The world-changing aftermath of the Irish Potato Famine
Britain’s relationship with Ireland is peppered with drama but, writes Pat Kinsella, one episode in modern history more than any other proved a watershed moment: the 1845-49 Potato Famine
In less than a decade in the mid-19th century, the population of Ireland plummeted from 8.25 million to just over 6.5 million. Many were forced to flee their famine-struck homeland – then as much a part of the United Kingdom as Cornwall is today – in dangerously overloaded ‘coffin ships’. The rest perished. The story of how a million deaths from mostly preventable disease and hunger happened on the doorstep of the world’s wealthiest country still shocks.
The collective impact of the Irish Potato Famine, the British government’s reaction to it, and the resultant exodus of emigrants was profound and long lasting. The diaspora of Irish people and Irish culture, all over the globe, not to mention the famine itself, generated a focussed fury that’s been articulated in nationalist politics, poetry and folk songs ever since, and remains a thread in the fabric of the modern country. Ireland continued to haemorrhage its human resources long after the famine ended, and the legacy of the Great Hunger – famine roads, ghost villages and memorials – can be seen across the land.
WHY RELY ON POTATO?
Ireland was brought into the United Kingdom by the 1800 Act of Union. The politicians who represented the country in Westminster, the vast majority of whom were wealthy, Protestant landlords with Irish holdings, were very often based in England. Most rent collected from the poor Catholic tenants – who comprised four-fifths of Ireland's population – went straight out of the country via oft-unscrupulous middlemen and into the coffers of these absentee landlords. The profits from almost everything produced in Ireland also travelled in the same direction.
Cattle farming took place, and crops such as corn were grown, but almost all of the exportable food produced in Ireland was transported to mainland Britain. Dairy and corn-based products sold in Ireland were well beyond the meagre means of the vast majority, thanks to Britain’s controversial Corn Laws. These imposed tariffs on imported goods and kept prices of locally produced food high, for the benefit of the landowning class. Increasingly, the Irish became almost wholly dependent on potatoes. They were cheap, easy to grow and calorie dense but, as it turned out, genetically weak and prone to disease.
Spuds are incredibly nutritious, and some historians have credited a potatoheavy diet as a major contributing factor to the relatively low infant mortality rate in Ireland from the mid-18th century to the mid-19th century, an era that saw the island’s population more than triple in less than 100 years. Yet this population explosion, combined with bad land management by absent landlords and their ruthless middlemen, saw large families surviving on ever-smaller plots of land. One fragile food source accounted for 60 per cent of Ireland’s entire food needs, and there was no affordable alternative in event of failure.
So when a blight (a kind of mold called Phytophthora infestans) swept across Europe and embraced the damp conditions it found in Ireland, the scene was set for a complete catastrophe.
THE BLIGHT BITES
Initial reports about a ‘malady’ in the potato crops of America began appearing in newspapers in 1844; by August 1845, the blight jumped the Atlantic, and reached Britain and continental Europe. Shortly after it was suspected in Ireland, and when the crop was harvested, the people’s worst fears were realised. Cruelly, the potatoes often looked healthy when pulled up, only to rapidly turn into a putrid mush.
Between a third and half the crop was ruined in 1845, but it was far worse in 1846, when up to 75 per cent of the potato harvest was inedible. This led to a scarcity of seed potatoes being planted, which compounded the problem in 1847, despite an improvement in yield that year. In 1848, the blight struck hard again, and by this stage millions were destitute, many families had been evicted from their homes and deadly diseases were at epidemic levels.
Many more people perished from pestilence caused by deprivation than from actual starvation. Black fever (typhus), bacillary dysentery, relapsing fever, scurvy and famine dropsy (hunger oedema, swelling of the body to bursting point) were all rife. And in 1849, when the worst appeared to be over, an epidemic of cholera swept the country, badly hitting towns and cities like Dublin and Belfast.
The traditional nationalist narrative (which was very much framed by the famine ever after) paints a grim picture of the heartless British government turning its back on the Irish and simply letting them die. This isn’t quite true, at least not at the start.
Conservative Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel acted reasonably swiftly to try and avert disaster. He imported £100,000 of Indian grain to be distributed to those in immediate danger of starvation, and established a programme of public works, providing people with a subsistence wage to purchase alternative food supplies. Peel also defied his own party and successfully repealed the Corn Laws, but this – combined with a defeat during his attempt to implement an Irish Coercion Act – led to his resignation as Prime Minister.
THE CRISIS DEEPENS
Peel was succeeded by a Whig government led by Lord John Russell. It took a more fundamentalist approach, based on the popular political and economic ideologies of the era: self help and laissez-faire, which opposed the provision of charity and rejected interference in the economy. The distribution of relief – including a short-lived but very cheap and effective soup-kitchen system, which fed up to three million people for the six months it was in operation – was completely halted. Hundreds of thousands of destitute people were forced to toil on often-pointless public works (building roads leading nowhere, later known as 'famine roads', and erecting walls around nothing) or forced into brutally overcrowded
workhouses to perform hard labour. Meanwhile, homegrown corn and other healthy food stocks continued to be transported out of Ireland for English markets, even during the unusually long and harsh winter of 1846-47, when the death toll soared.
Organisations such as the Repeal Association and the Irish Confederation urgently called for exports to be ceased and ports closed, as had happened during a less severe famine in 1782-83, but they were ignored.
The export of food from an island full of famished people is a powerfully evocative snapshot of the period, and it features in many folk songs. But to Victorian-era Whigs, this was simply the economy carrying on as normal, something they’d never interfere with. To other observers, though, contemporary and modern, this approach was tantamount to genocide. Indeed, the permanent secretary to the Treasury, Sir Charles Trevelyan – an infamous figure in the annals of Irish history, who was in charge of administering relief under Russell, such as it was – openly talked about the disaster being a heaven-sent ‘cure’ for the ills of Ireland.
“The judgement of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson, that calamity must not be too much mitigated,” Trevelyan said. In his 1848 book The Irish
Crisis, he described the famine as “a direct stroke of an all-wise and all-merciful Providence”. He went out of his way to obstruct relief efforts, publicly playing down the severity of the problem, and presented the Irish as an almost subhuman race, lacking in the moral fibre, honesty and industry to help themselves.
CHARITY FROM AFAR
By 1848, more food – mainly Indian maize and corn – was coming into the country than was being taken out of it, but the prevailing policies of the time meant that it simply didn’t reach those in the greatest need.
The burden of disaster relief was shunted back onto local authorities, communities and property owners with special Poor Law legislation, which escalated the catastrophe. Resentful of paying rates and besotted with the price of wool, many ruthless landlords evicted their poverty-stricken tenants and demolished their miserable shacks to free up the land for sheep grazing.
The sight of emaciated families wandering the roads became common. Those who could scrape together any amount of money headed for the ports, where they desperately tried to get passage on one of the dangerously overcrowded ‘coffin ships’ heading to America, Canada or Britain. Although the response to the disaster in Westminster was at best lacklustre (at worst, it could be argued, murderously negligent) well-meaning people such as the Quakers performed heroic acts
“God sent the calamity ... it must not be too much mitigated” Sir Charles Trevelyan
LET US IN! A throng clamours to get into a work house, for the promise of meagre meal
ENDLESS WOE ABOVE LEFT: Peel as Sisyphus, forever rolling the ‘stone’ of Ireland RIGHT: Emaciated people were increasingly made homeless and left to wander the country
THE EYES HAVE IT A US poster warns of the tell-tale indicators of blight setting in
NO ONE HOME Abandoned villages still dot the Irish countryside, physical reminders of a generation lost