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Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Great Hunger

The Famnine Memorial at Gaelic Park outside Chicago, Illinois

A Famine Family

an Gorta Mór - the Coffin Ship Memorial County Mayo - close up

an Gorta Mór - the Coffin Ship Memorial County Mayo

An 1849 depiction of Bridget O'Donnell and her two children during the famine

The Great Hunger, as it is called, or the Potato Famine, as others call it was a significant event in the history of Ireland (and that is putting it mildly). It is estimated that 1 million died in or on their way out of Ireland. another 1 million Irish left Ireland for Canada, Australia, and the US.

The Great Famine (Irish: an Gorta Mór, IPA: the Great Hunger; the Irish Potato Famine; an Drochshaol, the bad times) was a period of mass starvation, disease and emigration in Ireland between 1845 and 1852 during which the island's population dropped by 20 to 25 percent. Approximately one million people died and a million more emigrated from Ireland. The proximate cause of famine was a potato disease commonly known as potato blight. Although blight ravaged potato crops throughout Europe during the 1840s, the impact and human cost in Ireland – where a third of the population was entirely dependent on the potato for food – was exacerbated by a host of political, social and economic factors which remain the subject of historical debate.

The famine was a watershed in the history of Ireland. Its effects permanently changed the island's demographic, political and cultural landscape. For both the native Irish and those in the resulting diaspora, the famine entered folk memory and became a rallying point for various nationalist movements. Modern historians regard it as a dividing line in the Irish historical narrative, referring to the preceding period of Irish history as "pre-Famine."

Starting in 1801, Ireland had been directly governed, under the Act of Union, as part of the United Kingdom. Executive power lay in the hands of the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and Chief Secretary for Ireland, both of whom were appointed by the British government. Ireland sent 105 members of parliament to the House of Commons of the United Kingdom, and Irish representative peers elected twenty-eight of their own number to sit for life in the House of Lords. Between 1832 and 1859, seventy percent of Irish representatives were landowners or the sons of landowners.

In the forty years that followed the union, successive British governments grappled with the problems of governing a country which had, as Benjamin Disraeli put it in 1844, "a starving population, an absentee aristocracy, and an alien Church, and in addition the weakest executive in the world." One historian calculated that between 1801 and 1845, there had been 114 commissions and 61 special committees inquiring into the state of Ireland and that "without exception their findings prophesied disaster; Ireland was on the verge of starvation, her population rapidly increasing, three-quarters of her labourers unemployed, housing conditions appalling and the standard of living unbelievably low." This was a contrast to Britain, which was beginning to enjoy the modern prosperity of the Victorian and Industrial ages. Laws against education of Irish Catholics and possession of land had made such a progress impossible until the penal laws were repealed only fifty years before the Famine, but the economic recovery was slow because the landlord families still kept their land.

The potato was introduced to Ireland as a garden crop of the gentry. By the late seventeenth century it had become widespread as a supplementary rather than a principal food, as the main diet still revolved around butter, milk and grain products. In the first two decades of the eighteenth century, however, it became a base food of the poor, especially in winter. The expansion of the economy between 1760 and 1815 saw the potato make inroads in the diet of the people and become a staple food all the year round for the cottier and small farm class.

The potato's spread was essential to the development of the cottier system, delivering an extremely cheap workforce, but at the cost of lower living standards. For the labourer it was essentially a potato wage that shaped the expanding agrarian economy. The expansion of tillage led to an inevitable expansion of the potato acreage, and an expansion of the cottier class. By 1841, there were over half a million cottiers, with 1.75 million dependents. The principal beneficiary of this system was the English consumer.

The Celtic grazing lands of... Ireland had been used to pasture cows for centuries. The British colonized... the Irish, transforming much of their countryside into an extended grazing land to raise cattle for a hungry consumer market at home... The British taste for beef had a devastating impact on the impoverished and disenfranchised people of... Ireland... Pushed off the best pasture land and forced to farm smaller plots of marginal land, the Irish turned to the potato, a crop that could be grown abundantly in less favorable soil. Eventually, cows took over much of Ireland, leaving the native population virtually dependent on the potato for survival.

Prior to the arrival in Ireland of the disease Phytophthora infestans, commonly known as blight, there were only two main potato plant diseases. One was called 'dry rot' or 'taint' and the other was a virus, known popularly as 'curl'. According to W.C. Paddock however, Phytophthora infestans is an oomycete, not a fungus.

In 1851, the Census of Ireland Commissioners recorded twenty-four failures of the potato crop going back to 1728, of varying severity. In 1739 the crop was "entirely destroyed", and again in 1740. In 1770 the crop largely failed again. In 1800 there was another "general" failure, and in 1807 half the crop was lost. In 1821 and 1822 the potato crop failed completely in Munster and Connaught, and 1830 and 1831 were years of failure in Mayo, Donegal and Galway. In 1832, 1833, 1834 and 1836 a large number of districts suffered serious loss, and in 1835 the potato failed in Ulster. 1836 and 1837 brought "extensive" failures throughout Ireland and again in 1839 failure was universal throughout the country; both 1841 and 1844 potato crop failure was widespread. According to Woodham-Smith, "the unreliability of the potato crop was an accepted fact in Ireland.

How and when the blight Phytophthora infestans arrived in Europe is still uncertain; according to P.M.A Bourke, however, it almost certainly was not present prior to 1842, and probably arrived in 1844. At least one of the sources of the infection suggests it may have originated in the northern Andes region of South America, Peru in particular. It was then conveyed to Europe on ships carrying guano, where it was in great demand as a fertiliser on European and British farms.

In 1844, Irish newspapers carried reports concerning a disease which for two years had attacked the potato crops in America. According to James Donnelly a likely source was the eastern United States, where in 1843 and 1844 blight largely destroyed the potato crops. He suggests that ships from Baltimore, Philadelphia or New York could have brought diseased potatoes to European ports. W.C. Paddock suggests that it was transported on potatoes being carried to feed passengers on clipper ships sailing from America to Ireland.

Once it was introduced, it spread rapidly. By late summer and early autumn of 1845 it had spread throughout the greater part of northern and central Europe. Belgium, Holland, northern France and southern England by mid-August had all been stricken.

On 16 August, the Gardeners' Chronicle and Horticultural Gazette printed a report which described 'a blight of unusual character' in the Isle of Wight. A week later, on 23 August, it reported that 'A fearful malady has broken out among the potato crop... In Belgium the fields are said to be completely desolated. There is hardly a sound sample in Covent Garden market... As for cure for this distemper, there is none...' These reports were extensively covered in Irish newspapers. On 13 September the Gardeners' Chronicle made 'a dramatic announcement': 'We stop the Press with very great regret to announce that the potato Murrain has unequivocally declared itself in Ireland.' The British Government were nevertheless optimistic through the next few weeks.
Crop loss in 1845 has been estimated at a high of 50% to one third. The Mansion House Committee in Dublin, to which hundreds of letters were directed from all over Ireland, claimed on 19 November 1845 to have ascertained beyond the shadow of doubt that considerably more than one-third of the entire of the potato crop ... has been already destroyed'.

In 1846, three-quarters of the harvest was lost to blight. By December, a third of a million destitute people were employed in public works. According to Cormac Ó Gráda the first attack of potato blight caused considerable hardship on rural Ireland, from the autumn of 1846, when the first deaths from starvation were recorded. Seed potatoes were scarce in 1847, little had been sown, so despite average yields, hunger continued. 1848 yields would be only two thirds of normal. As over 3 million Irish people were totally dependent on potatoes for food, hunger and famine were inevitable.

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