THE FAMINE THAT SHAPED IRELAND’S HISTORY by Juliane Weber
Many Americans have Irish roots, including a number of famous ones such as President Joe Biden, musician Bruce Springsteen, and quarterback Tom Brady, to name a few. A host of Irish traditions have also long been an integral part of American culture – just think of St. Patrick’s Day celebrations with their parades, shamrocks, and leprechauns, not to mention the numerous Irish pubs to be found across the country. But while most people can scarcely imagine a time before the mythical pot of gold made its appearance at the end of the rainbow, only few may know just what caused so many Irish folks of days gone by to brave the dangerous passage across the ocean to make America their home.
A myth-shrouded land
Nowadays, Ireland is a popular holiday destination, with tourists roaming the Emerald Isle’s picturesque green hills and rocky coastline, clambering over ancient building sites, and strolling through quaint seaside villages. Visitors are enchanted as much by the luscious scenery as by the boundless stories of fairies and other mythical creatures, mysterious druids, heroes such as Cú Chullainn, and long-gone civilizations.
But while much of Ireland’s history is steeped in legend, other aspects of its past are far less magical, and a few events had such dramatic effects on Irish history that these can still be seen today. One such event was the Potato Famine of the 19th century.
Ireland’s troubled past
In the early 1800s, Ireland was a land of extreme contrasts, with the wealthy few wallowing in luxury on vast estates while the multitude of commoners was so poor, they possessed little more than the clothes on their backs. Even at a time when most of Europe’s peasantry had very little, travelers to Ireland in the 19th century were shocked by the overwhelming poverty to be seen on the island.
The reasons for these appalling conditions have been much examined by historians, with Ireland’s colonial legacy emerging as a prime culprit. Oppressed by the English for centuries, more and more natives were forced off their land, only to find themselves having to pay vast sums to rent tiny plots of farmland from their conquerors to survive. This naturally resulted in feelings of resentment in the locals, not least of all because the overwhelmingly Catholic populace was at the mercy of a Protestant minority. Unrest was common, and the British were kept busy suppressing several attempted rebellions.
Dependence on the potato
Despite Ireland’s deeply rooted problems, the population continued to grow – and so, too, did the peasants’ dependence on the potato. Initially introduced as a garden crop, the potato soon became widespread as a rotational crop, only to end up as the staple food for the vast number of laborers who worked Ireland’s grainfields. Well suited to the island’s damp climate, potato plants produced a large bounty on comparatively small patches of land without the need for constant care. This made potatoes the ideal crop for Irish peasants, who only had access to small pieces of farmland to grow their families’ food.
With a yield of six to eight tons per acre, the nutritious potato saw Ireland’s poor well fed. An adult male would eat up to 6.3 kilos of potatoes per day, meaning that an estimated seven million tons of potatoes were consumed each year. While this is quite unimaginable by modern standards, such was the efficacy of this system that by 1845, more than one and a half million people were entirely dependent on potatoes for their sustenance, while three million more were largely dependent on the crop.
More than 175 years after the fact, it’s easy to say it was this dependence on a single food that was to blame for the disastrous effects of the potato blight that caused the Great Famine, but at the time, nobody could have predicted such an event. Like with all crops, seasonal variations in the potato yield had always been part of life, but any sizeable losses tended to be regional and efficiently covered by local relief efforts.
Not so in 1845, though, when the fungus Phytophthora infestans swept over Ireland, destroying an estimated one-third of the potato yield across all parts of the island – far more than what most considered normal. Concerted efforts resulted in few deaths that first year, but the loss of over three-quarters of the potato crop the following year spelled disaster. Already down to their last resources, there was no way for the peasants to recover from a second successive poor harvest. By the second year, hundreds of thousands of people depended entirely on the goodwill of others and the assistance of the British government for their survival.
Unfortunately, such assistance was inadequate.
With a laissez-faire attitude, the government refused to stop exports, such that vast quantities of grains continued to leave Irish shores, often under heavy guard as the hungry populace became ever more desperate. What food was available was priced beyond what the poorest could hope to pay, while imported grains from America arrived too late to help those in need. With little to nothing gleaned from their own crops and no money to buy food elsewhere, thousands of Irish people succumbed to hunger and disease, while thousands more risked the dangerous passage across the ocean to seek a better life for themselves in unknown lands as far afield as North America and Australia.
A land forever altered
The Famine was to last five long years, during which the potato harvest failed four out of five seasons. By the time the end of the Great Hunger finally came, more than a million people had died and over a million more had left Irish shores – an exodus that continued throughout the next decade and even the remainder of the 19th century.
Death and emigration had caused the entire population class of cottiers to be decimated, the Irish language to be largely lost, and the structure of Irish society to be forever altered. Over the course of those five years, the population of Ireland was reduced by one-fifth – a loss that has never been recovered.
The dispersal of Famine survivors across the globe has resulted in Irish culture and folklore becoming widely known and loved, but we owe it to the victims of that tragedy to remember Ireland’s haunting past.
Gray, Peter. The Irish Famine (New Horizons). Thames & Hudson Ltd, London, 1995.
Donnelly Jr, James S. The Great Irish Potato Famine. The History Press, Gloucestershire, 2010.
Bourke, Richard & McBride, Ian (editors). The Princeton History of Modern Ireland. Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 2016.
Connolly, SJ (editor). Oxford Companion to Irish History. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2011.
Juliane Weber is a scientist turned historical fiction writer, and author of the Irish Fortune Series. Her stories take readers on action-packed romantic adventures amid the captivating scenery and folklore of 19th century Ireland. Under the Emerald Sky, the first book in the Irish Fortune Series, was awarded bronze medals in The Historical Fiction Company 2021 Book of the Year Contest and The Coffee Pot Book Club 2022 Book of the Year Contest. The second book in the series, Beneath the Darkening Clouds, was released in October 2022.
Juliane spent most of her life in South Africa, but now lives with her husband and two sons in Hamelin, Germany, the town made famous by the story of the Pied Piper.
Social media links