The Irish Potato Famine

Famine Era - Main Street, Donaghmore, Co. Tyrone

Few human tragedies can be as heart-breaking as that of the Irish potato famine. It is a tale wrought in despair, riddled with injustices and was exacerbated by government indifference and apathy.

Myths versus Facts

While many believe the potato famine was the result of a blight which caused potato crops to fail, this is only the tip of the iceberg. Historians have shown a far more sinister reason to be the root cause of over a million people dying from famine. A further million people were forced to emigrate so as to escape the devastating effects of a collapsed economy. In total, Ireland’s population was reduced by over 25%.

At the heart of this story are a disenfranchised Irish people, persecuted for their beliefs and subjected to laws which, by today’s standards, would be considered fascist and barbaric. The Irish potato famine centres around ordinary people trying to survive in impossible conditions versus the insatiable greed of colonialist monarchy.

What happened?

During the 17th and 18th centuries, Ireland was under British rule. Penal Laws prohibited any Irish Catholics from obtaining an education, entering a profession, holding political office, voting and renting or owning land within five miles of any town. These laws stripped the local Irishmen of any opportunities to succeed in life.

Vast chunks of agricultural land were given to the Englishmen. Landowners were often based in London. They employed middlemen to manage their properties. These middlemen would sublet small plots to Irish families in exchange for cash crops and labour while wealthy English landlords would live it up on a lavish lifestyle.

Forced from their homes, the locals had no alternative but to turn to subsistence farming in order to survive. The descendants of estate owners and tribal kings were reduced to living in mud huts and begging. If they built houses of stone, these were, by law, appropriated by the landlords.

Potato reliance

Under these tragic circumstances, the local Irishmen lived in constant fear of being kicked off the land. They could not invest in livestock or hunt. They had no alternative but to become reliant on potatoes.

By the early 1800’s, the potato had become the staple crop of Ireland. It is estimated that one third of Ireland’s entire population subsisted solely on potatoes. The vegetable is rich in carbohydrates, protein, vitamins and minerals. Potato meals would be seasoned with salt, cabbage or fish and it was found that Irish peasants were healthier than their British counterparts who subsisted on bread.

The Potato Blight

Farm Beds - IrelandEarly in 1844, a potato blight was discovered in the USA. It rendered the common potato to nothing more than a mush. It left the tuber completely inedible. As an airborne fungus, the American potato blight spread to France in 1845. Shortly thereafter it made its appearance on the Isle of Wight. In 1845 it hit Ireland.

What was hoped to be a bumper crop in 1845 yielded less than 50% return. Utterly dependant on their small plots, the Irish were unable to counter its effects. The blight returned the following year and completely destroyed the crop.

The blight repeated itself the following year and the year thereafter. For six long years the American potato blight destroyed one crop after the next, while the desperate locals were powerless to do anything about it.

Those who did not die a horrible death due to starvation were ravaged by diseases such as dysentery, cholera and typhus. James Mahoney, who chronicled some of the disaster, is quoted as follows:

“I saw the dying, the living, and the dead, lying indiscriminately upon the same floor, without anything between them and the cold earth, save a few miserable rags upon them. To point to any particular house as a proof of this would be a waste of time, as all were in the same state; and, not a single house out of 500 could boast of being free from death and fever.”

Government inaction

The initial attitude of the British government was one of indifference. The blight was attributed to crop rot. Protestants saw the famine as a blessing. They argued that the Catholics deserved their comeuppance.

As things got worse, the government began to employ locals to build roads. This in itself was a complete disaster. Roads led to nowhere and peasants were paid below minimum wage. Their labours required more energy than what they could get from the food they could afford to buy. Although some relief was sent in the form of maize and other supplies, it amounted to too little, too late.

Tony Blair has apologised to the Irish for government inaction. A sad case of paying lip service to the media without any real compensation for the loss of life.

Concluding remarks

Political interference in the affairs of a sovereign state and the persecution of people based on their religious beliefs resulted in untold suffering. Such heinous atrocities are akin to human rights abuses such as the horrors of apartheid. Nothing can and ever will mend the damage caused. The best we can do is live in the present and hope such an atrocity never happens again.

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