The Irish Famine was much more than the Potato Blight

Depiction of starving Irish children during The Hunger
Depiction of starving Irish children during The Hunger

To the people of Ireland, the Irish Famine is known simply as “The Hunger,” because it involved a great deal more than just a Potato Blight. The famine began in 1845 when a mold, Phytophthora infestans, quickly spread through every farm in Ireland. The disease destroyed one-half of the potato crop that first year, and nearly all of the crops over the next 7 years. Ireland was a colony of Great Britain at the time, and the poor tenant farmers relied heavily on potatoes as a source of food and income, especially during winter.  So the blight had a devastating effect on the Irish population.

By its end, seven long year later in 1852, the Famine resulted in the death of over one million Irish from starvation and related diseases.  At least another 1.5 million were forced to leave their homeland and emigrate abroad as famine refugees.  The Hunger however, was also a catastrophic failure on the part of Great Britain to properly respond to it.  How did this all come about?

Ireland became a formal colony of England with the Act for the Union of Great Britain and Ireland in 1801.  Together, the combined nations were known as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.  Ireland would remain a colony for another century, until the Irish War of Independence in 1921.

Even before the famine struck, Ireland hovered on the edge of poverty.

The Irish population had exploded in the first half of the 1800’s, reaching about 8.5 million by 1845.  One cause of Irish poverty was that unlike England, Ireland was not yet industrialized.  Most of the farms were owned by English gentry, who collected rents from tenant farmers living on small squares of land separated by stone fences.  Those peasant farmers grew predominantly potatoes to feed their families and pay their rent.

In 1845, over half of the Irish depended on the potato for their diet. Why potatoes? Because it produced more food per acre than grains, and could be sold for a better price. Potatoes are also relatively nutritious and could be fed to their livestock as well.  They also grew well in Ireland’s wet soil. Potatoes stored well, BUT could not be kept for more than a year. So if a crop failed … they had nothing to replace it.

The summer of 1845 looked like any other, with the potato crop doing just fine. But when the crop was harvested in October, there were troubling signs. Plant leaves began to curl up and turn black. Within a few days after they were dug up, the potatoes rapidly began to wither and rot, releasing a noxious stench. Atlantic winds spread the fungus across all of Ireland. Farmers were told by landlords to try various “cures,” like drying the potatoes in ovens, or treating them with lime or salt.  Nothing worked. 

Over half the potato crop of Ireland was lost that year.

Irish leaders in Dublin petitioned Prime Minister Robert Peel in London to act, as the island now faced famine.  Tenant farmers had not been able to produce enough food for their own families to eat, let alone sell it to buy food or pay rent.  By the spring of 1846, panic spread as families’ food supplies dwindled and starvation set in. Parents had to listen to the haunting crying of their malnourished children. As months passed, thousands in the countryside began dying.  Hundreds of thousands more died from related diseases caused by malnutrition.

As a colony, the residents of Ireland could elect representation to the British Parliament in London.  Unfortunately, the bulk of these were English landowners in Ireland. Any Catholic Irish, the vast majority of the population—were prohibited from owning or leasing land, voting, or holding elected office. 

Prime Minister Peel came up with a lackluster solution. He purchased shipments of cheap Indian corn from America to be distributed. But problems arose as soon as it arrived. To distribute the corn meal, local relief committees were formed that sold it at one penny per pound. Peasants that had any money saved, soon ran out.  Plus, the Irish found Indian corn meal difficult to cook, hard to digest, and caused intestinal issues. And by June 1846, all the corn supplies were exhausted.

Throughout the summer of 1846, the people of Ireland prayed for a good potato harvest that fall. But the blight did not go away. At first, the crop appeared healthy. But by harvest time, the terrible blight had struck again. In the fall of 1846, the ENTIRE Irish potato crop was destroyed.

The desperate Irish people began to live off nettles, turnips, seaweed, roots, and even bark, leaves and grass.   They sold their livestock and their own clothing to pay their rent and avoid eviction. Fish, although plentiful along the west coast, remained out of reach in water too dangerous for small Irish fishing boats. Starving fishermen could not afford salt to preserve it and also pawned their nets and tackle to buy food for their own families.

Some devout Catholics viewed the famine as Divine punishment for the “sins of the people.” Others saw it as Judgment against their abusive English landlords. Ironically, there was plenty of other food in Ireland – wheat, meat and dairy, but most of it was being exported by the gentry to Great Britain.  Regardless, the poor Irish peasants without potatoes to sell, had no money to buy that food.

Starvation panic swept the island again.

Local relief committees were besieged by hungry mobs demanding food. Meanwhile, the Irish watched with increasing anger, as boatloads grains sailed away for England. Food riots erupted in ports where peasants tried to confiscate ships filled with oats and wheat. British military escorts had to be sent in as food shipments passed before peasants’ starving eyes. As the Famine worsened, the British had to continually send in more troops than food to keep down riots.

Magistrates wrote to London describing entire villages ravaged by hunger, with human specters in rags, skeletons with skin stretched across bone, huddled on hut floors, dying of fever.  The children looked like shadows of their former selves. Most were half naked.  Many had sores on their faces. None had shoes. Their skeletons could easily be seen through their skin.

By late 1846, parliament tried another solution.  500,000 men, women and children were put to work on public work projects, primarily building stone roads between towns. Many of the desperate workers, were poorly clothed, malnourished and weakened by fever.  They often collapsed or even fell dead on the job. Those that could work were unable to earn enough money to adequately feed their entire family.

Peel was replaced in 1846 by Lord John Russell, a Whig, who had a laissez-faire policy. Russell believed Irish leaders should be left to deal with Irish poverty, and rejected any more intervention or aid. But by 1847, Russell could not ignore the starving colony and was forced to modify his policy.  He made money available for soup kitchens.

They were intended to finally provide free food from the local relief committees.  By that summer, almost 3 million Irish were lining up across the island to get a vile-tasting soup made from old meats, or an undigestible cornmeal porridge. This was the only food they had each day, so many still died of malnutrition. The soup kitchen demand quickly exceeded the limited supplies available. After 6 months, the kitchens were bankrupt and the government shut them down.

The potato crop of 1847 didn’t fail, but due to a shortage of healthy seeds, the yield was only a quarter of those pre-blight.  That wasn’t enough for everyone on the island, and The Hunger continued. Hundreds of thousands of starving, evicted Irish poured into towns for relief, begging for food or work. They were also infected with lice, which transmitted contagious Typhus, known as Black Fever, cholera, dysentery, and a relapsing famine fever.

Most died not from hunger, but from those associated diseases carried from town to town by refugees. Little, if any, medical or spiritual care was available for the suffering Irish population. The doctors and priests who attended to the sick also succumbed to these diseases.

The massive numbers of new dead each day had to be buried.  But there were not enough coffins, so bodies were planted just a few inches below the soil, to be gnawed at later by hungry rats and dogs. In some family cabins, the dead remained for weeks, amongst the living, who were too weak to bury them.

Ireland was also slowly going bankrupt.

Landlords, already in debt to London banks with unpaid mortgages, were not receiving rents from their penniless tenants. An estimated half-million Irish were evicted by their landlords. Merchants too went broke, closed up shops, and joined the beggars on the streets.  The three million Irish who had come to depend on soup for survival, now had no food handouts, no employment, no homes and were dying from malnutrition and disease.

To make matters worse, in the fall of 1847, Prime Minister Russell demanded that the “Loans of Aid” be collected from Irish landlords, before any further aid would allocated. Such a collection in a period of deadly famine caused even more widespread riots and violence. Russell had to send some 16,000 Redcoat troops to Ireland to deal with it.

And all along, the colonial government continued to export food to Great Britain and its other colonies. As grains, livestock, fish, honey and butter, left the island, it only increased the starvation of its residents. But stopping food exports was not acceptable to Prime Minister Russell. He refused to stop landlords from exporting grain, even while the poor were starving.

God sent the Blight, but the English caused the Famine.

Common phrase amongst the Irish people regarding The Hunger

Driven by desperation, a flood of starving emigrants began leaving Ireland in 1847. Because fares on empty Canadian timber ships were cheaper, many went by way of Canada.  Most were dressed in rags with not enough food onboard to last for a 40-day to 3 month journey across the Atlantic Ocean.  They had not enough money to buy food aboard ship, so were given starvation rations.

Shipowners were happy to carry the Irish, but their ships were not equipped for passengers. The conditions below decks were horrific. Hundreds of poor people, of all ages, huddled together for warmth, wallowing in filth and vomit and breathing the foul air from sick bodies. British ships were not required to carry doctors. Anyone who died during the voyage was simply tossed overboard, without any religious rites.

These Canadian ships became known as “Coffin Ships” because so many emigrants died before reaching America. Almost at third of the 100,000 immigrants bound for Quebec in 1847 died during their journey, or during quarantine in port. The dead were simply thrown overboard into the St. Lawrence River.  The sick were placed in fever sheds onshore to either live or die.

Those who could afford it, arrived in Boston or New York City where U.S. ship conditions were better. Most were illiterate though and many spoke only Gaelic or little English. Their new life in America would not be easy at all as they were forced to take the lowest of jobs.  But at least they now had them, earning enough money to buy food and fill their bellies.

The poorest of the poor never made it to North America. They boarded cheaper steamers and crossed the Irish Sea to Britain. Everyone in England feared fever and thus shunned the Irish refugees. Working men also viewed them as rivals for unskilled jobs.  They ended up in the slums of Liverpool and London.

Back in Ireland, evicted Irish families wandered the countryside in tattered rags. Workhouses were jammed and had no heat or sanitary facilities. People began to starve on a scale approaching the previous year. Anger and resentment grew over The Hunger happening yet again. The result was an intense hatred for British authority, leading to more riots and violence. Fearing the violence might spread, British officials sent another fifteen thousand soldiers to Ireland.

Starving Irish peasants storming a city workhouse during the Famine
Starving Irish peasants storming a city workhouse during the Famine

Though it might seem hard to imagine, things now got even worse. In the fall of 1848, the blight returned and once again destroyed the entire potato crop. All over Ireland, the people watched in horror as their potato plants blackened, withered and rotted. Now more than ever, the Irish needed immediate British assistance to survive. But British officials were angry over the insurrections and grew to resent the Irish Catholics they perceived as ungrateful.

The return of the Blight sparked a new exodus. Emigration to Britain, America and Canada increased again. Tens of thousands of Irish departed their homeland for Montreal, Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, arriving sick in tattered clothes, but at least with a glimmer of hope. Men and boys who had never been in trouble, now deliberately committed crimes in order to be arrested and transported to Australian penal colonies where work and food were at least guaranteed.

The potato crops didn’t fully recover from the blight until 1852, seven years later. By then, as many as 1 million or more Irish men, women and children had perished of starvation and disease.  Another 1 to 2 million emigrated from the island to escape The Hunger.  The immigrants who reached America began new lives in coastal states and provinces.  Even there, they lived in difficult conditions at the very bottom of society.

Those who remained in Ireland lived on a decimated island. 

In the years following the famine, there were reforms enacted to the agrarian and landlord system. But the hatred toward the British never faded and in fact sparked a renewed call for Irish independence.  It wasn’t until the end of World War I, after the Irish fought along side the British against Germany, that Irish Independence finally occurred in 1921.

So you can see, the terrible Irish Famine was much more complicated than just a Potato Blight.  One can argue that Parliament ignored the plight of Ireland’s starving poor out of sheer malice towards Irish Catholics. Or perhaps, their inaction and poor response could be attributed to utter obliviousness and political incompetence. The Irish could be faulted for depending too much on a single crop for their survival.

Regardless, the Irish refer to the famine simply as THE HUNGER, focusing on the result and not the cause. Dying of starvation is a terrible way to go, lasting up to two months of agony, usually ending in multiple organ failure. 

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, issued a statement in 1997 offering an apology of sorts from the British government to Ireland for ‘failing their people in their inadequate handling and response to the famine, leading to a massive human tragedy.’  Many in Ireland felt it was too little too late. National Famine Commemoration Day is observed annually in the Republic of Ireland, on a Sunday in May.  

Sadly, famines continue around the world, even in our modern times.  Third World countries are particularly susceptible to climate change-induced droughts, floods and the political and social unrest caused by cruel military dictatorships.  The difference is that we can today respond quickly and globally with aid of all kinds … something the Irish people of 1845 would have been very grateful for.

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Published by andrewspaulw

LOST IN HISTORY Blog/Podcast about key forgotten history still relevant in today's world. Paul Andrews also has 5 historical adventure novels, all available on Amazon.

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