It is hard for my imagination to grasp what the childhoods of my great-great-grandparents Patrick Tierney and Catherine Kennedy must have been like. Patrick was six years old during the worst year of the most infamous Irish famine in recent history. The year was 1847, later known as "Black '47". Catherine was born in that year or shortly thereafter. Her babyhood must have been a true trial for her mother.
As a mother myself, I cannot fathom the worry that both Patrick and Catherine's parents must have faced as they struggled to provide food for their young children, the rest of their families, and themselves during this horrific time.
"...Sick! Sick! Sick!
With an aching, swimming brain
And the fierceness of the fever-thirst
And the maddening famine pain..."
~ From The Song of the Famine, published by The Dublin University Magazine: A Literary and Political Journal, July - December 1847, p. 102-104As they watched neighbors, friends and family succumb to the effects of the death-dealing famine, how did my ancestors keep up hope that they and their children would make it through those dark days? And what mathematical odds did my great-great-grandparents overcome to make it possible for me and their other descendants to be living today?
I have other ancestors who may have experienced poverty and near-poverty during their lifetimes, yet when I first learned of Patrick and Catherine's childhoods during this infamous time in Ireland's history, I was struck with awe.
According to The Oxford Companion to Irish History, famine may be defined as "a persistent failure in food supplies over a prolonged period. It is something experienced by society, whereas starvation is something that affects individuals... The causes are complex."
Much has been written about the causes of The Great Hunger, as the Irish called the famine of 1845-1849 (An Gorta Mor in Irish Gaelic). Much will continue to be written about its causes and its impact on Ireland. It is clear today that the suffering of the Irish people during this time could have been significantly lessened if grain and other exports from Ireland had been restricted earlier and if more comprehensive measures had been taken to provide relief to those in need.
According to the International Famine Center at University College Cork "...it is important to note that famine occurs not only because a chain of events disposes to a famine outcome but also because nothing, or at least nothing effective, is done to break the process. It has been rare for the governments of famine-prone countries to possess the means with which to intervene to prevent famine."
Thankfully, the Irish famine was over long ago, although it will continue to live on in the collective memory of the Irish people for centuries. Yet, famine is still with us today in the suffering of many nations and peoples. The list of countries impacted by devastating food shortages continues to grow. Today people are in serious need in:
- Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, and more of east Africa
- Sierra Leone and more of west Africa
- Mozambique, Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe and more of southern Africa
- Dominican Republic, Honduras and more of Central America
- Other parts of the world
It is truly humbling for me to study the famine of mid-19th-century Ireland, particularly because I know that my family was impacted by this harrowing turn of events in such a direct way. It is also humbling to look at the current statistics that indicate that at least 800 million people in the world today face hunger. One quarter of those are children under five years of age.
Overwhelming as it might seem to consider the fact that one in five members of the human population suffers in this way today, there is hope. I am heartened by the fact that modern global communication allows us to be aware of those hurting in other parts of the world, and gives us the means to do something about it.
On this Blog Action Day 2008 focused on poverty, I hope you'll join me in taking the time to educate yourself about poverty and famine throughout the world - and take steps to do your part to change it.
According to the website of the International Famine Center at University College Cork (quoting Michael Glantz' 1987 Drought & Hunger in Africa: Denying Famine a Future):
"Preparing for famine so as to prevent it, although not a new idea, is one that we should be thinking about and working to realize. The reasons are humanitarian, social, economic, and political. We can both protect development and promote it by preparedness planning to 'deny famine a future'."
What You Can Do
Here are some ways that you can do your part to make a difference in the life of someone who is living with or close to poverty today:
- Help keep a small business owner in the developing world out of poverty by making a micro-loan at Kiva.org
- Help feed the hungry while you and/or your kids test your knowledge at FreeRice.com
- Join Catholic Relief Services in praying, learning, participating and speaking out
- Donate to those in need through Food for the Poor
- Purchase items created by local artisans throughout the developing world at Ten Thousand Villages, which ensures that the artisans receive fair compensation for their work through fair trade
- Print a letter to your President or Prime Minister through the Poverty.com website
- Get involved in World Food Day - October 16, 2008
- Learn about other ways to make a difference in the lives of those in need
Blog Action Day is an annual nonprofit event uniting the world’s bloggers, podcasters and videocasters as they post about the same issue on the same day. This year's goal, according to the Blog Action Day website, is to raise awareness of poverty and trigger a global discussion.
If you'd like to read more about poverty, visit the Blog Action Day 2008 website for links to the words of more than 12,000 participants worldwide, including another of my articles at 100 Years in America: "Finish your dinner!": A grandmother's wise words on poverty.