May 19, 2005

The Irish Potato Famine

Spuds. Tatties. Taters. Mash. Roasties. Crisps. Chips. SmashTM. Is it really any wonder why I don't like baked potatos, can't stomach mashed potatos, run a mile from boiled potatos, and need my roasties roasted till you can barely classify them as spuds? Oh I get the same comment so often, "Holly, how can you claim to be of Irish blood when you hate potatos so much?" Would you like them if they wiped out thousands of your countrymen? Or did they? Uh-oh, here comes the history again…

Disclaimer: The author of this piece is half English, half Irish and will probably refer to both nations in the first person. Apologies, I blame the parents.

The Irish Potato Famine.

All Irish history follows the same principle with only minor variations. That principle is this:

  • Things aren't going too bad.
  • Something terrible happens. Normally this invovles people dying.
  • The authorities act slowly, stupidly and with no positive effect.
  • Somehow, despite this, things seem to be getting better.
  • The authorities react to this improvement by really fucking things up.
  • Situation spirals out of control. Lots of people die.
  • Situation dies down. People get used to new level of normality.
  • Things aren't going too bad. Ad infinitum.


  • Things aren't going too bad.

The Potato Famine has very little to do with potatos. Seriously, it is purely the background to know that in 1845 the blight appeared in Ireland. Where it comes from and what it is/was aren't very important for historians. After all we now have a cure for it. And the Irish diet is no longer spudflakes for breakfast, spud for lunch and spud de l'orange for dinner. What matters is what the people did. And it's enough to make you wonder why people bother…

Ill potato with blight.

  • Something terrible happens. Normally this invovles people dying.

1845, the crop partially fails. Little impact as the economy could cope with this. That's common sense. After all, even the most primitive of systems usually adapt to some level. Come on, put those 'stupid Paddy' stereotypes to one side for a moment. We gave you Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw and the gimpy looking one out of Westlife (isn't that all of them?). What more do you want… oh, you want us to take Westlife back? Erm, no. Seriously, we were smart enough to export and you were dumb enough to import, ha ha ha.

Anyway, minor crop failure in 1845 = some hardship in 1846. The government is led by Peel who knows some stuff about Ireland, like where it is, what it do that and who? Not many English people knew much about Ireland at the time. This is because they owned a huge empire and it's hard to know what to know, y'know? You know how we slag the Americans off for not knowing anything about the world today? Yeah, that was us 150 years ago. Not so smug now are we?

  • The authorities act slowly, stupidly and with no positive effect.

Peel tries to help. He gives the Irish some food. "Well duh!" I hear you cry. He also sets up schemes so the poor can work and earn money to buy food, and the work will result in new roads and such. Ok, so this seems quite good. Not great. Obviously people don't really want to be building roads for pennies to buy gruel. But it's better than nothing. Naturally the English don't really notice.

  • Somehow, despite this, things seem to be getting better.

I hate this bit. It always happens. It's just something about Ireland that it has to tantalise its people with the taste of the possibility that maybe things won't be so bad. Heard of the phrase "luck of the Irish"? It's bad luck people! Why don't the English and Americans get that?

Potato dressed as a nineteenth century politician.

  • The authorities react to this improvement by really fucking things up.

Peel tries to help. The British respond by throwing his party out of office. That was a bad idea but when you've looked at as much Irish history as I have then all you can do is sigh and say "here we go again". Instead Britain was now ruled by Russell and the Whigs, and they had a simple belief system:
– If we help the Irish by giving them food we might hurt local business.
– And make the natives lazy.
– And damage our beloved laissez-faire trading attitudes.
See why we don't operate on Whiggish principals these days? Anyway, they weren't trying to deliberately wipe the Irish out, as some hysterical people will tell you, but they weren't really thinking, were they? So they tried to get the Irish to help themselves, which they couldn't because there was a distinct lack of food. And the British government asked the Irish to pay for it themselves. Which they didn't want to… and so the slippery slope gets slippier…

History student potato crying in frustration at the grim inevitability of it all.

  • Situation spirals out of control. Lots of people die.

Chaos. Poor lose land. Landlords evict people. Workhouses. Death. This is what people mean when they say history is depressing. This is why history students are so misanthropic. Humanity is crap. The only problem is individual people are frequently lovely. Why oh why is this so? Do you nice bastards not realise how hard you're making it for us to wallow in our despair at the futility of mankind? Damn you all. Damn those landlords who did what they could to help their tenants even as they lost their own lands. Damn those Quakers for feeding people as much as they could, no strings attached.

  • Situation dies down. People get used to new level of normality.

And so it ended and left the entire country really really pissed off. And I apologise if this entry isn't as funny as some of you were hoping. Future ones get funnier. But I'm telling you, even the Irish, those legends of the sense of humour, would find it hard to get a laugh from this. I know someone who once told a famine joke whilst doing standup. She's alive today but only just.

I'd like a 2:1 please. It's the best I can hope for.

- 15 comments by 1 or more people Not publicly viewable

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  1. You deserve it Holly! The scene with the distraught History student brought me to tears. Did you have to study this for your finals or is it just background stuff that you wanted to clear up before the real stuff starts (thought you had to do 1870–1950 or something).

    19 May 2005, 00:29

  2. the Ireland course runs 1848 to 1972, this was our first week, our introduction to the course. And yup, this is the module where I've chosen to have all 30 CATs assessed on one three hour exam. Argh!

    19 May 2005, 00:36

  3. I feel that pain (in fact, twicely this week). However, I like the potatoes, and potatoes per se.

    I think all Humanties students are misanthropic specific to their subject, and carry on studying out of sheer malice and masochism. Philosophers hate humanity because everyone is stupid.

    19 May 2005, 01:05

  4. Wedges! Potato wedges are the best kind of potato. Ever.

    19 May 2005, 01:10

  5. Steve Curran

    Compared to some of the other history modules, Irish history's not that bad. The History of the Jews in Europe' for example:

    'And so, after 1,500 years of oppression, persecution, massacre, prejudice, and suffering beyond all belief; and after another few centuries of painfully, ridiculously slow improvements, most countries in Europe recognised Jews as full and equal citizens, and the trend was such that this process seemed sure to be completed shortly. At last, vile prejudice and intolerance were defeated. Next week, we'll be looking at 1919 onwards.'

    19 May 2005, 01:29

  6. i wish you could teach me history :) except it's not what i'm supposed to know :(

    19 May 2005, 09:34

  7. Ah, so the Irish weren't just paying the price for being fussy eaters! Yet another good History lesson, Hol – and I detected a wee bit of British foreign policy in there, so I can justify reading it with an exam tomorrow.

    And I can report that misanthropy is alive and well in Politics, that subtle blend of History and Philosophy, which should be an uber-humanity but is actually a social science.

    19 May 2005, 11:11

  8. Madness is rare in individuals – but in groups, parties, nations, and ages it is the rule.

    Nietzsche, BGE

    19 May 2005, 11:33

  9. Holly makes learning history good. If not funny, at least interesting.

    Incidentally, science students also hate their subjects, although it's usually because they don't have a clue what it's all supposed to mean. Of course, everyone (read: undergrads) hates their subject at this time of year because we have to do exams in them. I've yet to find anything that can suck away the joy of learning faster than an examination.

    19 May 2005, 15:57

  10. i have just spent the afternoon reading 'the potato in the materialist imagination' about why english peasants hated the potato because the irish peasants liked it, and why malthus hated the potato cos it was anticapitalist and it sustained the lives of peasants who would otherwise have died. whoever writes books purely on potatoes needs to get a life….come to think of it, who ever is stupid enough- like me- to do a module which involves discussing the histories of potatoes, maize and such like ALSO needs to get a life…..

    19 May 2005, 19:02

  11. Jen

    right holly, i'm also revising women td's, twentieth century religion, effects of rising and northern ireland so please blog about these next. especially dont get northern ireland so that one's most urgent! gracias!

    19 May 2005, 19:29

  12. Adrienne Cooper

    You will never kidnap me, by the way. I know your plans!

    I plied your accomplice with vodka and she sang like a canary. The jig is up, son.

    20 May 2005, 10:43

  13. It wasn't my plan it was hers, I swear. Come on Adrienne, this is me, would I ever stoop so low?

    20 May 2005, 12:16

  14. I don't know… you strike me as someone who's secretly very flexible.

    20 May 2005, 19:53

  15. Wouldn't you just like to know…?

    20 May 2005, 20:56

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