Pataki and Potatoes

Half-baked ideas about Irish history.

By Franklin Foer

After 150 years of calculated disregard, the Irish potato famine has suddenly forced itself onto the U.S. political scene. Thanks to a bill signed by New York Gov. George Pataki, starting next fall, high school students in his state will be legally required to study the Irish potato famine. The legislation amends a 1994 act that mandated students take a course on human rights violations “with particular attention to the study of the inhumanity of genocide, slavery and the Holocaust.” Now the mandate also covers “the mass starvation of the Irish between 1845 and 1850.”

Similar bills are pending in other states, and a bill pending in Congress would require the Department of Education to include the potato famine in all the model curricula it concocts. Meanwhile, organizers of the upcoming St. Patrick’s Day parade in New York have made the famine the “theme” for this year’s march, claiming it’s a much under-studied instance of genocide. And groups have lobbied for the issue of a U.S. postage stamp commemorating the 150th anniversary of the calamity.

The campaign bespeaks the transformation of Irish-American life. When the Irish were on the way up, intent on mastering and merging into American society, they viewed the Great Hunger as a somewhat shameful episode–a tragedy to be cordoned off in the past and overcome. Now that most have made it, the ethnic remnant that once ruled Tammany Hall, Albany, and Boston, and anointed the governors and presidents, has retreated into victimology.

Even though Irish-Americans face virtually no discrimination, some have embraced a politics modeled after the campaigns of African-Americans and Native Americans demanding their fair historical due–that American institutions recognize their old hardships. Tammany Tiger has died and come back as the Ancient Order of Hibernians, the American Irish Teachers Association, the Irish American Foundation, and the Irish-American Caucus–interest groups and old fraternal orders playing new breed-identity politics.

But the potato-famine campaign, and the historical interpretation it aims to canonize, has more to do with the present than the past.

Like the Holocaust for the Jews or slavery for African-Americans, the potato famine is the omnipresent, haunting presence in Irish history. Consider the event’s magnitude. At the start of the famine in 1845, nearly 9 million people lived in Ireland. Five years later, the population had dwindled to 6.5 million: Two million had emigrated, and over 1 million had died.

The famine is also synonymous with British oppression. Kept alive by folk tradition, the idea now reverberates in political symbols and pop culture. In speeches, Gerry Adams, the head of Sinn Fein, the Irish Republican Army’s political wing, continues to evoke the famine to condemn British occupation of Northern Ireland. IRA prisoners held by the British have famously used hunger striking, in part to allude to the famine–the most monumental historical example of British tyranny. Or take folk rocker Sinead O’Connor’s song “Famine,” released two years ago. Its lyrics argue that labeling the calamity “famine” fails to draw enough attention to the British role in provoking it.

These arguments draw on an interpretation of the famine that has flourished since the event itself. It goes like this: In 1845, the fungus Phytophora infestans arrived on the Isle of Wight, off the coast of England, when an infected potato peel from an American ship washed ashore. Within two months the blight had spread across Europe, from Ireland to Scandinavia. But because of a deliberate British policy, the Irish bore the brunt. Ireland’s British rulers refused to curtail exports of wheat from the country, which could have fed thousands, and heartless absentee British landlords evicted starving tenants. For their part, the British claimed that laissez-faire policy precluded intervention in the market to halt the crisis, and that the Irish needed to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. But, the interpretation goes, it was really racism and anti-Catholicism that led the Brits to sit on their hands.

By treating the potato famine as a human rights violation, the Pataki potato amendment in New York assumes a variation of this interpretation. Natural disasters don’t violate human rights. As in the case of slavery and the Holocaust, alongside which the famine will be taught, there must be a culprit. And that would be the British. Pataki made this explicit at the bill’s Albany signing ceremony: “History teaches us that the Great Hunger was not the result of a massive Irish crop failure, but rather a deliberate campaign by the British to deny the Irish people the food they needed to survive.”

T oo bad for the kids who will be taught this partisan line; most recent historical evidence doesn’t support it. In the 1960s, a revisionist school of economic historians proved that limiting wheat exports would have made only a puny dent in the calamity. British action wouldn’t have mattered. In addition, British intervention to assist the starving assumes a more contemporary idea of the state’s responsibilities that doesn’t jibe with mid-19th-century realities. If Ireland got hit hardest by the famine, it was because it depended more heavily on the potato for sustenance than other countries.

Although scholarship continues to ascribe some culpability to the British–for instance, the British did contribute to the Irish dependence on potatoes–most historians emphasize the famine was primarily a natural disaster, and conclude that British inaction was hardly part of a deliberate plan.

Even the Irish–the ones in Ireland–have distanced themselves from the New York legislation. The Irish Times, one of the country’s leading newspapers, questioned the hyperbolic rhetoric of the amendment’s supporters in the state assembly. And an Irish government official, recently in the United States for a symposium on the famine, has refuted Pataki’s description of the famine and distanced the Irish government from the New York law.

Yet New York state senators and legislators privately admit they assented to the legislation because they were impressed with the ferocity of the support for the bill. “It’s pork,” concedes one assemblyman from upstate who voted for the measure. “A necessary move to get the Irish vote. We all have Irish constituents in our district, and they care.” Another representative of Irish descent (from Syracuse), who vocally opposed the bill with the argument that the legislature shouldn’t dictate high-school curricula, has received threatening phone calls that accused him of selling out his people. Other opponents were deluged with calls, denouncing them as “anti-Irish bigots.” And that was after the bill passed overwhelmingly.

It’s a sectarian sort of reaction: Either you are for us or against us. And it’s symptomatic. Irish-Americans have fewer doubts about the more radical Irish nationalism than do most Irish. For instance, Irish-Americans have celebrated the Sinn Fein, which raises the bulk of its funds in the United States. Yet, the party has never garnered more than 15 percent of the vote in an election in Northern Ireland, and last year won only 2 percent of the vote in Irish elections.

This tendency for descendants of immigrants to take a harder line on nationalistic issues than the folks still living back in the old country is not, of course, peculiar to Irish-Americans. It’s the “Diaspora chic” Eric Liu described earlier in Slate: the recent tendency of American minorities to think of themselves as communities in exile, a component of the greater national obsession with finding one’s roots. It is evident in Irish-Americans’ increased visits to Ireland (the Irish American Foundation calls them “pilgrimages”); the burgeoning membership of fraternal organizations like the Ancient Order of Hibernians (now at 100,000); and rising contributions to groups like the American Friends of Sinn Fein (in 1995, it raised a record $1.3 million).

The lure of the diaspora may be more atavistic for Irish-Americans than other groups. About 30 years ago, it seemed Irish-Americans would cease to identify strongly as Irish-Americans. John F. Kennedy’s election to the White House and the success of celebrities like Grace Kelly proved that the WASP establishment, which long impeded access to Irish-Americans, was crumbling. Because Irishness meant less to society, it meant less to the Irish. Along with mass culture, the advent of television and movies worked to eliminate the differences among ethnic groups. Also, suburbanization shattered the old urban institutions, the pubs and fraternal societies, that once provided the ballast for Irish communities.

When an identity is contrived or reconstructed in exile after a long fallow period of nonidentification–as in the potato-famine campaign–it’s bound to be more radical than the real thing, like the religious convert who becomes more zealous than those born into a religion. The emotional connection to the motherland becomes more intense than the connection to reality. The result is romanticization: Terrorist groups like the IRA become freedom fighters, and a blight becomes genocide.