The Courier-Journal from Louisville, Kentucky on August 20, 1995 · Page 38
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The Courier-Journal from Louisville, Kentucky · Page 38

Louisville, Kentucky
Issue Date:
Sunday, August 20, 1995
Page 38
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D5: HORRORS OF IRISH POTATO FAMINE HAUNT PEACE EFFORTS NOW BY HUGH A. MULLIGAN THE COURIER-JOURNAL THE FORUM SUNDAY, AUGUST 20, 1995 The writer is with The Associated Press. On a September morning 150 years ago, as one farmer put it, "a queer mist came over the Irish Sea and the potato stalks turned black as soot." That was the start of the Irish potato famine. SKIBBEREEN, Ireland There are lush, green fields in Ireland that no one will plow, vacant lots near derelict or long-vanished workhouses where builders never build, empty stretches of road where pas-sersby bless themselves and murmur a prayer. Cast a sad eye on death, stranger. Thousands lie buried there in unmarked graves, victims of the great potato famine and British government ineptitude and indifference that 150 years ago, by death and emigration, reduced Ireland's population by more than a third. Some died in the drainage ditch that was their final shelter after the landlord, aided by the bailiff and Her Majesty's troops, burned their cottages and evicted them from their tiny farms for falling behind in the rent. Others died along the road, too weak to make it to the churchyard with the corpses of their children already nibbled by dogs and rats in their arms. More than a million people died of starvation and fever during the Great Potato Famine of 1845-49. Some 800,000 were evicted from their homes. Nearly 2 million sought a better life in the New World, but many of these, in the words of the Rev. Patrick Hickey, a famine historian, "found instead afterlife in the next world" buried at sea from a fetid "coffin ship" or dying of fever in a quarantine station. The ghosts of that great hunger a century and a half ago haunt efforts to bring about a truce between the British government, which rules six northern counties in Ulster, and activist Irish Republicans with handed-down memories of what they still regard as "official mass murder" and "Crown genocide." "A handing down of what your grandparents told you keeps anti-British awareness alive," said the Rev. George Aggar of Cobh, the port for County Cork. There his father and uncle worked the tenders that down to the middle of this century delivered thousands upon thousands to the Atlantic liners. "The Irish today find it hard to understand and harder to forget that while people were dying in the fields, eating grass and boiled nettles, food was leaving the country under military escort," Aggar said. Prime Minister Lord John Russell "declined to interfere with the natural course of commerce," said curator Luke Dodd of the Famine Museum at Strokestown. "His Whig government was not prepared to allocate what was needed to head off starvation, but was always ready to dispatch police and troops of dragoons to help a landlord evict destitute tenants or protect a shipment of cattle or grain for export." Director Robert Scally of Ireland House at New York University notes "there were strong humanitarian strains in Victorian society, witness the anti-slavery movement. But clearly their sympathies did not extend to the Irish." In Parliament, in the magazine Punch, in the music halls, even among such liberal thinkers as Thomas Carlyle, Benjamin Disraeli and Friedrich Engels, the Irish were viewed as lazy, violent, hard drinking and superstitious, comic products of a degenerate race and religion. In a word: Paddy. "It will be difficult for most of our readers," opined the Times of London in a famine editorial, "to feel near akin with a class which at best wallows in pigsties and hugs the most brutish degradation." In Ireland, the past is always present. The Dublin government has allocated more 1 sjt- - : .V. VW-wK or the victims of ti' .--, - ' -....u.-. ,. k JLjJ.JLJ.tZl, i4a.kItti.4yjatf.AL.t1i'''fB , w,-,....! inn I ASSOCIATED PRESS PHOTO; STAFF MAP BY STEVE DURBIN A memorial stone marks a field that was the pit grave for 9,000 famine victims who died at Abbeystrewery In West Cork. More than 1 million people died of starvation and fever, and nearly 2 million left for a better life In the New World. than $1 million to commemorate the famine anniversary and pledged that events will not be "sanitized" in deference to the delicate peace talks. "We will not go softly, but tell it like it was," vows Minister of State Avril Doyle. While blaming the famine's terrible toll on "inadequate response by the authorities," she feels relations between England and Ireland have "reached a maturity which allows looking back objectively." Looking back without anger requires great control as one travels Ireland in search of its vanished population. A rebel cry born of grief Begin at Abbeystrewery in West Cork, near the bottom of Ireland, in a vacant green field the size of a football pitch beside the ruins of a Cistercian abbey. More than 9,000 famine victims lie in this pit grave, many of them children from the workhouse in nearby Skibbereen where in the bitter winter of "Black '47" the infant mortality rate reached 50 percent. "Revenge for Skibbereen" is a rebel cry still heard at Irish Republican Army rallies. It was first raised by nationalist leader O'Donovan Rossa, who lost his father in the famine, after the family was evicted, and took part in the traditional "American wake," a parting ritual of sobbing, drinking, fiddle playing, dancing and priestly blessings, when his mother, sister and two brothers left for the New World. Disaster first struck on a morning in late September in 1845 when the "queer mist" crossed the Irish Sea. Next day the fields were "a wide waste of putrefaction giving off an offensive odor that could be smelled for miles." Phytophthora infestans, an airborne fungus, rotted one-third of the crop that fall. Next season the blight claimed the entire harvest. Easy to grow, rich in vitamin C, the potato was the sole source of nourishment for half the rural population. They flourished in a bog or on a mountain, on tiny tenant holdings averaging four acres and often only half an acre. The potato was a staple at every meal Atlantic Ocean t -NORTHERN IRELAND mm inn Ann ft - :Af t h'tAKcc London JNFTH. 0 100 200 il.,t, ,!,) : MILES . SCOTLAND North Sea AUJ ENGLAND. beiiasu , bnbAI BRITAIN SKIBBEREEN Celtic Sea FRANCE a burly farmer would down 15 at a sitting. Families now scavenged to survive on seaweed, sea gulls, boiled nettles and turf, soups of dog and fox meat, "boxty bread" baked from rotting "lumpers," the watery spuds previously fed to the cattle, congealed blood extracted from the landlord's cows or pigs. Occasionally they stole a sheep, being careful first to bury the skin in the bog to avoid "transportation" to Botany Bay as a convict. The census of 1851 recorded "an excess mortality of over a million" for the years 1845 to 1849, but the toll may have been much higher. As census commissioner William Wilde, the father of playwright Oscar Wilde, noted: "No pen has ever recorded the numbers of forlorn and starving who perished by the waysides or in ditches: Whole families lay down and died." Various relief schemes were tried and discarded: road works, Indian corn from America, soup kitchens and workhouses. Sixty agricultural advisers were sent to the desolate west, sometimes finding no survivors to advise. The Rev. Lawrence O'Sullivan at Kilmoe reported his parishioners were "dying at the rate of 100 a week." His colleague at Schull "gave the last rites to at least 15 persons a day, not including children." "Frightful and fearful is the havoc around me, children disappearing with an awful rapidity, and to this I add the aged who are almost without exception swollen and ripening for the grave," wrote the Rev. Robert Traill, Schull's Protestant rector. That year artist James Mahony visited Cork to report on famine conditions for the Illustrated London News. Arriving at Clon-akilty, his mail coach was "met by a woman with a dead child begging the price of a coffin." Leaving town, he encountered "either a funeral or a coffin every 100 yards." Coffin ships of 'surplus' folk Mahony's stark sketches raised angry voices in Parliament, which were soon muted by events transpiring at Strokes-town, where the Famine Museum depicts a harrowing story of eviction and murder. Located in the midland county of Roscommon, the museum centers on the estate of Maj. Denis Mahon, a British cavalry officer whose misfortune it was to inherit the 9,000-acre property and Palladian mansion just as the famine broke out. The estate had been poorly managed and plunged further into debt as the 12,000 tenants on mostly three-acre potato patches fell behind in their rent. Mahon's agent urged clearing out two-thirds of the tenants to raise oats and cattle. It was "cheaper to ship the surplus off to Canada," he advised, "than maintain them in the Roscommon workhouse for years to come." "A passage to Canada cost 6," said Dodd, the museum's curator. "Supporting someone in the workhouse, which a landlord was bound to do under the Poor Laws, was 12 a year." Mahon chartered four ships. Two became infamous. "The Virginius from Liverpool, with 496 passengers," the Toronto Globe reported, "had lost 158 at sea and she has 180 sick. Above one-half of the whole will never see their home in the new world." Quebec medical officers described the survivors as "ghastly yellow-looking specters ... no more than six or eight being able to disembark on their own." Of the 352 who boarded the Erin Queen, 78 aiea at sea ana hm arnvea wnn iever. "The captain had to pay sailors a sovereign apiece to drag bodies from the hold with a boat hook. Their relatives would not touch them." In all, Mahon evicted 3,006. "Most of them now dead,' lamented George Browne, then Catholic bishop of Roscommon. A local curate, Michael McDermott, denounced the major from the pulpit as "worse than Cromwell." Mahon, who had borrowed heavily to fi-nnnr-p thpir nassaee. saw himself as "a hu mane and generous landlord," a leader in local relief schemes. In fact, he was returning from a meeting of the Roscommon workhouse board of governors when unseen assassins fired two shots as his carriage crossed a bridge. Hit in the chest, he died instantly. That night bonfires burned on the hills in celebration. Two suspects were hanged for his murder. "Their funerals were well-attended," the local paper noted. Strokestown became synonymous with eviction. Today its estate records constitute a prime source of famine research. The mncpiim pvpn has thp nistnl that fpllpd Ma- hon. Dodd is convinced the major was the target of a secret society, such as the Molly Maguires, which sought vengeance against landlords, magistrates and "grabbers" anyone taking over the land of an evicted tenant. Grim workhouses still stand The Roscommon workhouse, which was converted to an old people's home, still stands. "Anywhere in Ireland, said Dodd, "you're within 20 miles of a workhouse. At the peak of the famine, there were 173 of them." Vacant or put to other uses, these grim, gray Victorian famine fortresses loom in otherwise pleasant towns: Clogher, Bally-mena, Armagh, Dundalk, Carrickmacross. A destitute family entering a workhouse . had to give up its cottage and all land above a half-acre, wear prison-like uniforms in fetid male or female dormitories and hope to avoid the adjacent fever hospital by subsisting on "poorhouse porridge," a watery oatmeal soup. In Black '47, the Galway Vindicator counted 2,513 occupants in the Limerick workhouse, which was built for 800. Late that year, emergency soup kitchens set up by the government or private charities were doling out one meal daily to 3 million. "The soup could be everything, anything or nothing," said famine historian Hickey. Religious tensions are kept alive by handed down memories of Protestant ministers using food as bait for converts. Blaspheming the virgin was sometimes the price of a bowl of soup. On "Silver Mondays," a shilling was handed to Catholics attending Sunday' Protestant vespers. British Bible societies offering food, clothing and even jobs to "jumpers" those who switched religions interpreted the famine as "God's judgment on an indolent, hard-drinking, sinful people." Recent famine research, however, reveals a degree of Protestant-Catholic cooperation seldom seen in modern Ireland. "Protestant clergy bartering soup for souls were the exception," said Hickey. "Most were very generous to all in need, working alongside the priests in relief work and in the fever wards." Mary Robinson, the president of Ireland, has characterized the famine as "an event which more than any others shaped us as a people. It defined our will to survive and our sense of human vulnerability. The nightmare images of the bailiff, the workhouse and the coffin ship have equally terrible equivalents for other people at this very moment." CAMPAIGNING ON WAGE STAGNATION BY LOUIS UCHITELLE CIGAR RENAISSANCE BY GLENN COLLINS The writer is with The New York Times. Wage stagnation, which has persistently held down the living standards of tens of millions of Americans, is emerging as a big economic issue for both parties. The Clinton administration, in particular, is pushing the issue, convinced that by emphasizing the problem the Democrats can win back votes lost to Republicans in last November's congressional election. And both parties recognize that wage stagnation is at the heart of the budget debate. "You need to make wages a major campaign issue," said Laura Tyson, chief of President Clinton's National Economic Council. She noted that Clinton frequently refers to wages in his speeches and public remarks. He argues that he has presided over the revival of the economy and the creation of millions of new jobs and that the task now is to create a strategy to make wages grow again. "If the Republicans are speaking of this problem, we identified it for them," Tyson said. The Republicans are certainly speaking of the problem, and a common response is emerging from party leaders: that Clinton lacks a solution to the problem. "If he is suggesting that he is politically impotent on this huge issue," said Tony Blankley, a spokesman for House Speaker Newt Gingrich, "then he is opening himself up to the argument that he should hand over the presidency to someone who isn't impotent." The problem with wage stagnation as a campaign issue is that there is no ready solution. And campaign issues without ready solutions do not easily sway voters, said James Carville, Clinton's chief strategist in the 1992 election. It's not that Carville fails to recognize the importance of wage stagnation. "I defy anyone who studies American history 100 me"' Yil - -trl li-W i jflfcill1 CARVILLE: Wage stagnation Is "a hard thing to grasp and blame someone for." years from now to say that affirmative action or abortion were more important than wage stagnation," he said. "In all honesty, wage stagnation is a hard thing to grasp and blame someone for." Wage stagnation, actually a 20-year-old phenomenon, means that the wage of the typical, or median, American worker has basically stayed unchanged, once a discount is made for inflation. That has been the case whatever the measure: individual hourly wages, weekly wages or family income, according to Labor Department data. When prices go up as fast as wages, Americans are left without the wherewithal to improve their living standards. Only upper-income people, those who earn more than $80,000 a year, have kept ahead of inflation, while at the other end of the income spectrum,' below $30,000, the typical worker's wage has lost ground. Although the problem has been plaguing Americans for years, it is just now rising to the level of a major campaign issue, in the absence of other compelling economic problems; like those that existed in 1992, when Clinton challenged George Bush. Nearly three years into the Clinton administration, the work force has grown by more than 7 million jobs, as Clinton often reminds the electorate. Growth, while not sufficiently robust for Clinton to claim boom times, is not so weak that the GOP can easily accuse Clinton of hard times. "Absent a recession, which is possible, the economy will tend to create a close election," predicted Ray Fair, a Yale economist who studies voter reactions to economic issues. But whatever economic revival has occurred has failed to revive wages. Quite the contrary, four years into the recovery, the wage problem has worsened in some ways. This year, not only wages but total compensation, including benefits, are failing to keep up with inflation. Before, when companies added up what they paid in wages and benefits, like health care and pensions, the total has usually exceeded the inflation rate. The lag in total compensation is the first since the last recession. "Middle-class squeeze may be a better descriptive phrase for what is happening than wage stagnation," said William Kris-tol, a former adviser to Republican candidates and now editor of The Standard, a conservative magazine. He said the 1996 campaign might offer an opportunity to address the problem. "If the economy stays in reasonable shape," he said, "you could get a substantive debate over the competing solutions to wage stagnation and the social problems that go with it." The Clinton administration argues that wages will continue to stagnate if the Republicans succeed in trying to balance the budget by eliminating such items as federally financed job training, Head Start programs and subsidized student loans. All of these programs help lead to higher wages, the administration argues. The Republicans insist that a balanced budget in itself will push up wages over time. A balanced budget means less borrowing by the government from the pool of national savings, which frees money for companies to borrow, at lower interest rates. And these borrowings, invested properly, generate jobs in an expanding economy and ever-higher pay. Nw York Timet News Service The writer is with The New York Times. BLOOMFIELD, Conn. They call it tenting. Since the 19th century, it has been a hot-weather hallmark of tobacco growing in the sandy loam of the Connecticut Valley. Now, once again, hundreds of acres of white netting have been deployed to protect delicate tobacco leaves so they can fulfill their destiny as luxury cigars. Three years ago, this practice seemed doomed, along with an entire industry and a 96-year-old way of life. One of the nation's legendary tobacco-growing economies seemed near extinction because demand for its esoteric product was declining along with the popularity of cigars in America. Enter, miraculously, cigar mania. Sales of premium cigars those costing more than $2.50 each have jumped 29 percent in the past three years. And improbably, at a time when only 25 percent of Americans smoke fewer than at any time since the government began taking surveys cigar fervor has saved the tobacco industry in the Connecticut Valley. "Business here was dying and now it's thriving," said Edgar Cullman, chairman of Culbro Corp., corporate parent of the region's chief grower, General Cigar Co. "Only a few years ago, we'd grow our tobacco, and we'd store our tobacco and nobody wanted to buy it. Now? We're expanding our acreage and our labor force." Demand has exceeded supply in the region, which is blessed with the mysterious soil and climate conditions that have turned its tobacco into the platinum of the cigar-making world. Called Connecticut Shade wrapper leaf or simply Shade the golden brown, unblemished cured tobacco is hand-rolled to become the outer jacket of expensive cigars. Shade tobacco is essential not only to the look of some premium brands, but also to their taste. Although Shade accounts for no more than 5 percent of a cigar's weight, the wrapper gives it more than 60 percent of its taste, manufacturers and smokers say. "What looked like a dinosaur industry has enjoyed a huge turnaround," said Gov. John Rowland, who occasionally partakes of a Shade-wrapped cigar himself. Sales of premium cigars are surging as a new generation of affluent men (and a few women) have become cigarophiles, puffing at cigar dinners, traveling to dressy smoke-ins and seeking out restaurants that welcome them. Even President Clinton, who allows that he smokes a cigar from time to time, gave cigars a boost recently when he said they would be exempted from his proposed tobacco restrictions because teen-agers do not smoke cigars. The cigar boom has been ascribed to everything from the yuppie taste for self-indulgence to white-male backlash to the influence of a popular new high-gloss magazine, Cigar Aficionado. Whatever the reason, the resurgence is a renaissance for Shade, so called because the tobacco is grown under the shade of the polymer tenting. General Cigar's entire 1994 crop, which will not even be ready until 1997, is already sold out. Sales rose 45 percent in 1994 and are up 55 percent so far this year. The Connecticut Department of Economic Development estimates the value of cigar agriculture, exclusive of wholesaling and manufacture, at $50 million, and cigar-tobacco cultivation is "now one of the fastest growing of our agricultural industries," said Rick Macsuga, marketing and inspection supervisor for Connecticut's Agriculture Department. Cullman estimated the total economic benefit to Connecticut at $100 million, "and it could have been a billion if the industry hadn't declined," he said. c New York Timet Newa Service

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