23. Jul, 2014

'Laissez-faire, let it be!'

As I dug up potatoes from our home for waifs and strays today, I remembered with sadness, the story my grandmother once told me when I was very young. It was about a wind that carried a terrible fungus that killed a million men, women and children in Ireland.

     ‘It began a long time ago,’ she said, ‘when Queen Victoria was on the throne and Charles Dickens published his book, the tale of two cities.

     ‘All of England, Wales and Scotland suffered too,’ she said, but nothing like the poor Irish. They were among the poorest people of the western world.’ She went on to tell me that in Ireland, the average age a man could expect to live was 40 and that the potato was their staple crop. So when the wind came, carrying with it the fungus, they suffered badly.

      ‘It killed the potato crops,’ I remember her telling me, ‘so people starved. It was a cruel, horrible time.’ I sat staring at my grandmother’s face. It was almost as if she herself had been a part of it.

      ‘And then there were the coffin ships,’ she was washing the dishes in the sink when she told me about the coffin ships, ‘that was the worst of all!’ She was shaking her head as she spoke. I remember thinking that I had never seen my grandmother like this but I remained quiet, and watched the embers burning in the fire.

     ‘They put the poor families in crowded and poorly built ships, bound for Canada with the promise of a better life of course. But very few made it,’ she was talking almost to herself. ‘Most of them ended up overboard after they’d succumbed to typhus or some other inescapable disease.’ All the time I just listened. It would be many years later before I understood what happened at that time.

       ‘Couldn’t someone help them?’ was the only question I asked.      

         'Laissez-faire, let it be,’ she replied, ‘that was the thinking of the government at the time.’ And she said no more.

        It was a couple of years later when I asked my grandmother about the story and why had it affected her so badly. She replied ‘our family were among those that suffered!’

        So as I dug and picked my potatoes, I was care careful not to miss a single one.