The Not-Just-Irish Potato Famine

seed potatoes

In a recent blog post, I made a reference to the Irish Potato famine, started to link to the prior post I was sure I had written on the subject, and was stunned to realize that blog post existed only in my imagination.* Allow me to rectify that error.

When the Spanish imported potatoes from Peru in the sixteenth century, Europe’s peasants embraced the new crop as a miracle food. They could be planted in fallow fields, produced more food per acre than existing grain crops, and could be left in the ground until you needed them, making them less of a target for plundering soldiers in times of war. For much of Europe, the new crop meant a better diet for the poor and a reduced chance of famine.

In Ireland, however, potatoes were soon linked with political and economic oppression. After Cromwell invaded in 1649, the English relocated the native Irish to the western provinces, where it was too wet to grow grain. Unable to grow grain themselves and unable to afford imported grain, Ireland’s peasants built a subsistence economy based on the potato. Like all one-crop economies, it was a disaster waiting to happen. Enter the “hungry ’40s”.

Widespread failure of grain crops between 1845 and 1847 created food shortages across Europe, made worse by the potato blight of 1845. European grain prices increased between 100 and 150 percent over the course of two years, drastically affecting the standard of living for both peasants and urban workers, the later of whom typically spent seventy percent of their income on food. Food riots were common, escalating into violence directed at local landlords, tax collectors and factory owners. The crisis in agriculture was accompanied by industrial and financial collapse, which in turn led to widespread unemployment and greater unrest. In 1848, armed rebellions occurred in France, Austria, Prussia and most of the smaller German and Italian states , caused in part by the food shortages.

Ireland was the hardest hit by the potato blight. Potatoes had never displaced grain and mixed farming on the Continent or in England. Only Ireland depended on potatoes for survival, its population reduced to abject poverty by English laws that limited the right of the Irish to own land in their own country. When the blight struck, most Irish had no food reserves. Much of Europe was hungry; Irish peasants suffered from a largely artificial famine.

By October, 1846, ninety percent of the Irish potato crop had been lost. By December, potato prices had doubled. Absentee landlords allowed their agents to evict farmers who could not pay their rent, exacerbating the effects of the blight by further reducing harvests. An epidemic of typhus killed 350,000 from a population that was already weakened by starvation.

Throughout the five years of the famine, Ireland remained a net exporter of food. The potato crop failed, but other crops thrived. Irish grain and cattle were exported to England as if nothing were wrong. Prime Minister Robert Peel pushed through the repeal of the Corn Laws, which taxed grain imports at a high rate, in an effort to help the starving Irish. He was forced to resign and replaced by Lord John Russell, a proponent of laissez-faire economics, who declared, “we cannot feed the people” and demanded that Irish relief be paid for by the starving Irish themselves.

Committees of volunteers set up relief projects and soup kitchens. Donations came in from places as unlikely as Calcutta, Jamaica, and the Choctaw Indian tribe. By the summer of 1847, over three million people were being fed in soup kitchens. It wasn’t enough to combat the “Great Hunger”. Ireland lost one quarter of its population to the shortage of food and the unwillingness of the British government to provide public relief. About one million Irish died of starvation and disease between 1845 and 1851. Another million, the youngest and strongest, emigrated to America, Britain and Australia where, like new immigrant populations before and after them, they faced discrimination in jobs and housing.**

*Hmmm. Imaginary Blog Posts–it has a certain ring doesn’t it?

**Interestingly, the middle class German radicals who fled to the United States after the revolutions of 1848 enjoyed a warmer welcome.

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