Useful Notes: Irish Potato Famine

Irish people, so media would have you believe, love their potatoes. This does have a basis in truth, but the reasoning is less a cultural preference and more a matter of necessity.

You can live on six regular-sized potatoes and a glass of milk (or a bit of cheese) a day (a handful of veggies can make up the mineral-balance). More than 90% of the population of the entire world in 1845 was illiterate, dirt-poor, lived in the countryside and worked the land - business as usual for humanity, in other words. This only really began to change in the very last decades of the 19th century, when people in Britain and north-western Europe became increasingly semi-literate and worked in towns and cities but remained dirt-poor. The fatality rate at birth throughout Britain - c.15% chance of death of infant(s) and/or mother per birthnote  - and general child mortality rate - c.50% before 10 - was also bog-standard.

However, Ireland was even worse off than the rest of the country - half the island's 1845 population of eight million people were farmers who worked land owned by someone else, and had to pay rent and church tithes (the latter being of up to 10% of your harvest). On paper, it sounds decent enough - but overpopulation had resulted in ever-smaller plots of land being cultivated with greater and greater intensity, exhausting the soil without allowing it respite. Worse still, agricultural science was still in its infancy and tenant-farmers in particular became increasingly reliant on just a handful of varieties of potato-crop to make their living. This was okay, for a while - a one-acre plot of potatoes could, if worked properly, feed a family of four for the year.

So when the potato crops failed people became malnourished, got sick, and died. Malnutrition has a number of ill-effects on the body, but these are particularly pronounced with those who tend to die the most under normal circumstances - mothers giving and babies at birth, children under 10, and old people. Everyone's susceptibility to disease skyrocketed as their immune systems were weakened and birth-fatality rates also soared - under-nourished mothers aren't so good at coping with blood-loss and underweight babies are more frequently 'stillborn' (dead at birth) or sickly. Miscarriages also increased, of course.

The primary cause was a disease which killed certain types of potatoes - the "Potato Blight". The limited number of potato-breeds in use meant that the entire food-crop in several counties was 100% susceptible to the disease. 'Science' was a bit of a joke at the time - it only really took off 30-50 years later - but we now know it was a fungus-like 'Oomycete'note . The particular strain was almost certainly Phytophthora infestans (aka 'Late Blight') which probably came from tainted US potato-imports (American potato crops had suffered from the blight for two years prior). Other regions also suffered blight (Belgium lost nearly its entire harvest), but few people in those areas relied on them to the same degree that Ireland did.

The first year wasn't too bad, as there were still stocks left over from previous years (and the Church's and other famine-relief efforts made up some of the gap). But Potato-Farmers' hopes that the next harvest would be better fell apart as blight once again struck the crops (fungal spores remained in the soil even though the infected plants had been painstakingly removed). It's estimated that in 1846, the proportion of the potato-harvest lost to the blight increased to somewhere between a third to half the entire crop. The failure-rate increased again in 1847 and by 1848 people had eaten virtually the entire stock of potatoes that were supposed to be planted/sown that year (not it would've worked out, of course). In other words, while the amount harvested had exponentially decreased from 1845-1847, in 1848 there was almost literally no food left in the areas that had relied largely if not solely on potatoes (i.e. most of the country). And to further rub salt in the wound, the symptoms of the blight only appears late during the potato's growing cycle, so by the time it is detected, there is not enough time to plow the land over and sow another crop. 1847 is still remembered in folk memory as Black '47 for this reason.

The response from Westminster, which was very big on 'hands-off' Classic Liberal/Libertarian-style government, was frustratingly slow and hamstrung by efforts to distinguish between the 'deserving' and 'undeserving' poor at a time when more and more people were dying. The government largely trusted that things would work out and decided not to buy and distribute free food to all the increasingly malnourished people because that would undermine the principles of Free Labour note  and The Free Marketnote . This was a marked contrast to the pre-modern/pre-liberal approach to famine-relief, which had been demonstrated during the British Isles' last period of famine - during the reign of Elizabeth I of England and Ireland a famine of similar severity (in England) had been countered by the establishment of a Royal Granary system and the mass-purchase of huge stocks of grain from The Baltic, which was then distributed as needed.

Now, however, everyone knew bettter than to just give their citizens free food when they were starving and instead set up public-works projects in which they offered to pay famine-weakened farmers for hard labour. Not only did this increase their calorie consumption at a time when they needed to conserve their energy, thus effectively making them starve faster, but the primitive state of economics meant that no-one had even considered that maybe the critical shortage of food in north-western Europe meant that food-prices in that area would increase - meaning that the already-low wages the jobs offered were totally insufficient to actually keep the people working them fed and alive. This jaw-dropping lack of foresight and insistence on an untested ideology (offering people jobs and letting charities do all the hard work will be fine because The Free Market Provides!) over tried-and-tested methods of keeping people alive (the government buys food and gives it to the starving people) when lives were quite literally at stake remains a sticking point to this day.

By the time harvests finally recovered in 1849 with the introduction of strains of potato that were immune to The Blight, Ireland was short three million people. About 1.5 million had died of died of disease and exposure (the winter of 1846 was particularly harsh) and the other half emigrated, largely to East Britain; the potato famine caused a huge surge in Irish emigration to the United States and The Commonwealth that would lessen after six decades or so but never completely dry up. Steady emigration and the largely agricultural (and thus poor) nature of the country - bar the semi-industrial north-east - mean that Ireland has never exceeded its 1845 population-high of about 8 million, and the population would continue to decline steadily until 1962, over one hundred years later. The population of the island, including the British bit, currently stands at 6.3 million.

Much of what little food was produced during the famine was taken and exported by British troops and the seas of Ireland were blocked by British ships, leading some to argue today that it was genocide. More than a few landlords still weren't very understanding about the whole 'sorry I can't pay the rent but I need this food so my family doesn't die' thing and evicted such folk anyway.

Ironically, much of what little grain was produced during the famine (which was still enough to feed many if not all the malnourished people!) was exported for sale overseas (typically in East Britain) - more than a few landlords weren't very understanding about the whole 'sorry I can't pay the rent but I need this food so my family doesn't die' thing and evicted such folk! The army (which was itself typically half-or-more Irish, much of the rest being Scots) actually had to be mobilised to prevent people from killing landlords who did this, a predictable but extremely unpopular move that did a lot to further dim everyone's views of the government. The whole landlord- and food-exporting thing also had a particularly unfortunate 'racial' angle as many Anglo-Irish landlords lived in the east of the island or in East Britain, and many of them had intermarried with non-Irish peoples. While not technically true, 'England is taking our food from our kids' starving mouths' was an unsurprisingly popular sentiment at the time and particularly with the later rise of Irish Nationalism.

See also Red October (c.8 million) and The Chinese Civil War (c.10 million) for some big helpings of Grand Famine and World War II for a delectable platter of smaller famines - chiefly the Yellow River, Bengal, Henan, and Gulf Of Tonkin famines (c.2 million each) but also the barely-averted Soviet, Italian, Dutch, German, and Japanese famines.