From the Book of Genesis:
When all the land of Egypt was famished, the people cried to Pharaoh for bread. Pharaoh said to all the Egyptians, “Go to Joseph; what he says to you, do.” And since the famine had spread over all the land, Joseph opened all the storehouses, and sold to the Egyptians, for the famine was severe in the land of Egypt. Moreover, all the world came to Joseph in Egypt to buy grain, because the famine became severe throughout the world.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Genesis 41:55-57 (NRSV) – March 17, 2014.)
Is it just coincidence that we read in Genesis of a famine on St. Patrick’s Day? This day of international Irish pride, when “everyone is Irish,” would just be the feast of another insignificant local saint but for the Irish diaspora, especially the Irish emigration to the United States in the mid-19th Century. And that would not have happened then and in such large numbers but for an Gorta Mór, the “Great Hunger,” the Irish potato famine.
The famine was the result of two things: a fungus-like organism called Phytophthora infestans, which killed off the potatoes throughout Ireland, and human indifference. It is estimated that at least a million people starved to death and two million more left the island. And it needn’t have happened. (My great-great-grandfather John Henry Funston came to America from Ireland during the Great Famine, so this is a personal story for me.)
At the time, the poor of Ireland had come to depend on the potato as a food staple. A single type, the “Irish lumper,” was grown throughout the country. It grew rapidly, produced large crops, and was loaded with nutrients. Humans could do quite nicely on a diet of potatoes and milk. But when the potato plants died off and the crop failed, there was nothing for the poor famers and their families to eat. Or so the story goes. In fact, the country was still producing and exporting more than enough grain crops and beef to feed the population; more than thirty shiploads of food grain (in addition to beef and several other food crops) where shipped daily out of Ireland bound for England during the famine years!
But the English governors would not make that food available to the lower class population. In deciding how to address the Famine, British administrators applied the popular economic theory of the day, laissez-faire capitalism (the French means “let it be”), which was based on a belief that the market would eventually solve all problems through “natural means.” It was not unlike the notions of today’s libertarians and those who insist that privatized public services will improve society. In fact, the language of “avoiding a culture of dependence” spoken by some modern critics of our social welfare “safety net” is a direct repetition of comments made by the British overseers of famine “relief” in Ireland at the time.
Those administrators made great efforts to avoid any interference with the perceived private property rights of British landlords. Throughout the entire Famine period, the British government would never provide the massive food aid Ireland needed because they believed that the business interests of English landowners and private businesses would be unfairly harmed by food price fluctuations.
What might have happened of they had considered the story of Joseph and Pharaoh, who opened their grain stores to the poor people of Egypt, and not just to them but to the Hebrews, as well?
For the most part, addressing the needs of famine ravaged Ireland was left to the church chairities and religious communities, as some now suggest relief of the poor should be done in our time and country; they were overwhelmed with the task. Some, to be quite frank, undertook it with grossly inappropriate attitudes and goals, requiring Irish Catholics to abandon their ancestral faith and “convert” to their particular Protestant dissenter sect. (Anglicans and Quakers decried the practice, but it was widespread.)
Some today suggest that our welfare and healthcare systems for the poor should be given over to churches and charities, that they are not the responsibility of the government. Plenty of economic and financial studies have shown that private and religious charities are inadequate to the task, that their resources are orders of magnitude below what would be needed. Furthermore, the story in today’s Genesis reading is one in which it is the government which comes to the aid of its people, not just its own citizens but “all the world.”
It may be just coincidence, but on this day when “everyone is Irish” I think we should stop and give thought to why that is; we need to understand that if the example of Pharaoh and Joseph in today’s Daily Office reading, the example of opening the grain stores to the hungry had been followed in 19th Century England and Ireland, we probably wouldn’t be celebrating St. Patrick as widely today.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.
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