Sunday, March 17, 2013

"All Standing" by Kathryn Miles (2013)

I usually post music on Sundays, but since this is St. Patrick’s Day I offer a review of this new book by Kathryn Miles. It concerns a ship called the Jeannie Marie and the Irish famine of the late 1840’s, which is why one part of my multi-ethnic family came to America in the first place. Erin go Bragh. (Éirinn go Brách.)

Cast aside all you think you may know about the Great Potato famine which struck Ireland in the late 1840’s, leading to a mass exodus of Irish immigrants to America, when you read this fascinating account of what you don’t know about it. And there’s quite a bit, beginning with the oft held, and incorrect, notion that the blight began in Ireland. It didn't.

In an all-encompassing book about the famine, author Kathryn Miles strips away the myths and presents the realities in clear and concise terms. And, in doing so, she has written a wide ranging account of how, where and why the blight hit Ireland the hardest. Even that revelation sets the reader back; wasn't the potato famine confined to just Ireland? What has Europe to do with it; or Canada and America for that matter? Throw in South America and some bat guano bound for the farmlands of New York, mix in a bit of timber from Canada bound for Europe in the holds of the bat guano infested ships, and you have a worldwide pandemic. So, in essence, the Irish were the main victims in this world wide saga of trade, greed and corruption, capped off by total ignorance of how this disease was formed and spread.

Exploring the nature of commerce in the early part of the 19th Century can be very interesting, as the world powers became what they are today. The Industrial Revolution was just a stone’s throw away in years at the time of these events; which encompass not only the story of the famine and its social consequences; but also tells the story of a remarkable vessel and the man who built her.

That man, John Munn, is the hero of this book, and the owner/builder of the Jeanie Marie. While all of the other ship builders were continuing to build their ships just as they had for decades; with no room to stand erect below decks; Mr. Munn was constructing the Jeanie Marie at his own expense in order to keep his workers from being unemployed. With this simple act of kindness a ship was born like no other in her time. While the other “coffin” ships; as they were known due to the rate of death among the passengers; were losing hundreds of immigrants per voyage due to a lack of fresh air in the holds, as well as a diet not fit to sustain them, Mr. Munn designed his vessel so people could stand erect below decks. He also initiated another great idea; feed them.

When the Jeanie Marie left Canada on her maiden voyage bound for Liverpool, she passed Grosse Ile, the anchorage for the quarantined passengers. There were 84 present as the Jeannie Marie left on her outward voyage. In addition to the famine, these ships held passengers who were sick with typhus, as well as dehydration and mal-nutrition caused by the meager shipboard diets with which they were provided.

Earl Grey is the real villain in this tragedy. He actually commissioned barges; totaling 43,000 sq. ft. apiece; to be constructed in the harbor at Liverpool, accommodating approximately 40,000 refugees on each barge, or 1 sq. ft. per person. People were forced to sleep in shifts even as they were dying of the fever; and in some cases even the healthy were confined to this pestilent atmosphere where they were sure to become sick also. This illness, along with the rigors of the voyage awaiting them to Canada, meant many would never make it. With little room to stand; and ships Captains who exploited the passengers with rotten food; hundreds died on each voyage. I shall never drink his tea again.

As Commissioner of the Poor, Earl Grey did virtually nothing to aid these people. The British considered it to be a problem for Canada and the United States to resolve. And the United States merely let the passengers land and then fend for themselves. In many cases they were exploited as manual labor, from the big cities of New York to the building of the transcontinental railroad.

This book is a long overdue look at the so-called “Irish” potato famine, as well as homage to the thousands upon thousands of immigrants who didn't complete their journeys. The scars of the famine ran deep for many decades after, and in a myriad of ways contributed to the later Irish struggle for freedom in the early 20th century, beginning with “Bloody Sunday” in 1916.

A remarkable book for the light it sheds upon the true origins of the blight which caused the potato famine to begin with, it is also an indictment of a system which exploited a whole nation of people in order to enrich themselves. The biggest lesson to be learned here is that of not keeping all of your eggs in one basket. Had the Irish simply been allowed, or encouraged, to vary their crops, the whole history of the famine would be drastically different. But then again, there would be far fewer Irish pubs in New York, and there wouldn't be a St. Patrick’s Day Parade. 

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