The Great Starvation (2/3)

Famine Monument in County Clare, Ireland

Continued from part 1

Monoculture farming, such as growing only potatoes of the Irish Lumper variety, is more susceptible to blights, fungi and bacterial infections that harm crop yield. Crop failures for the Lumper were recorded in parts of Ireland for 12 of the 14 years between 1830 and 1844. Phytophthora infestans came to Ireland most likely in the very early 1840s and had devastating impact on the potato crop.

The very same blight impacted potato crops all over Europe and North America, but only Ireland suffered as they did. This was due to a combination of the genetic vulnerability of monoculture farming and English response to the natural disaster. In 1845, the blight made more than a third of the planted potatoes inedible, rotten from the inside out. Ireland had dealt with crop failures before. During the period of Irish home rule, there was a blight of 1782-1783. Ireland shut its export ports, keeping food in the country to feed its people. No such policy was enacted to minimize the effects of the 1840s blight. 

The Famine is historically counted as the years between 1845 and 1852. Over this seven year period, about one million Irish died as a result of the famine, and another million or more emigrated to Canada, Australia, and in the later years the United States. Because Canada and Australia are also Crown properties, they were less likely to turn away an Irish ship full of refugees, but by 1847 England imposed harsh barriers to Irish immigration to Canada, so the United States became a more common destination.

English Prime Minister Robert Peel purchased corn meal from the Americas for the Irish, unaware that they lacked the grain mills to make the meal edible. Even after grinding, it required long cooking to be edible without causing painful digestive distress. He also sought to repeal the Corn Laws which were eventually lifted in 1846, though by that point even the lower price of bread was not affordable to most Irish. Peel’s successor, John Russell believed  “the judgement of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson” and as the famine worsened, the English response became less and less humanitarian.

Russell’s parliament used a mix of “indoor” and “outdoor” relief programs, namely work house and soup kitchens. These programs did nothing to eliminate Irish poverty or to address the causes of the famine – namely absentee landlords, too small farms, and the export of practically all other food. Only the potato was blighted, but only the potato was left to the Irish.

Disease killed more than starvation, although hunger and nutritional deficiencies made the Irish more susceptible to those diseases. Cholera, dropsy, measles, tuberculosis, and intestinal parasites swept through the countryside. “Relief” services such as soup kitchens and workhouses kept lots of people with minimal access to hygiene and weakened immune systems in close quarters, and the diseases spread with ease. in 1849, Asiatic cholera came to Ireland after spreading uncontrolled throughout Asia and Europe. The sick and starving people of Ireland were unable to fight off this multitude of infections.

Continue to part 3


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