Thursday, March 17, 2011

No Luck of the Irish


“I belong to the faubourg Saint-Patrice called Ireland for short”
-James Joyce  (Irish novelist, 1882-1941)

St. Patrick’s Day.  If Hallmark or McDonald’s Shamrock milkshakes has not already reminded you, it is the day to pretend your Irish, get drunk or both. Just in case you forgot, St. Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland, and St. Patrick’s Day, today, is the anniversary of his death. Legend has it that St. Patrick banished all the snakes from Ireland by chasing them into the sea while he was fasting.[1]  He is also noted for his use of the shamrock, or three-leafed clover, as a pedagogical tool for explaining the Holy Trinity to Ireland.
Since the 6th century, St. Patrick’s Day has been celebrated as a saint day in Ireland and amongst the Irish, with the usual mass and feast following. Of course, leave it to the Americans to distort any “Holy-day” into a celebration of capitalism.[2]  If it’s green, a shamrock or a leprechaun on it, it’s for sale (including a special clover gold and diamond necklace at Tiffany & Co. running for the paltry sum of $1,525).  Also in homes all across North America and Ireland, “traditional” Irish food, such as soda bread, corned beef[3] and cabbage will be served in honor of the holiday.  Heck, my mom even made us corned beef and cabbage when we were kids – and we were Korean.
Interestingly enough, the corned beef and cabbage served on St. Patrick’s Day does have a history that dates back to the 17th century.  The “corned” beef is derived from the Old English term, “corn” referring to any grain or grain-like particles.  In the case of corned beef, the corn is the coarse salt used to preserve the beef, thus “corned” beef.  Starting already in the 18th century, both the English and the Irish made corned beef for trade across British Empire and the North America. A large part of that corned beef made for commercial and trading use was centered in coastal Ireland.
Why Ireland? Because it had plenty of land for the raising cattle.  As land for pasture became increasingly expensive during the nascent Industrial Revolution in England, Ireland became cheap source of grazing land for cattle.  With ports in near distance, shipping and trade across the Atlantic was commercially viable and economically profitable.  And as the British population became increasingly wealthy, so did their taste for Irish beef, increasing the demand for pasture throughout Ireland.
But that demand for beef came at a price.  And the price was paid by the population of Ireland.  Although 80% of the Irish population was Catholic, they owned little of the land (due to previous laws restricting the civil and property rights of Irish Catholics).  Who owned the land?  British and Anglo-Irish landed gentry (most of whom never set foot in Ireland). And guess who were their tenants?  Catholic-Irish. 
As tenants of their absentee landlords, the Catholic Irish were reduced to poverty – on a good day.  And as having little land for their own subsistence, the rest used for cattle grazing or for grain production for Britain’s growing middle-class, the tenants depended upon the lowly potato for the majority of their meals.  While earlier the potato was a supplementary crop, compared to dairy and grain products, the decreased availability of arable land pushed the potato as the main source of food for Ireland’s landless tenant farmers. By the force of poverty, these farmers went into monoculture.  By the time the Irish potato blight came along in 1844, Ireland’s fate was already a forgone conclusion.
And what does this mean for today?  As world’s appetite for meat grows larger across developing nations, such as India and China, we are seeing less and less land available to feed the world’s populations.  Currently, forty percent of the world’s grain goes toward feeding livestock. The world’s cattle consume enough grain to feed 8.7 billion people.  Seventy percent of all US grain goes to fuel or livestock consumption. There are approximately 1 billion people starving in the world today.

Are we the new British Empire?
  
Happy St. Patrick’s Day.


[1] Scientific evidence points out that there snakes have never inhabited Ireland – or any other insular island, such as Greenland or Iceland.  The closest thing that Ireland has had to a snake is this thing called a “slow worm,” which is technically a legless lizard. Go figure.
[2] According to various histories of Revolutionary America, St. Patrick’s Day has been celebrated for quite some time in the US.  But as the first Irish immigrants to the US had been Protestant, the traditional linking between Catholic mass and St. Patrick’s Day was disassociated. With the waves of Irish Catholic immigrants flocking to the United States in the 19th century, the church became central again to the celebrations and parades across the country.
[3] To those who have not are not familiar with this foodstuff, corned beef is salt-cured beef (can be wet-brined, dry-cured, or tinned) to preserve it. It is in the same category of preserved meats like pastrami, bresaola, prosciutto, etc. You can just call it Anglo charcuterie.