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Commentary

Contagion In This Family's Past And Present

In 1845, a pathogen infected the first potato in Ireland. The monocrop, upon which so many depended, failed. And an Gorta Mór, the Great Hunger, began.

Contrary to belief, infectious diseases took the most lives: typhus, cholera, the fever.

No one knew yet that lice carried the illness-causing bacteria. People crowded onto roads, into pubs and kitchens, warmed soup back at home on their hearths — infecting families, whole towns.

Overseeing the wealthiest empire in the world, the British fumbled helpfulness at best, promoted genocide at worst. Food needed to feed the country continued to be exported for profit.

It took 10 years for more than three million people to die or flee — more than a third of the island’s population. My great-great-grandparents from near Kells were among the refugees. My namesake, Michael Carolan (Gaelic: Ó Cearbhalláin), and his sister survived the month-long voyage across the Atlantic in a cargo hold. An infant, Annie, did not — another victim of contagion.

These 175 years later, a new contagion came to our house, by way of our daughter’s roommate’s friend, traveling like gossip in a childhood game of telephone. In this case, college students.

Our daughter Hattie would have to quarantine. She’d set up in our basement with its separate entrance, TV and shower.

Like days of old, we prayed by our fireplace. Her first two tests came back negative. We would beat it, we thought — this killer of our nation’s loved ones. My son, wife and I put Thanksgiving at her door. She zoomed in on a TV screen. We took turns, speaking our gratitude, joked about virtual turkey.

The third test: positive.

Hattie recovered, though many are suffering far worse these days. I’d like to think that homeostasis, balance, will steadfastly arrive, some way, for all of us, the way typhus, cholera and the fever left Ireland, which is now among the most food-secure nations in the world.

Michael Carolan lives in Belchertown, Massachusetts, and teaches writing and literature at Clark University.

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