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The Irish Potato Famine

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In 1845 all the potatoes in Ireland were infected and The British were to blame. Racial discrimination played a major factor in this because the British could have helped them but they chose not to because they were not British. The famine was, quite simply, the greatest disaster ever to afflict Ireland, and it was all caused by a plant disease. The potato was the staple food if the Irish poor, and when potato blight devastated the harvest several years in row, the consequences were catastrophic. In just five years, it killed a million people and turned Ireland's rapidly expanding population into one that declined for a century. All the work that the farmers had put into growing the crops had been destroyed in a matter of months.

The spark that lit the fuse was the arrival in September 1845 of the potato blight. Brought ashore from the cargo holds of ships, the blight quickly made its way to the potato fields where it spread havoc. One third of the crop was lost that year. This escalated to a loss of 3/4 of the crop in each of the two succeeding years. The small farmers suffered immediately. Starvation combined with an increased susceptibility to diseases such as typhus, dysentery and cholera devastated the population. The reaction of the British government was inadequate. By 1848, the worst was over but the devastation lingered on for a number of years. It is estimated that between 500,000 and 1.5 million people died as a result of the famine while over one million fled the country. By 1911, Ireland's population had dropped to four million.

How could it be that the failure of only one vegetable could cause so much agony, death and displacement? Economic and political factors played a crucial role. These factors made the Irish People vulnerable to famine. They also drastically hindered the effort to save lives once this began. The potato was the main crop of Ireland. When the blight hit it was over for them because there biggest crop that they produced was gone.

The potato was not native to Ireland. It is believed that Sir Walter Raleigh brought the tuber to the island from the New World around 1570. No one could foresee that its arrival was the first ingredient in a recipe that would simmer for 275 years and produce a disaster: the deaths of thousands, the devastation of the Irish economy and the Irish Diaspora that scattered the Irish people around the globe.

At first, the potato seemed heaven-sent. It thrived in the damp Irish climate, was easy to grow and produced a high yield per acre. In the period from 1780 to 1845 it helped double the Irish population from 4 to 8 million. However, with this population explosion came an increased demand for land. The only solution was to divide the available places into ever smaller plots for each succeeding generation. Soon, the diminished size of these plots dictated the planting of potatoes as it was the only crop that could produce a sufficient yield of food on such limited acreage. By 1840, fully 1/3 of Ireland's population was totally dependent on the potato for its nourishment. It was a dependency that teetered on the brink of starvation and created a time bomb that needed only the slightest spark to explode.

Around the time of the potato Famine, Ireland was under British rule. Most of the land in Ireland was owned by the British. Many of the landowners lived in Britain and hired landlords to manage their land in Ireland. Most of the Irish were poor and made their living as farm workers. They rented small plots of land by working for the British landowners. They had very little time to work on their own crops, so they grew a lot of potatoes whish were cheap and could grow with little formwork. Potatoes were also healthful and could grow almost anywhere. The potato became the main source of food for the poor Irish.

Over the next ten years, more than 750,000 Irish died and another 2 million left their homeland for Great Britain, Canada, and the United States. Within five years, the Irish population was reduced by a quarter.

The Irish potato famine was not simply a natural disaster. It was a product of social causes. Under British rule, Irish Catholics were prohibited from entering the professions or even purchasing land. Instead, many rented small plots of land from absentee British Protestant landlords. Half of all landholdings were less than 5 acres in 1845.

During the summer of 1845, a "blight of unusual character" devastated Ireland's potato crop, the basic staple in the Irish diet. A few days after potatoes were dug from the ground, they began to turn into a slimy, decaying, blackish "mass of rottenness." Expert panels convened to investigate the blight's because suggested that it was the result of "static electricity" or the smoke that billowed from railroad locomotives or the "mortiferous vapours" rising from underground volcanoes. In fact, the cause was a fungus that had traveled from Mexico to Ireland.

In Ireland, people's worst fears were soon realized. A warm, wet summer provided ideal conditions for the Blight to spread. By August it was apparent that the potato crop would be disastrously affected; in fact, nine-tenths was eventually lost.

Irish peasants subsisted on a diet consisting largely of potatoes, since a farmer could grow triple the amount of potatoes as grain on the same plot of land. A single acre of potatoes could support a family for a year. About half of Ireland's population depended on potatoes for subsistence.

The inadequacy of relief efforts by the British Government worsened the horrors of the potato famine. Initially, England believed that the free market would end the famine. In 1846, in a victory for advocates of free trade, Britain repealed the Corn Laws, which protected domestic grain producers from foreign competition. The repeal of the Corn Laws failed to end the crisis since the Irish lacked sufficient money to purchase foreign grain.

In early 1847, the British government organized soup kitchens to feed the hungry. However, the British did not want to continue to pay for this aid in Ireland. They closed the soup kitchens later that year. The government the passed a law that required soup kitchens to be paid for by Irish tax money. Most of the Irish were already struffling to buy food and to pay their high rents. They could not afford to pay the extra taxes as well. Thousands of Irish farmers and their families were evicted from their farms and homes because they could not pay their rent. Armed guards showed up to tell each family that they had to leave immediately.

In the spring of 1847, Britain adopted other measures to cope with the famine, setting up soup kitchens and programs of emergency work relief. But many of these programs ended when a banking crisis hit Britain. In the end, Britain relied largely on a system of work houses, which had originally been established in 1838, to cope with the famine. But these grim institutions had never been intended to deal with a crisis of such sweeping scope. Some 2.6 million Irish entered overcrowded workhouses, where more than 200,000 people died.

As soon as the Irish arrived at the port cities in America, it was clear that their new life was going to be hard. They were usually met by runners. Runners were people who tried to carry immigrants' bags and bring them to tenement housing in the city, charging high fees for the service. Tenements were buildings with many floors and with many families living on each level. Conditions were crowed and dirty. Many Irish had to beg on the streets. They were not welcomed in America. In fact, when advertisements were placed for jobs, they often ended with "No Irish Need Apply". This example of Racial discrimination. Just because they were Irish meant that they could not apply for a job.


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