This past Saturday, November 17th saw the dedication of the Rhode Island Irish Famine Memorial. I was glad to be there, being the descendant of Irish immigrants. The Memorial is a bronze monument; three figures that represent the suffering of the Irish during the Famine of 1845-1852 and the mass emigration that resulted. The Memorial is infused with the pride of the Irish and our love of America. A low wall bears plaques relating the events that led to the deaths from starvation and disease of an estimated million Irish, and the emigration of a million more.
The history of indifference to suffering, abetted by prejudice, bad religion and the politics of greed is unfortunately not unique to that time or place. The inscription on the Memorial has a resonance today.
[British Prime Minister, Lord John] Russell, and Sir Charles Trevelyan, his chief economic advisor for Ireland, believed that their government should take only a limited part in relieving disasters like the Great Famine. They thought that the private charity of individuals and philanthropic organizations should shoulder the burden of Famine Relief. Accordingly, religious groups such as the Society of Friends (the Quakers) came forward to offer unconditional aid to Ireland.
Above all, Russell believed in protecting the rights of private property owners and in the promotion of a free market economy in both Britain and Ireland. In fact, the Government believed so strongly in the economic principle of noninterference in trade that it allowed the export from Ireland of abundant supplies of meat and grain during all the Famine years.
–Donald Donovan Deignan, PhD
You got that right. As their children starved, Irish workers were forced to sell their crops or face eviction from their rich, absentee landlords. There was no safety net, only the life of a homeless refugee.
The Irish had been disadvantaged for a long time. The British occupied the best of their land and took the best of their crops, but they could and did get by on a cheap diet of potatoes and milk. When the potato crop suffered a catastrophic blight there was no alternate source of food unless foreign aid and debt forgiveness were put in place. At first, there was some crisis relief, but a new election brought a change in politics under ministers like Charles Trevelyan.
As Assistant Secretary to the Treasury [Trevelyan] was placed in charge of the administration of Government relief to the victims of the Irish Famine in the 1840s. In the middle of that crisis Trevelyan published his views on the matter. He saw the Famine as a “mechanism for reducing surplus population”. He described the famine as “The judgement of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson, that calamity must not be too much mitigated. The real evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the Famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people”.
I don’t know if Trevelyan would have been so serene about the suffering and death of a million people on his watch if he hadn’t had the consolation of religion.
Governor Carcieri is also a religious person. Here’s from the Providence Journal.
Benefit dinner: The Mother of Life Center, of Providence, a nonprofit pro-life facility offering free counseling and testing services, and the Little Flower Home for unwed mothers, will host their annual Rose Dinner fundraiser at the West Valley Inn in West Warwick on Saturday, Nov. 10. Cocktails are at 6:30 and dinner at 7:30 p.m. The Governor and Mrs. Donald Carcieri are the honorary chairpersons. Tickets are $65 each, $120 for a couple, and $600 for a table of 10.
The Governor is dealing with a budget crisis, his Big Audit never turned up the zillions of dollars he promised to find. His response is to cut programs for children’s health, students, the elderly, schools, and families. When an after-school program is closed or a grandmother doesn’t get Meals on Wheels the middle class will feel the strain. The businessman’s response is to go for the short-term gain and hope to swing a deal, the politician’s response is to find a scapegoat.
“Frankly, I think from the state’s perspective we’ve been enabling and continue to enable a lot of bad decisions,” he said Sunday on WJAR-TV’s 10 News Conference. Asked to define ‘bad decisions’,he said: “Most of the people on our welfare programs are single women, unmarried with multiple children.”
“I think it is a bad decision to have children you can’t support–I am not making a moral judgment,” he said. “What I am saying is that we as taxpayers and citizens of the state are being asked to finance and support those decisions.”
Going a step further yesterday on WHJJ-radio’s Helen Glover Show, Carcieri said: “When I look at our rolls of people receiving ‘family-independence’ [benefits] whether it be RIte Care, whatever, the vast majority of these are women with children and they are not married and this is not a good situation.”
With all due respect to the Little Flower Home, I don’t think they can fill the gap left when hundreds of infants and children are thrown out of their health insurance. This Governor is one of the most callous and short-sighted we have ever had. He may think he’s channeling Ronald Reagan, but we’ve heard the ‘welfare queen–Murphy Brown’ routine before. All his sanctimony about welfare mothers isn’t fooling the elderly I work with, or the hard working home health aides who save the state money by keeping people out of the emergency room. It won’t fool the students who are trying to afford their tuition, or young people who are just one health emergency away from financial ruin.
The Monument dedication was an occasion for many eloquent speeches about the burden of poverty and the struggle of immigrants for a better life. Governor Carcieri’s absence was noted.
The Irish had every mark of the undeserving poor, and every virtue of the deserving poor. They came here just looking for a chance. In the twenty first century we still need to welcome immigrants, we still need to feed the hungry. We need to be true to the best of America and have faith in what we can be.