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Famine, Rebellion, and the 69th

I was raised believing that Irish immigration to the New World was due to the Irish potato famine in the 1840's.  This was a lie.  There was no famine; the starvation of the Irish people was caused by the British as a form of genocide.  Does that sound harsh?  Read on.

an Drochshaol

The English first conquered Ireland during Europe's Dark Ages.  By 1801, Ireland was formally a part of Great Britain, with no local government of her own.  Over the next 40 years, the British slowly eroded Irish land ownership rights, making it harder and harder for Irish peasants to grow crops and support themselves.  The potato was originally introduced to the Old World as a gentile crop, but soon became a subsistence crop for the Irish because it was the only way they could feed their families on their tiny parcels of land, located on poor soil.  Meanwhile, Irish grain, livestock, dairy, and produce were shipped directly to England.

In the early 1840's, a potato blight swept through the Americas, and was then carried to Europe.  Every country in Europe experienced the blight, and yet no other country in the Old World experienced famine.  This was for the simple reason that all other forms of food (meat, grain, and vegetables) were still produced in sufficient quantities.

This was true in Ireland as well; during the height of the famine, there was enough food on the island to feed twice the population.  However, the subsistence farmers were left to starve while everything else was shipped back to England.  Ireland Before and After the Famine, author Cormac O’Grada documents that in 1845, a famine year in Ireland, 3,251,907 quarters (8 bushels = 1 quarter)) of corn were exported from Ireland to Britain. That same year, 257,257 sheep were exported to Britain. In 1846, another famine year, 480,827 swine, and 186,483 oxen were exported to Britain.

Cynically, England began a charity program for Ireland.  Not only did British charities collect money from across Europe, but the British government imported corn meal from America, while simultaneously exporting the fresh yellow Irish corn to England.  Britain also instituted a public works program so that destitute Irish could earn money, but the program was intentionally made useless; Irish workers were paid to dig holes.

An overwhelming attitude of racism pervaded England during the entire ordeal.  Several Oxford professors lamented that the starvation would "only" kill 1 million Irish.  The English bureaucrat put in charge of the aid program announced that the starvation was God's will and that the Irish deserved it.

As the starvation worsened, England cut funding for the charity programs, claiming that the capitalist "free market" would solve the problem (while simultaneously stealing Ireland's food - bacon exports actually increased in the late 40's).  Britain simultaneously tightened restrictions on land ownership and made it easier for landlords to evict their tenants altogether.

This period is now known in Ireland as an Drochshaol; "the Bad Times."

Young Irelander Rebellion

 In Ireland, a political group known as the Repeal Association had for some time been advocating a local government for Ireland.  As the starvation ground on, a group of Repealists realized that the only way to gain independence from England was through armed struggle.  They went to the new Republic of France and returned with an Irish version of the tricolor standard - the same flag that is now flown in the Republic of Ireland.  They broke away from the Repeal Association and formed a new group called the Young Irelanders.  One of their leaders was Thomas Francis Meagher.


Back in Ireland, they attempted to start a revolt in Counties Wexford, Kilkenny, and Tipperary.  The revolt was put down by the local police.  Meagher was arrested and sentenced to death, but the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment in Australia. Meagher escaped and fled to America, along with many of the movement's leaders.

First Irish Regiment

The very same year, Meagher and the other leaders in exile convinced the State of New York to form two Irish regiments as part of the state militia.  The First Irish Regiment was formed in 1848, and the Second Irish Regiment was formed a year later.  During the 1850's, the New York militias underwent several reorganizations.  The First Irish Regiment became the 9th New York State Militia, and the Second Irish Regiment became the 69th New York State Militia.  After the First Battle of Bull Run, the 69th was re-formed as the 69th New York State Volunteers, with Meagher as Colonel.

These men and women also formed the basis for modern Ireland.  The Bad Times fueled the anger for what later became the Troubles, and ultimately led to Irish independence, almost a hundred years later.  These are the men and women we portray.


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