St. Patrick's Day isn't much of a holiday on the West Coast. Portland's river, and the vast majority of its beer, will not turn green. Portland State students will actually attend classes after noon. More bars will take this as an opportunity to charge a cover than will offer ridiculous drink discounts in the spirit of the season.
And yet, there is one very good way to mark St. Patrick's Day in Portland. That is to take a bottle of Irish whiskey up to Mount Calvary Cemetery and discreetly sip it in the shadow of the giant Celtic cross standing just south of West Burnside Street. That memorial is dedicated to the victims of the Irish Potato Famine, the mid-19th century calamity that killed 1 million people and forced a mass migration that together slashed the nation's population by a quarter. This year, rather than green Jell-O shots, why not take some time to reflect on the lessons of Gorta Mór?
The dangers of monoculture. Potato blight was caused by poor farming practices. There are thousands of
varieties of potatoes in South America, where the plant comes from, but the Irish mainly cultivated a variety called Irish Lumper. The lack of genetic diversity—partly dictated by tenant farmers' tiny plots—proved disastrous, as entire fields turned to black sludge in a day.
A rigged economy. Even before the famine, the Irish were very poor. That's because the land they worked was owned by British aristocrats who profited from land they rarely even visited, asking greedy middlemen to manage their tenants.
Indifference or worse from the people with power. The British could have stopped the starvation. Even as 1 million subjects of the then-wealthiest empire on earth starved, Ireland was producing massive amounts of food to be exported to England. Lately, some activists have taken to framing the famine as British-led genocide (see irishholocaust.org). More moderate voices, such as The Graves Are Walking author John Kelly, say it was merely caused by British bureaucrats who were "parsimonious, short-sighted, grotesquely twisted by religion and ideology."
Those Irish immigrants fleeing famine helped build America. Irish who came to the United States to lee starvation in the 1840s provided the cheap labor our country needed to establish an industrial economy. We owe much of the subsequent prosperity to them. We should pay our respects with a flask, at the cemetery.
GO: Mount Calvary Cemetery, 333 SW Skyline Blvd., 292-6621, ccpdxor.com.