Thursday, January 29, 2015

Ireland's Great Hunger lives on

"Skibbereen 1847" by Cork artist James Mahony (1810–1879), commissioned by The Illustrated London News, 1847
I have never been hungry enough to eat grass or old shoe leather.

Ireland's Great Hunger starved a million Irish and sent many packing for America. Some starved and sickened along the way in the so-called coffin ships. Those left at home ate anything they could find. Many starved anyway.

Our English overlords stood by and did nothing. They did import corn to Ireland but none of the starvelings could afford it. Some relief came from unexpected sources. Knowing what it was like to starve on "The Trail of Tears," Cherokees in Oklahoma sent food to the Irish. The Turks did too.

A mythology builds up around any earth-shaking event that causes the diaspora of hundreds of thousands of people. The Irish have immortalized the Great Hunger in song and story and art. Family stories, too. My own Shay relatives left Ireland for the U.S. in 1847. They farmed in New England and then moved to Iowa, where they prospered. They may have hungered and thirsted through the years, when drought and pestilence visited the Iowa City area. But they were never threatened with starvation of the type they faced in Ireland.

Even amidst prosperity, does the Great Hunger linger within us?

According to an article on the Irish Central web site:
Irish historian Oonagh Walsh believes that the Great Hunger triggered a higher rate of mental illness among later generations, including both those who stayed in Ireland and those who emigrated. 
She believes that severe nutritional deprivation between 1845-1850 caused "epigenetic change." Here's more:
Epigenetics is the study of changes in gene expression. These do not necessarily involve changes to the genetic code, but the effects may persist for several generations. Walsh estimated that the impact from epigenetic change from the Great Hunger lasted for a century and a half.  
Walsh’s research is still at an early stage, but she expects to see a correlation between the high rates of mental illness and the effects of maternal starvation. She also thinks there may be a connection between the Great Hunger and cardiovascular and other diseases.
Just think about this a bit. We all know that mental and physical traits can "run in a family." Red hair, height, odd behavior. Remember Aunt Clara? We had to keep her in the attic -- she thought she was the Queen of Sheba.

What if our genes, damaged by cataclysmic hunger, contributed to Aunt Clara's delusions?

Researchers have been busily studying the causes of mental illness for generations. Genetics play a role. Trauma, too, as in PTSD. And what is starvation if not a major trauma, as important as war or torture or physical abuse?

Walsh has also researched the dramatic growth in Irish lunatic asylums in the 19th century. The first was built a dozen years before the potato famine. But it continued well into the latter part of the century, along with increased patient populations. They included those with behavior problems as well as "lunatics at large." Families stashed their problem children in the asylums; Aunt Clara too. Husbands stashed inconvenient wives in asylums, freeing them to marry a newfound love interest.

The U.S. built asylums, too. Many are now closed, the sites of horrendous treatment of patients, torture and murder. Others grew up as medications and treatment options improved.

The Wyoming State Hospital in Evanston opened in 1887, three years before statehood, and was first called the Wyoming Insane Asylum. I don't have to imagine "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" scenes or strait jackets and padded rooms and lobotomies -- I'm sure all of that happened there as it did at other asylums, from Ken Kesey's Oregon State Hospital to the notorious Trenton State Hospital in New Jersey. Society's cast-offs are always treated badly.

We are now enlightened. We have super-drugs for the mentally ill. Our treatment has gone beyond shock therapy and mind-numbing drugs. We are stardust. We are golden.

If only that were true.

Anyone with a mentally ill family member knows the challenges of finding the right treatments. This isn't a problem faced only by rural states such as Wyoming. It is a problem everywhere.

It is refreshing to see researchers such as Oonagh Walsh dig deeper into the origins of mental illness. Perhaps my grandfathers' depression was due to being shell-shocked in World War I. Perhaps it was part of the epigenetic change inflicted on his Irish forebears. That doesn't help him, as he's long gone. But it might help me, an aging Irish-American who also suffers from depression.

It may also help my daughter, who's had major struggles with her mental illness since she was 14. She now is a patient as the place formerly known as the Wyoming Insane Asylum. Her parents are now trying to help her in any way we can. Some of that is practical parental involvement. We are strong advocates for our daughter. Knowledge is part of that. We more we know, the better.

And this is what feeds my imagination: the vision of a starving mother in 1847 scouring the fields of County Cork for a few grains of barley. Her future depends on it. She may starve, but the memory of it will last for generations.    

1 comment:

Sam said...


Powerful and thought provoking. I would like to learn more about this. Your writing helped give me insight into ADHD that I had not seen before.