“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 in 1845. 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 its 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. 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. 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.

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.

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. By 1848 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.