Barley and Oats: The Lost Hope

Our fears reveal quite a lot about us. It reveals our biases, our phobias, weaknesses, and our privilege. What we fear sheds a light on the worst part of us. The really ugly part. There are conversations that I have had that come to mind. However, if I am too ashamed to share the worst part of myself then I certainly have no right to share the worst part of others. Suffice it to say at the end of these conversations I had one thought. Perhaps, what we fear says a lot about our station in life and our inherent privilege. What a privilege it must be that your worries and fears are not about what you don’t have, but what you do have and what you are worried will be taken away from you. There may be no logic or reason for this fear, but there it lies. Those who have the most in our society are perhaps those who fear the most. Building walls around their money, their families, and their power. How this contrasts with the fears of those who have nothing I am not too sure. I know what it feels to have not a lot, but “not a lot” is a far cry from nothing and “not a lot” is highly relative. Perhaps, if one has nothing, one goes beyond a state of fear. Fear is a luxury and one’s actions move in a direction that is motivated solely by getting to a place in which you have something rather than nothing.

If we were to consider individuals who have nothing, perhaps the most appropriate indicators of nothingness is whether or not that individual lives under a government that acknowledges and respects their inalienable rights. If you have no right to vote, no right to hold office, no right to own land, no right to own property, no right to worship, and no right to your own language then in reality you are living under conditions in which nothing is really yours. In the sixteenth and seventeenth century this was the reality for Irish Catholics. After a series of failed Irish uprisings against British rule, the British government imposed, what is called, the Penal Laws which quickly stripped the Irish Catholics of their rights. These laws were devastating to the Irish Catholic community. In 1640, over 50% of land in Ireland was owned by Catholics, by the mid 18th century this number decreased to just 7%. The intention of the Penal Laws was to push Irish Catholics into a permanent state of subjectification, and in turn remove a perceived threat to British Rule and the English homeland. You see, that’s the funny thing. Over the centuries, Irish Catholics had fought against the English for the sole purpose of regaining autonomy and control over their own land and their own country. However, the English did not see it that way. The English saw Irish rebellion as an existential threat to England’s power. How the English could confuse a fight for freedom with a fight to invade is curious. At the very least it takes an absolute lack of empathy and complete self-involvement for the English to see themselves as the threatened ones in this situation. They were the colonialists and yet they were worried about being colonized.

After two centuries of living under the punishment of the Penal Laws Irish Catholics made a strange bedfellow with Irish Presbyterians, who also felt that they were being unduly treated by their British overlords. Together they formed the United Irishmen to fight for emancipation under the Penal Laws and for a free Irish Republic. With their diplomatic efforts squashed in 1798 the Irish turned to violent Rebellion once more. There is a poem written about the 1798 Rebellion titled “The Wind That Shakes The Barley”, and it reminds me of why I’ve never really been much of a fan of a lot of poetry. Essentially this is how the poem goes. Boy loves Girl. Boy loves Country. Boy hates the British. Boy decides to fight for country, but boy doesn’t want to leave girl. Girl gets shot. Girl dies. Boy fights for country. Boy dies. The end. (Play song)  The imagery that is stitched throughout the poem is that of barley shaking in the wind. The 1798 Rebellion did not go well for the United Irishmen, and in response the British killed tens of thousands of them. It is said that when the Irish men and boys went off to fight their doomed rebellion they stuffed their pockets with barley and oats. A little source of nourishment for the journey ahead. As the thousands of dead Irishmen were buried in unmarked graves and the seasons passed random patches of barley and oats started springing up from the ground. A reminder of British cruelty and of continued Irish resistance.


As an outsider, when I think of Ireland what comes to the foreground, unfortunately, is the Potato Famine. The Potato Famine or otherwise known as the Great Famine occurred in Ireland between 1845 – 1850. I first learned about the famine in school as a child. The story we were told was a simple one. The Irish depended on the potato as their main source of food. Then blight rotted the potatoes in consecutive years. The British Government created working programs, set-up food kitchens, and poor houses to mitigate the effects of the famine. Despite British intervention, at the end it was estimated that around 1 million Irish died from famine and disease and another 1 million emigrated. If I wanted to talk about the potato then perhaps that is the story that I would have told–a little more elaboration and a little less simplified. However, I have vowed to never write a story about potatoes. I have nothing against potatoes. I eat them all the time. It’s just never going to happen. Let’s just say I already know too much, that I wouldn’t find writing about it the least bit interesting. Yet, how do you tell the story of the Potato Famine without talking about the potato? Well, it’s amazing how the story can change when you switch directions. This week’s episode within an episode, seemingly, is Barley & Oats: The Lost Hope.

The historical set-up to Ireland’s Great Famine is important. No, it’s vital. Vital to the understanding of why the famine occurred in the first place and why it was as bad as it was. As noted earlier, by the time the Great Famine rolled around Irish Catholics only owned 7% of the land in Ireland, and this was the shit land as over the centuries they were driven off of the more fertile land onto bog land and rocky mountainsides. The Irish Catholics grew potatoes on this land, as it really was the only thing that they could grow. However, if Irish Catholics grew potatoes on 7% of the land in Ireland then what the hell was happening on the other 93% of land that the Irish Catholics didn’t own. Well, first, from our story that we did on the Coconut Farmers in the Philippines we learned how important it is for farmers to own their own land. Without land ownership farmers and their families are at the whim of their landowners. And, the same can be said for the Irish. Around the same time the Great Famine was about to occur, English Landowners were increasing rents and kicking the Irish peasantry off of the rented land in an effort to modernize their farms. There was a widespread effort to consolidate landholdings into larger farms. In effect, the English were turning an agrarian Irish agriculture into an agricultural industrial model. Food was to be grown for export not domestic consumption. If the English had an “Irish Vision” so to speak then that vision would be of Irish workers living in towns and cities and getting food from their wages not their labour. With that vision in mind, the English actually really didn’t like the potato. For the sole fact that the potato was an enabler of an agrarian lifestyle. Farmers did not need a lot of land nor did they need that land to be particularly good in order to feed their families. The English really thought that the potato was an obstruction to improvement and progress. They did not want people to be self-sufficient and eating potatoes. They wanted them to eat grains.

England’s attempt to modernize Irish agriculture and to industrialized the Irish economy held one facet that other countries going through similar transformations did not have.  For, the English wanted to modernize an economy in which the people of that land held no rights. In essence, what they created was an economy built for the benefit of England, and the Irish were left out. Therefore, when potato crops started to fail and the Irish Catholics starved there was a whole other economy churning completely separate and oblivious from the suffering that was occurring. Up to 75% of land in Ireland was devoted to wheat, oats, barley, and other crops that was grown for export. In 1846, 191,770 tons of oats, 37, 346 tons of wheat, and 18,571 tons of barley were exported out of the country.

When the potato crop first failed in the autumn of 1845 the question of prohibiting exportation of food was brought up by Irish leaders to the British Government. Countries in continental Europe were also experiencing the hardship that came with the potato blight and stopped exporting food to mitigate the effects. It is believed that if the exports were halted at the beginning of the crisis that there would have been enough food to feed those affected. However, unfortunately, for Ireland the main importer of their food was England. Ireland was essentially England’s pantry and the British Government was first beholden to their own people. Therefore, the British reaction to the Irish famine was not a reaction based on morality but a reaction that was politically motivated. And that political motivation was founded on bigotry and fear.

 I find it rather bizarre, but it appears that England was really obsessed with the size of the Irish population. It is true, thanks in part to the heartiness of the potato, that Ireland’s population had risen significantly over the past few decades leading up to 1850. In 1841, it was around 6.5 million. (If anyone doubts the significance that the famine had on the country. Ireland’s population today is only at 4.5 million. Two million less than almost two hundred years ago.) However, England’s population in 1841 was more than double Ireland’s figure. So, it’s not like the Irish population was crazy high. Yet, the Irish were seen by the British almost as sexual deviants. It is maddening reading from excerpts that were written by British officials at the time. They viewed the Irish history of rebellion as a sign that the Irish were uncivilized and unruly as a people. They feared the rise in their population. A force that perhaps could not be controlled. In the end, sadly, for those who held the power the famine was seen as a good thing. An event that would lower the population and force the Irish into the industrialized model. Charles Trevelyan, the British Treasury Secretary in charge of Famine Relief wrote “The Irish Crisis” at the end of 1847. Trevelyan ignorantly believed that the famine has neared its end. Instead, while Trevelyan was writing his book historians believed this to be the critical midpoint of the famine. At the end of his book, he writes, “The deep and inveterate root of social evil remained, and this has been laid bare by a direct stroke of an all wise and all merciful Providence, as if this part of the case were beyond the unassisted power of man. God grant that the generation to which this great opportunity has been offered, may rightly perform its part, and that we may not relax our efforts until Ireland fully participates in the social health and physical prosperity of Great Britain, which will be the true consummation of their union.” It is widely suggested that Britain’s motivations during the famine were simply based on economic theory. Ireland was a test plot in free market access. But, perhaps more accurately, the Great Famine was one long horrible moment. In which what preceded and lead up to it, was hundreds of years of those with everything fighting up against those with nothing. Barley and Oats was their hope. England was their reality.