Potato Famine

“People should not get something for nothing. I think we made a mistake when we saw the welfare growing and didn’t emphasize work.”

Miss Mary Elizabeth Switzer

Ah, Ireland. I think of an emerald land of Leprechauns, the drinking Catholics celebrating St. Patrick’s Day and the Potato Famine. I can now place another relative in this setting.

Her mother was baptized a Catholic in Cork, Ireland. Her father was of German, Irish-Palatine descent, a Wesleyan Methodist Protestant named Julius Francis Switzer, born 1875 near Limerick, Ireland. Does history just repeat, and then repeat itself, I ask? The Switzer’s left Germany and fled the cold and hunger in 1709. While my Christopher Switzer settled at Courtmatrix, his family came to America starting in 1760. His brother Michael’s family mostly stayed in Ireland, until the Potato Famine.

In 1801, Ireland became part of the United Kingdom. The Irish Catholics made up 80% of the population and their families exploded; the Protestants also abundantly made babies. Ireland was on the verge of starving, absentee landlords who took most of the rents to England, 3/4 of her workers became unemployed, housing conditions and an appalling standard of living with deaths recorded when the potato carried blight disease. The blight destroyed the leaves and the tubers on the plant. There were 3 million people totally dependent on potatoes. What is referred to as the Great Hunger, 1 million died and another million fled from Ireland. The trans Atlantic trip has been described as huddled masses, sleeping on sailcloth hammocks on a sea tossed ocean below deck.

Julius and his wife to be, Margaret Mary Moore met at Newton, Massachusetts and were married in the Catholic Church there on April 19, 1899. Within ten months, Mary Elizabeth Switzer was born and then twins Arthur James and Ann Anastasia followed in two years. Julius couldn’t save his precious Margaret. Her death certificate lists the cause as galloping consumption. Tuberculosis was uncurbable then with a chronic cough, fever, bloody mucus and extreme weight loss. Her funeral card lists a High Mass of Requiem at St. Patrick’s Church, Waterton, Massachusetts, on Thursday, May 4th at 9 o’clock. Relatives and friends were invited to mourn the children’s 37 year old mother. Her father, scorned by the Moore’s, wasn’t Catholic, couldn’t hold a steady job and was inclined to drink Mary Elizabeth and Anastasia were sent to live with Uncle Michael Moore. He had a passion for social services. Mary obtained her BA in international law and graduated in 1921 from Radcliffe College. She moved to Washington, D.C. For the next 50 years, after starting in the department of the Treasury, then Minimum Wage Board, Public health service and the Federal Security Agency. Many Presidents came and went: Harding, Coolidge, Hoover, Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon. It was in Nixon’s office, 1973 she became well known for her influencing the Vocational Rehabilitation Act. This act allowed disabled people to work without discrimination and be accommodated in the work place. Mary worked until age 70, retired with over 1000 people attending her party, and died of cancer the next year, 1971.

Miss Mary Switzer was the highest ranking woman in the Federal Government. She made a difference and was an unflagging, inspirational caring spirit. Her budget of the welfare and social agency services was 8 billion.

Her biography was written by her best friend, Isabella Stevenson Diamond called “the dedicated bureaucrat”.

Mary and I are 8 generations removed from the Green Emerald Island of Ireland. For the visually impaired in my city, when the crosswalk turns green, a whistle sounds to tell them the light has changed. When I hear that sound, or see a wheelchair ramp, or feel the bumps on money to read in Braille, I will think about the life of Miss Mary Switzer and her influence and her ability to be disability inclusive, understanding the relationship between the way people function and making sure everybody has the same opportunities to participate in every aspect of life to the best of their abilities and desires. Miss Mary certainly walked her village home.

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