I’ve had my mind on the Irish Potato famine lately. And this is not just because I’m fascinated with Irish History. It has more to do with the event of the Famine itself, and how an entire country could be decimated by the failure of a single crop–hard to imagine in an era of mass production and sophisticated agricultural technology. My fascination is also owed to the way in which England, an incredibly wealthy empire, contributed to the destruction of Ireland–only half of century after the Act of Union, a pact which joined the economies and governments of both countries.
Of all the countries impacted by the Potato Rot (caused by an airborne, infectious bacteria which turned the potato into a slobbering and gaseous black sponge), Ireland suffered the worst. By far. Over one million Irish poor died from starvation, disease, and malnourishment. Countless others (mostly those with means) migrated to the US, forever altering the cultural and demographic landscape of Ireland, while creating an Irish diaspora that continues to the present moment. During the Famine years, the Irish population declined by over 20 percent, both because of migration, and the astonishing fact that nearly half of the Irish population depended on the Potato for survival. And not just survival from hunger; the Potato was the means through which Irish peasants traded, lived, and worked, all while laboring under bigoted Penal Laws that denied Catholics from owning land, educating their children, and participating politically.
I did not willynilly start analyzing The Potato Famine, though I have been known to do such things. I recently read Cecil Woodham Smith’s The Great Hunger, a masterpiece of historical narrative that tracks the history of the Famine, capturing its tragic effects on the lives of everyday Irish, and the great ruptures it revealed in Anglo-Irish relations. The book concentrates on the why the Famine impacted Ireland far worse than other countries who farmed and traded the Potato. The European continent had seen Potato failures before, as had Ireland, yet the failures never became catastrophic, either because the crop failure was temporary (lasting only a season), or it was localized (limited only to parts of Ireland and Scotland). But the Potato rot of the mid 19th century (1845-1849) was different because it contaminated virtually the entire crop of Ireland, and the reaction of England was ridiculously unequal to the scope of the problem. Though plenty of English politicians understood the magnitude of the problem, they refused to support policies that might supply Ireland with a sufficient supply of desperately needed food. For example, Parliament refused to repeal the Corn Laws, which imposed stiff tariffs on English exports, thus allowing British producers to maintain a competitive price–all during a period when Ireland was starving. Further, the English persisted in their belief that Ireland should be responsible for subsidizing most of the relief efforts; and so taxes were raised on Irish landlords, while the English, suffering no scarcity, could continue growing and developing their economy.
Poverty and destitution in Ireland were already bad enough when the first signs of famine surfaced in 1844. Smith quotes the Duke of Wellington, who observed that “There never was country in which poverty existed to the extent it exists in Ireland.” Smith cites a census of 1841 which describes the housing of nearly half of the population as being “windowless mud cabins of a single room.” The standard of living beggars belief, especially given Ireland’s proximity to England, which maintained a vast and profitable colonial empire:
“Furniture was a luxury; the inhabitants of Tullahobagly, County Donegal, numbering about 9,000, had in 1837 only ten beds, 93 chairs and 243 stools between them. Pigs slept with their owners, manure heaps choked doors, sometimes even stood inside; the erected and unemployed put roofs over ditches, burrowed into banks, existed in bog holes.”
These “barbarous and half savage” conditions were exacerbated by incredibly high birth rates that made Ireland “the most densely populated populated country in Europe” (around 9 million) and the limited employment available for Irish peasants. Smith quotes a Poor Enquiry of 1835 stating that “three quarters of labourers in Ireland existed without regular employment,” and that “except when potatoes were being cultivated, 2,385,000 persons were without employment because there was no absolutely no work to offer them.”
“Unless an Irish laborer could get hold of a patch of land and grow potatoes on which to feed himself and his children, the family starved.”
As if this misery and squalor weren’t bad enough, the Irish tenant lived in a perpetual state of panic and terror for fear of not being able to pay rent on meager plots of land to absentee landlords who never invested in maintaining the property anyways. Worst still, these landlords would subdivide their property into smaller and smaller holdings, thereby allowing them to collect more rent on Irish peasants, who lived like indentured servants–again, the result of discriminatory policies like the Penal Laws.
Why is the Irish Potato Famine a meaningful event, in the context of contemporary culture? Why should students learn about the Famine in history courses, economics courses, ethics courses, etc.? First, because the Famine demonstrates how natural disasters devastate poor populations, while only disrupting the lives of the rich and powerful. Second, because the Famine reveals the failure of laissez faire policies to protect the most vulnerable. Third, the Famine demonstrates how legacies of oppression create cycles of grinding poverty. These facts should be particularly apropos of the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, a natural disaster that devastated the Black population of New Orleans, consigned as they were to urban housing ghettos, and laboring under a history of Jim Crow, white supremacy, and economic disenfranchisement.
Of course there is much, much more that explains the tragic consequences of the Famine, and why the Famine was far more than the accidental failure of an agricultural crop, and why some critics consider the event “Late Victorian Holocaust,” on par with the many other famines that devastated many other countries living under colonialism and capitalism. But maybe for another time.