Ed Fallon

Lessons from the Great Potato Famine

St. Patrick's Day is one of my favorite secular holidays. In addition to the requisite consumption of green beer, the day also provides an occasion to reflect upon Irish history and its lessons for today.

In 1996, Iowa celebrated its 150th anniversary. That same year marked another sesquicentennial: the Irish potato famine. My great-great-grandparents were among the 4 million Irish who survived the famine without having to emigrate. From an 1840 population of 8 million, famine and disease left as many as 1 million Irish dead. Even after 150 years, Ireland's population never has fully recovered. Today it stands at about 5 million.

The trauma of the potato famine burned beyond the slicing of that nation's population. It superseded the bleak reality of hunger, of watching helplessly as family and friends slipped away into starvation, or into "coffin ships" that often reached the shores of America with only half their human cargo left alive.

The trauma was heightened by the knowledge that while so many Irish starved or fled, bumper crops of wheat, barley and oats were grown on estates controlled by English barons and shipped from Irish ports. Perhaps the blight blackening the potatoes also blackened the hearts of Ireland's English oppressors who decided, after two years of famine relief, that charity had gone far enough, and the peasants had best be left to their own devices.

Forty years after the famine, my great-grandfather emigrated to America, but only briefly. He made money working the trolley lines in upstate New York, returned home in the 1880s, purchased a 30-acre parcel of land and built a two-story, four-room house.

It wasn't until the 1920s that my grandparents, Annie and Pat, permanently emigrated to the United States and settled in New York City. But unlike many immigrants, my family's ties to the old sod have remained unusually strong, thanks to my remarkable grandmother's powerful, matriarchal tendencies. To this day, I count as many close relatives in Ireland as I do in America.

I vividly remember my first sighting of Ireland in 1966, at age 8 from the window of an Aer Lingus jetliner. As the plane swooped out of the clouds, below us appeared a fabulous patchwork of small, inviting fields, each bordered by its own distinct hedge of tangled shrubs and trees.

Twenty-eight years later, I'm flying "home" again. With me are my wife, Kristin, and our children, Fionna, 7, and Benjamin, 9. For my family and me, Ireland is not just a philosophical and ancestral home. It's a literal and physical home as well. After my first visit to Ireland in 1966, I would go every two years for part of the summer with Grandpa Pat and Grannie Annie. We stayed at the house built by my great-grandfather where Grannie's two brothers, Tom and John, still lived and farmed. When the youngest, Tom, passed away in 1981, he bequeathed the house and farm to my father. With the help of Irish cousins, my father (who resides in Boston) has managed to keep a minimal farming operation there since 1981.

In 1984, Kristin and I, hoping to pump new vitality into the relatively quiet homestead, made a serious effort to become genuine Irish farmers. An entire season of labor on the land resulted in the purchase of two head of cattle, eight chickens, a crop of hay, a load of "turf," several home improvements, and a big vegetable garden -- more than half of it potatoes.

The season's labor also left Kristin (who had survived the whole summer without a single ear of Iowa sweet corn!) with a bad case of homesickness, and me with a permanently disabled back. And so our well-intentioned venture came to an abrupt end, and Grannie's dream of a new generation of Fallons resettled on the family farm faded.

Despite countless headaches and thousands of dollars, my father continues to hang on to the family farm and homestead. I have often asked myself: "Why? What's the point? Where lies the appeal in 30 acres of poor, rocky pasture on the other side of the Atlantic? Why pay an arm and a leg for air fare every time you want to go there when you could just sell the darn thing, buy a superior piece of real estate closer to home, and visit it on a regular basis?"

Furthermore, why is it that Iowans wax nostalgic at the thought of a century farm? And why is it that our commemorative Sesquicentennial stamp depicted not a modern, industrial-style agricultural operation, but a quaint, Grant Wood farmhouse surrounded by small fields and big trees?

While it seems apparent that humanity is possessed of an inexplicable attraction to things large, loud, fast and new, another side of our psyche craves the small, the quiet, the slow and the old. We hunger for adventure even as we thirst for tradition, and there is a struggle and ongoing tension between the two.

But face it. In a world controlled by Wall Street, tradition doesn't stand much of a chance. While Wall Street can make a bundle selling adventure, it's a lot harder to profit off tradition. Of course, selling tradition as adventure works pretty well -- an Irish cottage on Galway Bay, for example. But such economic ventures never will pull down the kind of bucks that large houses, loud music, fast cars and the latest technological gimmickry will bring. And sometimes, in the process of packaging tradition as adventure, the spirit, the essence of that tradition is compromised and destroyed.

It's almost as if the motto of modern times was "there is no place so sacred, so special, that it cannot be improved with a layer of pavement, a Wal-Mart and a McDonald's."

Iowa landscapes that still resemble a Grant Wood painting, America's remaining tracts of unspoiled wilderness, and my great-grandfather's Irish homestead have so far avoided falling victim to that layer of pavement. They are beyond the grasp of corporate domination, though perhaps just barely. They offer that familiar, calm, maternal stability that is increasingly hard to find in our fast-paced, ever-changing, technologically "advanced" world.

They appeal not so much to our intellect, but to our hearts and souls. They provide an anchor to the past and hope for the future. They fill the spiritual cavity sucked dry by the cold, logical tools of modern society.

Maybe part of rural Ireland's appeal is that it has yet to fall under the spell of this spreading darkness. My father's farm is a modest 30 acres, as are nearly all the farms in that part of the country. Each of these farms has its own unique features, its own personal charm, its own individual identity. And while tractors and hay balers have replaced ass-drawn carts and hay-cocks, farming still is essentially agricultural, as opposed to industrial.

It may be posturing too much to suggest that, 150 years later, the Irish potato famine has left a positive legacy. A famine watched and ignored by greedy men who hoarded Ireland's wealth while her people starved has left an indelible scar on the collective national conscience. And that scar may be deep enough that, despite the passage of time, the Irish may muster the will to resist modern civilization's relentless push to take her patchwork of inviting, emerald fields and turn them into Anywhere, Planet Earth.

Although Americans have not had the "benefit" of a tragedy on the scale of the Irish potato famine, it is not too late to hope that enough of us will commit our lives to resisting the heinous forces that threaten our families, communities and environment. If enough of us act with clarity of vision in a concerted, organized way, we can strip Wall Street of its control over our lives, return that power to Main Street and build a secure, just and beautiful future for ourselves and our children.

Iowa state Rep. Ed Fallon is also the executive director of 1000 Friends of Iowa. He can be reached at (515) 288-5364 or email sprawlczar@juno.com.

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