Sunday, May 11, 2014

National Famine Commemoration Day

Falling on the same day as Mother's Day in the United States, National Famine Commemoration Day is a Republic of Ireland day of memory for the Great Famine.  

The Great Famine occurred 1845 through 1850, with what is known as Black 47, being the worst.  If you have heard me lecture on The Great Famine you know there is much we can learn from the death that swept through the Irish homeland.  

Skibbereen 1847 by Cork artist James Mahony (1810–1879),
one town in Ireland horribly afflicted by
the Great Famine.
Without going into the whole ramifications of British policy and the lack of compassion for a starving populace, this famine forever changed Ireland in many ways.  The number of deaths is put at over one million with another million emigrating (mostly to the United States).  Ireland's population declined over 20% in those years and is only now beginning to approach pre-famine levels.  

The Irish, because of poverty and an onerous legal system which put them at the mercy of ruling British officials, had come to depend solely on the potato for food.  It could be planted and harvested without tools, the potato can be cooked and even eaten without utensils and provided not too shabby of a diet.  But the Irish grew only two varieties of potato:  The Lumper and the Green Apple, both of which were highly susceptible to the Potato Blight that swept Europe prior to 1845.  When the blight hit Ireland, it went through the potato crop like a hot knife through butter.  The Irish watched their only food supply rot in the ground overnight.  

You might be inclined to think, "So?"  But one of the lessons humans might have learned from the Great Famine would be to not plant so much of only one crop and especially without some genetic diversity in that one crop.

Let's think about the number of items in our supermarkets that are made from corn.  What would happen if the corn crop in the US suddenly were to be the victim of a pathogen? Do you realize that most of the millions of acres of corn in the United States are very similar - like the Irish potatoes - genetically?   Try to imagine a supermarket from which corn or corn derivatives are no longer there.  What do you come up with - how many empty shelve on how many aisles?  It is apparent our government has not learned from history. What's that line, "Those who know history are doomed to watch those who don't know history repeat it without fail."  It's enough for an ulcer. Or high blood pressure.  

We are affluent and have a good deal of political will which the Irish did not have.  The seed library movement is one way we can move to prevent or, at the very least, ameliorate the effects of such a pathogen destroying our food crops.  First off, begin to grow some of your own food - to the degree you can, become independent from the supermarket near you.  Encourage your family and friends to join with you in finding ways to avoid the supermarket and to grow more of your own food.  

And above all, acknowledge that the only way to be Food Secure is to be Seed Secure. Imperative in this, we need to plant a diversity of all types of our foods and to have plenty of different genetic varieties in abundance.  If a blight takes out one, another will survive.  One of the most troubling characteristics of our food supply as proffered by the multi-national corporations is a huge loss of genetic diversity.  We must find that diversity and re-establish that as our hallmark of famine prevention.  The only way to abundance is through changing this lack of diversity.  

We can do a lot to prevent a repeat of food famine like the famines that cursed Ireland.  Let's take a moment of this remembrance day to reflect on what we can do now.  The Seed Library of Los Angeles meets May 17th in the Learning Garden on the campus of Venice High School at the intersection of Walgrove Avenue and Venice Blvd.  Check out our website too.



  1. It was not only the blight(the blight also happened elsewhere) Ireland starved because its food, from 40 to 70 shiploads per day, was removed at gunpoint by 12,000 British constables reinforced by the British militia, battleships, excise vessels, Coast Guard and by 200,000 British soldiers (100,000 at any given moment) (Disposition of the Army; Public Record Office, London; et al, of). Thus, Britain seized from Ireland's producers tens of millions of head of livestock; tens of millions of tons of flour, grains, meat, poultry & dairy products; enough to sustain 18 million persons.
    The soup kitchens were also closed by the British which were serving millions of people. The British also thought the blight was an opportunity to reform and change Irish agriculture. They felt that by clearing away surplus population, a smaller, more prosperous class of farmers could be securely employed in the agricultural industry. With this viewpoint, the British Government felt that too much relief would only draw out the inevitable for all concerned.
    It was not only the blight affecting the people - children were torn away and sold into slavery, others became indentured servants. People tried to excape on coffin ships. Children left orphans were cared by groups of nuns secretly.(they were not allowed to practice their religion or be in groups together) I have visited my grandfathers farm,the cemeteries close by and the underground orphanage ruins. My mothers parents met smuggling guns back and forth from the US to fight the black and tans. But those stories can wait for another time....
    We also need to keep in mind it was not only the Irish almost wiped out by the British and blight. The native peoples in this country also were decimated and driven away from their lands and their diversity, their children torn away from their parents and sent to boarding schools or escaping to be raised by strangers in another country (thats my fathers side of the family- also for another time)
    "We" like the Irish could very easily fall prey to a famine by allowing corporations such as Monsanto to own the seed, control the markets and the government. We may be more "affluent" (and that could be argued if using only monetary wealth as evidence of abundance ) but we as individuals have pennies when compared to the wealth of corporations including Monsanto.
    Yes, we can grow some of our own food but not everyone is able to do that even if they can find the land to do so. That being said, rather than avoiding the "supermarkets" altogether, we should pressure - people are already doing this- the markets to work with local farmers and supply those products and foods for people who are unable to grow their own or have a community patch to do so. One of my local markets is also getting their eggs from a local person, cheese from a local company etc.etc. in addition to produce. Yes, we need to preserve diversity and everyone who can, grow not only their own food but consider each community growing a variety to share with others and also partnering with the local "supermarkets" in supplying others who cannot grow their own.

  2. On a lighter note, it was also Compost Awareness Week ( in addition to Nurses Week, Mothers Day and National Famine Commemoration Day)

  3. Eileen - Thank you for filling in all that political stuff. It's like one Irishman said, "God sent the blight, but the English caused the deaths." I chose on purpose to leave all that out so I could make the case for diversity without distractions of the culpability of the British government in what practically amounts to a genocide. With such indifference to human life just because they were a different religion and spoke a different language, it's a wonder that the Irish speak to the British at all.