The Real Irish-American History They Don't Teach You in School

A painting depicting the Irish potato famine. "Sadly," writes Bigelow, "today's high school textbooks continue to largely ignore the famine, despite the fact that it was responsible for unimaginable suffering and the deaths of more than a million Irish peasants, and that it triggered the greatest wave of Irish immigration in U.S. history." (Source:

The Real Irish-American History They Don't Teach You in School

Sadly, most corporate textbook-producers are no more interested in feeding student curiosity about the poverty and inequality that drove the famine than were British landlords interested in feeding Irish peasants.

Author's note on the following essay which has been re-posted for many years at Common Dreams as a St. Patrick's Day tradition:

In the latest issue of Orion magazine, Lacy M. Johnson writes:

When the next freeze or fire or pandemic or hurricane hits us, vulnerability will determine who gets to live, and who will die, and how. The disaster won't be the weather, but the shape of the wound structural violence has already made.

This is a profound insight that history can help our students grasp.

For better or worse, St. Patrick's Day is a brief period when people pay attention to all things Irish. It is a good time to revisit Ireland's Great Famine and the refugee exodus it unleashed.

Studying the so-called Potato Famine can help students recognize that this was no natural disaster, it was the product of structural violence. As Bill Bigelow writes in his "If We Knew Our History" column, "The Real Irish American Story Not Taught in Schools,"

During the first winter of famine, 1846-47, as perhaps 400,000 Irish peasants starved, landlords exported 17 million pounds sterling worth of grain, cattle, pigs, flour, eggs, and poultry -- food that could have prevented those deaths.

The shape of the wound of famine was British colonialism and the capitalist system, which prized profit over the Irish poor. See our role play, "Hunger on Trial," which can bring this insight to life in the classroom -- and help students consider the roots of today's unnatural disasters.

Keep reading...Show less
Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.