Not Always Charmed:
the Dark Side of St. Patrick’s Day
There Are Parts of Irish History That Are Darker Than a Pint of Guinness.

Terryl Rushing

Article by Terryl Rushing Featured Author


At the time that this article is being written, we’re in the interlude between two ostensibly Irish holidays in Mississippi — St. Patrick’s Day on March 17 and the Hal’s St. Paddy’s Day Parade, which, for reasons known only to its founder, Hal’s brother, Malcolm White, will occur on March 25. March 17 is the actual feast day for St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, and it is celebrated as a holy day by Catholics in Ireland, many of whom attend Mass on that day, no matter where in the weekly calendar it falls. Here, it is an important enough feast day that, when it occurred on a Friday during Lent this year, a day in which meat is not normally permitted, Bishop Kopacz of the Jackson Diocese granted a disposition to allow feasting on corned beef.

The St. Paddy’s Day Parade, on the other hand, is a purely pagan (sorry, Malcolm) celebration of beer and funny costumes that includes the entire community. Years ago, my kids were introduced to my Crazy Aunt Eileen. Understand that my sister and I preface all of our maternal kinfolk’s names with the word “Crazy;” they are known to us collectively as “The Crazy Irish.” Aunt Eileen lit one cigarette from another and announced, in her best brogue, “There are only two kinds of people in the world — the Irish, and those who wish they were Irish.” On Parade Day, those two groups swim together in a happy sea of green beer.

To watch a St. Patrick’s Day Parade, you would think that Irish history is full of four-leaved clovers and leprechauns; however, there are parts darker than a pint of Guinness. It would take two hands to count the number of times that England conquered the land of Ireland; the pesky Irish people mostly pretended not to notice. Unlike Scotland and Wales, which ultimately found enough in common with England to form Great Britain, the Irish just could not be brought to heel. At the heart of the problem was their stubborn resistance to becoming Protestant. During the troubled period of English history between Henry VIII and Oliver Cromwell, England tipped from Catholicism to Protestantism and back regularly, depending on the preference of the ruler. It was a nasty time, with Catholics burning Protestants and Protestants returning the favor. Naturally, resentment grew between the camps, particularly since the Irish, motivated by religious fervor as well as the desire for independence, mounted one insurrection after another.

Finally, England had enough, and Puritan Oliver Cromwell mounted an attack on Ireland that left, according to some, barely 500,000–800,000 Irish Catholics alive. Even worse, the survivors were subject to the Penal Laws. They barred Catholics from joining the military, the professions, voting, holding office, or buying land. Catholics could not attend school, and they could not practice their religion. But the biggest impact, in terms of later events, was the effect of the Laws on inheritance of land. While Protestants could continue to pass property down to the eldest son, thereby preserving their estates, Catholic parcels were divided among all of the sons, unless the eldest became a Protestant.

This last provision meant that the property that a Catholic family could own, already limited to a small percentage of the island following enormous land grants to English lords, became even smaller with each generation. Even after the Penal Laws were repealed, the practice continued as a tradition. With the predictability of Irish fertility, the population grew apace, and, by 1841, the population was between eight and nine million. That part of the population that was rural, which was to say most of the population at that time, largely existed on either owned or leased property that often consisted of plots of five or fewer acres. These small plots of land were insufficient to support a family on traditional grain crops; however, the Irish had discovered a vegetable that could sustain them: the potato. People ate potatoes for breakfast, lunch, and supper, and, when combined with milk or buttermilk, it was a relatively nourishing meal. Between potatoes and an abundance of peat to keep warm, the Irish survived. While some officials warned of impending disaster if that crop failed, they were largely unheard; Parliament believing that any problems the Irish encountered were the result of “the improvidence and lack of energy of the Irish people.”

Predictably, the potato crop failed, leading to what the Irish call an Gorta Mor, the Great Hunger. In July, 1845, reports came in of crop failures in several counties. By 1846, the country was in the grips of famine that lasted through 1849. Stories abound of the suffering of the Irish during that time, and the relatively ineffectual actions of the English government to combat it, although, in truth, probably no government then existing could have effectively dealt with a disaster of this size. Irish on their own property starved on their own land. Absentee landlords had their agents evict any Irish who couldn’t pay their rent on leased property, leaving their tenants starving in the road. While millions of Irish people were dying of hunger, however, English landowners sent surplus crops of grain from Ireland to England.

One particular story from that time demonstrates the famine’s pathos. In early spring of 1847, almost 400 starving adults and children assembled in Louisburgh to be inspected for approval to distribute food. Instead, they were directed to walk to Doolough, in search of the inspectors, and to assemble there in the morning. This directive obliged them to walk through the night to make the twelve-mile trip in time. The trek would have been challenging for the fit; for people debilitated by starvation, it was virtually impossible. Moreover, reports from the time say it was freezing cold that night, with heavy rain and flooding.

Many of the walkers died along the way; some fell by the wayside, others were reportedly blown by high winds into a nearby lake, where they drowned or died from the cold. The next day, the scene was described as a trail of corpses, with the dead ultimately buried in shallow graves where they fell. Estimates of the number of casualties put it anywhere from 20 to 600. (The figure of 20 casualties comes from English historians; Irish historians, with their native propensity toward hyperbole, put the figure at 600, which, you will note, is larger than the number who set out on the journey.) An Irish historical group now conducts a tour along that route to commemorate the “Famine Walk.” In 1991, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and his wife Leah led the Walk through a gale similar to the one experienced in 1849. In 1994, Arun Gandhi, grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, and his wife Sunandra led the Walk, and they unveiled a memorial to Gandhi in the famine graveyard.

There were two ways out of the famine: death and emigration. At least a million Irish perished; another million left, reducing Ireland’s population by 25%. (The poorest Irish left, and those were the most likely to speak Irish as a native language, so the percentage of the population who could speak Irish also drastically declined.) It wasn’t easy for a pauper to leave; however, in some instances, the landlord who had evicted them paid their passage, thereby ridding himself of an embarrassment and a Catholic. Others somehow scraped the money together to pay steerage fare for their ship; most often, they were bound for America.

English sea captains scrambled to meet the demand for passage, making at least 5,000 trips during the famine years, cramming passengers into tiny ships that most likely once carried slaves to the New World. Filled to capacity with weak people who often carried disease, the mortality rate was high, and they became known as the “coffin ships.” To make matters worse, America had enacted the Passengers Acts, limiting the number of passengers who could be carried on ships arriving at American ports. English ships could carry more; thus, passage on those vessels was cheaper. To skirt the regulations, non-compliant ships began putting in at ports in Canada, which, being part of the British Commonwealth, could not refuse entry. So if a traveler had purchased passage at the lower price and survived famine in Ireland, meagre, pest-ridden food on ship, and typhus, he might be dropped off in the wrong country!

Voyage to any port at that time was perilous; doubly so on a ship that carried pestilence. Passengers to Canada sailed down the St. Lawrence River to Quebec and Montreal. As the Canadian government began to grasp the implications of permitting thousands of Irish immigrants to debark without examination, it established an immigration depot on Grosse Isle, located in the St. Lawrence River at Quebec. Thousands of Irish immigrants were quarantined on the Island; it is estimated that over 3,000 Irish people died there. It is believed that over 5,000 are currently buried in its cemetery, including many who died en route, making it the largest burial ground for famine victims outside Ireland.

There’s a joke that the definition of Irish Alzheimer’s is where you forget everything but the grudges. An Gorta Mor added to the grudge that Irish Catholics had against the English, bringing it to a dangerous level. The Famine had pretty much run its course by 1850, although a lesser famine, an Gorta Beag occurred in 1879. (It prompted another round of emigration, including my great-grandmother, Mary McGee.) One reason that there were fewer deaths in 1879 was that many of the refugees from an Gorta Mor were in a position to send money home. They continued to send money home through the early twentieth century, although much of it was earmarked toward revolutionary groups such as the Irish Volunteers, soon to become the Irish Republican Army. Led by Eamon de Valera and Michael Collins, the Volunteers prevailed in a bloody guerilla war over the British Army in southern Ireland. The war resulted in the creation of the Irish Republic, consisting of all but the six northernmost counties that were retained as part of the British Empire. With typical Irish contrariness, however, the Irish turned on each other, assassinating Collins before resigning themselves to governing only the Irish Republic. The eternal grudge that the Irish had against England eventually led to what the Irish euphemistically refer to as “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland. The grudge still exists. I know; I’ve asked my older relatives.

The Famine will not be forgotten in Ireland, and monuments to the victims of an Gorta Mor sprang up all over the country. The United States, Canada, and Australia (another destination of Irish refugees) all have Famine monuments. The biggest monuments of all, perhaps, are the annual St. Patrick’s Day parades held in the United States. Those parades had occurred during pre-Revolutionary times, to celebrate Irish heritage. After the influx of Irish immigrants during the Famine, however, the ranks of parade marchers swelled, and the parades took on a new meaning. Irish organizations, such as the Ancient Order of Hibernians, began organizing the parades, which often became political expressions of Irish-American’s solidarity with the nationalist movement in Ireland. (There was no parade in Dublin until the 1990’s.) And sorry, folks, the largest — the New York City Parade — has always prohibited wagons and floats. By so doing, they avoid much of the “we’re on a float, so let’s get drunk and throw beads” blend of Mardi Gras and St. Patrick’s Day that characterizes Jackson’s Parade. The New York City Parade allows the participants to focus on Irish heritage.

Regardless, though, of your heritage or intent, I hope you enjoyed your St. Patrick’s Day celebration this year. I also hope you look forward to next year’s party. But as you put on your festive green clothes and beads, give a thought to the starving poor who came to this country just to survive, and, in so doing, added so immeasurably to our culture and traditions. And let go of your grudges. Éirinn go Brách!