For over a month I have been consumed by the story of my great-great-grandparents who emigrated from Ireland during the Great Famine to Bradford County. The more I research those years in Tipperary, where they came from, the more I am challenged by their faith.
You see, they were Catholic. During a time when the English ruled Ireland and during a time when to be Catholic meant you were treated as a disposable people. In fact I found a statement where an Englishman said the famine did the English a favor because so much land was freed up.
First a million or so Irish died by starvation and disease when the potato crop was struck down by a blight. Well, more than one year’s crop was stricken by the blight. Over another million people emigrated in search of religious freedom and in search of a land where fathers did not have to see their children starve to death. We will only mention the thousands who were shipped away from their homes as slaves. From eight million people, Ireland’s population was cut in half at the end of the famine years. PS, Ireland has never regained that lost four million.
But here’s what stunned me: the Irish Catholics had an out. All they had to do was renounce their faith. Then they would be identified as Protestants and could own land, be educated, aspire to professions, and most immediately important, have food to eat. It was that simple, convert and eat or hold on to your faith and starve, or if you could find the funds, emigrate. But the majority of the Irish clung to their heritage.
As I have read account after account of these years and my family’s history, I am challenged by that kind of faith. It was indeed a life or death matter, and they chose the possibility of death believing that death would lead to eternal life.
I am not trying to convert anyone to the church of my great-great-grandparents. But I am challenged by their faith. I keep wondering how strong I would be if our government actually said, “Renounce your faith or give up your right to meaningful jobs, schooling, owning the parcel of land you wish, or the right to any kind of government aid should you face starvation.” Do I have that kind of backbone? That kind of faith?
Another thing I have been thinking about is consequences. The consequences of what happened in Ireland is that our country is the richer for what those immigrants brought to us. Not just their abilities and physical strength, but what it meant to live by their faith, to be willing to risk their very lives to worship God as they believed was correct.
So this year, as we celebrate our Thanksgiving, I am thankful for the family I never knew. I am thankful John and Johanna Brennan risked everything in the name of God, as they believed Him, to come here, where I not only would come to faith but have the freedom to speak of my faith, still.
May you have a blessed Thanksgiving
Carol Brennan King
Turkey photo from http://pallmanfarms.com/ in Clarks Summit, PA