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For me there is a mystery at the heart of the story of the famine that devastated Ireland during the years from 1845-52. Why did those who suffered not fight back more vigorously? There certainly were incidents of theft, often punished severely. There were demonstrations outside the premises of merchants. There was a small rebellion by a group calling themselves “Young Ireland”, all of whom were comparatively wealthy. But accounts of such incidents are rare when compared to the numerous tales of people dying in their homes, succumbing to a dreadful apathy and resignation.
It was not only during the famine that Irish paupers were observed to be exhibiting such attitudes. George Nicholls, Poor law commissioner, noted more than a dozen years before the potato blight struck. “If you … endeavour to reason with and show them how easily they might improve their condition and increase their comforts, you are invariably met by excuses as to their poverty”. Words that are revealing not only in the prejudice of the observer that they clearly indicate.
It is tempting to suggest that religion was to blame for this. The belief that the conditions the people endured were providential, that they were inflicted upon them as punishment for supposed sins, was certainly expressed in many quarters. The notion that prayers could provide the answer to a person’s problems, central to both Catholicism and Protestantism, encourages the idea that God will provide. And there is ample evidence that proselytising elements within Protestantism took advantage of the situation to preach the need for conversion to what to them was the “true faith”.
I think, however, that modern science provides us with a much more rational answer. To fully understand the impact of this it is helpful to recall that famines, or near famines, caused by crop failure were frequent occurrences in the century or more that preceded the mid-nineteen-hundreds
Whilst there is evidence that the highly nutritious potato diet ensured that young men joining the British armed forces or working on English infrastructure projects were on the whole taller and stronger than their English counterparts, it is not unreasonable to assume that these individuals left Ireland to take up such employment before the annual summer dearth, the period following exhaustion of last years stock and before the new harvest was available. Those whom they left behind, principally women and children, would have endured 2 to 3 months of near starvation before the new crop was ready to harvest.
Neuroscience is a comparatively modern discipline. Some of its practitioners have carried out studies aimed at identifying the impact of diet and nutrition upon the development of the human brain. Many of these are aimed at assessing the value of various dietary supplements administered to pregnant women and infants. What they demonstrate inter alia is that there is a strong link between inadequate nutrition and impeded pre- and post-natal mental development.
It is, surely, not unreasonable to conclude that any child born during the ‘waiting months’ of July and August, or one or two months after that, would have his or her mental development impaired as a result of the absence of certain nutrients from their diet, or that of their mother in the final semester of pregnancy.
Furthermore, the periodic famines and food shortages that occurred in the years leading up to the years of potato blight, would suggest that there were many years during which a significant number of births were so affected.
And what, precisely, are those effects? In March 2013 the journal Frontiers of Neuroscience published a review of published papers on the subject (The role of nutrition in children’s neurocognitive development, from pregnancy through childhood, Anett Nyaradi, Jianghong Li, Siobhan Hickling, Jonathan Foster, and Wendy H. Oddy). Some of the conclusions reached are interesting:
- Since rapid brain growth occurs during the first 2 years of life (and by the age of 2 the brain reaches 80% of its adult weight), this period of life may be particularly sensitive to deficiencies in diet
- studies of infants with vitamin B12 deficiencies reported a variety of abnormal clinical and radiological signs, including: hypotonic muscles, involuntary muscle movements, apathy, cerebral atrophy, and demyelination of nerve cells
- severe iodine deficiency during pregnancy may cause “cretinism” in children
- most observational studies on iodine deficient children found some degree of cognitive impairment
- malnourished children have less energy and interest for learning that negatively influences cognitive development
- even mild but persistent malnutrition in early life (i.e., during the first 2 years of life) negatively influences reasoning, visuospatial functions, IQ, language development, attention, learning, and academic achievement
What does all this mean? I think the key point is that, whereas Nicholls and other English officials held the belief that the Irish were responsible for their condition because of an innate indolence and lassitude, the truth is the opposite: it was their condition that caused the observed behavioural deficiencies.
Given repeated shortages of food over several generations, there can, surely, be little doubt that important minerals and/or vitamins were often lacking and that, as a consequence, pregnancies entered into during or shortly before such periods had a high likelihood of producing individuals with less than optimal subsequent mental development.
I don’t generally give much credence to conspiracy theories. But in these times of “fake news” and “alternative facts” it’s becoming increasingly difficult to avoid them. George Monbiot is a journalist and commentator that I trust. He references all his claims to well documented real facts. So when he writes about a long term plan to undermine the European Union and promote the agenda of corporate America I believe him.
And the tragedy is that, in order to achieve their aim, this small but powerful group have conned the most disadvantaged citizens of both Britain and America into supporting their aim through the kind of deception of which the late Paul Daniels would be proud. Misdirection and sleight of hand were used in Britain to convince people living in its most deprived communities that their best interests would be served by divorcing themselves from the international body that has provided peace, prosperity and slow but steady advances in human rights over the last 40 years.
The same droit de main was employed by Donald Trump to convince the residents of rust belt USA that he would “clear the swamp” and bring jobs back to the homeland.
Of course, there are conspiracy theories at the other end of the political spectrum, too. A shocking number of Americans still believe that global warming is not the result of the burning of fossil fuels. Encouraged by the same think tanks that Monbiot exposes in his Guardian article, they choose instead to believe that, along with LBGT rights and Obamacare, it is all part of a left wing plot to bring about the Socialist takeover of America.
If history tells us anything it is that the last 150 or more years have witnessed an incessant battle between those who want to see the greatest good for the greatest number and those who want to use the advance of knowledge as a tool for their own enrichment. In Britain the former was traditionally represented by the Liberal and Labour Parties, backed by the Trade Union and co-operative movements, whilst the latter was always the motivating force of the Tory Party. In America, the Democrats, backed by the Labor unions, on the one hand, and the Republicans on the other, fulfilled similar roles.
Differences within each of these political movements were concerned more with the pace of change than with the direction it was taking, with moderates tending to favour gradual progress, fearing the damage that might be caused by too rapid an advance.
Education and the value of work
Fundamental to both ends of the political spectrum is a belief in the importance of education and the value of work. The difference is that the right seeks to keep down the cost of labour; not just the rates of pay, but the additional cost of providing training, health care, holidays, pensions, protection from potential work place hazards and sick pay. It also abhors attempts to protect consumers from any possible harm that might arise from the use of the products of labour, including over-pricing. The left campaigns for better pay and conditions for workers and greater protection for consumers.
By taking the lead in establishing rules and regulations that address the concerns of workers and consumers, the European Union is seen by the right as placing obstacles in the way of business success. The Obama administration in the USA is viewed similarly by Trump and the GOP.
And yet UKIP in the UK, and Trump in the USA, managed to convince people, not only that these regulations were responsible for the loss of traditional jobs, but also that both Brussells and Washington were in thrall to corporate lobby groups. You might be excused for concluding that these claims are mutually exclusive. In fact they are not. It is, rather, a question of which trend holds supremacy at any given point in time. Labour unions and human rights activists lobby for greater regulation whilst bodies representing big business lobby against such advances.
But corporations respond to increased regulation by moving manufacturing to less well regulated jurisdictions, thereby reducing their costs and destroying the traditional jobs of British and American workers . Meanwhile significant numbers of people from those jurisdictions choose to move to the US and the UK in order to take advantage of the many benefits available to the citizens of those countries. Employers in UK and US are happy to give work to foreigners who, being used to poor working conditions, are happy to turn a blind eye to minor infractions of those regulations that protect their British and American counterparts.
Sooner or later, however, as prosperity spreads to those less regulated jurisdictions, similar regulations, protecting the rights of workers and consumers, will be introduced. That is the only way that jobs might return to deprived communities in the North of England or the American rust belt. Removing the hard won rights of workers and consumers, the inevitable consequence of Britain’s exit from the EU and Trump’s plethora of EOs, will not do it.
A century and more of progress in human rights has been accompanied by advances in science and engineering that have served to reduce the need for manual labour in most traditional industries. An age in which machines did the work and men enjoyed greater leisure has been predicted since before I was born 75 years ago. And yet the number of people in employment has continued to rise throughout that time (see here for the latest UK employment figures and here for those for the USA). So I have even less faith in the possibility of such predictions coming true than I have trust in conspiracy theories.
There can be no doubt, however, that the nature of work will continue to change, as it has done throughout history. And governments wishing to keep pace with that change need to focus on education and training so as to equip their citizens to meet the challenge.
Notwithstanding any conspiracies dreamed up by big corporations, I remain optimistic that science and engineering will confound the worst predictions of the world’s pessimists. After all, one of the most successful and wealthy corporations the world has ever known – Microsoft – was a tiny operation 40 years ago and no-one back then, except, perhaps, it’s founders, could have imagined the technological revolution for which it has been responsible, or the nature of the hundreds of thousands of of jobs it has created.
This was originally written in October last year ass a response to a prompt from our local writing group. I had been researching the background to The Reformation and the role of Henry VIII. I’m posting it here because today The Writing Reader has given her followers Henry VIII as her daily prompt #1981. It takes the form of an apologia from the man himself.
I thought long and hard before I made up my mind. If I was to justify my decision to all those who would condemn me, it was necessary that my case be as strong as was possible in the circumstances.
Permit me to explain. At my father’s bidding, I married my late brother’s wife. Though for reasons we need not go into here, the marriage did not take place until after my father’s death. He would have been as pleased as was I when she duly presented me with a son and heir. And he would have been as devastated when the child died before he reached but two months old. Our second child was a girl. I came to believe that my marriage was cursed. The bible passage that forbids such a marriage and foretells that it will be barren seemed to be coming true.
I had other children, with other women. One of these, a son, to whom I gave my own forename. But he would never be recognised as a legitimate heir. All this took place before I set eyes upon a young woman who was, at the time, a servant of the wife of the French king. Her many charms took my breath away. I was unashamed in my wooing of her. I begged her to be my mistress. This she refused. I needed to rid myself of the cursed marriage and the wife who had failed in her duty.
I was beset on all sides by those who would advise me. On the one hand were those who insisted that marriage was for life, that, despite having been contracted against the old bible injunction, it was still an irrevocable contract. On the other side were those who deemed the old laws of the Church to be outdated. Among them were some who desired that the laity be given the opportunity to read the holy bible in their own language. I deemed this a dangerous idea that would take power away from the clergy.
At first I ignored these latter, preferring to cling to the old traditions. I engaged learned men, masters in theology and matters of precedent, to search texts and garner opinions that would strengthen my case. My wife insisted that her marriage to my brother, which lasted but a short while owing to his untimely death, was never consummated, so that the charge of incest leveled against her was false. Wolsey, who was supposed to secure her conviction, instead took her side and stopped the trial. I had no option but to divest him of his position.
I might as well not have bothered. His successor, Thomas More, was no better. My love was as eager to become my bride as was I to take her. It was by her hand that I received a book, written by one of those who had dared to distribute copies of the New Testament translated into English. In this treatise he presented the case for the supremacy of a king in his own realm. It was his contention that such a man ought to be governor of the Church as well as the state.
It was a tempting proposition. But to resurrect a dispute that had plagued previous kings of England filled me with dread. It had led to the assassination of Arch-Bishop Becket and the subsequent penance of Henry II. It had led to the excommunication of that king’s son, John. This, then, was my terrible dilemma. My Chancellor, Thomas More, was condemning and burning heretics. My love’s father and his friends were arguing that the Pope in Rome did not properly have jurisdiction over a sovereign state. God, they insisted, had always intended kings to be rulers of their own churches.
I prevaricated. I still hoped to convince the Pope of the justice of my case, that my marriage was illegal and should be annulled. I commissioned my own English translation of the bible and announced my intention to distribute it, should Rome not accede to my demands. Those among the English clergy who insisted that Rome carries the supreme power, I charged with the crime of Praemunire – infringement upon the right of the king, punishable by imprisonment and confiscation of property. The fools sought to placate me with money, as if I had not already all the wealth a man could possibly desire. My only unmet desire, that of my heart for the hand of the lovely Anne.
The clergy, with their oath of allegiance to the Pope and the money they submit to Rome were, it seemed to me, indeed traitors. And so it was that I demanded, and got, their submission.
I asked not that they change any of the important practices of the Church. Unlike others who sought wider reforms, I had no desire to end the celibacy of priests or to deny the presence of Christ in the mass. I sought only the right to be master of the Church within my own realm. In that capacity I could declare my marriage null and void and take the hand of my true love.
As I said at the beginning of this explanation of my actions, I thought long and hard. It took many years of listening to the counsels of others. I had no desire to bring about the events that followed. The sacking of monasteries, the redistribution of Church lands to loyal citizens, that was the work of others. I wanted only to legitimise my marriage to Anne and the opportunity it afforded to secure a male heir to the throne.
Our first child was a girl. Anne’s second pregnancy ended in a miscarriage. Had it lived, that child would have been a boy and I know now that God was still punishing me, that I was to be denied a male heir. The curse had not been lifted. And, now, I discover that my own true love has been unfaithful to me. Cavorting, it is said, with many in my own entourage. Even the court musician. I know this for he has confessed it.
The very one for whom I made so many far reaching changes, incurring the wrath of the Pope and sacrificing the lives and livelihoods of many a good man, turns out to have been nothing but a scheming whore. She is guilty of treason. Our marriage is surely dead. Yesterday it was annulled. Today she shall die. She will feel no pain, the swordsman I have secured from France is an expert in his trade. It will be short and swift. Tomorrow I will marry Jane.
Henry VIII Photo Credit: Workshop_of_Hans_Holbein_the_Younger_-_Portrait_of_Henry_VIII_-_Google_Art_Project on Wikimedia