How blight caused the Great Irish Famine
Jimmy Breslin explores the history of blight in Irelan
As I was reading this, I began to think of the crumbling stone building on Bantry Bay, in Cork. The ruin stands right on the bay, at a point where the rocky shore builds up to great cliffs that go along flat, deep water until the water begins to rise and fall in great swells and suddenly the land ends and now it is ocean, not bay, slapping against the bottom of the cliff and sending spray high into the air, up to the top of the cliff. The ruins sit in a tangle of rough brush and are difficult to reach.
In 1845, at the height of the famine, the place was a granary. Each day, while Irishmen died with their mouths stained green from eating grass, the British worked this granary and filled sacks that were placed on ships and sent to England. Near the end, when there were no people able to work in the fields and supply the granary, the British announced that the building would be donated to the people. It could be used as a Children’s Home, which is a twisted way of saying what it actually became: a morgue for children who died of not having food. The bodies of children were stacked floor to ceiling in the granary.
And now, in this room in Cambridge, with the time passing and the man in charge finding you still more to read about fungus and famine, the line in the English language I always think of first walked through my mind in all its stateliness and wisdom: “Too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart.”
The sons of this famine burned an orphanage in New York City. It was called the Colored Orphan Asylum, of course; when the maimed poor anywhere lash out, they seek not the blood of dukes and earls, but rather victims such as they. The Colored Orphan Asylum was on Fifth Avenue, between 43rd and 44th Streets.
At three p.m, on Sunday, July 12, 1863, a crowd of nearly 4,000 Irish broke through the front gate of the orphanage, rushed across the lawns and broke inside. The orphanage officials managed to sneak 400 terrified black orphans out of the back door and take them to the safety of a police station. The mob of Irish, meanwhile, ransacked and burned the orphanage. And throughout the city, mobs of Irish, their hearts shale, their souls dead, rioted and killed blacks.
I always thought it was important to know what happens to men when their insides become stone. The violence, the illegal acts, are not to be condoned. But I always want to know why it is that all people, even those of your own, lose control of the devils inside them. Perhaps something can be learned.
The riots in New York are called in history books “The Draft Riots.” But at the time the newspapers referred to them as the “Irish Riots.” The government in 1863 set up a military draft for New York, a lottery, but one from which any citizen could buy himself out for $300. Which excluded the Irish, who barely had money for dinner.
The first drawing was held on Saturday, July 11. When the names were published in the Sunday morning newspapers, growls ran through the tenements where the Irish lived. Soon, people were out in the streets, carrying anything that would hurt, and with their first violence, their first beatings, their first fires, the word struck them, as similar words have sunk into any thrashing crowds throughout history. In Odessa, the crew of the Potemkin mutinied and the people were fighting the troops on the steps rising from the harbor and then somebody screamed the word: “Jews!” It became not a fight against authority anymore; it was a pogrom. And in Manhattan, in 1863, here were the Irish, the sons of famine, out in the streets against the injustice of a system that would allow the rich to buy out of a danger in which the poor must perish. And suddenly, inevitably, as the water of a wave turns to white, the word races through the crowd: “Niggers!”
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