The Great Irish Famine
by Catharina Japikse
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
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 Gr da estimates that on the eve of the famine, the lumper
and one other variety, the cup, accounted for most of the potato
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 Gr da, 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
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 Gr da, 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.