Johnny O’Broderick was my first direct ancestor to emigrate from Ireland to the United States, eventually sending back enough money for his wife, Mary, to book passage and follow him a few years later.
In making the trek from his home in County Clare to the port where he debarked for New York, my great-grandfather would have passed through a landscape that was picturesque, bucolic—and post-apocalyptic. In the 1870s, that part of Ireland was a sparsely-populated underworld of abandoned shanties, crumbling stone walls separating overgrown fields, and weedy, frost-heaved roads leading to nowhere.
Ireland was still reeling from the after-effects of the Great Famine, which began a failed potato harvest in the fall of 1845 and whose end is usually dated to 1850, some 160 years ago this fall.
Never miss another story
Get the news you want, delivered to your inbox every day.
The cause of the blight was a fungus that originated in the Americas and then spread by way of shipping lanes to Europe and Ireland. While it attacked and destroyed newly harvested tubers wherever they were grown, its effects on Ireland went beyond lost revenue and the temporary uptick in hunger seen elsewhere.
From this remove, it is difficult to comprehend the central role the potato played in the life and survival of Ireland’s tenant farmers, in particular those who inhabited Connaught, the traditional name for the part of the country where indigenous Irish culture – including the Irish language – held out longest against English inroads; during his 17th Century attempt to exterminate the Irish, Oliver Cromwell declared that he would send all the Irish “to hell or Connaught!,” the two locations apparently interchangeable to his Puritan way of thinking.
In the mid-19th Century, tens of thousands of tenant farmers had to turn over virtually every grain of oats or barley they harvested to absentee-landlords, most of whom lived in London or Dublin and rarely set eyes upon their holdings. These farmers and the kind of large families we now know are produced by rural poverty subsisted on a monotonous but nonetheless nutritious diet of potatoes and buttermilk: like beans and rice, this combination provides almost all the amino acids needed by the body.
They did so, these peasants, because even in the one or two acres of sandy soil on which they were expected to grow everything they necessary for survival, it was possible to harvest enough potatoes—a remarkably productive crop—to meet basic needs. It is estimated that a typical adult Irish male in pre-Famine days could be expected to consume up to 14 pounds of potatoes a day. Despite poverty and persecution, the potato enabled the Irish peasantry to thrive after a fashion, so much so that on the eve of the famine, the country had a population of approximately six million.
But within five years some 1.5 million Irish had starved to death or died of the diseases that follow in starvation’s wake—flu, dysentery, typhus and typhoid fever. Another 1.5 million emigrated—fled—with tens of thousands dying of hunger and hunger-borne illnesses on so-called Coffin Ships awaiting clearance to sail. When the famine finally sputtered out, Ireland was left with a population half its former size—3 million as opposed to 6 million in 1845.
To a casual observer, the famine might seem like a natural disaster triggered by the rise in global trade and commerce. But it was more than that. Like New Orleans after Katrina, the Great Famine was a natural disaster augmented by a man-made catastrophe, the toll in death, disease, and dislocation made exponentially worse by political decisions taken at the top; in fact, almost all the famine deaths can be laid at the feet of of a heartless, laissez-faire ideology known in the 19th Century as economic “liberalism” (not to be confused with political liberalism with its calls for tolerance, individual liberty, and universal human rights). Today that heartless—and sublimely stupid—ideology has once more reared its Social Darwinist head under the name of “neo-liberalism.”
How can we be so sure that economic policy—and not God’s will—was responsible for most of the deaths in Ireland? A simple review of the history of those five awful years will suffice.
When the Tory government of British Prime Minister Robert Peel learned of the crop failure in 1845, it acted decisively and effectively to forestall the worst, ordering several shiploads of corn from the United States, which was then distributed for free to the Irish through a famine commission Whitehall established before the onset of winter. As a result, many Irish went hungry but almost no one died of starvation that first year.
But, to the incalculable woe of the Irish, Peel’s government would fall the following summer, victim of its own success in bringing relief to the hungry. In particular, its attempts to repeal the Corn Laws, which kept the price of the grain it was importing unnaturally high, alienated the government’s base among England’s great landholders. In July, 1845, Peel was replaced by Whig Prime Minister John Russell, an economic “liberal.”
When it became clear that the potato crop was going to fail again in 1846, Russell banned the free distribution of corn to the Irish. Such a move, according to the tenets of economic liberalism, violated the workings of the free market; government largesse, Whitehall believed, unjustly punished England’s grain factors—companies that sold and shipped grain for profit. It also rewarded “dependency” on the part of the “undeserving” Irish.
Henceforth, the starving Irish would have to earn money to pay those grain factors for corn the factors received at cost from the English government. A system of make-work projects was created. Many of these were road building endeavors in which Irish laborers were paid a set number of shillings for every foot of right-of-way they graded on a given day.
Unfortunately, then as now, economics was an inexact science practiced by men unwilling to alter ideology in the face of empirical evidence. As the blight wore on year by year, inflation set in and the price of grain shot up. The wages for the make-work projects, however, did not. Over time, the shillings the laborers earned could purchase less and less food. Growing hunger rendered the laborers weaker and weaker. As a result they could put in fewer and fewer feet of road bed every day. A vicious death spiral started to swirl, with thousands of laborers literally dropping dead on the job, at the ragged end of unfinished famine roads.
It took Ireland well over a century to recover from the impact of the Great Famine. But ironically, the very same ideology is getting ready to wreak havoc on the island again.
Only three years after being hailed by the neo-liberal commissariat as a shining example of laissez-faire free market success, Ireland is on the ropes, the victim of the speculative bubble triggered by neo-liberalism’s unvarying prescription for growth and prosperity—low taxes on corporations and the rich, elimination of any meaningful regulation of finance and banking, and an intentional blurring of the lines between commerce and government. Two years ago, when boom turned to bust, the Irish government stepped forward—as did ours—and, instead of allowing the banksters and financial scam artists both inside and outside Ireland to pay for their own folly, agreed to bail out the financial markets to “restore confidence.”
Today confidence has yet to be be restored, But as punishment for indulging in the same drunken behavior as did most of the industrial world, the Irish face draconian punishment.
In return for an EU bailout worth a measly $115 billion, the Irish government – for the moment led by the former finance minister of the previous government (i.e., the one that got into bed with the banksters)—has agreed to the harshest tax hikes and budget cuts in the nation’s history; the move will result in the loss of some 25,000 government jobs, escalating fees for schools, universities and government services, sharp reductions in government-backed pensions, and a 15 percent reduction in the country’s minimum wage.
If that weren’t bad enough, the bailout also stipulates that Ireland’s budget deficit shall not exceed 3 percent of GDP (an EU rule flouted by most EU members); by way of comparison, the U.S. budget deficit currently stands at about 20 percent of GDP. And with Ireland’s GDP in freefall, this 3 percent rule means that, far from being able to fund stimulus programs to get the economy moving again, the Dublin government will have to continue cutting its budget year after year as far as the eye can see.
This is the kind of savage austerity package usually levied by the IMF on developing nations in the Southern Hemisphere. That the austerity boom is being lowered on a western country which until recently boasted one of the fastest growth rates in the world is surprising to say the least, and a clear sign of just how ruthless the neo-liberal elites can be when it comes to turning on—and devouring—one of their own at the first sign of weakness.
The larger lesson to take away from this? Simple: The pro-lifers have it right. The spectre of a “culture of death” does, indeed, haunt the world. But that culture isn’t about abortion. The real culture of death is globalized neo-liberalism – the ideological descendent of the “liberalism” that depopulated Ireland in the 1840s. Neo-liberalism is just free market idolatry by another name – a fetishistic belief in the mysterious power of the market to make wise decisions about who and what posess any value.
n the mid-19th Century, when capitalism was still in its adolescence, perhaps there was an excuse for embracing such nonsense. Today, there can be no excuse. The history of the past 160 years has time and again revealed the utter lunacy of thinking the world will conform to free market precepts. “Ideology contradicts psychology,” Camus said. To psychology, let us add common sense. And common humanity.
Like liberalism, and the imperialism to whose predations it gave ideological cover, neo-liberalism demands that we act from the conviction that the world and everything and everyone in it are nothing more than dead objects, “resources” to be exploited, exhausted, and excreted when no longer of any “value.”
While we commonly describe as “materialistic” the Stage 4 Consumer Capitalism that neo-liberalism lauds and promotes, it is important to note that this ideology is, in fact, anti-materialistic; is, in reality, inimical to the material world that provides the very basis of human survival. Neo-liberalism deals in abstractions—money, resources, debt, capitalization—not in tangible reality. It operates at the behest of a class of vampires and addicts who harbor delusions that, when the end comes, they will be able to escape to some gated fantasy land where they and theirs will be safe from the ecological collapse they have precipitated.
Touring the West of Ireland during and after the Great Famine, travelers often compared what they witnessed to the End of World.
In the 1840s, that apocalypse was confined to one region of a small, impoverished, ruthlessly colonized nation. This time around, few if any will starve — but many will certainly go hungry — because of Ireland’s contemporary turmoil. Even so, the crisis is merely another benchmark on the path to a much wider, global collapse – not just financial, but, as during the Great Famine, ecological as well.
And this time around, there will be no New World to which survivors can escape. This time around, global capital is outfitting the entire planet as a vast Coffin Ship to be set adrift, lifeless, upon the ether.
Rich Broderick (email [email protected] lives in St. Paul and teaches journalism at Anoka-Ramsey Community College. Rich is a writer, poet, and social activist.