Wednesday, May 06, 2020

Irish memories are long

My Irish forebearers weren't Famine Irish. They came over in the 1870's, 25 years after an Gorta Mor - the Great Hunger, when the potato crop, the staple of the Irish diet, was totally blighted - had devastated their country. One million souls perished; another one million emigrated. My tribes - the Trainors, the Rogerses, the Joyces - survived and stuck around for a while. But they were none of them well to do, and the ones who weren't going to inherit the family farm or marry the ones who were going to inherit the family farm had little choice but to emigrate.

The Trainors were from Louth, in the east of Ireland, just north of Dublin. The east wasn't hit as hard by the Great Hunger as the west was, which is where the Mayo Joyces hailed from. (The Rogerses were from Roscommon, stuck in the middle. Not sure how badly they fared, but, twenty or so years ago, while I was watching the PBS documentary series The Irish in America, I spotted a document showing a food chit that had been given to a Patrick Rogers from County Roscommon. (Shake hands with your uncle Pat, me boy...))

I know that things were rough in Ballintubber, County Mayo, home of the Joyces. I know because I read about it.

My husband and I were in Westport, Mayo, and the room we were in had bookshelves holding books about Irish history. Thumbing through one, I came across an essay written in the early 1850's by Father James Browne, the parish priest in Ballintubber at the time. He wrote of the famine, the deaths, how terrible it all was.

The name was familiar.

A couple of decades after the famine, Father Browne was writing something else: a reference letter from my great-grandmother, Margaret Joyce, attesting to her honesty and good character, so that when she got to Amerikay she'd be able to secure a job as a maid in a great and fine Boston Brahmin house. 

I've read enough about the famine to have at least a small grasp of just how devastating it was. Starved, skeletal bodies on the side of the road. Mouths green from the grass they'd been eating. Coffin ships to the States, full of sickly people dressed in near-rags. And throughout it all, Anglo-Irish landlords evicting tenant farmers and burning their houses down. And Anglo-Irish merchants shipping stores of grain to England rather than let it fall into the hands of the locals.
Somehow, the news reached the Choctaw people who, only 16 years earlier, had been marched from their ancestral lands across the Trail of Tears to Oklahoma. Thousands of them died along the way, many from starvation. In 1847, from their meager finances, the Choctaw raised $170—the equivalent of $5,000 in today’s money—for Irish famine relief. (Source: Article in Esquire by Worcester's own, Charles Pierce)
The Irish have long memories. Thos long memories are not always a positive. As in "The definition of Irish Alzheimer's? That's when you forget everything but the grudges." But even though there's no longer anyone in the country with firsthand memory of the famine, when it comes to responding to any international crisis, including famine, the Irish punch well above their weight, sending volunteers and supplies to help out that put most countries to shame.

And now, the Irish are paying native Americans back for their long ago generosity and goodness. 
Hundreds of thousands of dollars poured in to the Navajo & Hopi Families Covid-19 Relief Fund since it began to go viral in Ireland, helping it burst through its target of $1.5 million (€1.3 million). (Source: Irish Times)
As of this writing, the fund has raised more than $2 million towards a revised goal of $3 million. 

It almost goes without saying that native Americans are hard hit by the corona crisis. Their community is poor - many homes are without running water - with limited access to healthcare. 
The list of donors to the GoFundMe page is dominated by Irish surnames, and many donors left comments to say they were giving in remembrance of Native American aid to Ireland during the Great Hunger.
Not really all that surprising, given Irish history and all.

Charlie Pierce ended his article by quoting Seamus Heaney:

“History says don’t hopeOn this side of the grave.But then, once in a lifetimeThe longed for tidal waveOf justice can rise upAnd hope and history rhyme.”
Can't top that...

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