The hunger: Understanding the potato famine

By Joan Hennessy
The famine memorial in Dublin, Ireland.
The famine memorial in Dublin, Ireland.
Stock image.

    They took what they could carry and left, just left, traipsing across their country and packing onto dilapidated boats. All were starving, most were penniless, many were sick. Their only hope was an ocean away.

     It sounds much like today's Syrian refugee crisis, but it occurred in the wake of the Great Famine of 1845-49 as Irish men, women and children made the dangerous trip across the Atlantic.
    Throughout world history, the mass movement of populations, often the result of violence and religious or political persecution, has played a role in the formation of cultures and can test the collective resolve of affluent nations. (See our story on the difference between migrants and refugees.) 
    For the Irish, leaving their homeland was first and foremost a matter of survival, as well as a decision rooted in a history of oppression at the hands of the English, who controlled the island then. But think about it: Under what conditions would you leave your home and cram onto a rickety boat that looks as though it will sink?
    Here is a compressed account of events, along with links and suggested sources to learn more:

A staple crop: Potatoes grew readily in Irish soil and had become a staple of the diet for a growing populace. Within the first 40 years of the 19th century, Ireland’s population had taken off -- from an estimated 5.2 million in 1801 to 6.7 million in 1820 and 8.1 million in 1840. (See Irish census records.) 
    Everything changed with a blight caused by a plant pathogen still the focus of academic research. Conditions on the island, specifically, heavy rains in the summer of 1845, made matters worse.
    In September, the first sign of potato blight appeared, wrote historian Jay P. Dolan in The Irish Americans (Bloomsbury Press; 2008). The problem was more widespread by October.

The political philosophy: A humanitarian disaster was clearly unfolding in Ireland, but key British politicians believed in a laissez-faire economic philosophy, which stated that there should be little interference with the market forces of supply and demand. Charles Trevelyan, head of Great Britain's treasury and in charge of famine relief, was a firm adherent, and he also saw the crisis as an act of God. Dolan recounts that Trevelyan described the famine as a “direct stroke of an all-wise and all-merciful Providence” that “laid bare the deep and inveterate root of social evil” plaguing Ireland.   

The response: Even so, the British government had to intervene. In November 1845, Great Britain’s prime minister, Sir Robert Peel, made three decisions, writes Robert Kee, historian and journalist, in the book, Ireland: A History (Little, Brown & Company; 1980). Peel ordered a supply of maize for Ireland and wanted to sell it at low cost. But this food was brought in not primarily "to be eaten immediately by people who were beginning to starve but only as a gently-applied economic lever." The corn would be released for sale only when the government decided that food prices were too high.
     Secondly, he appointed a relief commission charged with overseeing depots where the maize would be sold. The commission was also to coordinate with local committees attempting to alleviate the crisis by providing food and public work. 
     “The government, through the relief commission, gave matching cash grants to the committees, of two-thirds at first, and then fully equal amounts of whatever they were able to raise themselves by private charity,” Kee explained.
     Thirdly, Peel wished to remove duties on imported grain to lower the price of bread. Those duties, known as Corn Laws, were imposed to protect landowners’ profits, but they also drove up prices for laborers.
     Even with Peel's efforts to lower the cost of grain, one-third of the Irish population “could hardly afford bread at any price,” Kee wrote. “That was precisely why they lived off potatoes.”
     Over the objections of landowners, the Corn Laws were repealed in June 1846, according to a history on England's government website. But on the same day, Peel was defeated on another bill and resigned.
     To this day, some academics argue that the British response, or lack thereof, amounts to genocide. Others maintain that is not the case. Dolan argues that while the charge of genocide is without merit, British leaders could have done more: "By the Act of Union in 1800, Ireland had become part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain, but the government failed to provide for its people, causing ruin and starvation rather than prosperity." 
     In 1997, British Prime Minister Tony Blair apologized for the country's role in the famine.

The great hunger: In 1845, the failure of the potato crop was not a total loss because a portion had been harvested before the blight, Dolan writes. But in 1846 the whole crop failed. Accounts of the time describe entire families found dead in their homes. Others were evicted and roamed the countryside. While many fled on boats bound for the U.S., some devised a different strategy: They committed theft in the open, in hopes of being arrested and put in jail or sent to a penal colony in Australia, according to Joseph R. O’Neill in the book The Irish Potato Famine. (Abdo Publishing; 2009). 
    As part of a U.S. effort to alleviate the crisis, Congress in 1847 authorized the USS Jamestown and the USS Macedonian to transport food donated by Americans to Ireland and to western Scotland to address the neighboring Highland Famine. "Captain Robert B. Forbes, who brought the relief in Jamestown, made a return visit to Ireland twenty years later and met there young men and women named Jamestown and Macedonian," according to the Naval History and Heritage Command website.

The impact on Ireland's population: Accounts of the famine put the estimated number of deaths at 1 million. Many died of hunger or disease on so-called "coffin ships" bound for America.
     “The deaths which resulted from the famine of 1846-'47 and the large scale emigration which followed in its wake and which continued throughout the second half of the 19th century culminated in a halving of the population by 1901,” the country’s 2011 census reported.

The impact on the U.S.: Well before the famine, there had been a flow of immigrants from Ireland bound for the Colonies. Dolan writes that shipping agents promoted America as the "garden spot of the world." But during and after the famine, a green tide washed ashore -- an estimated 1.5 million fled to the United States. Today, roughly 35 million U.S. residents claim Irish ancestry.




    Presidents of the U.S., sons of the shamrock

    A crisis of refugees (not migrants)

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