In honour of St. Patrick’s Day, I am sharing a reflection I gave at World Food Day in 2004.
World Food Day celebrates the October 1945 founding in Quebec City of the Food and Agricultural Organization, also known as the FAO. The FAO was founded with the resolve of 44 countries to defeat all hunger and famine. It was at this occasion that the British government first acknowledged that a famine had taken place in Ireland 100 years before.
For those who study the Irish famine, the place of the founding of the FAO is remarkable. Quebec City is just 33 kilometers from Grosse Ile, an island in the St. Lawrence which was the Canadian disembarkation point for Irish emigrants fleeing the Great Famine, as well as a cemetery for the thousands who were destined to go no further. As we reflect on this history, will we see repeated the same responses and practices in the way we respond to hunger now?
Since the end of the Eighteenth Century the rural population of Ireland had come to depend on the potato as its staple food because this crop produced more food per acre than wheat and could also be sold as a source of income, although the tuber was not indigenous to Ireland. In 1845, a fungus that thrived in the wet climate destroyed that year’s potato harvest. The blight continued for two more years, with one million people dying with starvation or ensuing disease.
During the winter of 1845-46, Peel’s government spent £100,000 on American maize which, so as people would not get something for nothing, was sold to the destitute. In 1846, even if the Corn Laws were repealed, it had no effect on hungry people because however cheap the grain was, without money, the Irish peasants could not buy it.
In 1847, no government at Westminster was prepared to give food to the starving, on the grounds that the Irish already were lazy and free food would merely encourage this trait. In contrast, Calcutta, India sent 16,500 pounds of aid, Bombay another 3,000. Florence, Antigua, France, Jamaica and Barbados sent contributions. The Choctaw tribe in North America sent $710. The Quakers, and many synagogues in Britain and America also contributed generously to the Relief Committees for Ireland.
In an effort to ensure that people did not get “something for nothing,” an earlier version of workfare was initiated: relief schemes such as canal-building and road building to provide employment so as to ensure that only the “deserving” received assistance. The workers were paid at the end of the week and often men died of starvation before their wages arrived. Even worse, many of the schemes were of little use: men filled in valleys and flattened hills just so the government could justify the cash payments.
The major problem was not that there was no food in Ireland – there was plenty of wheat, meat and dairy produce, much of which was being exported to England – but that the Irish peasants had no money with which to buy the food. It was a time when Irish peasants starved in the midst of plenty. Wheat, oats, barley, butter, eggs, beef and pork were exported from Ireland in large quantities during the Famine. In fact, eight ships left Ireland daily carrying many foodstuffs.
Poor tenants amassed huge tax debts they could no longer afford. The imposition of England’s Poor Law made each landlord responsible for subsidizing tenants who paid less than four pounds in yearly rent. One solution was “assisted emigration.” Landlords evicted the poor from the land, and, to be sure to get rid of them, paid for their passage on one of the emigrant ships bound for Canada, Australia or America.
Conditions on the ships that brought the Irish to Canada were appalling. Starvation and cholera combined to make these ships truly “coffin ships.” To cope with this and the want of proper sanitation, Toronto passed sanitary regulation in June 1847, which mandated Quarantine sheds. The first sheds in the city were for cholera and placed at the north-west corner of King and John. Other sheds set up near Bathurst were for typhus. As the health problems and numbers of immigrants kept growing, more sheds were built. Toronto’s first Roman Catholic bishop, Michael Power, died on 1 Oct., 1847, of typhus contracted while attending the immigrants at the fever-sheds.
So famine is not just a far away story: The land bounded by Metro Hall and Parliament Street, and from here to the lake saw famine, just over 150 years ago.
Memorials can be found at the north entrance to Metro Hall and at St. Paul’s Church on Queen Street East in remembrance of this part of Toronto’s history.
We recall this history, in the very neighbourhood where so many of the Irish victims of famine ended their days, and bring to mind a similar disaster, the one that occurred in Ethiopia in the 1980s and continues to the current day. But even as we remember, we celebrate this feast today, because there is abundant food, and this abundant food must be shared.
St. Lawrence Hall
19 October 2004