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Every year on Saint Patrick’s Day, Ferrebeekeeper features an otherworldly creature or legend from Irish Folklore.  From lovable (?) leprechauns, to the malevolent Sluagh, to heartbreaking romances between mortal and faerie, these mythical tales from Eire are written in the indelible colors of fever dreams and ancient appetite. And, speaking of appetite, this year’s Hibernian apparition is animated entirely by hunger: the fear gorta or “man of hunger” is a famine spirit. 

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These spectral entities are said to take the form of impossibly emaciated corpses begging for alms or food.  Although seeing a fear gorta wandering around in the human world was regarded as a harbinger of famine, interacting with them on an individual level was not necessarily thought of as a bad thing (like say getting caught up with a Leannán Sídhe).  In accordance with ancient fairytale rules, treating a fear gorta respectfully or offering them food, compassion, or alms could be pathway to unexpected good fortune.

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The origins of the fear gorta were shrouded in supernatural mystery.  Although an obvious interpretation was that the specters were the ghosts of famine victims or hapless starved wretches, other sources spoke of them rising autochthonously from eldritch patches of “hungry grass.”

As you might imagine, the fear gorta has a special place in the mythology of a nation whose defining crisis was the great potato famine of 1845 to 1849 (“an Gorta Mórin Gaelic ).  The failure of the potato crops during those years was caused by the potato blight, Phytophthora infestans, which is an oomycete that attacks plants of the  nightshade family (oomycetes are eukaryotic microorganism which straddles the facile taxonomical divide between the great kingdoms of life).    

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Whatever the biological causes of the crop failure, the Irish blamed the resultant famine on the stern new laissez faire capitalism of the United Kingdom’s Whig masters.  “God caused the blight, but the English caused the famine!” was a popular rallying cry.  We need to talk more about blights, famines, and pestilences—both within human history and within the paleontological record of life (it is hard to understand the place that viruses, bacteria, and pathogens hold in the microhistory of living things, since they are so fugitive in the fossil record, but we have critical clues).  For the moment though, I wish you a happy Saint Patrick’s Day.  I really hope you don’t see any fear gortas out there in the plague-haunted mist (although, given our own misadministration from the top, it would hardly surprise me), but if you do, please make sure to be super friendly and offer them some of your provisions.  A big pot of gold never hurt anybody…well, except for the Rath of Armagh…but that is a story for another St. Patrick’s Day.  In the meantime, celebrate the quarantine with some beer and potatoes and take care of yourself. Sláinte! We will get through all of this and build a better world!

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