Letter: Irish Potato Famine continues

These patterns of poverty, power, inequality and food exports amidst starvation exist even more glaringly.

To the editor:

Although my paternal grandfather Barney Haley was one of the millions of Irish immigrants to the USA in the early 20th century, “Wear green on St. Patrick’s Day or get pinched” pretty much sums up the Irish-American ‘curriculum’ that I learned when I was in school.

Later I recall mention of the so-called Potato Famine described as though it was a natural disaster like an earthquake or tsunami. Only as an adult reading books like Thomas Gallagher’s Paddy’s Lament did I learn that, during the first winter of famine 1846-47, perhaps 400,000 Irish peasants starved while landlords exported 17 million pounds sterling worth of grain, cattle, pigs, flour, eggs, and poultry—food that could have prevented those deaths.

Throughout the famine, as Gallagher notes, there was an abundance of food produced in Ireland, yet the landlords exported it to markets abroad. Worse, British tax policy required landlords to pay the local taxes of their poorest tenant farmers, leading many landlords to evict struggling farmers at gunpoint and burn their cottages in order to save money

Today, more than a century and a half later, when we produce more food than ever before, these patterns of poverty, power, inequality and food exports amidst starvation exist even more glaringly.

I hope today’s students will learn about and reflect on these contradictions and explore what happens when food and land are regarded purely as commodities in a global system of profit.

So go ahead, have a pint of stout, wear a bit of green and put on the Chieftains. But let’s honour the Irish with our curiosity and respect, by studying the social forces that starved and uprooted over a million Irish—and that are starving and uprooting people today.

Mark Haley, Kelowna