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History of the Potato Famine

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Published: Thu, 21 Sep 2017

  • Treavor Hoffman
  • Collen Seguin

The Potato Famine

Between the years of 1845 and 1850 over a million-people died of either disease, hunger or fever throughout Ireland. The Irish believed that nature was a main cause but so were the British, English and the rest of Europe. The main cause of all these deaths is what we have all typically heard and learned about and that is the potato blight or otherwise known as the potato famine. So many people died because the potato was such a big part of the Irish consumption and when you run out of something that was highly relied upon, and have very few other sources, it results in very bad outcomes. Aside from the disease that affected the crop, the other causes that contributed to such a major drop in population and death can be attributed to the lack of support from the British and English. They were the ones who caused the hunger and catastrophe throughout Ireland.

Let us first talk about the history of Ireland and the potato. “The population of Ireland increased rapidly from the early seventeenth century. In 1600 it was just over a million: by 1841 it had risen to something over 8 million” (Toibin and Ferriter, pg. 11). So, over a 200-year span Ireland saw a huge growth in their population and were not fully prepared for it. As for the potato, it was first discovered in South America in the year 1537 by Spain and was brought back to Europe and gradually spread throughout. There are a couple of stories in how it made its way to Ireland. The first is that the potato washed ashore from the wreckage of the “Spanish Armada in 1589”. The other story is that an explorer named Sir Walter Raleigh brought the potato from one of his expeditions. The potato was an easy crop to grow and could grow in some of the poorest conditions making it very suitable for the Irish to raise because it was cheap and could be very plentiful (newworldencyclopedia.org).

Now that we know a little about the Irish and how the potato got to Ireland, let us talk about the causes and factors of the famine. The big reason of course was the potato blight. Researchers don’t know exactly how the potato blight was caused or where it came from. Before the massive potato blight there were many other failures of the potato that we don’t typically hear about. Throughout the time the potato had been in Ireland it had seen around 20 other failures. But between the years of 1845 and 1850 the entire country was suffering from crop failure making it impossible for anyone to thrive. According to a chart in the book The Irish Famine in the early 1840’s there was a total of about 15,000 tons’ worth of potatoes being grown. Then from the years 1847-1856 that number dropped to 4,423 tons and dropped even more to 3,407 tons between the years of 1857-1866 (Toibin and Ferriter, pg. 53). “Two thirds of the workforce were dependent on agriculture in the 1840s while only one in seven of the population lived in towns and cities” ( Toibin and Ferriter, pg. 52). The average amount of potatoes the average adult male ate pre-famine was around fourteen pounds’ worth, eleven pounds for women and children older than eleven, and almost five pounds’ worth for children under eleven. This shows us that much of the population in Ireland was reliant on this one food source and when it was gone or full of disease, many people died or became ill.

The Irish famine caused many deaths and saw many emigrants. There was a total of about a million people who died due to the famine and another million who ended up leaving Ireland in search for a better way of life. Life for those who stayed was brutal and desolate. One good thing though is that when so many people left it gave opportunities for other farmers to work their land and make a profit (Toibin and Ferriter).

Considerably one of the biggest reasons so many people died wasn’t because the potatoes ran out and were gone but because England’s long running political dominance over Ireland. The Irish had been bullied and conquered many times by the English. They also seized much of the agriculture land which wasn’t given back to the Irish. The English hired their own kind of farmers to manage the land and do all the upkeep. These same managers would then rent out the small plots of land to farmers in exchange for labor and cash. This ended up leading to higher rent prices and a plummet in the Irish economy. In a typical tenancy like this it can be effective and benefit both parties but in this case the Irish had zero rights to the land they farmed.  The only place that wasn’t as bad were the areas high in Protestants. These were the only areas that the farmers could make any profit from what they were doing. “The Irish suffered from many famines under English rule. Like a boxer with both arms tied behind his back, the Irish could only stand and absorb blow after blow. It took the “many circumstances” of English policy to create the knockout punch and ultimate answer to the Irish question” (mises.org). The British did not care one way or the other of what would happen to Ireland. They found them to be disgusting and referred to them as ape like.

Aside from not only having to grow the potatoes the Irish also had to eat them and so did their livestock. They would feed the livestock their peelings because they did not eat that part. As for people, they did not have to many ways to make the potatoes. Most of the time it consisted of just some cabbage, butter, milk, and salt thrown in to help with the flavor and texture (Toibin and Ferriter, pg. 49) . As for the cooking of the potato they would just boil them over the fire until the inside of the potato was done and they could add the other ingredients (Toibin and Ferriter, pg. 67). Now these potatoes they were growing were not like the potatoes most of us are accustomed to today. They were of very poor quality and did not taste very well. Being a potato farmer myself I can say I have a pretty good judgment on what kind of potatoes taste good and which do not. And the ones they were growing definitely tasted bad. I can also tell you that when we read about the stories people had from the book The Irish Famine and when they say rotting potatoes smelled bad, it is most definitely true. Rotting potatoes is one of the grossest smells you may ever smell in your entire life. Unfortunately for the people of Ireland they were constantly dealing with this nasty smell and I can’t even imagine what their homes and lands would smell like.

There has been much research done to determine whether or not the British are responsible for the death of over a million people. Most historians believe that are enormously responsible because they just sat back and watched as Ireland fell apart. And not only did they just watch but they kept thriving off the Irish land in ways like taking all their cattle and other crops leaving the Irish with very few options but mainly the potato. It was said that the amount of dead and emigrated people was “impossible” to determine because of how many actually died and left the country (Toibin and Ferriter pg. 17).

Before the famine struck Irishmen had already been steadily immigrating to the U.S and to other parts of the world. But once the famine struck those previous numbers were a joke. Over 72,000 emigrants entered the U.S in the year 1848 (Toibin and Ferriter, pg 172). In just one year! “By 1850 the population of New York City was said to be 26 percent Irish” (About.com).

Overall the Irish Famine had two main causes. The first being the fungus that grew on the potatoes causing the potato blight and completely destroying the crop. And the second factor was the lack of support given by the British and how they mistreated the Irish people. This was definitely an example of an “Irish Auschwitz” ( Toibin and Ferriter, pg. 54).

References

  • Robert McNamara 19th Century History Expert. “What Happened During the Great Irish Famine?” About.com Education. N.p., 15 Dec. 2014. Web. 03 Mar. 2017. .
  • Anne. “What Caused the Irish Potato Famine?” Mises Institute. N.p., 07 May 2008. Web. 03 Mar. 2017. .
  • “Potato.” Potato – New World Encyclopedia. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Mar. 2017. .
  • ToÌibiÌn, Colm, and Diarmaid Ferriter. The Irish Famine: A Documentary. London: Profile in Association with London Review of, 2004. Print.

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