Sunday, 16 October 2016

What happens when people are starving?

So, I now knew a bit about life in nineteenth century New Zealand. But I also knew that Barbara Weldon came from Ireland, so it was time to find out about where she came from and why she might have left.

I knew she was born in Ireland in the 1830s ... and in the 1840s Ireland suffered three years of potato famine. So - that gave ma a context. And it wasn't difficult to find out plenty of details about the famine - from the stink of rotten potatoes to the mass migration of starving people.

But ... it was the Catholics, as tenant farmers, who were hit hardest by the famine, and I knew that Weldon was a Protestant name. As landowners, they farmed huge estates, growing a variety of crops and thus protected from the ravages of the famine. What's more, many grew grain, which they exported to England and America - while their tenants starved. (Imagine that happening today:  rich people with tables taken with food while people are starving on their doorsteps ...)

Not all, of course, were quite so hard-hearted. There were Poor Houses (often over full, with people banging on the doors waiting for people inside to die so that they could come in. I can think of a nursing home like that.). There were soup kitchens, with bowls of broth for those who would give up their Catholicism and pray to a Protestant God. (Imagine that happening now ... When I was in Nepal I heard of missionaries giving rice to starving Buddhists on condition they prayed to Jesus).

And in the middle of all this was a mass migration, hundreds of thousands of hungry people looking for work and safety and enough food for their families. The more I read about this migration the more familiar the difficulties seemed - and the more I learned about the commonality of migrations. Many of the challenge faced by the Irish in the nineteenth century are mirrored by those leaving war-torn zones in the Middle East and Africa today.

But what of the welcome awaiting them? Have we learned anything from the mass migrations of the nineteenth century that might help us provide for those in need with compassion or generosity? (Maybe you know the answer to that.)

Those Irishmen and women with enough funds went to America. But many could only make it as far as Liverpool. Which was my next stop.


  1. Oh goodness, look at all these parallels! I can't wait to read the next episode of your research story, Jo!

    1. It's been humbling, researching all this - and then seeing pictures of people in tubs trying to cross the Mediterranean or in tents in Calais.

  2. Which explains Irish people's affinity to Liverpool Football Club. :-) When I came to live in Britain that was a detail that escaped me at the beginning. Until a coincidence turned into a pattern. When they are not busy supporting either Celtic (Catholic) or Rangers (Protestant) in Scotland, they will root for either Liverpool or Everton on Merseyside, usually the reds. I must admit a growing fascination with Irish culture, and I don't just mean the Irish jig. I'm halfway through a biography of Oscar WIlde who was the most un-Irish of Irish. And yet, he showed a great passion for Irish independence, probably borrowed from his mother.

    Great post.

    Greetings from London.