The Great Hunger – The Irish Potato Famine

It is well known that the Irish consider the potato a marvelous food.  It has every essential nutrient humans need except vitamins A and D, and since those two vitamins are supplied by milk, for centuries the Irish diet was basically milk and potatoes.  As a result, even though Irish peasants were among the poorest people in Europe, they also were among the best nourished.

And then this week (Sept. 13) in 1845, it was reported to Irish officials in Dublin that the Irish potato plant was infested with “bruise-dark” spots and that potatoes themselves were shriveling and rotting.  The phytophthora infestans fungus had found its way to Ireland.  The Irish Potato Famine — The Great Hunger” — was about to begin.

At first it was thought that it was another temporary, weather-related crop failure — a common occurrence in Ireland.  But this was very different.  The moist summer weather had been ideal for the fungus’ spread, and in no time the blight had destroyed much of the country’s potato supply.  By 1846 Ireland became post-apocalyptic, with people eating dogs, rats and even each other.  Mobs of beggars roamed the countryside, as did gangs of thieves.  Whole families died in their homes, most from starvation-related diseases.  And, of course, hundreds of thousands fled the country.

When news of the blight reached London, British Prime Minister Robert Peel advocated repealing England’s longstanding Corn Laws, which had propped up the price of British-grown grain by imposing heavy tariffs on imported grain. Peel’s goal was to reduce grain prices to make it an affordable substitute for the Irish potato crop, but English grain producers passionately objected, and although Peel eventually got a measure of repeal, it cost him his job.

At that point the British response was to set up various relief programs, all of which were badly administered.  Then again, London’s attitude toward the famine was, essentially, laissez faire — “It’s not our business; we don’t want the Irish dependent on the British government; let Irish landowners take care of the problem.”  And, finally, “Nothing should interfere with our system of private enterprise.”

As a result, during the two worst famine years, 1846 and 1847, farms in Ireland, especially British-owned farms, actually exported 430,000 tons of grain from Ireland to foreign markets, including England.

Which rankles the Irish to this day.  Indeed, in estimating the casualties resulting from “The Great Hunger” — approximately 1.2 million Irish dead (in a population of 8 million), and several million desperate Irish leaving the country over the next decade — there is one casualty that stands alone and continues to fester:  Irish-English relations.

“The Almighty sent the blight,” said Irish leader John Michael, “but the English created the famine.”