The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” the writer William Faulkner said.
I was peeling potatoes for dinner when blindly reaching into the plastic bag my fingers felt something soft, and then the smell hit me. I upended the bag and there was the rotten potato. No big deal really, in the scheme of things, but as I looked at the offending lumper, already infecting the other potatoes around it, I was filled with a kind of despair far beyond what the situation warranted.
I’ve always felt that there is such a thing as historic memory, that we can be affected by things unknown to us but that were experienced by someone of an earlier generation, so perhaps I was experiencing something of what my great-grandmother who lived through the Famine must have felt that summer of 1845 when the blight was first discovered.
I was about six or seven when I first heard of the great starvation (about the same age as my great-grandmother would have been in 1845). I can still see the teacher, Mrs. Murray, seated at her desk in the front of the classroom and hear her telling the story. “They had to eat grass,” she said. Walking home from school later that day, I looked at the grass that grew along the side of the road, and in the field when I crossed over the stile to take the shortcut to our house, Mrs. Murray’s words rang out in my ears.
I know I’ve written about this before, but I am as haunted today about that period in Irish history as I was when I was a child. Nothing was ever the same for me after that. I know that sounds dramatic, but I looked at things differently from then on.
I grew up on a beautiful farm in Tipperary. My brother and his family live there now. The pond in the front field (the field we grandly called the lawn) used to freeze over in winter. My brothers once made me try my roller skates on the ice to disastrous results. The skates, a gift from my city-dwelling aunt, soon fell to rust, as there was no concrete to practice on. Behind the pond there was a row of fine beech trees where I learned to climb and all manner of things. And in the fields beyond: a wild cherry tree, a lilac tree, wild flowers, bog cotton, streams and wild berries.
It was magical. But I believed there was a haunted quality to the land too. This was partly due to my father’s penchant for ghost stories. He heard the banshee, knew of gates that never shut, heard a bird rap on the window, the sign of a death coming. Sitting around the fire one night he looked up and said with conviction, “Jim Grace just walked across the room.” (Jim, once a workman on the farm, had been dead for some time).
But it was more than my father’s stories. When workmen, digging the foundation for a new cow house, found the body of a young woman who had died in Famine times, they found my ghost.
The old road to town used to pass through our farm (which wasn’t our farm back then), and this young woman had died on the side of that road. My mother had a mass said for her and arranged, if I’ve got this straight, to have the skeleton buried in the graveyard adjacent to our farm.
Over a half a million people were evicted during the Famine. The numbers were the highest in my home county -- 7.9 percent of the population in just 1847 alone – about 55 thousand people. (The population never recovered. In 1841 the population was 435,553; today it stands at around 140,000).
“The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” the writer William Faulkner said.
Images of the homeless, starving Irish haunt me as I watch scenes of Haiti’s devastation. I think of the thousands of Famine Irish who are buried in mass graves, as the Haitians are now being buried.
Like the Irish, the Haitians have endured a long history of exploitation and misery. The French, who sailed to Ireland to support the rebels against the British in the 1798 Rebellion, were brutal in their colonization of Haiti.
Napoleon recalled General Humbert who succeeded in landing a force near Killala, County Mayo, to quell an uprising on the island. Eventually, the Haitians won out.
Evangelical preacher Pat Robinson says the Haitians are being punished for having made a “pact” with the devil to free themselves of the French. [The Haitians practice Roman Catholicism with a mix of voodoo].
God’s punishment of the Irish is referred to in many texts on the Famine. One evangelical group said the Irish Catholics underwent a famine because “they lacked the knowledge of God -- they were superstitious and idolatrous.” The group petitioned for the withholding of relief because it would “support the existence of popery' and encourage degradation, misery and vice. Rather than provide food, clothing and shelter, every cabin in Ireland should be provided with “the word of God.”
“God works in mysterious ways,” my mother would say. The phenomenal outpouring of aid for Haiti shows me that there are many who are doing God’s work, and the Irish number large among them.
“People in Ireland giver more per capita towards third world relief than any other people,” Siobhan Walsh, the US head of the Irish relief organization Concern Worldwide said. That strong empathy for others, borne out of the suffering of our ancestors, is present in many Irish Americans too.
Concern has been in Haiti since 1994. They are often the first responders to a disaster and they stay long after other aid organizations have gone. I traveled to Southern Sudan with Concern and I saw first-hand what they do.
If you are would like to help the people of Haiti, you can do it through Concern. Do it for you. Do it for your ancestors, because “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
The history behind “When Irish Eyes are Smiling”