Survival and the hand of God in free Ireland

December 01, 1998|By MALACHY MCCOURT

PICTURE this: It's a freezing cold morning and the four of us brothers are encased in the collapsed mattress, which reeks of excrement and urine and is the home of millions of fleas and lice that feast nightly on our bodies.

Church bells ring out as they do every day, giving Mass times. You struggle to light a fire with wet scraps of wood and sodden peat. Your soaked shirttail is beginning to stiffen with the cold and your ears, nose and toes and fingertips tell you it's freezing in here.

That would be a sample winter morning in our house, except for getting the monthly food docket. These were distributed by the gentlemen of St. Vincent de Paul and were worth five shillings.

The gentlemen of St. Vincent de Paul were quite insistent that our mother make us attend to our religious duties, with an implied threat of no further relief if we were not diligent. Most so-called charities have that hidden agenda, namely, we want you to follow our dogma.

Personally, I was glad for the extra food at the end of the month, but I didn't like the religious coercion. I'm a bit cynical about charities as a rule, but it seems to me there is an exception called Concern Worldwide. It feeds the people and then empowers them to create their own sources of wealth, housing and sustenance.

Concern Worldwide is an organization on hand wherever the winds of famine blow. It was founded in Ireland by Father Aengus Finucane because of a historic memory of what befell Ireland when famine nearly destroyed that country in the 1840s.

During Ireland's famine, there was no shortage of food outside of the potato. So why did more than a million people die and millions more flee the devastation and horrors only to die early deaths in England, America or Australia? Because the British government's policy of adherence to the noble tenets of "laissez faire" and private enterprise dictated that food must be exported for profit and not wasted on charity. Also, the victims were adjudged guilty of being poor and dependent on one crop, an attitude that passed from the Brits to our Irish masters.

Malachy McCourt, author of "A Monk Swimming" (Hyperion, 1998), was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and raised from age 3 in Ireland. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.

Pub Date: 12/01/98

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