Since learning of my Irish ancestry and figuring that my family, which came from Maine, was probably descended from the Irish who immigrated there during The Great (Potato) Famine, I decided to do some research. I’ll consider the view from Ireland first.
During the summer of 1845, a blight devastated Ireland’s potato crop, the basic staple in the Irish diet. The blight was Phytophthora infestans, a fungus-like microorganism. When infected with this organism, potatoes will, a few days after being dug from the ground, begin to turn into a slimy, decaying, blackish mass. The fungus had traveled from Mexico to Ireland.
What is different about this famine is that it was a product of social causes. Under British rule, Irish Catholics were prohibited from entering the professions or even purchasing land. Instead, most Catholics rented small plots of land (half under 5 acres) from absentee British Protestant landlords. Since Catholics made up 80% of the population, the bulk of the population lived in conditions of poverty and insecurity, with no chance for opportunity and innovation.
According to historians, the landlords regarded the land as a source of income from which to extract as much money as possible. The rents from their Irish tenants were enormous, an estimated £6,000,000 in 1842 alone. Landlords seldom if ever visited their properties, which generated enormous resentment.
The potato was introduced to Ireland as a garden crop, with the main diet of the 17th century
still consisting of butter, milk and grain products, with potatoes as a supplementary food. In the early 18th century, potatoes became the food for the poor, especially in winter. Furthermore, most of the potatoes grown in Ireland were of a single variety. The dependency for food on a single crop and its lack of genetic variability were the two main reasons why the potato blight has such a devastating effect.
Without the primary food staple, famine and its associated diseases (cholera, dysentery, scurvy, typhus) spread through the poor of the Irish countryside. Observers reported seeing children crying with pain and looking like skeletons, little more than bones. Mass graves were everywhere.
But even during the Famine, wheat, oats, barley and other crops were still grown on landlords’ farms; these were shipped abroad while the people starved.
To add to the misery, landlords, who were responsible for paying taxes for every tenant who paid less than £4 in yearly rent, evicted tenants who couldn’t pay their rents and let the land in larger plots to reduce their costs. With the Famine in full gear, a great mass of evictions came in 1847.
Britain adopted measures to try to cope with the famine. The Corn Laws were repealed; these had been enacted to protect British grain producers from Irish competition. The repeal failed to end the crisis since the Irish lacked sufficient money to purchase foreign grain, and corn proved to be a poor dietary substitute for potatoes. Then they set up soup kitchens and devised programs
of emergency work relief, many of which ended when a banking crisis hit Britain. Finally, in the end, a system of work houses, originally established in 1838, took in the poor and the starving. These grim institutions had never been intended to deal with a crisis of such enormity. Some 2.6 million Irish entered overcrowded workhouses, and more than 200,000 people died there.
During the famine, approximately two million Irish left their homeland for Great Britain, Canada, and the United States. Within five years, the Irish population was reduced by a quarter. Whole families did not migrate but sent their younger members, and unlike similar emigrations throughout the world, women emigrated just as often and in the same numbers as men. The emigrants started new lives in a new land, which was not always friendly to them, but sent money home in amounts approaching £1,404,000 by 1851.
The Famine also had some long-lasting effects. It changed the already strained relations between Ireland and England, with many Irish blaming England for genocide. These intense feelings led to the rise of Irish republicanism and eventually to Irish Independence.