We entered a cabin. Stretched in one dark corner, scarcely visible from the smoke and rags that covered them were three children huddled together, lying there because they were much too weak to rise, pale and ghostly, their little limbs perfectly emaciated, eyes sunk, voice gone and evidently in the last stages of starvation.
These children, who died over 150 years ago, are our children, bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh. They belong to us. Since we cannot save them, and the million more who perished like them, we have an obligation not to forget them. We should also remember, of course, those who escaped – the 2 million and more who left Irish shores for new worlds. But even many of these perished in the course of their passage in the foul holds of the coffin ships that bore them over the ocean.
None of this had to happen. Historians are just beginning to take account of the enormity of what did happen – the refusal by what was then the richest country in the world to mend the injustice that it was solely responsible for and allow the innocent to live. 1848, the very year the English economist hoped for more than a million deaths, saw the formation of Young Ireland, a movement that called for the ownership of Irish land by Irish people. One of its founders, John Mitchel, the son of a Presbyterian minister, wrote the epitaph for these terrible times: “The Almighty indeed sent a potato blight,” said he, “but the English created a Famine.”
Today, even conservative economists no longer hold to the cruel theories advanced by Charles Trevelyan; and it is hard to imagine the United States of America, the richest country in the world, allowing such a catastrophe to take place at its borders. But the poverty that precedes famine is still everywhere present in our world, as close as Mexico, Haiti, and Central America, as near to us as Roxbury and the South Bronx. We continue to blame the poor for being poor, we continue to advance the theory that children must suffer hunger for their parents’ supposed irresponsibility. As the sun makes its journey west today, half the world’s children will go to bed hungry. One out of seven is facing actual starvation. There is no lack of food in our world, any more than there was in nineteenth century Britain; the only lack is in our willingness to distribute it justly. There is an organization in Washington, D.C. called Bread for the World which lobbies Congress for the adequate distribution of food. Joining this organization is one way of remembering those who starved. For all the hurt and hungry children in our world today are bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh. They all belong to us.
But there are many ways of remembering. The numerous Famine memorials dotting North America also serve as a permanent and eloquent reminder that there is no economic theory so sacred that it deserves to be held in higher honor than a hungry child and that there is never any good reason for anyone to starve to death. For more information on Bread for the World, call 1-800-82-BREAD or visit www.bread.org This article was published in Irish America, Dec/Jan 2000