We’re the sort of tourists who can marvel at the scenery and traipse through every sort of museum, but we seem to gravitate toward paleolithic tombs, cemeteries, and various locales of atrocity. Today: an artifact recalling the Irish Famine.
The workhouse would have been an atrocity even without the Famine. The chain of Irish workhouses, financed by taxes on landlords and modeled on those of England, was a response to the fact that of a population of 8 million, 2 million were near starvation—before the failure of the potato crop in 1846 that led to a million deaths and 2 million emigrants. During which ample harvests of wheat and dairy were being shipped from Ireland to England.
It’s all a long, complex story, and one wonders how that tale—like the Trail of Tears—occupies only a footnote in history. The Nazi-driven Holocaust is at the front of our minds (at least every sentient mind), but in my view an intentional, planned holocaust is perhaps less horrid than one that’s simply allowed to happen, a function of economics, acts of Parliament, and benign neglect.
The Irish Workhouse Center offers a fine tour of a facility slowly being restored. I’ll spare the details, except for one fact that screams out of the tour guide’s calm lecture. As one means of discouraging the myriads of starving peasants from entering workhouse “charity,” it was required that entire families enter as a unit (a means of ridding estates of unprofitable tenants), but once entered, the families were separated: men in one block, women in another, boys in another, girls in another. Only children under 3 were allowed to stay with their mothers. The only way you might know if your child or spouse died—disease being rampant—was a weekly announcement at morning Mass of the roster of the dead.
Many others emigrated, mainly to Australia, Canada, or the USA. Many died en route. One can readily imagine the welcoming committee:
We need to take care of our own people first.
They’re only coming for the money.
They’re taking American jobs.
They’re changing America.
It’s their own laziness.
We don’t have the room.
Why don’t they send us their upper classes?
No scum from a shithole country.
Clearly, the Irish, the Italians, the Germans, the Bohunks, the Polacks, the Chinks, the Japs, the Africans, Cubans, Scots, Vietnamese, the refugees from the St. Bartholomew’s massacre, the tired and poor from the world’s vast, encompassing squeeze of injustice—they all ought to fucking go back to where they fucking came from. And leave us to our gold-plated toilet seats. Us who have one.
I don’t like to get exercised by politics. I feel things, but I have very effective armoring in writing and in irony. At times, though, it gets through to me. I was feeling a bit of self-pity, after the workhouse side-trip, in having to drive considerable distance on narrow, winding roads, to get to our night’s lodging. And then I thought, “Christalmighty, Conrad! You’re going to a hostel in Doolin and listen to Irish-trad music at a pub, not on a coffin ship to Boston! Suspend your self-pity, at least till Tuesday.”