Common Myths About The Great Irish Potato Famine

Posted on 13 Jan 2015 00:24

During the time periods we have written records for, there have been around 50 major famines. Probably, the one major famine that most people are familiar with, at least from grade school history, is the Great Irish Famine, otherwise known as the Potato Famine. As usual, most of us Americans grew up with a truncated and largely inaccurate version of this devastating famine. Here are the major myths we were taught, and the truth behind them.

The Irish Planted Only Potatoes

This is basically the "smoking gun" part of the Irish famine. The Irish, we were taught, in the 1800's, were so enthusiastic about potatoes, and so silly, that they planted nothing but potatoes and ate a diet almost exclusively of potatoes. Then beginning in 1845 and extending to 1849, the potato crop failed due to disease, and millions of Irish people starved.

This is an absolutely inaccurate, and quite insulting version of the history. Did most of the Irish poor have to subsist almost entirely on potatoes? Yes. Was this because they were so shortsighted as to plant nothing but potatoes? No. What a ridiculous notion.

Truth: The Irish Fed the English

Instead, due to the system of land ownership in Irish, that had evolved over 200 years, much of the land was owned by wealthy landowners, many of which didn't even live in Ireland, but in England. Large tracts of land were subdivided again and again into layers of small land plots, through a rental system. The wealthy landowners would rent parts of their land to middlemen who would in turn parcel up this land into even smaller plots to rent to either peasants or land managers, who might then rent to individual poor farmers. In fact, a huge tract of land, owned by one wealthy person, might be divided up into five different layers.

Even so, not all farmers were poor. Some were wealthy enough to have weathered the famine, being land owners themselves.

This land was used to plant grain and other crops, or to raise cattle. These crops were exported to the mainland, as wealth to the wealthy landowners. About the only crop that wasn't exported to feed the mainland was the potato, on which the poor people of Ireland were more or less forced to subsist. An observer of the time, in 1846, wrote the following in a letter to the Primer Minister:

For 46 years the people of Ireland have been feeding those of England with the choicest produce of their agriculture and pasture; and while they thus exported their wheat and their beef in profusion, their own food became gradually deteriorated…until the mass of the peasantry was exclusively thrown on the potato.

It was impoverishment under British rule that caused so many Irish to be dependent on potatoes, not a silly decision to plant nothing but potatoes. A poor Irish family might have had as little as one-quarter acre of land on which to grow crops for export, raise a pig, and grow enough potatoes to keep from starving.

They Had No Warning

The time that the Irish called the Gorta Mor, "the great hunger," or Droch Shaol, "the bad times," began around October of 1845. Many people recount the beginning of the blight as if the farmers went out to dig their potatoes one day and to their great dismay, they found only black and rotten potatoes. They had no warning!

The blight that struck the potato crap was a fungal infection called phytopthora infastans. This same blight had already appeared in the United States in 1843 and then had affected central Europe during the spring of 1845. It appeared in Belgium, France, Germany, Switzerland, and England, before moving on to Ireland and Scotland.

The first signs of the disease were black spots on the upper leaves of the plant and a whitish mold growth underneath. The potatoes themselves may have looked fine when dug up, but they quickly rotted to a mushy mess. The fungus was flourishing because of mild damp weather. In fact, some experts thought it to be a type of 'wet rot.'

Instead, the fungal spores were being carried by insects and wind, and the mild conditions and damp soils helped it to take hold on the crops. The earliest crop, in August, however, seemed to be fine and it was thought that perhaps Ireland would be spared the blight. But the October harvest was badly affected and up to half of the crop was lost. It was not that Ireland was the sole recipient of the blight or had no clue it was coming. There was just not much that could be done about it, and unlike in Europe or the United states, the potato crop failure was devastating.

With such a blight, the idea that the plants would have looked fine, and the potatoes would be rotten under the ground, is erroneous. Instead, the plants themselves would be seen to wither and decay even before the disease reached the tubers underneath. A potato patch would have, before long, been reduced to a rotting, stinking mess.

The winter was hard and many went hungry, while some even starved. If you think the poor farmers had it bad, they, at least, had a plot of land to farm. Some were laborers only, almost sure to starve.

Hoping the next year would find the potato crop rebounding, the farmers were met with an even worse disaster. Not only had the disease stuck around, but pretty much the entire crop failed. The winters of 1846 to 1847 were horrible, with thousands starving. Thousands more immigrated to the United States or Canada. The crop failed again in 1847, and the winter to follow was even worse.

Truth: The Exports Didn't Stop

Of course, knowing that the people were starving and the potato crops were failing, the those foreign landowners, or their middleman landlords, let the farmers keep the other crops to see them through, right? Wrong. The exports, during all this devastation, continued for almost the entire period of famine. That's right. Hundreds of thousands of people were starving. But the country continued to export food to the mainland. The British government felt that the economy should be allowed to run as it always had, so as to not affect market forces. There was a "famine relief coordinator" named Charles Trevelyan, who seemed to be solely concerned with saving British taxpayers money, instead of, perhaps, supplying grain to the Irish to see them through. He said in a letter:

This is a real famine, in which thousands and thousands of people are likely to die….If the Irish once find out there are nay circumstances in which they can get free government grants, we shall have a system of mendicancy1 such as the world never saw.

It is estimated that one million or more people starved, or died due to complications of malnourishment. Even more, up to two million, migrated out of Ireland. The population in 1845 was around 8.5 million. By the end of the famine, it had reduced to only 4.5 million. It was only then that serious changes in the system of land management began to be made.

The hardest hit areas were the west and southwest of Ireland, such as Mayo, Sligo, Roscommon, Galway, Clare, and Cork, the poorest parts of the country which were the most dependent on subsistence farming.

The Irish Sat Around Starving While the Potatoes Rotted in the Ground

The idea that the poor of Ireland would have just thrown up their hands in despair and awaited their fate, is yet another insulting and inaccurate picture of the famine. First, as said, they continued planting for export. In the first year of the blight, for example, there was a good oats crop.

Second, it is not as if the land of Ireland had nothing to offer. First, the people did try to eat the diseased potatoes. But this made them extremely sick, resulting in gastrointestinal cramps, diarrhea, and even intestinal bleeding. Some people died from this. It is reported as well that some people tried to eat grass, but how accurate these reports are is questionable. Still, there were birds, eggs, shellfish and fish along the coast. Wild plants like nettles and chickweed could provide some nourishment. And the desperate could resort to rats or even worms. It is also said that the farmers would bleed their cattle and fry the blood. This detail, if it is true, should underscore the central truth here. Imagine having cattle to take care of while your family is starving.

The fact is that many died horrible deaths from starvation, but, as if often assumed, starvation is not the only cause of death during famines. Malnourishment can kill in other ways. This brings us to another myth:

Everyone Starved to Death During the Great Irish Famine

Not everyone who died during the famine starved to death. Some may have been extremely malnourished, but not actually starving. Extreme malnourishment weakens our bodies and our immune system, making us vulnerable to disease. Therefore, many died from diseases that their bodies could not fight due to their weakened condition. One of these diseases was Typhus, which the Irish called the black fever, due to the swollen and darkened faces of its victims.

The way the poor lived, huddled together in one room huts, along with their animals, made the disease spread rapidly. It was carried by lice, and so once someone in the household contracted Typhus, there was no way to stop its spread. It was also carried in the feces of the lice, which could be breathed in as dust from the air. Just coming into contact with an infected person could cause you to catch it. Typhus killed thousands of people a week during the height of the famine.

Then there was a fever called Yellow Fever, also spread by lice. It made its victims appear yellow due to jaundice, and caused a high fever for several days which would seem to go away, then come back with a vengeance around a week later, resulting in death. Dysentery was also common, as well as diseases of micronutrient deficiency such as scurvy, caused by a lack of Vitamin C.

Potatoes Barely Kept the Populace Alive

Along with the myth that nothing else was grown in Ireland but potatoes, came the myth that the potato was a terrible choice for a subsistence crop. The lowly potato is nothing but empty starch calories and was a horrible choice of food to subsist on. This is not true. The potato is, in fact, a good crop to pick if you want a good tradeoff between reliability and nutrition. And the potato, of course, was not the only source of food nutrients the poor of Ireland had access to, it was just the major staple crop of their diet.

As mentioned above, the Irish poor had been virtually forced into potato subsistence over a period of 200 years. Potatoes had been exported into the country during the late 1500's. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, about two-thirds of the population was dependent upon them. This dependence on potatoes was more prevalent in the west, but also occurred in the south and north. As the population grew, potatoes made a good choice of crop on subdivided land. Potatoes would grow in poor soil, and, despite the blight and some previous failures, were very reliable and highly nutritious.

The British Government Did Absolutely Nothing to Avert the Crisis

The truth is that the British government did next-to-nothing to prevent or avert the crisis. During previous crop failures the British government had imported corn into the country as a relief. During the shortages of 1782 to 1784, the Corn Law, as it was called, was temporarily suspended and efforts were made to import more oats and wheat. By the 1830's, attitudes towards the poor had changed and the poor were viewed harshly and the laws became more punitive. There had been a "Poor Law" in England since the time of Elizabeth I and a new version had been put in place in 1834. There was no such formal system in Ireland until 1838. This system prohibited any type of "outdoor" help, which meant there was to be no public relief, such as the handing out of food provisions to the public.

The Poor Law of 1838 had divided Ireland into 130 Poor Law Unions. Each of these had its own workhouse, which provided labor only. This was referred to as "indoor help" rather than the outdoor help which was frowned upon. These workhouses would provide work, at the cost of living away from the family.

At the time of the blight, the Prime Minister was Sir Robert Peel. He had actually lived in Ireland for six years as Chief Secretary for the Dublin Castle Executive. He had also been Home Secretary during the food shortage of 1822, in charge of relief efforts.

Peel did not take news of the coming blight very seriously. Although he did acknowledge that reports out of Ireland were 'becoming very alarming,' he thought that the reports were probably exaggerated, and that it would be better to hold off on any action.

Toward the end of October, Peel appointed a Scientific Commission to investigate the extent of the crop loss. The report of this commission confirmed that the crop failure was extremely serious. In fact, the commission said that the reports were actually under-playing the situation, rather than exaggerating it.

Peel decided to establish a Temporary Relief Commission, separate from the poor law. This commission would set up local committees which would hand out food to the poor, and establish a system of public works. In secret, Peel arranged for a large shipment of cheap Indian corn from America. It was thought that the full impact of the potato shortage wouldn't be felt until the next spring and summer, giving plenty of time to set up the relief efforts, and to have the Indian corn in place as replacement for the potatoes. Peel hoped the corn would help get the Irish poor off of potatoes, and that this would cause a decline in the systems of subdivision and conacre, described above, in which a small plot was put aside for growing potatoes, in exchange for labor (at other crops, etc.)

In a statement that typifies the attitude toward the Irish poor, head of the Relief Commission, Sir Randolph Routh, hoping that encourage the Irish away from potatoes would cause a positive change, said:

The little industry called for to rear the potato, and its prolific growth, leave the people to indolence and all kinds of vice, which habitual labour and a higher order of food would prevent. I think it very probable that we may derive much advantage from this present calamity.

The labor workhouses of the Poor Law were not used and the already in place administrative system of the Poor Law was not utilized, in favor of this temporary system. It was thought that the crisis would be temporary.

After the first year 'relief' corn was paid for by local funds, which were to be matched by the government. In areas where the land was owned by absentee or greedy landlords, this meant a financial burden was placed on the poor. Even so, the corn had to depend on the importers and their whims.

This "Indian corn" is not like the sweet corn we usually think of. The kernels are small, dry, and hard. In order to be consumed, they must be processed to make them edible. The local populace was not familiar with this system, and improperly prepared corn added to the gastrointestinal problems that were already present. What's more, this corn, nutritionally, was quite inferior to potatoes! In other words, there was little corn available, and what corn their was was hard to digest due to being improperly prepared. Even if it were properly prepared, it was a poor substitute.

After the first year of the blight, the government, nonetheless, congratulated themselves on how few deaths there had been. The fact was, though, that less of the crop had been lost than the reports of the Scientific Commission indicated, and there had been a good harvest in other areas, such as the aforementioned oats, so that at least people were able to pay their rents.

After the first year of the blight, when Peel was replaced, things only became worse, and the little corn there was was in even shorter supply. You can read much more of the history of the Irish Famine in the following books:

The Irish Famine: The Birth of Irish America by Tony Allan

The Great Irish Famine: Impact, Ideology and Rebellion by Christine Kinealy

1. Allan, Tony. The Irish Famine: The Birth of Irish America. Chicago: Heinemann Library, 2001.
2. Kinealy, Christine. The Great Irish Famine: Impact, Ideology, and Rebellion. Houndmills, Hampshire: Palgrave, 2002
3. Hackney, Ryan, and Amy Hackney Blackwell. The Myths, Legends, and Lore of Ireland: 101 Things You Didn't Know about the Emerald Isle. Avon, MA: Adams Media, 2011.
4. Pimentel, David. Encyclopedia of Pest Management. Boca Raton: CRC, 2007.

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