to Ethnic America
Irish Potato Famine
During the summer of 1845, a "blight
of unusual character" devastated Ireland's potato crop, the
basic staple in the Irish diet. A few days after potatoes were
dug from the ground, they began to turn into a slimy, decaying,
blackish "mass of rottenness." Expert panels convened
to investigate the blight's cause suggested that it was the result
of "static electricity" or the smoke that billowed from
railroad locomotives or the "mortiferous vapours" rising
from underground volcanoes. In fact, the cause was a fungus that
had traveled from Mexico to Ireland.
dysentery, scurvy, typhus, and infestations of lice--soon spread
through the Irish countryside. Observers reported seeing children
crying with pain and looking "like skeletons, their features
sharpened with hunger and their limbs wasted, so that there was
little left but bones." Masses of bodies were buried without
coffins, a few inches below the soil.
Over the next ten years, more
than 750,000 Irish died and another 2 million left their homeland
for Great Britain, Canada, and the United States. Within five
years, the Irish population was reduced by a quarter.
The Irish potato famine was not
simply a natural disaster. It was a product of social causes.
Under British rule, Irish Catholics were prohibited from entering
the professions or even purchasing land. Instead, many rented
small plots of land from absentee British Protestant landlords.
Half of all landholdings were less than 5 acres in 1845.
Irish peasants subsisted on a
diet consisting largely of potatoes, since a farmer could grow
triple the amount of potatoes as grain on the same plot of land.
A single acre of potatoes could support a family for a year. About
half of Ireland's population depended on potatoes for subsistence.
The inadequacy of relief efforts
by the British Government worsened the horrors of the potato famine.
Initially, England believed that the free market would end the
famine. In 1846, in a victory for advocates of free trade, Britain
repealed the Corn Laws, which protected domestic grain producers
from foreign competition. The repeal of the Corn Laws failed to
end the crisis since the Irish lacked sufficient money to purchase
In the spring of 1847, Britain
adopted other measures to cope with the famine, setting up soup
kitchens and programs of emergency work relief. But many of these
programs ended when a banking crisis hit Britain. In the end,
Britain relied largely on a system of work houses, which had originally
been established in 1838, to cope with the famine. But these grim
institutions had never been intended to deal with a crisis of
such sweeping scope. Some 2.6 million Irish entered overcrowded
workhouses, where more than 200,000 people died.
The Irish Potato Famine left as
its legacy deep and lasting feelings of bitterness and distrust
toward the British. Far from being a natural disaster, many Irish
were convinced that the famine was a direct outgrowth of British
colonial policies. In support of this contention, they noted that
during the famine's worst years, many Anglo-Irish estates continued
to export grain and livestock to England.