It’s not always understood in this country that the mass starvation of Irish peasants — more than a million died, and another million emigrated — resulted not from the failure of the potato crop but English government policy. Ireland remained a net exporter of food throughout, with British soldiers guarding shipments of foodstuffs as they were loaded.
Rhetoric, see, has consequences. From Swift’s time onward, the native Irish had been depicted in terms justifying their subjugation. Virtually every negative stereotype applied to our “inner city” brethren today was first applied to Paul Ryan’s (and my own) ancestors. Irish peasants were called shiftless, drunken, sexually promiscuous, donkey-strong but mentally deficient. They smelled bad.
Understanding that history is exactly what makes Irish-Americans like Timothy Egan, Charles P. Pierce and me — if I may include myself in their company — so impatient with a tinhorn like Ryan. If he wanted to understand his own ancestry, it’s authors like Swift, Yeats and James Joyce that Ryan ought to be reading, instead of that dismal ideologue Ayn Rand.
Nobody should let ethnic groupthink determine his politics. But if a politician like Paul Ryan hopes to be respected, it would help if he showed some sign of understanding the past.
Gene Lyons is a columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.