MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. People around the world are celebrating St. Patrick's Day today. It's known here in the U.S. for big parades, booze and green everything, and I do mean everything. But it's also a good time to remember exactly why the Irish diaspora and its traditions spread so far. So we called upon Christine Kinealy. She is a professor of history and director of the Great Hunger Institute at Quinnipiac University, and Professor Christine Kinealy is with us now. Welcome, thanks much for joining us.
CHRISTINE KINEALY: Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: There are, as I mentioned, people of Irish descent all over the world, and a lot of that has to do with a real tragedy in Ireland, right? And I note that you call it The Great Hunger. I think other people know it as the Potato Famine. Could you just tell us little bit about that?
KINEALY: Yeah. It is known by a variety of names, including The Great Hunger. It's a tragedy that occurred in the middle of the 19th century in the 1840s. A potato blight came to Ireland. This blight appeared in other parts of Europe, but only in Ireland were people so dependent on this one single crop, the potato, which in many ways, was a soup crop because we know the Irish people, before the famine, before the hunger, were the tallest people in Europe.
But unfortunately, the crop failed in 1845, again '46, '47, '48, '49, and to some extent in 1850. At that time, Ireland was governed from London so there was a geographical distance as well and an ideological and religious distance.
MARTIN: And so does that mean that - I guess the question would be, could the suffering have been ameliorated? I mean, one of the points that I learned from your work is that in a period of six years, over a million people died, and even a larger number emigrated. And I think the question that some would have is, could that level of suffering have been ameliorated?
KINEALY: Absolutely. So Britain, at that time, was in descent of the largest empire in the world, which had a lot of resources. But again, sometimes people are surprised to hear that Ireland, throughout the period of famine, was exporting massive amounts of food, and not just food, but also alcohol. And so those resources certainly could have been used to keep people alive.
But for a mixture of reasons they weren't, and as you say, the outcomes in a short space of six years was that over one million people died. No accurate records were kept so we estimate over one million, and an even larger number of people emigrated. And most of those people, over 80 percent of those people went to North America, and that's one of the reasons there are so many Irish-Americans here today. But what's also tragic is that even after 1851 when good harvests came back to Ireland, people continued to leave Ireland. So by 1901, there were more Irish-born people living in America than there were actually living on the island of Ireland.
MARTIN: You know, to that end, we just - earlier in the program today, we had a conversation talking about immigration policy in the U.S. And we were specifically focused on the Latino perspective and the Latino diaspora. But generally speaking, given that history, do you find that Irish-Americans are still engaged in immigration policy today? Do they have that same kind of born here, and I over there perspective?
KINEALY: Absolutely. Yeah, and I think that's one of the features of Irish people - that resilience and that ability to love two countries because there's no doubt that Irish-Americans are very loyal to America, but they still really engage with Ireland. So I think there is a very strong engagement today.
MARTIN: Before we let you go, any idea how St. Patrick's Day became this big thing?
KINEALY: Yeah, well, St. Patrick's Day, the actual parade was invented in the United States at the late 18th century, as was cabbage and corned beef. That's an American invention as well.
MARTIN: So we should stop - well, I don't know. Should we stop serving it then?
KINEALY: No, no, no, enjoy it. It's lovely that Irish-Americans have put their own stamp on what it means to be Irish, and what's really ironic, but I think it shows that cross-cultural fertilization, is now pubs and restaurants in Ireland sell cabbage and bacon because they know American tourists like it and expect it. So it's actually been taken back to Ireland. So I think this is the richness of that immigration experience, it becomes a two-way process.
MARTIN: What about green bagels or is that a step too far?
KINEALY: I'd never seen them 'til I came to America. I'd never seen green beer. It was quite a shock to me.
MARTIN: Can I ask you, though, as a scholar of history so aware of circumstances that led to this diaspora, is this a day of mixed feelings for you? I mean, on the one hand, it is a fun day. I mean, everybody gets a chance to participate, as I said, in whatever way, you know, and I've seen some interesting things over the course of the day - green bagels just being kind of the tip of the iceberg. But do you wish that there was more reflection about how this all began? Or perhaps not. I mean...
KINEALY: I think I wish there was more reflection, but maybe that's for other days. I think it would be great if people could learn more about the Irish history and their experience because I think it gives very positive and useful messages to other immigrant groups. So I think I would like more reflection, but maybe we'll have that tomorrow and just enjoy St. Patrick's Day.
MARTIN: That was Christine Kinealy. She is a professor of history and an author of a number of books about The Great Hunger. And she is the director of the Great Hunger Institute at Quinnipiac University. Professor Kinealy, thank you so much for speaking with us.
KINEALY: You're very welcome. Thank you.
MARTIN: And Happy St. Patrick's Day to you.
KINEALY: And to you, too. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.