Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The Great Famine

Ireland is in your hands, in your power. If you do not save her, she cannot save herself. I solemnly call upon you to recollect that I predict with the sincerest conviction that a quarter of her population will perish unless you come to her relief.

The Irish potato famine is one of the great calamities of world history in which a million people died. By 1845, the potato had become the main crop in Ireland. There had been partial famines due to potato crop failings throughout the nineteenth century, but the total failure of 1845 was a major disaster. Here is an article from an agricultural site:

More than a million Irish people--about one of every nine--died in the Great Potato Famine of the 1840s. To the Irish, famine of this magnitude was unprecedented and unimaginable. Today, it may seem less surprising, though no less tragic, as television delivers up images of starvation more vivid and more frequent than ever before.

Besides the horror, what unites the famines today with one over a century ago are the reasons behind them. Ireland's famine and those of the 20th century have similar, complex causes: economic and political factors, environmental conditions, and questionable agricultural practices.

When the famine hit in 1845, the Irish had grown potatoes for over 200 years--since the South American plant had first arrived in Ireland. During this time, the lower classes had become increasingly dependent on them. Potatoes provided good nutrition, so diseases like scurvy and pellagra were uncommon. They were easy to grow, requiring a minimum of labor, training, and technology--a spade was the only tool needed. Storage was simple; the tubers were kept in pits in the ground and dug up as needed. Also, potatoes produce more calories per acre than any other crop that would grow in northern Europe. This was important to the Irish poor, who owned little, if any, of their own land. Often, a whole family could live for a year on just one acre's worth.

To increase their harvest, farmers came to rely heavily on one variety, the lumper. While the lumper was among the worst tasting types, it was remarkably fertile, with a higher per-acre yield than other varieties. Economist Cormac Ó Gráda estimates that on the eve of the famine, the lumper and one other variety, the cup, accounted for most of the potato crop. For about 3 million people, potatoes were the only significant source of food, rarely supplemented by anything else.

It was this reliance on one crop--and especially one variety of one crop--that made the Irish vulnerable to famine. As we now know, genetic variation helps protect against the decimation of an entire crop by pests, disease, or climate conditions. Nothing shows this more poignantly than Ireland's agricultural history.

At the beginning of the 19th century, a Dublin Society survey recorded at least a dozen varieties of potato cultivated in the county of Kilkenny alone. Then, adults could still remember when most of the poor raised oats, barley, or rye, along with beans and other green vegetables. But according to Ó Gráda, this diversity had largely disappeared by the 1840s. He notes that while some people warned that Ireland's reliance on potatoes might prove disastrous, no one likely conceived of a famine as complete as what occurred. The poor certainly could not; it is doubtful they could have avoided it anyway, given the social and political conditions of their lives.

In 1845, the fungus Phytophthora infestans arrived accidentally from North America. A slight climate variation brought the warm, wet weather in which the blight thrived. Much of the potato crop rotted in the fields. Because potatoes could not be stored longer than 12 months, there was no surplus to fall back on. All those who relied on potatoes had to find something else to eat.

The blight did not destroy all of the crop; one way or another, most people made it through winter. The next spring, farmers planted those tubers that remained. The potatoes seemed sound, but some harbored dormant strains of the fungus. When it rained, the blight began again. Within weeks the entire crop failed.

Although the potatoes were ruined completely, plenty of food grew in Ireland that year. Most of it, however, was intended for export to England. There, it would be sold--at a price higher than most impoverished Irish could pay.

In fact, the Irish starved not for lack of food, but for lack of food they could afford. To buy food, many sold or pawned everything they owned. Often, this included the tools by which they made their living. Other people ate the food intended for rent, and the landlords quickly evicted them. By the next planting season, many farmers had no land to plant on, nor tools to plant with. Those who did often had nothing to plant. There were few potatoes, and no money with which to buy seed.

The Irish planted over two million acres of potatoes in 1845, according to Ó Gráda, but by 1847 potatoes accounted for only 300,000 acres. Many farmers who could turned to other crops. The potato slowly recovered, but the Irish, wary of dependence on one plant, never again planted it as heavily. The Irish had learned a hard lesson--one worth remembering.

The following is a more detailed account of the horrors endured by the Irish between 1845 and 1848.

Many of the rural Irish had little knowledge of money, preferring to live by the old barter system, trading goods and labor for whatever they needed. Any relief plan requiring them to purchase food was bound to fail. In areas where people actually had a little money, they couldn't find a single loaf of bread or ounce of corn meal for sale. Food supplies in 1846 were very tight throughout all of Europe, severely reducing imports into England and Ireland. European countries such as France and Belgium outbid Britain for food from the Mediterranean and even for Indian corn from America.

Meanwhile, the Irish watched with increasing anger as boatloads of home-grown oats and grain departed on schedule from their shores for shipment to England. Food riots erupted in ports such as Youghal near Cork where peasants tried unsuccessfully to confiscate a boatload of oats. At Dungarvan in County Waterford, British troops were pelted with stones and fired 26 shots into the crowd, killing two peasants and wounding several others. British naval escorts were then provided for the riverboats as they passed before the starving eyes of peasants watching on shore.

As the Famine worsened, the British continually sent in more troops. "Would to God the Government would send us food instead of soldiers," a starving inhabitant of County Mayo lamented.

The Irish in the countryside began to live off wild blackberries, ate nettles, turnips, old cabbage leaves, edible seaweed, shellfish, roots, roadside weeds and even green grass. They sold their livestock and pawned everything they owned including their clothing to pay the rent to avoid certain eviction and then bought what little food they could find with any leftover money. As food prices steadily rose, parents were forced to listen to the endless crying of malnourished children.

Fish, although plentiful along the West Coast of Ireland, remained out of reach in water too deep and dangerous for the little cowhide-covered Irish fishing boats, known as currachs. Starving fishermen also pawned their nets and tackle to buy food for their families.

Making matters worse, the winter of 1846-47 became the worst in living memory as one blizzard after another buried homes in snow up to their roofs. The Irish climate is normally mild and entire winters often pass without snow. But this year, an abrupt change in the prevailing winds from southwest into the northeast brought bitter cold gales of snow, sleet and hail.

Amid the bleak winter, hundreds of thousands of desperate Irish sought work on public works relief projects. By late December 1846, 500,000 men, women and children were at work building stone roads. Paid by piece-work, the men broke apart large stones with hammers then placed the fragments in baskets carried by the women to the road site where they were dumped and fit into place. They built roads that went from nowhere to nowhere in remote rural areas that had no need of such roads in the first place. Many of the workers, poorly clothed, malnourished and weakened by fever, fainted or even dropped dead on the spot.

The men were unable to earn enough money to adequately feed themselves let alone their families as food prices continued to climb. Corn meal now sold for three pennies a pound, three times what it had been a year earlier. As a result, children sometimes went unfed so that parents could stay healthy enough to keep working for the desperately needed cash. (Read entire article)

The story of the Great Famine is difficult to read and write about, which is why I quoted the articles of others. I warn the tender-hearted, if you read the full accounts, be ready to cry.



Anonymous said...

I remember reading somewhere that Americans Quakers sent food relief to the Ireland during the Famine.

elena maria vidal said...

Yes, they did, and so did some English people. But the whole thing was dreadfully mismanaged by the British government.

Roisin said...

How sad a to read about my ancestors and the agony of the famine. It is something we cannot even fathom in US. I do believe England had more to do with the famine and allowing the demise of so many than is recorded. All my grandparents were always bitter of the English and there wicked ways with the Irish. (no schooling, landowners, controlled poverty)
Thank you for the articles, love your blog.