On this Saint Patrick’s Day, that most American of Irish festivals, I don’t think I can surpass the thoughts and musings of the itinerant author John Dolan, the War Nerd himself, writing for Pando in this seminal article from 2015. Describing the arrival of tens of thousands of traumatised Irish exiles in New York City in the mid-19th century, the Colorado-born writer notes that they:
…swarmed ashore from a home island that was more like Andersonville POW camp than anything from the Irish Spring commercials. It was a death camp, and it did a very good job. Ireland in 1845 was as densely populated as Java is now, with the same pattern of intense rural settlement and a population of nine million. By 1900 the population of Ireland was about three million. Nassau Senior, the leading British political economist at the time of the Famine, worried that it “…would not kill more than one million people, and that would scarcely be enough to do any good.” Moving right along, we have Lord Trevelyan, who called the Famine “…a judgment of God upon an indolent people,” which “we must not ameliorate overmuch”—do I have to dig up those other quotes, and get that pain in the left arm again? Read Amartya Senif you have a taste for this stuff. I can only do it in short bursts, holding my breath.
I don’t want to talk about it; no one did, then or now. Tennyson accepted an invitation to a vampire buddy’s Irish country house in the middle of the Famine, stipulating that he not hear one word about “Irish distress,” and insisting that the shades be pulled all the way down in the carriage he took from one Dracula castle to another. He managed not to see a single corpse.
It was a peculiar kind of genocide, quiet and still, no “violence.” It’s one thing to survive a death camp that has the decency to look and act like Hell; it’s another, and maybe worse experience to crawl out of a “free market” genocide like the Irish one, blamed alternately on botany, economics, and genetic inferiority. Nobody was shooting the Irish; the market had spoken, and it wanted them dead; or the superiority of the Saxon races had spoken, and doomed them; or the potato had betrayed them…
It was, it seemed, their own fault, a blameless crime.
Survivors of a genocide as crazy as that one were… damaged. And there were survivors, just as Nassau Senior feared there would be. Some of the doomed peasants were bundled onto the cheapest hulks that could float and dumped on the east coast of the US. They hit the docks in a state that would now be called extreme PTSD compounded by absolute destitution, and total inexperience with commercial, urban life.
It seemed, to the nervous Yankee elite of New York City, like an invasion of zombies, fast zombies of the 28 Days Later variety. Monsters. This loathing endured longer, and was voiced by more respectable figures, than you might suppose…
Here are some samples of what the Famine Irish got up to when they hit the streets of NYC:
55% of those arrested NYC in the 1850′s were Irish-born
35% of the prostitutes arrested in NYC in 1858 were Irish-born
70% of all admissions to Bellevue Hospital (NYC’s public hospital) in the 1850s were Irish
85% of foreign-born admissions to Bellevue Hospital (NYC’s public hospital) in the 1850s were Irish
63% of foreign-born admissions to the NYC Alms House (Poor House) 1849-1858 were Irish
56% of all prison NYC Prison commitments in 1858 were Irish-born
74% of foreign-born prison NYC Prison commitments in 1858 were Irish-born
70% of persons convicted of disorderly conduct NYC Courts of Special Sessions, 1859, were Irish-born
74% of persons convicted of drunk and disorderly conduct NYC Courts of Special Sessions, 1859, were Irish-born
While it has become fashionable to downplay or satirise the contribution of people from Ireland to the development of the United States of America, the historical truth is greater than the myths and hyperbole obscuring it. As several historians have pointed out in recent times, roughly the same number of Irish people perished during the four years of the American Civil War as died during the four years of World War One. Yet the apologists for British rule over the island of Ireland have raised the commemoration of losses incurred while defending global imperialism above the causalities incurred while ending chattel slavery. The provocative symbol of empire, the blood-red poppy, is displayed with supremacist pride while those who would seek to remember a nobler cause are ignored or disdained.
The real meaning of Saint Patrick’s Day is not to be found on the streets of Dublin and Belfast or Cork and Derry. It is to be found with the Irish of Glasgow and London, New York and Boston, Sydney and Melbourne, and countless other places around the world.