March 15, 2000
Sites Remember the Irish Potato Famine
By MICHAEL POLLAK
n May 1997, at a ceremony in Cork, Ireland,
commemorating those who suffered and died in the great Irish
famine, which began in 1845, Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain said:
"That one million people should have died in what was then part of the
richest and most powerful nation in the world is something that still
causes pain as we reflect on it today. Those who governed in London
at the time failed their people through standing by while a crop failure
turned into a massive human tragedy. We must not forget such a dreadful
In the last few years, as Irish movies, dance, books and
plays have enjoyed a surge of popularity in the United States, a
number of Web sites have emerged to ensure that the famine, which Mr.
Blair called "a defining event in the history of Ireland and of
Britain," will not be forgotten.
Perhaps the most thorough treatment is a 117-page curriculum guide
for teachers sponsored by the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust
Education. It is available for downloading at www.nde.state.ne.us/SS/irish_famine.html,
thanks to an Irish education coalition that persuaded the
Nebraska Department of Education to put it online. The site is also
linked or listed online by the education departments of Illinois,
Massachusetts, Idaho and Colorado.
It was prepared by James V. Mullin of Moorestown, N.J., a former
teacher and law librarian. In 1995, he began putting together a
synopsis on the famine for the Holocaust Commission, which was
assembling similar guides on the persecutions and mass deaths of
Cambodians, Armenians, American Indians and African slaves. The online
curriculum is free. (Another resource site about the famine is at www.people.Virginia.EDU/~eas5e/Irish/biblio.html.)
Mr. Mullin, who was educated in parochial schools, said, "I was
taught basically that the Irish only wanted to grow potatoes
because they loved them so much, and then when the potato crop died,
the Irish couldn't think of anything else to eat." He agreed
with the historians he consulted that the famine could not be
understood apart from British colonial misrule in Ireland.
But it was odd how little teaching existed about the famine and the
policies that led to it and worsened it, he said. Jonathan Swift's
"Modest Proposal," about eating Irish babies to reduce the
surplus population, is routinely taught in English literature courses
as a supreme example of irony, he noted, but it is less often taught
in English history classes, where it would acquire a needed context.
The heavily footnoted and attributed guide takes Ireland
through Neolithic times through the Viking and Norman invasions and
into the era of colonial domination, British plantations and the
absentee landlord system, laissez-faire economics, the poorhouses, the
relief efforts and the anti-relief efforts, and the emigration in what
were called coffin ships.
"Between 1845 and 1850, more than a million Irish people
starved to death while massive quantities of food were being exported
from their country," it begins.
The guide covers the English penal and administrative laws that
reduced the native Irish to second-class citizens. A section on
racism depicts some of the cartoons that helped foster Irish
stereotypes. (The publication of Darwin's "On the Origin of the
Species" in 1859 was soon followed by an upsurge in caricatures of
Irishmen as monkeys.)
There are horrific depictions of beggars, of skeletal children, of
a man staggering to the graveyard carrying his dead wife. Equally
horrific are the quotes from Parliament on the folly of upsetting
"natural law" by aiding the starving, and the economic wisdom of
encouraging their eviction (in the dead of winter) and their
emigration (in ships with mortality rates of more than 50 percent).
There is a discussion of genocide, and historians and political
theorists are quoted on the differences between the planned
extermination of a people or a culture and the prejudice and culpable
neglect that produce the same result.
The curriculum has been revised to add a section on poetry of the
famine and to remove a few lines that might unfairly characterize
Britain today. But Mr. Mullin said he was disappointed at how many
people assumed, wrongly, that the curriculum was anti-British or an
Irish nationalist project.
"People are always saying we're comparing it to the Holocaust when
we've never done that, and we never will do that," he said. "There is
a passive genocide. You can allow people to die." Comparisons with
famines in Ukraine, in China under the Great Leap Forward or among the
Indians are always inexact, he said, "but the comparisons have to be
made if we're going to learn anything."
These sites are not part of The
New York Times on the Web, and The Times has no control over their
content or availability.