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Quick History: The Irish Potato Famine

Quick History: The Irish Potato Famine

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Ireland, a fiercely proud nation, still harbors a deep sadness for a national tragedy that occurred over 150 years ago. Known to the Irish as An Gorta Mor, or The Great Hunger, the Irish potato famine struck Ireland in 1845 and destroyed most of the island nation’s potato crops for the next several years. The crisis spiraled out of control and ultimately left the Irish population reduced by a full 25%. This natural disaster, exacerbated greatly by human error and mismanagement, left such an indelible mark on Ireland and the Irish people that only within the last generation have the Irish begun revisiting those fateful years.

The Big Deal About Potatoes

More than eight million people lived in Ireland at the beginning of the crisis and perhaps as many as three million of those Irishmen lived on an almost exclusively potato diet. While it may not seem possible that the survival of so many people depended on the spud, it certainly was the case in Ireland. After all, the potato happens to be the only food around that won’t leave a person with vitamin and nutrient deficiencies if eaten as the sole ingredient of his diet. The poorest of the poor Irish in the early 1800s lived almost entirely on potatoes, and research indicates that those who did often consumed as much as ten or more pounds of potatoes per person each day. The slightly more fortunate who could scrounge supplements occasionally added small amounts of milk, fish, cabbage, and a few other vegetables.

For the Irish, potatoes proved rather easy to grow, to harvest, and to store. For the typical Irish farmers and peasants, an acre of potatoes could support a small family for an entire year. After the harvest, mountains of potatoes were stored for consumption throughout the year and still more were set aside as seed potatoes for the following year’s planting season. The abundance of nutrient-rich potatoes, especially when supplemented just the tiniest amount, contributed to the overall increased health of the Irish poor, an increase in the birth rate, a decrease in the infant mortality rate, and an increase in the life span of the average Irishman. For millions of Irish in 1845, the potato was everything.

The Attack of the Spores

Records clearly show the weather was wetter and cooler than usual in Ireland in 1845, thus creating the perfect conditions for an invasion of killer spores. Historians have hotly debated the exact origins of the spores; most agree the spores arrived aboard a ship from the Americas but disagree on whether the spores originated in South, Central, or North America. Nevertheless, in late 1844 or early 1845, spores known as potato blight or potato murrain, better known as phytophthora infestans to the scientific sorts, made their way not only into Ireland but also into Europe. The particularly nasty blight, whose Latin name translates as “infesting plant destroyer,” found the Irish land and climate to be ideal for rapid infestation. The airborne spores took flight on Irish wind and attacked the potato leaves growing above ground. The waterborne spores took advantage of the especially-wet conditions, penetrated the saturated earth, and attacked the potatoes themselves.

1845: The Plague Hits

Documentation appeared in mid-to-late 1845 describing the unusual scene suddenly appearing all too frequently across Ireland. Potato leaves curled, withered, and turned black. The tubers themselves often turned into a black, sticky, goopy mess. Infected potatoes that didn’t spoil in the ground spoiled soon after harvesting. Article after article chronicled the horror of Irish farmers who found out the hard way the dreaded blight could destroy an entire field of potatoes in a matter of days. In fact, the potato blight spread through Ireland’s potato fields faster than cholera often did in human communities. In order to prevent the loss of potato crops to the blight, many farmers harvested their crops earlier than usual. This plan ultimately backfired for the farmers, though, when the potatoes spoiled over the winter simply because they had been harvested too soon. By the end of 1845, a full one-third of Ireland’s potatoes had fallen victim to the blight.

1846–47: Trying Again

The following year, farmers who had managed to save unspoiled seed potatoes through the winter months planted their seed potatoes with the hope that the new crop would be blight-free. Unfortunately for Ireland, a cool, wet spell allowed the blight to attack again in 1846. That year, the blight wiped out three-fourths of the potato crops. This obviously resulted in yet again fewer potatoes to eat as well as fewer potatoes to save as seed. In 1847, therefore, with the blight completely settled into the Irish countryside, the country’s potato harvest was smaller than ever.

For a population so dependent on the potato, especially a population comprised largely of the poor, failure of two consecutive years’ potato crops would have devastating results. Millions faced starvation and poor health as a result of malnourishment. To be sure, diseases like typhus, relapsing fever, and dysentery eventually would claim far more lives than starvation in Ireland. Others faced bankruptcy with no potatoes to sell or trade. Furthermore, as food became scarcer, food prices increased. This further compounded the troubles for the poor. The poor, starved Irish often resorted to eating grass, bark, roots, or whatever they could scavenge. Fearing for their lives and seeking other possibilities, tens of thousands of Irish fled the countryside and flocked to cities. Hundreds of thousands of Irish boarded ships and set sail for other parts of the world; the United States was a favorite destination of the fleeing Irish. Even with mass emigration relieving some population pressure, Ireland was in crisis.

The British Blunder

Because of British dominion over Ireland, relief responsibility lay with Britain. Britain took note of the unfolding human drama and made an initial attempt to relieve the famine by importing maize from North America. The maize proved to be mealy and not filling compared to potatoes. Furthermore, the maize actually did more harm than good by exacerbating the digestive problems with which the poor were already struggling. The British also formed a Relief Commission headquartered in Dublin whose responsibility it would be to create local relief committees in counties across Ireland. The committees were to distribute food and then fund these efforts by taxing landowners. In a poverty-stricken and starving country, this didn’t work at all.

Relief Efforts

When a change in British government occurred in 1846, relief efforts, however meager, essentially dried up and even maize stopped flowing into Ireland. The new government led by Lord John Russell, with Charles Trevelyan in charge of the famine relief policy and programs, decided to shift the economic burden back to the Irish, citing laissez-faire economic theory, which opposed government intervention in economic affairs. British politicians claimed they didn’t want the lazy Irish to become dependent on British handouts, so they established public works projects for the impoverished Irish to earn their way out of crisis and made the Irish work for pitiful wages. As if these measures weren’t bad enough, while Irishmen starved, the British actually exported huge amounts of grain from Ireland to ship to the highest bidders in America and in Europe; the starving Irish weren’t even allowed to eat grains grown in Ireland. In 1847, the British government shut down the public works projects and decided to establish locally-funded soup kitchens across Ireland. Like the maize earlier, the “soup” actually made things worse for many, especially those already suffering stomach maladies.

Rebellion

Harsh measures handed down from Britain continued throughout the woeful years of 1847 and 1848. Landowners forfeited property and farmers gave up what they grew to repay piled-up debt as Britain grew stricter with the Irish. Fed up with British brutality, a militant group of Irish known as Young Ireland attempted an ill-fated rebellion against the British. Poorly funded and hardly organized, the rebellion posed no real threat and did little more than aggravate the British. The British looked down their noses even more at the belligerent and ungrateful Irish and actually began to see the famine as God’s way of dealing with the unruly islanders next door. Until the disaster passed a few years later, the British continued to ignore the needs of the Irish and did virtually nothing to stop the devastation.

Ireland After the Famine

By the time the blight subsided several years later and harvests began to improve in the 1850s, a million or more Irishmen had perished. At least another million or so emigrated to the United States alone, while others emigrated to other destinations. Some Irish counties actually lost the majority of their populations for one reason or another. The emotional cost, too, should not be underestimated. While all the grains exported from Ireland during the famine years couldn’t have filled Irish bellies, they could have gone a long way toward stopping the madness if Britain had made any effort at relieving the suffering. The entire experience planted seeds of intense bitterness toward the British deep in the psyches of Irish, traces of which still remain.

Some historians have argued that indeed there was no potato famine, but rather a widespread starvation due to humans compounding a bad situation. Still, more than a century and a half later, the Irish feel a deep and sullen sadness for the victims of An Gorta Mor.

by Nathan Barber