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Potatoes have been in Ireland for over 300 years before the Irish Famine occured. The first potato was brought by Sir John Howkins in 1565 from Southern Africa; it was believed to be battas, a sweet potato. The potato was easily stored for winter months and also provided plentiful harvest. Corn used be to the food of the nation, however, potato soon became its main source of food; to the poor it was their only source of food. Most ate a combination of potato and skimmed milk, which was nutritious and could be prepared easily and quickly. However, when the Industrial Age began and the land in which cattle and other livestock were raised were replaced by factories, the price of milk slowly became too expensive for the poor to obtain, causing to be unable to receive the nutrients and energy they needed for a day’s work.
Causes of the Famine (1,2,3) With milk being almost impossible to obtain, the poor were often left with simple whey, the liquid that remains after milk is curdled. Much of the poor were too weak and malnutritioned to properly grow the plants, which helped contribute to the less efficient harvest of potato plants. Frost was another factor that contributed to the Irish Famine, as it had lasted from eight to nine weeks, almost completely destroying all of the plants. But the biggest reason was due to an infection known as Phytophthora infestan, which killed off nearly half of the potatoes. This is disease was a water mold that grow on the potatoes leaves, which rapidly spreads and causes decay of the plant. The failing production of potato plants would later on create one of worst famines in record history, taking the lives of more than 8 million people.
What Occurred during the Famine 
At first no one was particularly worried about the bad harvest of the potato crops. But as time progressed, and little improvement over the matter lead to poor starving. As the distressed poor struggled to produce more crops, they were continuously pressed to produce even more potato to make up for the profit of the previous year. Few paid attention to the leaves and stem of the potato plant, and did not understand the disease until the damage already began to occur, merely the decline in potato crops. With the lack of potatoes, The Cork Constitution states: “We find nothing to guide us to a satisfactory estimate, or even conjecture, as to the actual supply in the country… the stock is exhausted and famine stares us in the face.” It was discovered first seen in a market in England. The potato although seemingly unchanged, we cooked showed that it is inedible and merely a mass of black and brown. The Potato Blight spread to Ireland in September 1845, spreading from the coast slowly inland. Mr. Horace Townsend writes to the Southern Reporter,”I have found no field without the disease, but in great variety of degree; in some at least one-third of the crop is tainted, in others not a tenth, and all the remainder seems sound as ever.” Yet as time progressed, the disease got worse, and famine sat on people’s tables instead of potatoes. In response to this, Ireland began to import oats from London to try and prevent starvation. Corn was also imported from the Americas to try to counter the starvation. However, people began to sell their oats for money to pay rent, causing the to starve.
But it wasn’t just the disease that caused the Irish Famine to escalate to something so terrible; a series of laws were also passed that created harsher conditions for the poor. Although corn and oats were being imported to help avert the famine, large amounts of wheat and corn had been exported as well. The government choose to preserve their economy over providing the country with food.
 The famine caused many different responses in the people, including those surrounding religion, charity, medicine, and emmigation. As the Irish were more religious, the blight were seen as the god’s punishments for their sins and failures. They believed it was because they had too many children, and had poor lifestyles that they didn’t improve. The British, however, were sympathetic to those suffering from the famine, sins or no sins. They tried to provide aid and help relieve the hunger as best as they could. Committees were formed to try and help raise money for the poor who were struggling with rent, food, or to pay for clothing. Many of the committees set up were created by Protestant or Christian Churches. These charities helped save many, many lives. Large amounts of money were donated from all over the world, including the Queen of England and the Pope, both contributing 2000 euros to the cause to help the struggling Irish. Dispensaries were set up with medical staff to help the sick and the victims of the famine. Even with the medical assistance, many people were too starved, too weak, and beyond help and saving. And therefore, disease killed hundreds of thousands of people in Ireland during the Irish Famine. In a local newspaper, it is vividly portrayed how “the bodies of the men found dead upon the highway, [and how he] returned upon the body of a man who died in starvation while toiling at the public works, and fell dead of exhaustion with the implements of labour in his hand, a verdict of murder against the ministers who had neglected the first responsibility of government.”
The suffering and famine lead to many Irish people emigrating from Ireland in hopes of escaping the famine. Many, many families left Ireland, moving to the Americas. This emigration created a working force in other countries, as the Irish were willing to do the manual labor that countries like America, Canada, Britain, and Australia needed. In some cities, like eastern Canada, because mostly populated with immigrating Irish. However the passage to the America and Canada required crossing the ocean, and with so many people trying to leave, some of the ships that were used were unsafe and sank on the voyage across the sea. Since so many of the passengers on the sea died before they reached the other continent, the ships were dubbed Sea Coffins. Due to unhygienic ways, and close quarters, 1 in 5 people would die. Because of bad conditions, and storms, thousands of lives were lost in their attempt to escape the famine.
This wasn’t the only mistake the government made during the potato famine. The bad choices the government made has caused the question of whether if the famine was artificial.  Though the Irish Potato Famine began due to poor weather conditions, there could have been many things that the government could have done to prevent it to escalate to such a terrible disaster. As brought up before, the Ireland government should have prohibited the import of grain outside of the country, in an attempt to keep its people fed. They should have also found a more efficient way to distribute the food they had, making sure it reached the weak and poor and saved them from starving. Additionally, the government had once set up ‘soup kitchens’ in which food was cheap and efficient to produce and give out to those in need. However, 6 months later they were shut down by the government. Along with the very little food the farmers were receiving, wages were far too low for farmers to afford the inflated prices of food.
The main things that lead to the government’s decisions was the Laissez-Faire economy. It was what caused the government to continue exporting away precious food as stopping grain import was unacceptable due to the Laissez-Faire. The local newspaper write how “A renewed and extensive failure of the potato crop has added greatly to the sufferings of the poor… who have been themselves the principal sufferers from the loss of their crops”  It also halted the soup kitchens, as the government feeding the country was against Whig’s idea on the interaction between government and society. Laissez-Faire was also what kept the government from managing the emigration rates. Had they monitored it better, they could have kept Ireland’s population from plummeting like it did.
From harsh weather to bacteria and ruined potato crops, to the failure of the Irish government, the Irish Potato is now seen as one of the worst Famine in history.  Between 900000 to a million people died during the famine, making it one of the worst famines in European history. Birth rates also dropped, due to women being too malnutritioned to have children causing a further decline in population.
Economics changed as farmers needed more land to produce the potato needed to feed their family. But many also became ranchers and cattle headers as it was a more reliable food source compared that over the failing potato plants and was also more profitable to the landowners renting out their land. However, this left many unemployed, as their were losing their jobs of growing potatoes. “A renewed and extensive failure of the potato crop has added greatly to the sufferings of the poor… who have been themselves the principal sufferers from the loss of their crops”  Many landlords faced bankruptcy, but this allowed the remaining landlords to become bigger and acquire more land. As the amount of landlords declined, so did the need for servants. Before the famine, there were about 250000 servant, after the famine, this number dropped to 135000, making more unemployed. The famine caused Ireland to become one of the poorest European countries, and much of the population was affected by poverty.
Social changes also occurred due to the the inefficiency of dividing up farm land. Instead of marrying young and having many children, after the famine only those with a decent amount land and income would marry, and even then they would marry late. Most did not marry, and would work on family farms without being paid. This lead to an increase of unmarried individuals, which lead to more social problems. Alcoholism also became an issue, and became the country that suffered the highest rate of alcoholism in the world. Between alcoholism, and struggling to get enough food on the table, this created mental illness in many. Further decrease in population was due to emigration, as millions tried to leave Ireland for the Americas in hopes of better conditions. Many Irish settlements were established across the world. But there was conflict in the Americas and Canada as the two countries were mainly Protestants, and the Irish were mostly Catholic. After the Famine, from starvation and emigration, Ireland’s population dropped from over 8 million down to a mere 4.5 million.
With the decline in population, many of the old irish ways and dialects began became more and more scarce. The famine impacted southern and western Ireland the hardest, part of Ireland that mostly spoke Irish and Gaelic. The area had certain cultures passed from Irish forefathers, but when a large chunk of the population in these areas was killed, the culture began to die with them. Many began to adopt English ways instead of those of learning Irish. The amount of fluent Irish speakers declined sharply, and Gaelic enclaves were reduced to practically none and the language practically forgotten altogether.
In conclusion, the Irish famine was a terrible event that took the lives of many. The population of Ireland greatly decreased due to immigration and the million of lives that were lost in the process. The legacy of the Irish Famine will forever be remembered as one of suffering and pain, and an event that could have avoided such disastrous effects had the government made better decisions.
- “Great Famine.” Great Famine, Britannica, https://school-eb-com.ez.pausd.org/levels/high/article/Great-Famine/3032 (database)
- The Cork Constitution. “Letter to the Editor on Crop Estimates.” March 17, 1846 http://xroads.virginia.edu/~hyper/sadlier/irish/Crop.htm (primary source)
- O’Rourke, John. The History of the Great Irish Famine of 1847: with Notices of Earlier Irish Famines. Bibliobazaar, 2011. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/14412/14412-h/14412-h.htm (book)
- The Dublin University Magazine.”The Poor Laws, Potato Disease, and Free Trade.” March 1849. http://xroads.virginia.edu/~hyper/sadlier/irish/Poor.htm (primary source)
- The Dublin University Magazine. “The Famine in the Land: What Has Been Done, And What Is To Be Done.” April 1847, http://xroads.virginia.edu/~hyper/sadlier/irish/Land.htm (primary sources)
- Donnelly, Jim. “History – British History in Depth: The Irish Famine.” BBC, BBC, 17 Feb. 2011, http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/victorians/famine_01.shtml (website)
- “Irish Potato Famine.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, https://www.history.com/topics/immigration/irish-potato-famine (website)
- “The Irish Famine.” History Cooperative, Jegtheme, 31 Oct. 2016, https://historycooperative.org/the-irish-famine/ (website)
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