Friday, January 11, 2013

Perspective or I Have No Problems

There's nothing like doing some family history to gain a little perspective. For example, how many women have you come across in your genealogy research whose husbands died leaving them alone to support several children? I can think of four right off the top of my head. In some cases the women re-married and in others they just muddled through. Thinking about their lives makes me realize that I have no problems. Furthermore, knowing that the life I have could be gone in a moment makes it all the more dear.

Or there is the case of my Kopp family who lived in Tiffin, Ohio. In 1913 a terrible flood swept through the city and the force of the water even carried the piano out of their house. My family had to be rescued from the roof. They were lucky; nineteen people died.

Another of my people, Lawrence Flynn, worked as a carriage maker for the Michigan Buggy Company until a blazing inferno burned the factory to the ground in January 1902. (Michigan Buggy Inferno) About 300 men were left without work. I can only imagine Lawrence being buffeted by a chill wind as he walked up to the smoldering remains. I can envision him staring blankly at the charred ruins of the building in stark contrast to the snow-covered city all the while wondering how he would feed his family. Lawrence was lucky in that the company quickly rebuilt, but he and the others had to subsist somehow for those nine long months.

For me, though, the event that trumps all others in putting my life into perspective is the Great Irish Potato Famine which lasted from approximately 1845-1850. To illustrate this I'll present the case of brothers John and Daniel Harrigan. John was born about 1829 in Tipperary, Ireland, Daniel in 1838. At this time, approximately two-thirds of the Irish population depended entirely on potatoes for sustenance, because it was the only food one could grow enough of on a tiny plot of land (often less than an acre) to feed a family. [1,2] Consequently, a bad year was devastating. During the Great Hunger (as it is referred to in Ireland) there was complete failure island-wide in two of the years and partial failures (and lack of sufficient seed potatoes to grow more) in the other years. Those who didn't die of starvation died of disease (typhus, dysentery and cholera, among others). Tens of thousands were evicted (whether they were current on their rent or not) and their mud huts destroyed so their landlords could reduce their taxes (the fewer tenants they had the less they had to pay in taxes to feed the destitute). [1,2] The evicted were left to fend for themselves. Those willing to give up every possession might be accepted at a work house, assuming there was space. Here, families from age two and up were separated and adults subjected to back-breaking labor, all especially designed to be so abhorrent men would do everything in their power to avoid entering a work house. [1,2]

Visitors to the island described entering apparently deserted villages only to find themselves beset by walking specters, their rags hanging from their emaciated frames. [1,2] Whole families were found huddled together in their cabins, the dead intermingled with the living, who were too weak to stand let alone bury their loved ones. [1,2] The dead littered the countryside and carriage drivers remembered the thump of driving over bodies during the night. [2] Every edible creature (from dog to bird) was consumed and many described the unnatural silence that settled over Ireland. [2]

John Harrigan would have reached manhood during a five-year period that saw some of the greatest suffering of the Irish people in their history. Daniel may not even have remembered a time growing up when death did not pervade the very air. This was the world that John and Daniel Harrigan left, along with at least two million others. By conservative estimates, they left behind 2.5 million dead. [1,2] Assuredly, many more died for the numbers come from interviews of the survivors. When whole families and even entire villages died or emigrated no one was left to attest to their existence. The suffering did not end until emigrants were safely in the bosom of friends in the New World because from port to port they were swindled out of every farthing possible, crowded together in miserable conditions and given only insufficient or substandard food (assuming they were given any at all). [3] Learning about the famine and the abysmal conditions on board emigrant ships completely changed how I thought about the Harrigan family.

Healthy potato plants growing in my garden.

So, now when life gets difficult I try to think about what some of my forebears lived through. It puts things in perspective. And I can tell you that I will never look at a potato quite the same again.

  1. Woodham-Smith, C. The Great Hunger, Ireland 1845 - 1849, the Story of the Famine of the 1840's. 1962. Harper & Row. New York.
  2. O'Murchada, C. The Great Famine: Ireland's Agony 1845-1852. 2011. Continuum.
  3. Coleman, Terry. Going to America. 1972. Pantheon Books. New York.

No comments:

Post a Comment