There Are Scarier Things

It’s late into Halloween night, and since I woke up in a coughing fit, I haven’t been able to get back to sleep. There are some scary things on my mind. Not the ghosts from my previous post, nor modern-day vampires, serial killers and zombies on network TV (a frightening phenomenon, IMO). No, none of that.

See, I opened up our online newspaper, and one thing led to another… I’m now immersed in the Irish Famine.

I don’t remember learning much about the Irish Famine as a schoolchild. Seeing as we live in the metro area with the highest concentration of Irish outside of Ireland, this boggles my mind (1).

This is one of many chapters in history that gives me chills: the world did very little as over one million Irish, mostly poor rural families, died of starvation and the epidemic illness that flourish on malnutrition. The BBC has published a quality, easy-to-read summary of all aspects of the tragedy that played out from 1845 to 1852. The scientific side of me is fascinated by the origin of the crisis: a fungus, the cause of common potato blight. The crisis morphed into catastrophe… There are hundreds of historical etchings showing the desperate and dying; emaciated children clawing at the earth with their bare hands; hordes of hopeful waiting to board ships bound for better places.

Irish children dig for food with their bare hands


This is what really grabbed me: the ships, also known as “coffin ships”. These were British government- commissioned ships contracted to ferry the starving poor from Ireland, mainly to the U.S. and Canada. Unscrupulous captains and crew took on far too many passengers and spent very little on provisions, the result of which was an over 30% estimated en-route mortality rate among the already suffering. By many accounts, sharks trailed the vessels, anticipating the bodies that were tossed overboard.  A 2013 Washington Post article about human remains found washed up on a Canadian beach provides a well-illustrated history of these coffin ships.

In all of these links appear disturbing images: masses of desperate people waiting at the docks; terrified mothers cradling skeletal children; miserable humans crammed below decks. I can’t help but think: Where was the world when the Irish were literally dying of hunger?

There was food aplenty, especially in sovereign England. The real reasons for the world turning their backs on these suffering were purely political and idealogical. The British press had long depicted the Irish as freeloaders. Intellectuals scoffed at their Catholic religion and their agrarian society: the Irish were considered primitive, less-than-human (the BBC article above outlines these facts, rather dryly and succinctly).

These prejudices were metastatic even to America. How many of us have seen the drawings and photos saying “Irish not welcome” and “Help wanted, Irish need not apply”? Still, this was better than life at home, and so, over two million Irish attempted emigration, refugees from Europe.


An Irish Coffin Ship arrives in New York City

I’m drawn to story of the Irish Famine on this supposedly evil evening, not by random coincidence, but because the etchings and the history are strangely familiar.

As a doctor and a mother, I’ve found myself closely following the world’s current refugee crisis. Similarities abound: Desperately suffering and starving masses flee an untenable situation in their home countries. They clamor to board ships, choosing a perilous, possibly fatal journey over a sure death at home. They are preyed upon by smugglers, then met with apathy, and even cruelty, by the wealthy countries around them.

Wait. Am I talking about now? Or it this the Irish famine thing again?

No, this is now. These have been the headlines for weeks, and yesterday, it was worse: more crisis, more drownings, more misery. I’ve been wondering why the world is doing nothing, and often, I am shocked at the negative commentary on these articles, referring to refugees as “invaders” and “freeloaders”, portaying them as “actors and liars”, exhorting them to “go back to your own country”. Back in 1845, this cold-heartedness  was referred to “Famine Fatigue”. Now, it’s “Refugee Fatigue”.  Same thing.

Again, the world holds enough food, shelter, and wealth for all. The reasons for us turning their backs on these suffering are purely political and idealogical. Most of the refugees are of a different religion, and their society is viewed as less-than by the rest of the world. Many of us who live comfortable lives do not want to share, especially with those we see as so “other”.

It all sounds so familiar, doesn’t it?

Deep into the Halloween night, almost dawn, now really, this is what I find the most frightening:

We haven’t learned from history. As intelligent as human beings are, we are just not getting it.

And that is really, really scary.


  1. Over 35% of the population of Boston, as a metro area, claim Irish ancestry. While Breezy Point section of Queens, New York claims an even higher concentration at over 50%, it’s not a metro area.

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