Tuesday Trivia #18: The History of Potato Crop Failures

I realized this morning that I used “Tuesday Trivia #12” twice — kind of confusing! Rather than renumber the whole kit’n’caboodle and maybe create more confusion, I simply relabled the second #12 as #12a. And so on we go …

Many people consider the Great Irish Potato Famine of 1845-1852 to be an unprecendented occurrence, and believe it caught the country’s government by surprise. However, the failure of the potato crop that began in 1945 was no stranger to Ireland’s inhabitants.

Crop failures had plagued Ireland in both the 18th and 19th centuries prior to An Gorta Mor, or The Great Hunger. In the winter of 1739-1740, the potato crop was ruined by frost: close to half a million Irish died from starvation and related diseases (a number that is statistically higher per capita than The Great Famine).

Another crop failure took place in 1782 and 1783, but at that time laws were enacted to keep Irish food in Ireland to feed its populace, so the death rate was not nearly so high.

In 1816, a widespread general crop failure occurred in most of Europe, due to unusual weather conditions (secondary, we now know, to a volcanic eruption in the Indian Ocean). The English Parliament under Sir Robert Peel created a contingency plan to prevent widespread disaster in the case of another potato crop failure.

In 1822 and in the early 1830s, regional crop failures occurred, but were considered unimportant and unrelated. By the mid-century, the British government had essentially adopted a laissez-faire attitude toward Ireland; when the crop failed again in 1845, only small parts of Peel’s contingency plan were put into effect. The Corn Laws, laws that kept the price of English corn artificially high, were repealed; however, the populace had no money with which to buy the corn even at reduced prices.

Ironically, American ships loaded with donated corn arrived in Ireland – after much ado about who had the authority to accept the corn, the American grain was distributed for free, while English corn rotted away in warehouses, waiting for someone with enough money to buy it.

an Gorta Mor (or The Great Irish Famine, 1845-1852)

Most of the time I find history boring. But every once in awhile, I stumble over something fascinating. And usually, that something makes me cry.

I’d heard quite a bit about the Irish Famine at different places along the way, like in English class in high school when we read Jonathan Swift’s essay A Modest Proposal (if you haven’t already read it, I highly recommend it. It gives an incredible satiric look at the British government’s feelings on “the Irish problem.” The problem, in short, was that there was such a thing as “the Irish”.)

At any rate, the subject cropped up now and again. But it wasn’t until I started writing my Donovan series that I realized how closely related I was to it. My father’s family emigrated from Ireland in the early 20th century, chased out by the British Army (or so the story goes). As I started my research into Irish history, it suddenly hit me: my father’s family must have lived through the famine.

Wow! When you consider that a million Irish citizens perished within that eight-year period, it’s kind of amazing that I exist at all.

So what happened in Ireland in 1847? What caused the famine? The simple answer is “potato blight”, a fungus that causes the tuber (the edible part of the potato) to turn to black stinking mush underground. (Ever had a potato go bad at the bottom of the bin — yeah, that black, stinking mush!) But the stems and leaves of the plant aren’t affected, so no one knew of the damage until harvest time.

The blight hit many countries in Europe. Belgium, Poland, even Western Russia were badly affected. But in those countries, the failure of the potato crop was not catastrophic (unless you count the impact on vodka production for a few years). Why? Because those farmers raised other crops as well, and had other sources of food.

In Ireland, the staple crop for tenant farms was the potato. In many cases, it was the only crop they grew to feed their family. There were a slew of social, economic and political factors that caused this, and I won’t enumerate them here, but the upshot was that the potato could meet a peasant’s dietary needs all by itself. It was easy to grow, easy to harvest, easy to prepare and tasty. So it was grown almost exclusively and became the diet for hundreds of thousands of people.

“But Ireland is an island, surrounded by water. Why didn’t they just eat fish?“ I can’t count the times I’ve heard that question, and sometimes from people who think they’re being funny.

But the fact of the matter was that the fishing industry was controlled by the English, as were the livestock industry, the grain industry, and the flax and wool industries. And the English weren’t about to give up their rich diets and fancy clothing just to save a few Irish peasants. (After all, they are a problem, aren’t they?)

During the famine, some scholars estimate at least thirty shiploads of food were exported to England per day. That’s right, per day. During a former potato crop failure in 1782-1783, Irish ports were closed to exports, despite the objections of merchants to falling prices. By the time of the Great Famine, up to 75% of Irish soil raised crops or animals for export. This time, Queen Victoria and the Parliament took no action to close the ports.

Ireland raised enough food to feed its people, but exports were the money makers and the overlords simply refused to sell their crops in Ireland.

Not everyone was completely blind to the disaster. The Society of Friends ran soup kitchens, and American corn farmers sent their grain free of charge to Ireland. The Choctaw Nation of Native Americans donated to the cause, remembering their own history of starvation on The Trail of Tears just years before. Most of the cash contributions, however, were made through the British Government, and we all know what “administrative fees” can do to charity.

On top of all of that, the British overlords began a systematic eviction of tenant farmers from their land. In History of Ireland, John Gibney tells us that, in 1847 alone, one family named Mahon evicted 3,000 tenants, but still dined on lobster soup.

And the Mahons were by no means alone. Thousands of peasants’ houses, cabins and shacks were razed. Hundreds of thousands throughout the Isle were dispossessed, and they trudged in weary lines to the port cities, hoping to find passage to America. With no food and little to no money, inestimable thousands died along the way and were buried in mass graves.

In the annals of history, it seems to me that this entirely preventable tragedy stands in a class of its own. So it makes me wonder why, among so many deaths, my family survived.

Perhaps so that the story gets told once more.