What Paul Ryan Forgets

August 20, 2012 at 3:49 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments
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A number of commentators, myself included, have been opinionating of late about whether Paul Ryan has a “Catholic problem.”

Another dimension of Ryan’s public profile worth considering is his Irishness. Ryan apparently gets a lot of mileage out of claiming to be a rags-to-riches Irishman:  descended from Famine Irish, as they’re called, but now wealthy thanks to his financially successful parents and grandparents.

Trouble is, that story leaves out a few details. For example, the fact that a million Irish, the vast majority of them Catholic, starved to death during that same Potato Famine of 1845 to 1850 that Ryan claims so proudly. And that the British government contributed massively to this starvation by deciding that it would be bad for the Irish character if the government gave hand-outs to the starvees. And that said government was immovably committed to the belief that if they just let the market take care of problems like this, everything would straighten itself out. This economic ideology, which resulted not only in the deaths of a million Irish but in the forced emigration of two million more, is called “laissez-faire capitalism” or “neoliberalism.”  And it’s the economic theory that underpins Ryan’s much-touted budget.

I was thinking of writing about this–about how our Irish-Catholic ancestors, Paul’s and mine, are basically turning over in their graves because of the cuts he’s proposing–when an historian named John Kelly saved me the trouble. (If you want to become a successful blogger, you have to write about things the moment you think of them and not spend the weekend up the Hudson at a fabulous wedding!!)

In an article called “Paul Ryan’s Irish Problem” in the August 18 issue of The Daily Beast, Kelly writes,

“The Irish famine, widely regarded as the worst natural disaster of the 19th century, began when, between 1845 and 1850, repeated crop failures reduced the population of Ireland by a third. But crop failure wasn’t what caused the worst of it: a government economic philosophy called ‘Moralism’ and speeches made in Parliament that are almost word-for-word like Ryan’s own speeches about his Republican budget are what made the famine catastrophic, causing needless deaths.

“Charles Trevelyan, the British official who oversaw famine relief, was so intent on rooting out the ‘cankerworm of government dependency’ from the character of hungry peasants that he ordered relief food be sold rather than given away. That decision was the single-most devastating one, increasing famine deaths multifold—and unnecessarily.

“The words Paul Ryan used, last March, to introduce the Republican budget that eviscerates Medicare and other ‘entitlements,’ had, to my famine-trained ears, an eerie echo to Trevelyan’s. Ryan declared that America was at an ‘insidious moral tipping point,’ adding that ‘the president is accelerating this.’ He went on to say that a capacious safety net ‘lulls able-bodied people’…’into lives of complacency and dependency, which drains them of their very will and incentive to make the most of their lives. It’s demeaning.’ Far better for the American character for the poor to ‘pull themselves up by their bootstraps”…”

Drawing on his new book, The Graves Are Walking: The Great Famine and the Saga of the Irish PeopleKelly argues that Ryan (and Romney) are rigid ideologues much like Trevelyan and his fellow strengthener of the Irish character, Sir Randolph Routh, who cared not the least about the effects of their policies on the starving peasants of Ireland. He concludes:

“Whether 165 years ago across the ocean or now, in America, there’s a danger  in the inflexible ideas of staunch ideologues… The British government assembled some of the most able bureaucrats in Whitehall to oversee famine relief. But men like Trevelyan and Routh were free market ideologues, and ideology creates a form of tunnel vision that blinds the ideologue to context.

“Yes, the free market is a very efficient instrument, but it runs on the profit motive, and in a period of crisis—whether 1845’s catastrophic crop failure or our current economic near-collapse—measures need to be taken—feeding the hungry, employing the unemployed—that, in the short run at least, won’t make anyone money.”

I have a funny feeling we won’t be hearing too much about this side of Paul Ryan’s Irish heritage at the Republican Convention next week.



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  1. Thanks, Marian. This is important stuff. Meg


  2. Unfortunately, the vast number of Irish-Americans know little about the history of Brisitsh tyranny in Ireland. The Famine was the culmination of British hatred for the native Irish who were Catholic. Paul Ryan and his “Irishness” are the result of our forgetting the history of why so many of our ancestors came to this country.


    • In a radio segment on education in the US recently, an expert said that 60% of American college freshman can’t identify the US’s main opponent in the Cold War. A famine in 1845!!?


  3. thanks…Pat Hill


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