Timothy Egan’s St. Patrick’s Day Famine Pretzel — by Matthew Hennessey


It’s come to this.

The New York Times’ Timothy Egan used his weekend column to link America’s modern Republican Party—in the person of Congressman Paul Ryan—to the nineteenth century Irish famines that killed more than a million Irish people and led to the emigration of maybe a million more.

There is no comparison, of course, between the de facto genocide that resulted from British policy, and conservative criticism of modern American poverty programs.

But you can’t help noticing the deep historic irony that finds a Tea Party favorite and descendant of famine Irish using the same language that English Tories used to justify indifference to an epic tragedy.

Do you see what he did there? Saying “There is no comparison, of course,” before he goes ahead and makes the comparison? So clever. So learned. So, I don’t know, what’s the word . . . spurious?

This is what I mean when I say, “It’s come to this.” Our most respected newspapers are filled with baseless, half-baked, soft-dough claims that are boiled and twisted into delicious, filling, salty—and thoroughly unhealthy—political pretzels.

Mmmm. Mmmmmm. MMMMMM. So good this pretzel. Mmmmmmm. What was that about Paul Ryan and the potato famine? Mmmmm. OH GOD I LOVE THIS PRETZEL.

Of course, to Egan, there is a comparison. A big juicy comparison. And it’s not spurious, it’s mathematically provable: Poverty and genocide are bad. Bad things are done by evil people. Republicans are evil people. Republican policies cause poverty and genocide.

What Egan misses entirely is that the English were responsible for Irish dependency. They caused it. And not by making Ireland a free-market paradise.

By colonizing Ireland—by installing their landlords and extracting rents from native tenant farmers, by suppressing Ireland’s language, history, culture, and religion, by hauling its (modest) riches off to a distant capital run by imperious middle managers, by setting its people against each other in a constant battle of all against all, and by presuming, finally, and most damnably, that the Irish couldn’t possibly take care of themselves—the English set the stage for the tragic hunger of the mid-nineteenth century.

Phytophthora infestans caused the potato crop to fail, which caused the famine. But England’s misguided attempts to manage the Irish economy caused the dependency which made tragedy inevitable. True, the English also did a very bad job of alleviating the misery. But let’s clear this up: There was no free market in quasi-feudal, nineteenth century Ireland.

[I]t is important to recognise that the potato was not just the staple food of a large section of the population. It was also in many cases a medium of exchange: farmers who would have found it difficult to pay cash wages for the labour necessary to pursue intensive tillage were able instead to hire cottiers who would give so many days work in exchange for a small plot of otherwise fallow ground on which they could grow potatoes for themselves and their families.

Not exactly Milton Friedman’s Hong Kong. Not exactly Paul Ryan’s vision for 2016.

Economic historians have debated for almost 170 years exactly what forces (apart from phytophthora infestans) caused the Irish potato famines. But Timothy Egan doesn’t care. He knows what caused it. People like Paul Ryan caused it. They cause everything.

Please pass the soft pretzels.

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  1. user_82762 Thatcher


    I took an Irish History course at university about 40 years ago.  The standard interpretation was a bit different from this glib revisionist version.  First, the fundamental problem was the fact that the Irish did not practice primogeniture.  English primogeniture kept the feudal holdings in one piece and passed on to the oldest son.  The second, third, and..etc sons were supported and expected to go into a profession, law, commerce, the clergy.

    In Ireland the tradition was to divide the land among the sons.  Each generation of multiple sons would make each individual holding smaller and smaller.  Now enter the potato, a new high tech crop from the new world America.  The potato, rich in vitamins & nutrients and taking very little acreage to lay in a subsistence crop, facilitated a population bubble.  Tiny plots of land could sustain a family.  Without primogeniture to stop the process, the population bulged and the plots of land got ever smaller.


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  2. user_82762 Thatcher

    cont. from #1

    Then the bubble burst.  As always with over reliance on a single crop, one year a crop disease wiped out the whole crop.  The famine occurred instantaneously and the mass exodus mostly to the United States quickly followed.

    Nice to know the original version before you learn the revised version.  You may still prefer the revised but at least you do so objectively.  Not as a knee jerk to propaganda.



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  3. Matthew Hennessey Contributor
    Matthew Hennessey

    James, thanks for the comments. Why were the Irish farming such tiny plots? Because they wanted to live in noble rural simplicity? Or because, beginning with the arrival of Cromwell, there was very little in the way of what we call now economic mobility for Irish Catholics in their own land? The Penal Laws did far more than primogeniture or Irish shiftlessness or Popery–to name just a few of the British ruling classes preferred explanations for the tragedy–to create the conditions necessary for famine. 

    No less an authority than Edmund Burke called these laws “a machine of wise and elaborate contrivance, as well fitted for the oppression, impoverishment and degradation of a people, and the debasement in them of human nature itself, as ever had proceeded from the perverted ingenuity of man.”


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  4. user_82762 Thatcher


    As nobody else seems to be up on Irish History, just for the sake of argument, I thought I might mention a few things that would allow us to understand England.  When Henry the VIII split from the Catholic Church it was Spain that was the most powerful country in the World.  With the help and blessing of the Pope, Spain sent the 1,000 ship Armada invasion force to crush the heretical upstart Kingdom ruled by a young girl.

    Miraculously, England survived and was forever paranoid that Catholic Ireland would help another invasion.  Cromwell was the result of the Parliamentary English Revolution which was chiefly fueled by fears of a Catholic King internally overturning the C. of E.  Cromwell’s policy towards Ireland was especially harsh.  He saw it strictly as a base for foreign invasion.

    This does not justify the Penal Laws, however, it does put England’s reaction in its proper context.  France’s treatment of its Protestant minority was in fact worse.


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  5. user_82762 Thatcher

    cont. from #4

    The primogeniture point is not an attack on Irish Culture.  It certainly does not imply shiftlessness or popery, those broad false character slurs have nothing to do with it.  Not following primogeniture is a fact of Irish Culture that exacerbated the famine.  That the Penal Laws created a general climate that suppressed Irish enterprise is a point well taken.

    The Ukrainian Famine the Holodomor is much worse.  A system that was doing a good job of feeding its own population, better than Russia, even creating a surplus for trade was systematically destroyed.  The inhabitants were intentionally starved to death.  All of this justified by ideological purity.  When a Bolshevik says to you “You are on the wrong side of History.”, he is telling you that you are marked for death.



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  6. Mole-eye Member

    Part of the famine problem was that the land-owning English aristocracy in Ireland (the Anglo-Irish), were heavily in debt.  Their cash crops were mostly grain, which might have gone to feed the potato-dependent Irish in the crisis.  This would have ruined the aristocracy, though, and so, while Ireland starved, the grain was shipped to markets elsewhere.  It had nothing to do with free markets – it was about the aristocrats trying to avoid being kicked out into the road themselves.      With very good reason England long regarded recalcitrant Ireland as a strategic threat, both before the English Reformation and after it, but Elizabeth was 55 years old in 1588, during the fight with the Spanish Armada.  She ascended the throne when she was 25 – not a young girl at either event.  Finally, Cromwell did not fear the overthrow of the C of E – he did his best to overthrow it himself.  With Ireland he feared an attack on Protestantism as a whole, especially the Puritanism he and his supporters practiced.

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  7. Mole-eye Member

    Matthew, thank you for your essay.  The ignorance and thoughtlessness that led to Egan’s pretzel-logic seems impossible to eradicate on the left.  “Let’s see: potato famine led to poor people suffering, I choose to believe that Tea Partiers want to make poor people suffer, ergo, Paul Ryan’s views are ironic.”  Has Ryan said that his family came to the US in the early 1850’s?  If not, then how does Egan conclude that they were famine refugees?  There was a steady stream of Irish immigration that began long before the famine, and a tremendous influx long after it- from  the 1880’s to about 1910 – so you can’t just assume that if an Irishman comes to America it’s because of the famine. 

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