Eschatologist #18: Famines and Fragility
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I’m leaving for Ireland in just over a week. The trip is about half touristy stuff and half genealogical. I have many Irish ancestors, but two in particular are worthy of note:
First, there’s John Richey. As best as we can tell, he was a member of the Hearts of Steel, a militant group of tenant farmers. In 1770 the “Steelboys” marched on Belfast to demand the release of a prisoner. After setting fire to a house they were successful in that endeavor, but this made them all wanted men. John immigrated to America in 1772, in some haste, we assume in order to avoid the hangman’s noose.
Second, Charles Conner, who came to America during the Irish Potato Famine. We suspect in 1847. Presumably he traveled in what’s come to be known as a coffin ship, because so many people died aboard them, mostly from typhus.
One of the goals of my trip to Ireland is to understand these ancestors better. Though in fact I do feel that I can understand John Richey fairly well. While they’re not always accurate, and most are not set in 1772, we have plenty of modern representations of people who are one step ahead of the law. What the modern developed world doesn’t have much of is representations of starvation and suffering on the scale experienced during the Potato Famine. Accordingly, as an additional preparation for the trip, I read The Great Hunger: Ireland: 1845-1849 by Cecil Woodham-Smith. And yes, it recounts suffering on a scale that I can hardly imagine. The book is one horrific scene after another.
Any sane person, upon reading this book, will be moved to consider how we can stop something like it from ever happening again. Of course in order to do so you have to have some idea of how it came about in the first place.
In a previous newsletter I talked about the ways in which progress and technology have allowed us to turn the knobs of society. One commonality between John Richey and Charles Conner is that they were both tenant farmers, and in both cases they were suffering under British landlords who had turned the knob of efficiency as high as it would go. At the time of the famine Ireland was as densely populated as it was possible to be. The rents placed on Irish tenants by the English landlords were so high that everything had to go perfectly for tenants to avoid defaulting and being kicked off the land. The land that remained to them after paying their rents was only enough to cultivate the world’s most efficient crop, the potato, which along with some buttermilk, represented the exclusive diet of the majority of the Irish peasants. As such, when the potato blight struck, there was nothing to be done, everything depending on generating a large amount of calories on a small amount of land, a role which could only be filled by the potato, and there were no potatoes.
While I do have some concerns that the big push towards GMO crops has lowered the genetic diversity, making these crops more vulnerable to diseases. I don’t think we have to worry about widespread famine from crop failures. But that does not mean that we are not also busy turning knobs as high as they will go. We have been engaged in our own quest for efficiency with just-in-time delivery and outsourcing things to be made at the cheapest possible price with the cheapest possible labor. The fragility of these systems was illustrated when we faced our own crisis in the form of the pandemic. Supply chains still have not recovered.
This takes us to one of the other lessons from the famine: for a variety of reasons crises often feed on one another. During the Potato Famine, not only did the potato fail, but the winter of 1846-47 was particularly harsh, and on top of all that, relief for the famine involved repealing the Corn Laws, the single most contentious issue in English politics at the time. In our own time, we have the ongoing disruption caused by the pandemic, the war in Ukraine, high inflation, political turmoil, and technological disruption. And each crisis makes every other crisis harder to deal with.
So far we’re handling things, but maybe, while we still have time, we should consider turning the efficiency knob down just a little bit. Maybe we should consider making things a bit less fragile.
To the extent we know anything about John Richey and Charles Conner it was the result of a lot of hard work. But genealogical work, despite its difficulty, is very rewarding. This time around, rather than ask you for a donation, might I suggest you try some genealogy? Familysearch.org is a good place to start.