The Spark That Lit The Fuse
By 1603 the English Monarchy had effectively gained control of the island of Ireland, introducing widespread political, social and religious changes. They encouraged English and other settlers to emigrate to Ireland, where they were given land confiscated from the native Irish e.g. ‘The Plantation of Ulster’. These settlers soon became the economic and political elite within the country, and they became the power within the country.
By the late 1600s, these colonists and their descendants largely owned most of the land in Ireland. After a series of rebellions and confiscations the old Irish elite were dispossessed and many of them were sent into exile. These native Gaelic-speaking people were mostly Catholic, in contrast to the new settlers who were overwhelmingly Protestant. Ireland was dominated by a small number of these Protestant landowners, and they had established a series of ‘Penal Laws’, which discriminated against Catholics in order to preserve their privileged status and maintain their position at the top of Irish society. Despite the repeal of these ‘Penal Laws’ in the 18th century, the Anglo-Irish elite continued to dominate Ireland, economically, socially, and politically, well into the 19th century.
After the 1801 ‘Act of Union’ Ireland had become part of the United Kingdom. This led to the union of British and Irish parliaments. The Irish Parliament was dominated b the Anglo-Irish Protestant elite, which excluded Catholics from the political life of the country. With the ‘Act of Union’, Irish M.Ps could sit in the British Parliament. Despite the ‘Act of Union’ the country was still dominated by the Anglo-Irish elite, who were only a small minority in an overwhelming Catholic country.
Famine was not something new for Ireland and its people. Every few years there was a partial failure of the potato crop, r some natural disaster that resulted in famine. In the 740s, an unseasonable frost had destroyed the crops in the fields, which led to widespread hunger and epidemics, and by the end of the famine some 10% of the ppulation had died over the two year period. There were also small and localised food crises in Ireland in the 1820s and the 1830s. However, the famine in the period 1845-1852 was to be an unprecedented one that changed Irish history.
During the Napoleonic Wars there was a dramatic expansion in tillage in Ireland. This long conflict created a demand for food from Britain to feed its armed forces, which required a large agricultural workforce. Many landowners decided to grow crops on their lands which meant there was less land for small tenant farmers. Rents rose, and it was increasingly difficult for Irish peasants and labourers to obtain sufficient land to meet a family’s needs. Because of the changing rural economy, more and more people came to rely on the potato.
At first, the potato seemed heaven-sent. It thrived in the damp Irish climate, was easy to grow and produced a high yield per acre. In the period from 1780 to 1845 it helped double the Irish population from 4 to 8 million. However, with this population explosion came an increased demand for land. The only solution was to divide the available parcels into ever smaller plots for each succeeding generation. Soon, the diminished size of these plots dictated the planting of potatoes as it was the only crop that could produce a sufficient yield of food on such limited acreage. By 1840, fully 33% of Ireland’s population was totally dependent on the potato for its nourishment. It was a dependency that teetered on the brink of starvation and created a time bomb that needed only the slightest spark to explode.
In the beginning, the potato was treated as an addition to the diet, consumed with milk, bread and fish. However, as Irish society became poorer and the farms became smaller, more and more people were forced to depend upon the potato for food, consumed boiled or in the form of potato cakes. The Irish consumed large amounts of potatoes, especially the poor.
By and large, Ireland was not industrialising like England and Scotland prior to the ‘Great Hunger’, and this meant that the surplus population in the countryside could move to the towns and cities for work. Poverty was not just confined to rural Ireland. In urban centres there was widespread poverty, even by the standards of the time.
Irish society was very unfair, and marked y great poverty. The majority of people lived on the verge of disaster, which led to a great deal of agrarian unrest. There were many secret societies in the country, such as the ‘Ribbon Men’, who violently attacked the landlords and their agents. Murder, intimidation and arson were very common in rural Ireland, as secret societies sought to secure better terms for the poor tenants. Ireland was a very violent society, to the point where many in the British Government believed the island to be on the verge of outright rebellion in those years prior to the famine.
Yet another problem was that the Irish population expanded rapidly in the 18th century. The Catholic communities grew at a much faster rate than the Protestants. For them the potato was a cheap and nutritious form of food and it allowed them, despite their poverty, to survive longer, and many of the poor were surprisingly healthy. This, in turn, allowed the Irish poor to have large families. Irish population growth meant there were more and more people who were, at the same time becoming increasingly impoverished.
The spark that finally lit the fuse of famine was the arrival, in September 1845, of the potato blight. Brought ashore from the cargo holds of ships, the blight quickly made its way to the potato fields where it spread havoc. One third of the crop was lost that year. This brought about a loss of 75% of the potato crop in each of the two succeeding years. The small farmers were to suffer almost immediately. Starvation combined with an increased susceptibility to diseases such as typhus, dysentery and cholera devastated the population. The reaction of the British government, it must be said, was completely inadequate. By 1848, many believed the worst was over but the devastation continued to linger on for a number of years. It is estimated that between 500,000 and 1.5 million people died as a result of the ‘Great Famine’, while over one million fled the country. By 1911, Ireland’s population had dropped to four million. One witness to this time recorded what he had seen, “I saw the dying, the living, and the dead, lying indiscriminately upon the same floor.”
We have already learned that the potato was introduced to Ireland as a garden crop of the gentry. By the late 17th century, it had become widely used as a supplement to the diet rather than a principal food, because the main diet was still a mix of butter, milk, and grain products. But, in the first two decades of the 18th century, the potato became the base food of the poor, especially in winter. However, a disproportionate share of the potatoes grown in Ireland were of a single variety, called ‘The Irish Lumper’.
The growth in the Irish economy between 1760 and 1815 saw the potato make great inroads into the everyday diet of the people, becoming a staple food for the farmers all year round. But, the huge dependency that was on this single crop, and the complete lack of genetic variability among the potato plants in Ireland, were the two single reasons why the emergence of ‘Phytophthora infestans’ had such devastating effect in Ireland, and much less severe effects on people elsewhere in Europe.
Potatoes were essential to the development of the ‘Cottier System’. This was an integral part of the basic structure of landownership in Ireland, which was a hierarchial structure, with landlords at the top, tenant farmers in the middle, and at the bottom were agricultural labourers or cottiers who received small plots of land from the tenant farmers in exchange for their labour. The Potatoes became the principal food on which the cottier depended to feed himself and his family, with adult males consuming between 10 and 15 pounds daily. It was supporting an extremely cheap workforce, but it also brought about a serious lowering of living standards. For the labourer, it was essentially a potato wage that shaped the expanding agrarian economy.
As more land came under tillage the movement led to an expansion of the potato acreage, and with it an expansion of peasant farmer population. By 1841, there were over half a million peasant farmers, who had 1.75 million family members dependant upon them. As was usual with Ireland in these days, the principal beneficiary of this system was the English consumer.
Even before the Anglo-Norman land-grab, Ireland had been used to pasture cows for centuries. As British influence spread and they began to colonise the country, the native Irish were forced to transform much of their country into an extended grazing land to raise cattle for a hungry consumer market in Britain. The British taste for beef subsequently had a very devastating impact on the impoverished and disenfranchised native people of Ireland. They found themselves pushed off the best pasture land and forced to till smaller plots of marginal land, which encouraged them to turn to the potato; a crop that could be grown abundantly in less favorable soil. By 1845 cattle and sheep had eventually taken over much of Ireland, leaving the native Irish population virtually dependent on the potato for their survival. But, the potato was also, at this time, used extensively as a fodder crop for the livestock and approximately one-third of the total potato production, amounting to 4.5 million tons, was normally used in this way.
The Blight in Ireland
Prior to the arrival in Ireland of the disease “Phytophthora infestans”, commonly known as blight, there were only two recognised potato plant diseases. One of these was known as, “dry rot” or “taint”, and the other was a virus that was popularly known as “curl”. But, in June 1845 reports were receievd from the continent that a new type of blight had been noticed, whose origin was unknown. Since 1843 the blight had been recognised in America and may have been brought in from South America with imported fertiliser. The route of its journey into Europe is not known, but it spread rapidly from Belgium into adjacent nations, including England. This new blight caused huge crop failures in these countries and thousands of people died. But, unlike Ireland, the people of these nations were much less dependent upon the potato as a food and, therefore, much less catastrophic than in Ireland.
“Phytophthora infestans”, is a variety of parasitic, non-photosynthetic algae known to science as an ‘Oomycete’, which was completely new to scientists of the mid-nineteenth century. They could not agree as to what had caused the potatoes to rot and turn black. It was only later that the disease was discovered to be transmitted by spores on the wind. If these spores were buried in the pits, where potatoes were stored, they would immediately spread again when the new seed potatoes were planted in the spring. It took science forty years to develop a spray with which to treat infected crops.
On 23 August 1845, ‘The Gardener’s Chronicle’ reported that “A fearful malady has broken out among the potato crop… In Belgium the fields are said to be completely desolated. There is hardly a sound sample in Covent Garden market… As for cure for this distemper, there is none.”
Such reports were taken up by Irish newspapers and reported. The ‘Freeman’s Journal’, in an article printed on 11th September, reported on “the appearance of what is called ‘cholera’ in potatoes in Ireland, especially in the north”.
Two days later, on 13th September, ‘The Gardeners’ Chronicle’ wrote, “We stop the Press with very great regret to announce that the potato Murrain has unequivocally declared itself in Ireland… Where will Ireland be in the event of a universal potato rot?”
The British government, however, remained optimistic over the following few weeks, as it began to receive conflicting reports of the damage being caused by the blight. It was only when the potato crop was lifted in October that the scale of destruction became apparent. Sir Robert Peel, the British Prime Minister, wrote to ‘The Secretary of the Home Department’, Sir James Graham, advising him of “very alarming” reports from Ireland, but he also reminded him, “always a tendency to exaggeration in Irish news”. Nevertheless, on 19th November 1845, ‘The Mansion House Committee’ in Dublin was able to have ascertained beyond a shadow of doubt that, “considerably more than one-third of the entire of the potato crop … has been already destroyed”.
During the following year, 1846, three-quarters of the harvest was lost to blight, and by December of that year, a third of a million destitute people were employed in public works. It is said that only from the autumn of 1846 did the potato blight cause considerable hardship in rural Ireland, since this was the period when the first deaths from starvation were recorded. Because of the blight’s effect on the crop, seed potatoes were scarce and few were sown. With yields reduced to such small numbers the great hunger continued through 1847 and 1848. With over three million Irish people totally dependent upon the potato for food, the ravages of hunger and famine were inevitable.