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Specimen of a potato infected with Phytophthora Infestans and collected by John Lindley in 1846 at the Royal Botanical Garden, Dublin, Ireland.

How blight caused the Great Irish Famine

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Specimen of a potato infected with Phytophthora Infestans and collected by John Lindley in 1846 at the Royal Botanical Garden, Dublin, Ireland.

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!”

On 32nd Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, a black was hung from a tree and his house burned. An army officer who had tried to stop the mobs was trapped on 33rd Street, between First and Second Avenues. He was beaten to death and the mob played with his body for hours, as a kitten does with a spool.

At six p.m. on the second night of the rioting, a mob of 600 Irish attacked a corner of Baxter and Leonard Streets in which 20 black families lived. The police arrived at this point, two platoons of them, led by three sergeants, listed in the records as Walsh, Quinn and Kennedy. The patrolmen under them were all Irish. At this time, 90 percent of the police force was Irish: Irish with their trait of loyalty. And loyalty was stronger than stone. There was no question what the police would do: protect the black families and then attack the mob, this mob of Irish. Attack them and beat them and club them and force them to break and run, and chase them down the streets and beat them so they would have no stomach to return for more.

During the three-day riot, the rioters killed 18 blacks. There could have been thousands killed without the police intervention. The police and army units killed 1,200 rioters. Seven thousand were injured. General Harvey Brown, in charge of the army troops, said of New York’s Irish police department: “Never in our civil or military life have I ever seen such untiring devotion or such efficient service.”

In the history of the Police Department of the City of New York, it was the act that first caused people to call them “The Finest.” That it came as the result of having to quell savage assaults by other Irish is something that should neither be hidden nor explained away.

Remember it. It happened 114 years ago, which is a short time as the history of the earth is measured. Remember it, and do not condone it. But at the same time know about it. Know by being told what Yeats knew by instinct: the effect of something like this leaf in the glass in the room in Cambridge.

I gave the man back his books, said thank you and left the Herbarium and went to the airport in Boston for the shuttle to New York. I had to be at a wake in Brooklyn, in the Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhood. My friend Mabel Mabry’s nephew, Allen Burnett, had been murdered. He was walking along Bedford Avenue and somebody shot him in the back because Allen would not give up his new coat. After the wake, I rode in the cab past the place where Allen was murdered. Bedford Avenue at this part, Kosciusko Street, is empty. The buildings have been burned and the sidewalks are covered in glass. In an empty lot alongside a boarded-up building, a pack of dogs rooted through garbage that had been thrown there during the day. Weeds grew in the lot. The weeds made me think of the curled-up dark brown leaf I had seen earlier that day.

The article was written by Jimmy Breslin in 1977 and republished by Irish America in 1986 and October/November 2000.

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