History16 Jul 2007 09:06 am
The Irish potato famine was undoubtedly one of the most tragic episodes in European history. Hundreds of thousands of people died horrific deaths. Destitute farmers and peasants had to flee their country, landing everywhere from America to Australia. And the British government did not do nearly enough to alleviate the suffering. But, did the British deliberately murder their colonists? This is a claim that few historians accept, but that all New York schoolchildren are taught.
In 1996, then-governor George Pataki signed a law that required all schoolchildren to be taught about the Irish potato famine. Nothing to object to so far: the potato famine was not only a tragedy but an extremely important event. (To take just one effect, it established an Irish diaspora in the United States that is today ten times larger than the native population of Ireland.) But the law also required that the famine be taught in the context of other great human rights violations, including slavery and the Holocaust. When he signed the bill into law, Pataki was absolutely clear about what the law implied. The famine, he said, was “the result of a deliberate campaign by the British to deny the Irish people the food they needed to survive.”
This may be true, but it’s not quite an open-and-shut case. Predictably, the British Embassy in Washington immediately protested the bill. (Though Prime Minister Tony Blair would admit, only a year later, that the British government did not do enough at the time to prevent the tragedy.) Less predictably, many scholars joined the protest. There is no serious debate about the Nazi genocide, but there is still considerable debate about the role of the British government during the Irish potato famine. Unfortunately, New York’s curriculum doesn’t encourage that debate to continue. It simply declares a side and stops the conversation.
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