“A Wholesale Calamity”: The Irish Potato Famine

In 1845 when the potato blight hit, the Irish relied heavily on the tuber as they had done in the past. It was their main, and for the majority, only source of food. It was also their means of paying rent. When the potato failed and continued to do so men and women, young and old, died of starvation and disease.

Infected Potato Courtesy Wikipedia

The potato crops had been doing well in1845. It promised to be a good harvest, and already last season’s crops had been sold at the market. The first inklings of a coming disaster was reported from the Isle of Wright, where potatoes had rotted. Then Dublin added it’s woes to the list, but still it was believed to be a local outbreak and so no cause for worry. All over Ireland crops were still doing well. But when it came time to harvest, their hopes were shattered. The potato plant and tubers had all rotted overnight and decomposing fields were giving off rank odors. Other potatoes appeared to be fine upon harvesting, but rotted within a day or two. The blight was the result of the fungus, phytophthora infestans, a quickly spreading disease that was believed to have originated in Germany.

In England the government didn’t take the news seriously, thinking the reports riddled with exaggeration. When they did realize the extent of the blight, officials scrambled to come up with a solution. How were the peasants to survive with their enormous dependence on the potato? As they would soon learn, many would not survive. When it became evident that people were beginning to starve, ‘Indian corn’ was sent for. Importing the grain from the US, Britain sought to use the corn as a means of controlling food prices. By selling it cheap, merchants would have to bring down their rising prices to compete with the government. There was a drawback, though. Indian corn was hard and had to be ground, rather ‘chopped’ up, to be made into meal. But Ireland was potato country and didn’t have much call for mills. Britain had to act quickly as the starving Irish were eating the rotten potatoes, cabbage leaves and scouring fields for turnips. Incidentally, the rotten potatoes made many people ill and killed livestock when eaten.

When the Board of Works was set up to employ the many jobless Irish, it received an enormous amount of applications. Unfortunately, the Board of Works was understaffed and overworked so the majority of the applications went unanswered.When the works was finally up and running it proved just as disorganized. For example, the roads built were worthless, leading to no place in particular. As the famine progressed and the amount of workers rose steadily, the Board of Works was unable to pay much and soon ran out of money. By February 1847 there were no fewer than 700,000 employees. It was then decided that the works needed to be gradually closed down .

Meanwhile the 1846 potato crops appeared to be doing unusually well. But in July it was almost for certain that there would be no crops as the blight had struck again. With the second potato failure the government resolved that it would provide no food, except in western Ireland where conditions were worse. And then it would only be distributed in very small portions and when it was absolutely necessary. When food was made available people came from miles around to get it. Charles Trevelyan, head of Treasury, passed off 1843 military rations on starving people in Roscommon when they became violent. But with hardship and famine also being experienced throughout Europe,  corn became hard to obtain. The price had soared and was quickly bought up by other European nations. The government would later resort to soup kitchens as they saw it as more reasonable and cheaper. But even then thousands went hungry.

Skibberdeen, 1847 Courtesy Wikipedia

Winter came and anything that could be eaten was quickly vanishing. The winter would prove to be unusually severe. It would seem that everything was against Ireland. Works employees were having it rough. Their clothes were mere rags and they were starving. Women and children were also being employed by the Board of Works. On December 15th Magistrate Nicholas Cummins went into Skibberdeen armed with a little food. There he found ‘skeletons’ laying in their homes. He, at first, thought they were dead.

I approached the horror, and found by a low moaning they were alive – they were in fever, four children, a woman and what had once been a man

He further reported that two dead were found in a house and woman had buried her dead 12-year old daughter. Death was all about. All over Ireland the dead were being frequently discovered.

Workhouses were so full that orphans were turned away. Other workhouses went bankrupt and were closed up. Fever followed the famine, mainly typhus. Dysentery was also running rampant. Due to the Irish Fever Bill ‘fever hospitals’ were set up. The children were greatly effected by starvation and many were unable to speak. They were quiet sufferers, dying quietly. The children were often described as looking like little elderly people. Their limbs were swollen as a result of starvation.

With no alternative, the Irish turned to immigration. Thousand and thousands fled to Canada, England and the US. Fare was much more affordable to Canada owing to Britain’s desire to populate the area. Fare to the US was a great deal more. Traveling aboard coffin ships, fever spread quickly and scores of immigrants died en route. Landlords ’emigrated’ their laborers to get them off the land, but the immigrants were not very well received. In Canada, the US and England the immigrants lived in squalid conditions and spread fever. There was always the fear of an epidemic. In Liverpool the ill-prepared Irish soon outnumbered the Liverpudlians. However, authorities sent them back to Ireland, even the half dead. In Ireland those who could no longer pay rent were evicted and their homes demolished. With nowhere to go they made their homes in holes in the ground.

In 1847 the crops had done very well, but so few had been planted that it didn’t amount to anything. By1848 an abundance of potato crops had been planted as people hoped for the best. Still the crops were again afflicted with the blight. That same year the Commissariat department, which had been aiding the Irish, pulled out. In mid 1849 the Quakers, who had been operating soup kitchens, also closed up shop having done all they could. The Quakers no longer had any funds to help the suffering Irish. The worst part of the famine ended in 1849, but bad conditions continued throughout the years. In 1851 the famine was declared officially over. In the end it is believed that 1,000,000 souls died.

Source: Woodham-Smith, Cecil. The Great Hunger : Ireland 1845-1849.


88 thoughts on ““A Wholesale Calamity”: The Irish Potato Famine

  1. Wonderful summation, thank you! Having grew up in Ireland I studied the Great Hunger in great detail (but still really only have a school girls grasp on the enormous subject) I remember thinking that Ireland has one of the saddest, most colouful and incredibly fascinating history. Thanks again, I’m off to read your follow up! xxx


  2. Excellent account of a historic period in European history! Ironically, the ‘great famine’ was almost repeated in New England after many Irish immigrants settled in and planted potatoes. After decades of repeated monoculture, the blight again took hold destroying potato crops in Maine and other NE states. They were forced to change to other crops or emigrate elsewhere. Many headed to the Northwest and planted potatoes in Oregon and Idaho, where the weather and soil were less likely to favor devastation by the blight pathogen.


    • Thank you!

      That’s super fascinating. Still, I’m kind of curious why they didn’t turn to another type of crop after repeated failures? Perhaps a mixture of stubbornness, tradition and grit? And then the potato was also a very diverse crop that they could make just about anything out of while proving nourishing at the same time.

      Thanks for stopping by and for your comment.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. The university extension services tried to encourage potato farmers to alter their traditional crop practices (continual potato cropping alters soil pH which increases pathogen persistence from year to year). They were resistant to change. Extension agents also encouraged them to replace potatoes with broccoli, which are resistant to the pathogen and thrive in the climate there. Again, they were resistant to change. Thus many of the potato croppers emigrated out of New England to the West. Those that did implement changes were able to continue growing potatoes by rotating with other crops, amending soil, etc. And a few counties in northern Maine still close school for a week while entire families harvest potatoes. 🙂


    • You’ve got to admit, it took a certain degree of grit for them to make such a big step. Pulling up stakes and heading West to plant potatoes. Wow. 🙂 I had no idea about the potato harvest in Maine; it’s almost nostalgic. That sounds like my kinda town! Thank for this information. Loved it!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. The Irish Potato Famine is the example I use most often when people scoff at my study of food history, asking how much impact food has had. Stunning impact, thank you. Interesting post. I’ve always viewed it from the standpoint of what happened when the potato crop failed and then what the Irish did once the arrived in the U.S., rather the difficulties of the transatlantic passage.


  5. The confluence of natural events, politics, and economics often results in world-wide disasters. The Black Plague began in China where record flooding killed thousands, whose rotting bodies were consumed by rats, which then hosted the plague bacteria, which then jumped aboard ships filled with grain for Europe after a dismal harvest season… One-third of the populations in many European cities died.

    I have read a theory that the USA Cival War was somewhat fueled by the Irish Potato Famine. About 1/3 of the immigrants moved to southern states and 2/3 to northern states. Those Irish men looking for work, could be hired for $1 per day and discarded when they injured themselves, grew too old, etc. Quite a bargain compared to a slave costing +$1,500 and requiring care for life regardless of ability to work on the plantation. When the war started, both sides used those Irish men in their armies. If you just take the 1:2 south:north ratio, you can see the outcome of the war largely based on attrition of the armies….

    Is our immigration policies today, vulnerability to natural disasters and political turmoil much different?


Share Your Thoughts

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s