Feast and Famine

It’s probably no coincidence that it was Irish musician Bob Geldof who spearheaded Band Aid, raising something like $14-million for famine relief in Ethiopia in the 1980s. It’s also likely no coincidence that per capita, the Irish apparently give more money to famine relief than just about any other country in the developed world.

Ireland has had an intimate relationship with hunger. It wasn’t much more than 150 years ago that Ireland lost about a quarter of its population when the potato crops failed several years running.  About a million people died and another million emigrated to North America and other places around the world.

I won’t go into all the details about the cause of the famine. There’s a lot more to it than a bunch of rotten spuds but you can read about it on the web. Suffice to say this period in history has deeply marked the Irish people.

There are something like 15 famine monuments and museums around the country. I saw two of them; both were profoundly poignant and powerful.

Famine monument in Dublin. These folks appear to be leaving Ireland, walking towards the emigration ships at Dublin's Quayside.
Famine monument in Dublin.
Famine sculpture in Sligo, a town that suffered more than most in Ireland during the mid-1800s. These parents have scraped together money to send their child to America. There isn’t enough money for all of them to go; just the child. Here they are saying good-bye to her before she boards the ship.

I think of my own great-great grandmother Hannah Sarsfield, who apparently was able to secure a spot on a ship coming to Canada by offering to take care of one family’s children. It is said she didn’t have any food with her, and only survived because the ship’s navigator, my great-great grandfather James Coleman, took a shine to her, fed her, and ended up marrying her. Who did she leave behind to come to the New World, and what suffering did she endure? She was one of the lucky ones. On some boats, one in five people died during the journey. They didn’t call them Coffin Ships for nothing.

Contrast that with today, where no Irish B and B operator worth his or her weight in potatoes will send you out the door without a massive 1,450+ calorie breakfast. Below are examples of our ‘first course’, that consisted of fruits, breads, cereals, cheeses, etc. followed by a hot plate typically made up of eggs, bacon, sausage, black pudding, white pudding, beans, fried tomatoes, and sometimes mushrooms. In Northern Ireland, potato pancakes got added to that list.

The cold portion of the breakfast
The cold portion of the breakfast
The hot portion of the meal, and this one was actually modest compared to most others we were served.
The hot portion of the meal, and this one was actually modest compared to most others we were served.

When Joe and I protested that we couldn’t eat another thing, rubbing our rapidly expanding bellies, our hosts would say things like, “Well, you need a breakfast to keep you going all day”, and “Travelling around actually takes a lot of energy. We can’t see you going hungry.”

My theory is that this all leads back to the Great Famine. The Irish lived the unspeakable horrors of starvation, and to think about anyone going hungry these days must be incorrigible for them.


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