Recently, scientists announced the discovery of the actual strain of potato blight that unleashed the Great Famine, An Gorta Mor. The natural villain behind at least a million deaths from starvation or disease and the Irish Diaspora of the mid-1800s was “HERB-1,” the name that an international team of molecular biologists has give to the lethal blight.
The onset of HERB-1, though not its biological identity, came in the summer of 1846. A County Cork farmer noted that same summer: “A mist rose up out of the sea….When the fog lifted, you could begin to see the potato stalks lying over as if the life was gone out of them. And that was the beginning of the great trouble and the famine that destroyed Ireland.”
Until now, scientists knew that “the great trouble” lay with a Phytophthora infestans strain that ravaged Ireland’s potato beds from 1845 to 1852, but the exact strain’s identity eluded biologists for nearly 170 years. “We have finally discovered the identity of the exact strain that caused all this havoc,” Hernán Burbano, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology in Germany, revealed to media worldwide.
Famine scholars long believed that the US-1 Phytophthora strain spread from the United States to Ireland and devastated every county, but through DNA analysis of eleven mid-1800s samples of blighted potato leaves from Ireland, the UK, Europe, and North America that were preserved in botanical collections in London and Munich, scientists discovered that a previously unknown strain had ravaged Ireland.
Dispensing with the long-held view that the United States was the source of the blight in Ireland, the study asserts that Phytophthora infestans originated in Mexico’s Toluca Valley. HERB-1 developed in the early 1800s and spread from Mexico to Irish ports by summer 1845.
The recent invocation of the term “pond scum” by Republican US Senate hopeful Gabriel Gomez (hopeless, in this scribe’s opinion) is in no way equivocal to the Great Famine, but his words do offer a sorry example of the mouth blight that passes for political discourse these days. Gomez hurled the phrase at his opponent, Representative Ed Markey, in response to a Markey ad pointing out that Gomez, a former Navy Seal, had berated President Obama with fellow Seals in a right-wing attack ad claiming that Obama dissed the Seal team that nailed Osama Bin Laden. He took too much credit, Gomez and company railed. No matter what one thinks of the president, no order from him, no rightful justice dispensed to Bin Laden. Gomez huffed that Markey had no right to “link” him to the terrorist. Perhaps Gomez has forgotten that no one forced him to appear in that right-wing ad.
Gomez does possess a compelling personal story, and his service as a Seal and pilot is worthy of everyone’s respect. As is his toughness. In political terms, however, he is showing himself to be thin-skinned and not ready for prime time as a US Senator. Gomez’s team runs ads with the tag line “Dirty Ed Markey.” What next? “Markey’s mother wears Army boots?” In short, the ads appear to be stitched together by “pros” with all the wit and bite of teenage boys.
Gomez has every right to challenge Markey on his record, his long stint in DC, his delay in releasing taxes, and other pertinent issues. Markey, whether Gomez likes it or not, has every right to go at his opponent’s skimpy political portfolio, the murky historical house deduction on his Cohasset home, his support of assault-gun ownership, and, yes, his own words in the anti-Obama ad.
To this point – thank God this race ends at the end of the month – Gomez’s campaign seems to read as follows: Vote for me because I’m a former Seal, a pilot, a hugely successful businessman, and a new face who doesn’t have to answer directly any questions about my views on contraception or my stance on the controversial Blount Bill. I’m just asking all you little ladies out there to trust me on issues that concern you. I’ll keep you safe, and Markey won’t – pay no attention to Markey’s work in the wake of 9/11 to ensure that all airline baggage is inspected.
That’s simply not enough. Gomez has roughly one month to make his case for change. Perhaps he’ll reveal his stances on all issues during the debates. If he simply attacks his opponent and offers no real political core on the issues that matter, say hello to Senator Ed Markey. Even if Gomez does discuss his bona-fide beliefs – other than love of country, family, and business – any more references to “pond scum” and “Dirty Ed Markey” will not attract the widespread support he needs in a deep Blue state to even make a dent at the polls.