The Real Irish-American Story Not Taught in Schools Tuesday, March 17, 2015 By

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The Real Irish-American Story Not Taught in Schools

Tuesday, March 17, 2015 By Bill Bigelow


To support the famine relief effort, British tax policy required landlords to pay the local taxes of their poorest tenant farmers, leading many landlords to forcibly evict struggling farmers and destroy their cottages in order to save money. (Sketch: The Irish Famine: Interior of a Peasants Hut)

“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.

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, Oregon—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.

© 2015 Zinn Education Project

Bill Bigelow taught high school social studies in Portland, Ore. for almost 30 years. He is the curriculum editor of Rethinking Schools and the co-director of the Zinn Education Project. This project offers free materials to teach people’s history and an “If We Knew Our History” article series. Bigelow is author or co-editor of numerous books, including A People’s History for the Classroom and The Line Between Us: Teaching About the Border and Mexican Immigration, and most recently, A People's Curriculum for the Earth: Teaching Climate Change and the Environmental Crisis.

Top Comments

armybrat1d We learned a lot more when I went to school - including about 'enclosure laws' and tenant farmers - and I was never interested in UK history (beyond mythology). Wonder if kids these days learn about the tulip bubble/scandal either - or Charles Martel - or the Asian exclusion acts... kids these days don't get 'an education' - they get trained to do a job without thinking or asking too many questions. Dewey would have loved it.
MaPol1d When I was a kid (i. e. from the mid-1950's through the late 1960's) in school growing up going to the public schools in a suburban town, and a large suburban public high school, what was taught to us in United States History classes didn't even really begin to scratch the surface, generally. Inotherwords, we were not even taught the half of it. The same holds true today, obviously.

It wasn't just true of Irish-Americans, but Americans in general.

Delilah24h lest we not forget our people, were also slaves. We were worth less than our african brothers. 5 schilling to their 25. We were made example of , if tried for escape. Our people were bred like animals with the africans, but this practice was soon banned, to keep the African trade, more profitable, much like the ban of marijuana, now, thanks to big medical.
marlborough22h And of course there is so much more! Irish faught on both sides during the Civil War. They were caricatured in magazines and newspapers as little more than apes. Together with Italians they were viewed with suspicion in terms of allowing Catholicism to enter and flourish in the country. They were blamed for disease, gang violence political corruption etc. To really teach, to really try to encourage an understanding of where the Irish in America came from, how they were treated through the years and the abuse many of us faced is to learn about the emigrant experience in this country from the emigrants' point of view. And perhaps we have the answer as to why the history presented is so scant. It calls into question the fables kids are asked to believe about democracy and justice, and we really don't want to raise a generation of voters or employees who question and critically think. I'm Irish, born and raised there. And to be clear, we don't eat corned beef and Irish beer is black. Make Zinn required reading from elementary school to college.
ctrl_z22h Excellent piece. I'm going to send it to my daughter's school administrator.
wantrealdemocracy20h Won't do any good. Since the establishment of the Federal Department of Education all schools are under federal control. The Feds insist on high cost testing and want to link federal education aid to the scores on these tests. The children are being taught to regurgitate the 'right' answer (as decided by the corporate makers of the tests) as fast as possible. No thinking allowed. This is not teaching. It is indoctrination. All activities the the school must have federal approval. It is all a matter of boring repetition. The IQ or our students is falling year by year---due to this bad education and the poor quality of our food. Fluoride, the hazardous waste that is put in our drinking water, makes the children placid and apathetic. They put this in the water at the Nazi prison camps and they were able to reduce the number of guards by 75%. It makes people dumb and listless and unable to stand up and fight back. Welcome to 'merica! Sig Heil!


19h Actually, she attends a public, non-profit Charter School and they create their own curriculum.
bebeg90317h ctrl_z You're lucky yours is non-profit and public. I'm not sure how that works, but I know most charter schools are even tighter on using the federally mandated curriculum than public schools.

bebeg903 These days anyone with their kid in a decent school is lucky.
nanabluect10h For me the question has always been this. Why is it that the starving people continued to grow the food but did not just eat? In germany, under Hitler, why did the people continue to get on the trains? At first they did not know where the trains were going, but eventually everyone understood that the jews were being slaughtered. In ireland, and many, many countries before that, people get so down trodden that they act against their own sense of survival. We, here in America, inherited a country that was founded on freedom. yes, it is true, that there were and are continued problems. But this country has been a bastion of freedoms since its conception. founded by men who, though flawed, wanted all men and women to be equal. Will we continue to give up these freedoms by just ignoring the politicians who are taking these freedoms away from us. Will we too either starve as we create the very food that would save us, or will we climb aboard the trains to our demise? History always repeats itself. There will always be people who are evil. But they are a small number when compared to the people who are basically good. Why then is it that the minority of evil always gets the majority to behave in a detrimental way, leading to their demise.
Mairead10h nanabluect For me the question has always been this. Why is it that the starving people continued to grow the food but did not just eat? In germany, under Hitler, why did the people continue to get on the trains?

It's an excellent question, and the answer is more or less the same as the answer to "why did Milgram's subjects continue to (as they thought) deliver shocks to an innocent person?", and "why didn't the soldiers of the 1914 Xmas truce simply refuse to resume killing one another?".

In every case, the answer is the same: they couldn't figure out how to stop and still survive. The Irish would have been hanged for refusing to turn over their crops, the Jews shot in the street, the soldiers shot as deserters, and Milgram's subjects would have felt a kind of social death from shame.

Nothing less than revolution could have saved them. In every case but Milgram's where saying No and making it stick would have been revolutionary enough, the victims would have had to kill, or be killed for disobedience.

Hierarchy: it's not just another way of organising.
Mossonarock Of course, little is said of the Potato Famine today. It was hard to get anyone outside of Ireland to even notice it at the time. During the famine, there were many English who refused to believe there was a famine in Ireland. Many Englishmen who chose to be concerned had to actually go over to Ireland to see for themselves. And even after seeing the suffering first hand, they often weren't believed when they came back to tell the tale of what they saw and so couldnt drum up any collective action to provide famine relief. The relationship between Landlords and Tenants in Ireland varied greatly too. Some Landlords exhausted their funds to feed their Tenants. Some Landlords were scoundrels.
Hobgoblin 9h We, here in America, inherited a country that was founded on freedom. yes, it is true, that there were and are continued problems. But this country has been a bastion of freedoms since its conception. founded by men who, though flawed, wanted all men and women to be equal.

You don't really believe all that US exceptionialist guff, do you? Sounds like a speech from a tea party rally. Well, come on, they didn't really want all men and women to be equal, did they? I mean, you can drop the women for a start as they were excluded from voting and the political process. So just the men then. You can also drop those whose skin tone was a bit on the dark side as they usually tended to be slaves which is a condition, I think you'll agree, even a mind most excellently skilled in cognitive dissonance would have a job hooking up to the concept of them being inheritors of freedom. And you can drop all the poor folks who, not being property owners, that is to say landed gentry, were not allowed to vote or have much input into the poltical process of ruling the place. And you can drop the myriad tribes of native aborgines whose experience of this glorious freedom you extol was a kind of slow or rapid genocide and the theft of their lands where they had previously been probably a lot freer than anyone in the new system were offering them. So you can exlude all them I guess, eh? but apart from all that, spot on! And now on to the next step, let's give other folks in far away backward lands the benefits of that glorious freedom, of which we are the gleaming bastion, by dropping bombs on them, until the whole world is as free as we are*

*terms and conditions may apply, don't forget to read the small print.

diveshopingoa8h When the constitution was signed it gave rights to 11% of the people that lived here. Freedom for some slavery for others.
norskmann8h But this country has been a bastion of freedoms since its conception. founded by men who, though flawed, wanted all men and women to be equal.

Oh goodness... a perfect example of the poor education system in the US..

Popsiq8h 1 Like the Highland Clearances 50 years earlier and a host of other 'ethnic cleansings' (our term) studding history, the 'famine' was a product of the 'politico-economic climate' of the times.

This sad old world has seen its share of injustice and misfortune. What is evident is that there seems to be no 'holocaust' from which human beings can not recover. If they don't forget, they can forgive, learn something and move on to be 'better' than their afflicted ancestors.

It's when people can't forgive, nurture the trauma and refuse to learn something, that such travesties are perpetuated and reproduced. When an injustice becomes the defining characteristic of a people, they're doomed to repeat it, to relive it every day and it will 'screw them up'.

Popsiq7h You need to look at the nature of society in Ireland in the 1830's-40's. 'The Famine' didn't happen in the cities. Nor did it happen to farmers with land or who weren't subsistence tenants. In some places the effects were ameliorated - much of the emigration was 'charitably-funded'- there was no economic depression or other situation that was causal or contributary. The deaths don't appear to have been deliberately provoked by government policy although a 'laissez-faire' reluctance to intervene was prevalent during the early years of the period.

Sadly, the Famine was caused by the failure of the staple crop of the poor, their inability to adapt quickly to the changed circumstance and a general inability/reluctance to deal with a very large problem affecting people with no social connection.

The 'Irish Clearances' came later historically toward the end of the 1800's. The point then was the removal of the 'subsistance tenantry' who hadn't been dislodged by the Famine.

The Irish Famine pales in significance to the effects of similar situations that have occurred regularly in Africa, India and China including in the past century. They're not taught at all.

Mairead7h Popsiq The deaths don't appear to have been deliberately provoked by government policy although a 'laissez-faire' reluctance to intervene was prevalent during the early years of the period.

You're pointing out one of the subtlest types of filtering, though apparently without recognising it. When there is a disaster, and government functionaries choose to do nothing in amelioration even though they could, they are actually choosing to support the outcome of the disaster. No choice is also a choice, though often not recognised as such by the victims.

In the 1800s, many Scots clan chiefs decided to violate the age-old principles of the clan system, in which the chief acted as a redistributor and the clansfolk supported him (nearly always "him") in war and peace. But those scunners decided they could get more wealth from sheep, and shipped the people off to live or die as they could on the coast of Nova Scotia (and elsewhere), typically with no more than the clothes on their backs and happen a sack of tatties for the trip. My own family didn't suffer that fate, but it was only luck that saved them.
Fabio7h Thanks for this informative piece, I never got to know about this issue and the story behind it. I shared the story to my Italian acquaitances on FB, hope somebody will notice.
Werebat5h Mairead "In the 1800, many Scots clan chiefs decided to violate the age-old principles of the clan system, in which the chief acted as a redistributor and the clansfolk supported him (nearly always "him") in war and peace. But those scunners decided they could get more wealth from sheep, and shipped the people off to live or die as they could on the coast of Nova Scotia..."

And not long before that, Nova Scotia went by another name and was inhabited by my Acadian ancestors, who were removed by the British in what would be called an ethnic cleansing if it were to happen today.

We don't learn much about that in schools, either.

It seems like many of these things we don't learn much about in schools today boil down to the British being "the White man's White man". Why is that?

Trog4h France, Prussia, Holland, and Russia all had the same potato blight, but no "famine" because nobody was taking their other food crops away.
pcgorman3h Or as John Mitchel put it (in The Last Conquest of Ireland (perhaps)), "The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the famine."

2h As my family story goes, my Gramma’s dad came over from County Cork during The Famine to NYC alone and with only the clothes he was wearing. He soon met a well to do doctor that took him in as if he was his son, and sent him to school where my great grandfather became a doctor. He entered the Oklahoma Land Rush and prospered as a farmer. Gramma told of riding as a girl on the tailgate of their Conestoga Wagon, legs dangling into the high grass, watching snakes’ heads pop up as they passed over. She had a tin-type picture of the family in front and on top of a sod hut they had lived in. Having lost her first husband to TB, her second husband, my Dad’s father, who had enough Cherokee blood to live on the rez, had been a cowboy, among other occupations, and was known as Tar Bottom at the ranches he worked at for being able “break” wild horses without being thrown. He had 3 relatives that were known outlaws, one of them rather famous that became a lawyer while in jail and became friends with Wild Bill Hickok.

I’m lucky for the tattered connections to the past that make it personal to me, that brings the weight of realism to perspective. When I was very young, I thought my neighbor was the oldest person in the world. She was 104, and remembered seeing Abraham Lincoln with her own eyes, on the back of a train, while she was sitting on her father’s shoulders. My Gramma who rode a Conestoga wagon watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon, between soap operas. Our lives often seem mundane yet we too are participants in the unfolding of history, counting perhaps moreso now in ways as we live in very interesting times and outcomes of great magnitude precariously hinge on the very acts we make in our mundane lives now. The history of the Famine is alive today and our living connection to it is consequential now so that by looking in the past we can see where to go into the future.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!
evolver 2h I highly recommend reading Michael Pollan's "The Botany of Desire." Excellent storytelling, drawing connections as far ranging as apples to Afghanistan, and liquor to land sales. If you already know most or all of the astonishing facts revealed then you should be writing books.
seas 2h I learned more about the potato famine in my English Literature class than in history class. It was when we read Jonathan Swift's essay, "A Modest Proposal", that we had a discussion about the potato famine. There are ways to sneak it into the curriculum, and a literature class works quite well as some great authors did not mind telling the truth about what they saw - especially poets and essayists.

1h This is one of the benefits to homeschooling--we read about real people and their thoughts via their writing and their art, and their lives in the context of world history. Teaching my children, I got the education that I missed in school!
RexTIII35m Even as a youngster with little 'factual knowledge' of the 'St Patricks' Day details, it never seemed authentic in a way which mattered. Pinching someone for not wearing green - celebrating a Saint, knowing nothing about him. Education provided nothing, 1950's - 1960's - much anyway. Our entire education system needs this type of depth and overhaul, which will not be happening anytime soon. As already clearly noted, our Education system is completely controlled by interests which have no incentive to create thinking, real thinking. Fortunately, the world does have a huge population of those who do think and do create and further what counts in education, regardless of our age. Thanks for this excellent piece!
ralphwatzke18m Even though I'm a so-called "right-wing conservative", you are very correct in your truthful article. It reminds me very much of a somewhat similar scenario almost a century later, namely Stalin's infamous planned Holodomor famine-genocide in Ukraine (1932-33) in which about 10 million Ukrainian peasant farmers were intentionally starved to death, by confiscating all their food.

Were you aware that the Sultan of Turkey donated funds to aid the starving Irish - imagine that, Turkey sending foreign aid to British-occupied Ireland (when Britain was the richest country in the world! Despite Britain's wealth, the Protestant government and people of Britain REFUSED TO AID THE STARVING IRISH, because the Irish were Catholics, and were considered a sub-human inferior race! No doubt, tyrant Stalin was inspired by what Britain perpetrated on the Irish in the 1840's. All those who are British should be ashamed of the evil misconduct of their ancestors. Some would say the Irish famine was a genocide, a precursor of the ones that occurred in the following century. What say you all? Comments, anyone?Top of FormBottom of Form

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