the Irish, and treated them like slaves, just like they treated most areas of the world where they established their colonies. But they had a particular hatred for the Irish.

The English landowners used evictions to punish the Irish if they engaged in any political activity or otherwise failed to submit to the English. The English even evicted the Irish Catholics from land that had been owned by their ancestors, using a variety of contrived excuses to steal the land. This created massive homelessness as well as starvation among the Irish Catholics.

Between 1845 and 1855, a blight infected the potato crops of Ireland, which was the staple food for most of the people. The other crops which were available and could have fed the people were instead confiscated by the English and shipped to England, leaving the Irish people to starve to death.

One million Irish people starved to death inside Ireland during that ten-year period, while the English had ample food. Another 1.8 million Irish people fled the country, pushed out by the English and loaded onto poorly constructed vessels which became known as Coffin Ships because of the number of Irish people who died trying to flee the starvation in their own land.

The English did nothing to help the Irish Catholics. (Note: the numbers are listed differently in different places. One article says 1 million died and 1 million left, representing 25% of the total population, meaning Ireland had 8 million residents by the mid-1800s; other reports say 3.5 million left from the famine during the next several decades, which would mean almost half the people left, and about 20% of them died of starvation).

During the Famine period, an estimated half-million Irish were evicted from their homes. In some cases the British would actually pay the fare to put the entire family on what were called the Coffin Ships, to get them out of Ireland. These ships were poorly built, often not seaworthy, overcrowded, lacked basic supplies, and became a death sentence for many of the poor Irish that were put on them. The English wanted to drive all the Irish out of Ireland, and kill the ones who remained.

Some of the first Coffin Ships were sent to Canada. The trip across could take anywhere from 6 weeks to 3 months. There was little food or water available for the people. Many died during the passage. The ships were supposed to be inspected upon arrival, with any sick people quarantined in special facilities called fever sheds (see plaque above). But by 1847, there were so many shiploads full of poor, sick, often starving and dying Irish people lined up waiting to land in Canada, that Canada was unable to take them in.

By June of 1847, there were 40 ships lined up along the St. Lawrence waiting to land in Canada. By later that summer, the line of ships was several miles long, but Canada would not let the people land because of the fear of spread of disease. Many healthy people on those ships became sick and died because they were forced to sit inside the ship holds, right outside of Canada. As the number of dead Irish people on the ships began to overwhelm the crews, they began dumping the dead people overboard to get rid of the bodies.

The English kept telling the poor Irish people to leave the starvation and desperation of the famine in Ireland, telling them that if they got on a boat to the U.S., they would be met with wealth on the other end. The truth is that England simply wanted to get rid of the Irish Catholics by dumping them in other countries. Of course any family that could scrape together money for the fare would send one of their young men, hoping that if he survived he could send money back to bring over some of his siblings. For the people who left, it was unlikely they would ever see their home or family again. Many died on the trip on what were called Coffin Ships.

( New York, Irish tenement -- slum housing for the Irish)

For those who survived the trip, they were met with a United States that was expansive, had hard work and needed labor to build the roads and buildings of the nation. Those who survived would write home and tell their families that they got work, and of the often difficult circumstances. But the promise of the work and an opportunity to be a person, as opposed to a slave to the English, brought an additional 3.5 million Irish people to the U.S. in the years after the famine, most of them young people.

(Irish Famine Memorial)

Because of the on-going British control of Ireland, and denial of opportunity to its people, it soon became normal for the young people to leave Ireland as soon as they were old enough (as young as 15) to travel abroad to find work and send money back to help their families.

Some of the Irish who left Ireland came to the U.S. as indentured servants. Their future employer paid for their passage, and the immigrant was obligated to work for the employer for a certain number of years to pay them back.

During the early part of the 20th century, the Irish struggle for independence and freedom led to upheavals and violence, and eventual independence for most of Ireland. Because of the English repression and brutality during that period, many more Irish left Ireland and came to the U.S.

More links on the Irish Diaspora:


Take it from us, every grain,
We were made for you to drain;
Black starvation let us feel,
England must not want a meal!

When our rotting roots shall fail,
When the hunger pangs assail,
Ye'll have of Irish corn your fill --
We'll have grass and nettles still!

We are poor, and ye are rich;
Mind it not, were every ditch
Strewn in spring with famished corpses,
Take our oats to feed your horses!

We but asked in deadly need:
Ye that rule us! Let us feed
On the food that's ours' ~ behold!
Adder deaf and icy cold.

Were we Russians, thralls from birth,
In a time of winter dearth
Would a Russian despot see
From his land its produce flee?

Were we black Virginian slaves,
Bound and bruised with thongs and staves,
Avarice and selfish dread
Would not let us die unfed.

Were we, Saints of Heaven! were we
How we burn to think it -- FREE!
Not a grain should leave our shore,
Not for England's golden store.

They who hunger where it grew --
They whom Heaven had sent it to --
They who reared with sweat of brow --
They or none should have it now.

Forced to see them, day by day,
Snatch our sole resource away;
If returned a pittance be --
Alms, 'tis named, and beggars, we.

Lord! thy guiding wisdom grant,
Fearful counselor is WANT;
Burning thoughts will rise within,
Keep us pure from stain of sin!

But, at least, like trumpet blast,
Let it rouse us all at last;
Ye who cling to England's side!
Here and now, you see her tried.


  1. I remember reading that in the 16th and 17th centuries, there were more Irish slaves in the British west Indies than Africans. The British would capture and enslave Irish as needed, with the excuse of rebellion or no excuse at all, the plus was that Irish slaves were practically free, whereas Africans had to be purchased.
    Don Smith

  2. It's really kind of overwhelming. 80 million people of Irish descent living around the world mostly because their ancestors were driven out of their own homeland. Like my ancestors were driven out of Ireland from poverty, lack of opportunity, political problems. It just makes you wonder. Of course the British never paid a penny for their theft and brutality. Nothing. They still go around the world and claim to be a great beacon of freedom and democracy.

  3. NABNYC..Thank you for the brilliant piece ...Fellow Truth Seeker..Mary Lou McKeone

  4. Mary Lou: thanks for the kind words.

  5. I've been struggling with compulsive overeating lately, waves of sadness, and unable to get an awareness of what's going on. A good friend with psychic abilities told me last eve, "You have starving ancestors." I put out food (wife had potatoes made for us last eve, go figure) in a bowl that comes from my grandma'a farm in County Carlow for my ancestors. Exploring my sadness today of my Irish ancestors, your piece was very helpful. And no obsession or compulsive overeating today! Thank you.

  6. Anonymous: that's very interesting, and I would not dispute it. I have a friend who strongly believes that our ancestors' experiences are etched in our bones. It's why we hate the winter and the dark (they had to crawl into caves and hope they survived until spring).

    It's a shocking truth in the history of the Irish, for all of us: 80 million of us live permanently in exile because of the barbarity of the British.

    1. Yes and look at the Queen and family, cavorting around the world in glamour; the Queen as stiff-necked as Cromwell. No feelings have changed. No apology, altho Tony Blair's Irish Catholic wife got him to almost formally apologize for England. I really did not come out hating the winters or the dark. But, I did come out hating England, not the English individual. Except those like Cromwell and Psisley.
      But, its not about religion. As protestant W. Tone said, the English even used that to divide us. NO MORE. Let us use these quiet periods to meld together, protestant and catholic. We need to march together for one nation again; all for one and one Irish for all Irish! OK?
      lETS DO IT!

  7. The Irish of all religions had been used by the English system. I've read some on the famine. Yes a few Protestants were put in charge (used) and when the crops and the economy failed in those times, they were taxed out of existence and into poverty with their Catholic brothers and sisters...all part of the scheme of things (Ireland's problem then...not England's after milking it dry). Yet those poor mostly Catholic farmers in the West of Ireland suffered horrendously from the initial stages onward. Even the English who had or expressed humanitarian feelings were often ostracized and discredited for the sake of the English brand of a capitalist/class system...much as anyone who criticizes the excesses of the rich are today, only in those desperate times even much more so. Discord is sewn among peoples, rendering them less able to change their plight. Much of that implanted discord is the root for the troubles in the north of the country today...and the famine the egg that has hatched the divisions. It was the saddest of times, and a tragedy of unthinkable proportion.

  8. Anonymous, 3/20: quite true. Divide people into groups, get them fighting with each other so they cannot work together against their real enemies. So accurate.

  9. Irish history is too painful to be remembered accurately. In general the version
    that you read about either finds fault with the British govt. or with weather conditions.