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March 15, 2000

Sites Remember the Irish Potato Famine

By MICHAEL POLLAK
In 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 event."

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."


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