Does Paul Ryan Have Irish Amnesia?

Irish Famine Memorial in Dublin.

On the eve of St. Patrick’s Day last March, Timothy Egan’s column “Paul Ryan’s Irish Amnesia” appeared in The New York Times. Egan cited Sir Charles Trevelyan, the British assistant secretary to the Treasury, who had ordered relief works to be shut down during the height of the Famine. “Dependence on charity,” Trevelyan declared, “is not to be made an agreeable mode of life.”  While “there is no comparison between the de facto genocide that resulted from British policy, and conservative criticism of modern American poverty programs … you can’t help noticing the deep historic irony that finds a Tea Party favorite [Congressman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.)] and descendant of famine Irish using the same language that English Tories used to justify indifference to an epic tragedy,” Egan continued.

Comments about Egan’s piece flooded my in box, and so, with permission from those who participated in the debate, and in the interest of furthering the debate, we bring you the following.  – P.H.


At the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington, Paul Ryan haughtily declared this about poor children getting free government lunches: “What they are offering people is a full stomach and an empty soul.”

At least there’s one thing that Ryan is expert at: empty souls, apparently by contemplating his own.
It is beyond my comprehension that an American of Irish ancestry – who claims his family escaped to America because of the famine – could look at children in such a callous manner.

I don’t think there is a bigger sin than depriving the hungry of food. For those of you not familiar with the Irish Famine here’s a quick history lesson – there was NO famine. During the decade from 1840 to 1850 there was plenty of food and livestock produced – and exported – from Ireland to England and other countries. But there was blight on the potato, the main staple of the indigent rural Irish peasant.

Put in a stark statistic, one million starved to death and one and a half million immigrated, mostly to America, Paul Ryan’s ancestors among them.
– Dermot McEvoy

This Ryan is the same fellow who, in championing private initiative during the 2012 campaign, spoke of how his mother commuted to the college in Madison, Wisconsin. Lost on his withered Ayn Rayn soul was the fact that both the college and the road on which his sainted mother drove were paid for with public monies.
– Clyde Haberman

– John Hamill

Ryan is that special sort known as a “gombeen man,” the Irishman who squeezed rents and trapped tenants in a web of debts, who lent money at usurious rates and foreclosed in a flash, a land-grabbing leech, a sometimes informer for the Crown, a man of propriety and piety who was the first at the communion rail every Sunday. Plus ça change …
– Peter Quinn

So many Tammany types in the early 20th Century were the children of Famine exiles, most prominently Charlie Murphy. (Richard Croker, who preceded Murphy as boss, actually was a Famine exile). These were the pols that made New York into a hothouse of social reform in the 1910s and 1920s. Big Tim Sullivan infuriated the Anglo-American reformers in New York because they did not accept the elitist argument that poverty was linked to lack of character and virtue. Sullivan once said: “I never ask a man about his past. I feed a man because he is hungry, not because he is good.”

That no-questions-asked approach to charity is a direct legacy of the Famine. And that knucklehead Paul Ryan hasn’t a clue.
– Terry Golway
Author of Tammany Hall and the Creation of Modern American Politics.

History and hypocrisy always make a great cocktail and Mr. Ryan has had too many of them this St. Patrick’s Day.
– Jack Deacy

Can I demur and say a word in praise of the congressman? As founder of the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform, I hosted a lunch for Ryan in Washington.

I was deeply impressed by Ryan’s humanity on the issue of immigration, motivated in large part by his understanding of the hardships his forebears faced.

He was especially passionate on the DREAM act. He is consistently the major voice of reason in the GOP party on this issue.
– Niall O’Dowd

It’s good to have someone brook the consensus and give a contrary view. I’m not as au fait with U.S. politics, but from an Irish American point of view it is important to acknowledge that at this stage in Irish America, bi-partisan is important and will become even more so.
– Eamon Delaney

I think it’s pathetic for Egan to equate Trevelyan letting people starve to death with Ryan’s efforts to deal with failed welfare programs.

What he wrote was insulting to the memory of the Irish who suffered and died 160 years ago. The American Jewish community would not have tolerated such an historically inaccurate comparison, why do the Irish?
– Adrian Jones

What do you think of this debate? Leave us your comments below.

2 Responses to “Does Paul Ryan Have Irish Amnesia?”

  1. Amy Scanlon says:

    I”d say in the end Paul Ryan is just a jerk. I’m sure it’s the case that he doesn’t know Irish or US history as well as he should. But even so……at some point it IS a moral issue and not just a question of knowing historical events.

    Certainly many members of my own Irish American family don’t like the idea of welfare as a long term solution to poverty. But they NEVER opposed it on a emergency basis-with their definition of emergency often applying to developed world poor and not just those facing a serious 19th century famine in an impoverished colony.

    In the end, every group of people on earth has jerks in it. Even being personally oppressed-let alone having persecuted ancestors like most of us at some point-is no guaranteed preventative. But thankfully the Paul Ryan’s ARE a minority of Irish Americans-who are actually the most liberal “white” gentile ethnic group in the US.

  2. Sandra Quinn says:

    When reading the history of the Famine, a person has to be completely ignorant of the arguments of the contemporary right regarding policies to alleviate poverty and malnutrition in the US, not to make the connection to the poor relief policies that Trevalyan forged as a malicious method of grabbing what Irish land was left, and ridding Ireland of the so-called surplus Irish population.

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