At first the news received only scant attention in the press, for reports of crop failures were routine in nineteenth century Ireland. Past experience had taught government officials that these incidents were always local crises, affecting only a few counties at a time. No one could have known that this time the agricultural distress would spread to vast areas of Ireland and, worse still, return annually into the early 1850s. Ireland was about to enter the darkest chapter in its history, the Great Hunger of 1845-1850, the highest level of civilian suffering in Europe between the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) and World War I.
Looking back in the aftermath of the Famine, there were signs of an impending disaster. For one, Ireland’s population had doubled from roughly four million in 1800 to more than eight million in 1845. Most were poor peasant farmers living on the edge of subsistence.
Secondly, Ireland’s agriculture had failed frequently in the century and a half leading up to the Great Hunger. Failures, some leading to significant death tolls, occurred in 1708-09, 1725-29, 1740-41, 1745-6, 1753, 1766, 1769-70, 1772-73, 1782-84, 1795-96, 1800-01, 1817-1818, 1821-22, 1830-1, 1835, 1839, and 1842. The greatest of these occurred in 1740-41 (due to extremely cold weather), and produced a famine that killed as many as 400,000 people — a level proportionate to the Great Famine of 1845-50.
Thirdly, the Irish peasantry had come to depend on the potato. Remarkably, for a vegetable that seemed to define Irish peasant life before the Famine, the potato was native to South America, in the region of the Andes. Sir Walter Raleigh is credited with introducing the potato to Europe, planting them on his lands in Ireland in the 1580s. The potato took hold in Ireland for a number of reasons. The Irish climate is particularly well suited to potato growth. The potato also will grow almost anywhere — rocky soil, wet bogs, or on hills. Potatoes are also easy to cultivate and produce prolific yields — up to six tons on a single acre of land. Other advantages include their easy preparation (no milling as with grain), lack of disease (before 1845, of course), and extraordinary nutritional value. This last point is made clear by the many contemporary accounts of the Irish poor as being exceptionally strong and healthy. Irish men on the eve of the Famine were on average the tallest in Europe.
At first, the potato was a food enjoyed only by the Irish gentry. But over the course of the 1600s, the British reduced the majority of the Irish people to the status of peasant farmers on small plots of rented land, who in turn devoted increased acreage to the growth of potatoes that they ate as a supplement to their diet of oats, grains, and dairy products. In the eighteenth century, as conditions for Irish peasants worsened, the potato became more and more of a staple crop, especially during the winter months. This trend continued until the eve of the Famine, when perhaps as many as sixty percent of the Irish people were solely dependent on the potato as their main source of food.
It must be pointed out, however, that in 1845 potatoes constituted just 20 percent of Ireland’s annual agricultural output. Irish farmers of all ranks grew oats and grains alongside their potatoes. They also raised cows, goats, pigs and chickens. Peasant farmers, however, ate very little grain, bacon, meat, or eggs. Instead, these products, along with some potatoes, were sold for cash to pay their rents.
The blight that struck the potato crop in 1845 was classified by scientists as phytophthora infestans (literally, “late blight”). In simplest terms, it was a deadly fungus spread rapidly by spores in air or water. Scholars believe the blight first originated in Mexico in the early 1840s and that is spread to America by the fall of 1843. It made its way to Western Europe in 1845 by way of transatlantic ships.
Irish farmers told of the blight striking overnight, leaving blackened leaves, a gooey inedible tuber, and a powerful stench. “A mist rose up out of the sea,” remembered one farmer, “and you could hear a voice talking near a mile off across the stillness of the earth. It was the same for three days or more, and then when the fog lifted, you could begin to see the tops of the potato stalks lying over as if the life was gone out of them. And that was the beginning of the great trouble and famine that destroyed Ireland.”
The first reports of disease among the potatoes of Ireland came from the Botanic Garden in Dublin in late August 1845. By September, the blight spread to farms in the northeast, eventually destroying one third of the potato crop. In 1846, the blight reappeared in June and spread at a rate of fifty miles per week to all 32 counties, destroying nearly 90 percent of the crop. Although the loss of just 30 percent in 1847 seems small, it was equally devastating because farmers had planted so few potatoes. Half the potato crop of 1848 fell to the blight. Between 1849 and 1852, smaller, localized outbreaks of the blight occurred, primarily in the south and west.
The blight was not confined to Ireland. Indeed, the first reports of the blight in Europe came from Belgium in June 1845. By September it appeared not only in Ireland, but also in parts of England, Scotland, France, the Netherlands, Germany, Scandinavia, and Russia.
These successive failures of the potato crop in 1845-1850 did not by themselves bring on the deaths of more than one million Irish people and the emigration of another million or more. Studies of famines that struck Europe, Africa, and Asia over the last two centuries make it clear while Mother Nature often plays a role in starting them; virtually every famine in the modern era has been caused and or exacerbated by human actions. Stalin’s policies starved twenty million Russians in the 1930s; Mao’s killed some thirty million Chinese peasants in the late 1950s. Ongoing famines in North Korea and Zimbabwe are likewise the result of misguided authoritarian rule. In mid-nineteenth century Ireland, it was an indifferent British government that failed to respond effectively to the crisis that made the Great Hunger.
Continued next week…
Sources: Peter Gray, The Irish Famine (1995) and Christine Kinealy, A Death-Dealing Famine (1997). Learn more at www.edwardtodonnell.com/irish.htm
HIBERNIAN HISTORY WEEK
August 25, 1946: Ben Hogan wins the PGA championship in Portland, Oregon, his first major golf championship.
August 28, 1963: Archbishop Patrick O’Boyle is called upon to offer a prayer to kick off Martin Luther King’s historic March on Washington.
August 29, 1975: Former President, Taoiseach, and nationalist, Eamon de Valera, dies at age 92.
August 25, 1934: Television talk show host, Regis Philbin, is born in the Bronx.
August 30, 1893: Senator and governor of Louisiana, Huey Long, is born in Winn Parish, La.