I just finished reading a book by Anthony Bourdain, entitled TYPHOID MARY.  It was a quick and easy read about a subject which I found fascinating.  No, not the fact that Mary Mallon from Cookstown, Ireland, unknowingly infected many people with typhoid, three of whom died.  What I found fascinating was how resilient and resourceful women from Ireland in the late 19th century had to become.  Not to say that women from other countries were less so, or had to endure less, but this story about Mary Mallon‘s need to survive seemed personal.  Coming from a large family of strong Irish women, this required a bit more research.

Mary left Ireland at the beginning of the devastating potato famine.  In only seven years, the Irish potato famine changed the face and lives of an entire country.  Unfortunately, this catastrophic event doesn’t seem to be taught or even discussed in schools.  But …

Let’s start at the beginning.  Potatoes are indigenous to South America … and if you’ve ever visited Peru you know how many thousands of varieties they have.  It wasn’t until the 16th century, however, that the potato was introduced to Ireland, after having been brought from South America by the Spanish.  It was discovered that not only could this crop grow easily in the cloud-covered, moist Irish climate with its rich soil, it could feed many, many people per acre.  As a result, the lowly potato quickly became the staple food for the Irish, and in particular, the poor.  With no wheat, corn or grain available to them, a typical peasant might eat up to eight pounds of potatoes each day, providing 80 percent of their caloric intake.

Famine Memorial In Dublin, Ireland

But in 1845 a potato blight, crossing from Europe, began to sweep through the country.  A few days after the potatoes were dug from the ground, they’d begin to turn into a slimy, decaying, black “mass of rottenness.”  Experts started investigating every means possible to understand where this blight was coming from and how to handle it, but they had no answers.  It wasn’t discovered until years later that it was a fungus which traveled from South America.  Nonetheless, one-third of Ireland’s population were completely dependent upon this crop for food, and now their source of food was gone.

Over the course of the next seven years, one in every nine people (over one million) died from starvation and related diseases:  cholera, dysentery, scurvy, and typhus.  As people packed up and took to the roads trying to find food, the highly-contagious typhus was carried with them from town to town.  At times, entire families, ravaged by the disease and starvation, simply laid down along the roadside and died.  Those that could find a means to leave the country, did so.  Another million people emigrated to the United States and Canada.  One of those was Mary Mallon.

Irish Women Domestics – Circa 1850

Many Irish women, leaving their families behind, emigrated to America alone.  But once here, they faced huge barriers … among them discrimination and religious persecution.  “No Irish Need Apply” was the common sentiment.  But because these young women served as the economic lifeline for their families back home, it was imperative that they find work.  And because domestic service jobs generally offered room and board, these were their only choice.

“Going into service” as it was called appealed to many Irish women.  It had no expenses for food, housing, shelter, heat, water, or transportation and meant that they could live in middle-class neighborhoods instead of the tenements.  They knew, however, that they had to delay or forego marriage altogether.  Despite the constant discrimination, they clung to each other and their ethnicity with passion and fervor.

Mary Mallon was one of these women … strong, independent, fearless and resourceful.  But unknown to her, she was carrying the deadly typhus pathogen.  When Mary landed in New York City, she quickly learned to cook (hence, Anthony Bourdain‘s interest).  Mary knew that if she could cook, and be a good one, she could at least elevate her status a bit, and not end up as a laundress or housemaid.  And she did.  Mary was able to find work in some of the most prestigious homes in New York City and Long Island.  Although she never exhibited any signs of illness, she innocently left a wake of illness behind her.

Although Mary was tracked down, she managed, many times to get work and avoid capture by changing her name and her residence.  Mary was a survivor.  It wasn’t until an outbreak of typhoid in a maternity hospital in which Mary was working was she discovered and apprehended.  The resulting story, I think, is a sad one, because although many typhoid carriers were walking around the streets of New York City at the time, Mary was forced into isolation for the rest of her life … 23 years.

Mary never knew, nor did she believe, that she was a carrier of a deadly disease.  The only thing Mary knew was that she had to survive.

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References:  Potatoes, Post Gazette, History, World History Project, Irish Working Women, Mary, History Place/Famine


Happy St. Paddy’s Day

As did so many Irish immigrants after the potato famine in Ireland, in 1930 my Dad came through Ellis Island with his parents and younger brother. Growing up as the daughter of an Irish-born father, I can’t remember ever celebrating St. Patrick’s Day.  Irish Soda Bread, corned beef and cabbage (we called it a “boiled dinner”) and Irish whiskey were served and enjoyed all year long. Wearin’ o’ the green?  Never heard that phrase growing up.  Shamrocks, leprechauns, pots of gold … where did all this come from?

St. Patrick’s Day was a religious day, the honoring of St. Patrick, who, we were told, drove the snakes out of Ireland*.   As the patron saint of Ireland, Saint Patrick, was born in Britain (ruled then by the Romans) in the 5th century.  As a teenager, he was kidnapped and brought to Ireland to be sold as a slave.  Somehow he was able to escape and returned to his family, but through dreams he turned to religion and became a priest in Roman Catholicism.  Years later he returned to Ireland and brought Christianity with him.  st.patrickSt. Patrick is believed to have died on March 17th.  Since the 9th or 10th century, people in Ireland have been observing this day as the Roman Catholic feast day of St. Patrick.

But when did the day of St. Patrick’s death become this huge world-wide celebration with parades, green beer and Leprechaun emojis?

After the potato famine decimated Ireland in 1845, more than one million poor Irish Catholics escaped to America to avoid starvation.  America was, up until that time, primarily a Protestant middle-class society.  When the Irish arrived, they were looked down upon because of their thick Irish brogues and for their radical religious beliefs.  Work was not to be found.  Signs “Irish Need Not Apply” were everywhere.   Whether it was hatred or fear, the Irish were persecuted wherever they went.  Being portrayed as drunks and violent abusers, the Irish had to fight racial prejudice and stereotypes.  The road was difficult, but not impossible.  Eventually most became laborers and then moved into the trades.

But they soon began to realize that their large numbers gave them a bit of political power.  Settling in cities like Boston, New York, and Chicago, Irish immigrants started to organize and became politically connected, some eventually becoming politicians themselves.  Known as “The Green Machine” these immigrants began to be an important swing vote for politicians.  St. Patrick’s Day parades became organized by the Irish community in America as a show of strength, and became a “must attend” event for all political candidates (and still is).

Irish Famine Memorial--Boston MA

Irish Famine Memorial–Boston MA

As my grandfather would say “the Irish are natural-born politicians”.  Perhaps this endearing “gift of gab” as he would call it was a result of kissing the Blarney Stone.  As Irish politician, John O’Connor Power, defined it : “Blarney is something more than mere flattery.  It is flattery sweetened by humour and flavoured by wit.”  And who has those traits more than the Irish.

So now we have St. Patrick’s Day celebrations all across America and around the world.  Yes, even in London, England!

♣ The oldest celebration is in Savannah, Georgia, which is believed to have begun in 1813.  St. Patrick’s Day is the city’s biggest event, bringing in hundreds of thousands of visitors over the three days.  The Budweiser Clydesdales lead the parade and not only will Miss St. Patrick’s Day be crowned, Miss Teen St. Patrick’s Day will be crowned as well.
♣  In South America, Buenos Aires is actually home to the fifth-largest Irish community in the world.  Dancing in the street with live music and dance performances featuring traditional Irish bans and Irish rock groups.  No crowning of Miss Patrick’s Day here, they select the best “Leprechaun”.
♣  In Chicago, not only do they have a world-class parade and a crowning of the “Queen”, but they actually dye the Chicago River GREEN!  This tradition has been going on since 1962 thanks to Mayor Daley’s friend and head of the Plumbers Union.
♣  In Toronto, they hope to have over one million people lining the parade route.  The city has actually turned this event into a multi-cultural one, with over 32 countries represented.
♣  In Sydney, Australia, the Sydney Opera House as well as the rest of ST-PATRICK-DAY-PARADE-DUBLINthe city, turns green with special lighting effects.  Spectacular!
♣  In Montserrat, British West Indies, St. Patrick’s Day is a public holiday. Celebrated over 10 days, this island has different
events scheduled for every day.
♣  Munich Germany, London England, New York City, and, of course, Boston, the celebrations for St. Patrick are worldwide!!

For all the Irish everywhere, and those becoming Irish even if just for the day, I say . . .

                                                                          May the Irish hills caress you.
                                                                    May her lakes and rivers bless you.
                                                                   May the luck of the Irish enfold you.
                                                        May the blessings of Saint Patrick behold you.


P.S. * And just in case you were wondering, there are no snakes in Ireland.  Just saying!

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References:  Chicago St. Patrick’s Day, Fodor’s, History, Wikepedia