The Real Irish American Story Not Taught in Schools

"Wear green on St. Patrick's Day or get pinched." That pretty much sums up the Irish American "curriculum" that I learned when I was in school. Yes, I recall a nod to the so-called Potato Famine, but it was mentioned only in passing.What is not often taught in schools or known by the many who routinely celebrate St. Patrick's Day, is that throughout the Irish 'Potato famine' there was an abundance of food produced in Ireland, yet the landlords exported it to markets abroad.

Sadly, today's high school textbooks continue to largely ignore the famine, despite the fact that it was responsible for unimaginable suffering and the deaths of more than a million Irish peasants, and that it triggered the greatest wave of Irish immigration in U.S. history. Nor do textbooks make any attempt to help students link famines past and present.

Yet there is no shortage of material that can bring these dramatic events to life in the classroom. In my own high school social studies classes, I begin with Sinead O'Connor's haunting rendition of "Skibbereen," which includes the verse:

... Oh it's well I do remember, that bleak
December day,
The landlord and the sheriff came, to drive
Us all away
They set my roof on fire, with their cursed
English spleen
And that's another reason why I left old

By contrast, Holt McDougal's U.S. history textbook The Americans, devotes a flat two sentences to "The Great Potato Famine." Prentice Hall's America: Pathways to the Present fails to offer a single quote from the time. The text calls the famine a "horrible disaster," as if it were a natural calamity like an earthquake. And in an awful single paragraph, Houghton Mifflin's The Enduring Vision: A History of the American People blames the "ravages of famine" simply on "a blight," and the only contemporaneous quote comes, inappropriately, from a landlord, who describes the surviving tenants as "famished and ghastly skeletons." Uniformly, social studies textbooks fail to allow the Irish to speak for themselves, to narrate their own horror.

These timid slivers of knowledge not only deprive students of rich lessons in Irish-American history -- they exemplify much of what is wrong with today's curricular reliance on corporate-produced textbooks.

First, does anyone really think that students will remember anything from the books' dull and lifeless paragraphs? Today's textbooks contain no stories of actual people. We meet no one, learn nothing of anyone's life, encounter no injustice, no resistance. This is a curriculum bound for boredom. As someone who spent almost 30 years teaching high school social studies, I can testify that students will be unlikely to seek to learn more about events so emptied of drama, emotion, and humanity.

Nor do these texts raise any critical questions for students to consider. For example, it's important for students to learn that the crop failure in Ireland affected only the potato -- during the worst famine years, other food production was robust. Michael Pollan notes in The Botany of Desire, "Ireland's was surely the biggest experiment in monoculture ever attempted and surely the most convincing proof of its folly." But if only this one variety of potato, the Lumper, failed, and other crops thrived, why did people starve?

Thomas Gallagher points out in Paddy's Lament, that during the first winter of famine, 1846-47, as perhaps 400,000 Irish peasants starved, landlords exported 17 million pounds sterling worth of grain, cattle, pigs, flour, eggs, and poultry -- food that could have prevented those deaths. Throughout the famine, as Gallagher notes, there was an abundance of food produced in Ireland, yet the landlords exported it to markets abroad.

The school curriculum could and should ask students to reflect on the contradiction of starvation amidst plenty, on the ethics of food exports amidst famine. And it should ask why these patterns persist into our own time.

More than a century and a half after the "Great Famine," we live with similar, perhaps even more glaring contradictions. Raj Patel opens his book, Stuffed and Starved: Markets, Power and the Hidden Battle for the World's Food System: "Today, when we produce more food than ever before, more than one in ten people on Earth are hungry. The hunger of 800 million happens at the same time as another historical first: that they are outnumbered by the one billion people on this planet who are overweight."

Patel's book sets out to account for "the rot at the core of the modern food system." This is a curricular journey that our students should also be on -- reflecting on patterns of poverty, power, and inequality that stretch from 19th-century Ireland to 21st-century Africa, India, Appalachia, and Oakland -- that explore what happens when food and land are regarded purely as commodities in a global system of profit.

But today's corporate textbook-producers are no more interested in feeding student curiosity about this inequality than were British landlords interested in feeding Irish peasants. Take Pearson, the global publishing giant. At its website, the corporation announces (redundantly) that "we measure our progress against three key measures: earnings, cash and return on invested capital." The Pearson empire had 2011 worldwide sales of more than $9 billion -- that's nine thousand million dollars, as I might tell my students. Multinationals like Pearson have no interest in promoting critical thinking about an economic system whose profit-first premises they embrace with gusto.

As mentioned, there is no absence of teaching materials on the Irish famine that can touch head and heart. In a role play, "Hunger on Trial," that I wrote and taught to my own students in Portland, Ore. -- included at the Zinn Education Project website -- students investigate who or what was responsible for the famine. The British landlords, who demanded rent from the starving poor and exported other food crops? The British government, which allowed these food exports and offered scant aid to Irish peasants? The Anglican Church, which failed to denounce selfish landlords or to act on behalf of the poor? A system of distribution, which sacrificed Irish peasants to the logic of colonialism and the capitalist market?

These are rich and troubling ethical questions. They are exactly the kind of issues that fire students to life and allow them to see that history is not simply a chronology of dead facts stretching through time.

So go ahead: Have a Guinness, wear a bit of green, and put on the Chieftains. But let's honor the Irish with our curiosity. Let's make sure that our schools show some respect, by studying the social forces that starved and uprooted over a million Irish -- and that are starving and uprooting people today.

Comment by Nikki on March 17, 2012 at 4:04pm

I learned the real story awhile back as Bigelow states about the potato famine by watching History Channel. They always have a lot of Irish history programs around St. Patrick's Day. The history taught in schools is worthless and they might as well cut it like they've cut everything else.  It's just memorizing facts and dates in order to pass tests.

Here's the link for this article:

  Comment by Nikki on March 17, 2012 at 4:26pm

That's right Amy. They discuss this on the genealogy forums.

  Comment by Quickening on March 18, 2012 at 2:59pm

Um, the first slaves were mostly English in the Great Migration of early 1600's, convicts and endentures.

Another thing we're learning from DNA and archeology is that the first settlers in the Americas were European more than 10000 years ago before the influx of mongoloid people across the Bering Strait.

  Comment by Nikki on March 18, 2012 at 3:26pm

@Quickening, you might like this

Comment by P.J.Kelley on March 18, 2012 at 4:03pm
You can trace the roots of The Irish Holocaust to Cromwell's invasion. Cromell was a militant anti- Papist, having converted to Protestantism so his king could divorce his wife and kill her when her children were not masculine ones.
Cromwell was a Bush of Obama of his day- a stooge to international banking. I agree with the writer of this article-I never felt so stupid as the day I got the straight facts about The Irish Holocaust, and have never called it a potato famine again.
  Comment by Nikki on March 18, 2012 at 4:27pm

The execution of Cromwell in The Tudors. Don't know if it happened this way, but a couple of his enemies went to the pub the night before the beheading and made sure the executioner was quite drunk.

  Comment by DTOM on March 18, 2012 at 6:06pm

You're confusing Thomas Cromwell (Chief minister of Henry VIII, key advocate/architect of the English reformation) with Oliver Cromwell (English Republican, radical puritan, Parliamentarian, 1st Lord Protector, Tyrant etc) - Thomas C was Oliver C's great great great uncle.

They did share the same fate in that their heads were both respectively exhibited on poles in London.

It's a shame that Oliver was exhumed for this op'.

Oliver Cromwell went as far to punish and execute those of him men who did not carry out his barbrous orders in Ireland, and white slevery was the norm in his Commonwealth.

Just as today, Britain exchanged one tyrant for another.

The 'Curse of Cromwell' - Cromail na mallacht - still haunts the people of the UK and Eire to this day.

  Comment by paricia on March 18, 2012 at 6:29pm

Erin go braugh............

  Comment by Nikki on March 18, 2012 at 6:34pm

Thanks, I do get those Cromwells confused but still think it was a fitting end to a tyrant. This was about 200 years before the guillotine was invented which would prevent blunders like that. And as Max Kaiser always says, 'it's time to bring back the guillotines'!

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Comment by Old Denmark on March 20, 2014 at 6:21am

Comment by James Power on March 18, 2014 at 3:18pm

@ Apollo Solaris.

That is a shocking story, I have read about Croatia before but not as detailed as this, I remember reading about the gold the Franciscan Order stole from the Serbs and Jews and sent on to the Vatican. I think there was a court case for its return in about 2010, don't know the outcome. But knowing the Church they will not give it back if at all possible.

If you want to get a good insight into how the Vatican does it's "business" I would recommend  you read a book by David Yallop called IN GOD'S NAME an investigation into the murder of Pope John Paul 1 it was printed back in the early 1980's but it would open peoples eyes to what the Church really get's up too.

Anyone interested can buy signed copy online at

Comment by James Power on March 17, 2014 at 3:21pm

Comment by James Power just nowDelete Comment

According to John Martin of the Montreal-based Center for Research and Globalisation, in a new article, The Irish Slave Trade — The Forgotten ‘White’ Slaves’, during that decade some 52,000, mostly women and children were sold to Barbados and Virginia, with another 30,000 Irish men and women transported to and sold to the highest bidder. In 1656, Oliver Cromwell ordered that 2,000 children be taken to Jamaica and sold as slaves to English settlers there.

Mr Martin said the Irish slave trade began with James II in 1625, leading to Ireland rapidly becoming the biggest source of human livestock for English merchants. “The Irish slave trade began when James II sold 30,000 Irish prisoners as slaves to the New World. His Proclamation of 1625 required Irish political prisoners be sent overseas and sold to English settlers in the West Indies. By the mid-1600s the Irish were the main slaves sold to Antigua and Montserrat. At that time, 70% of the total population of Montserrat were Irish slaves.”

Mr Martin explains how the Irish population fell drastically due to the slave trade. This was done at the hands of the British who simply broke up families and sold them to settlers in the New World.

“From 1641 to 1652, over 500,000 Irish were killed by the English and another 300,000 were sold as slaves. Ireland’s population fell from about 1,500,000 to 600,000 in one single decade. Families were ripped apart as the British did not allow Irish dads to take their wives and children with them across the Atlantic. This led to a helpless population of homeless women and children. Britain’s solution was to auction them off as well,” he said.

“Many people today will avoid calling the Irish slaves what they truly were: slaves. They’ll come up with terms like ‘indentured servants’ to describe what occurred to the Irish. However, in most cases from the 17th and 18th centuries, Irish slaves were nothing more than human cattle... It is well recorded that African slaves, not tainted with the stain of the hated Catholic theology and more expensive to purchase, were often treated far better than their Irish counterparts,” wrote Mr Martin.

Watch--The Black Irish of Montserrat.


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