In 1845, Ireland’s potato
crop was devastated by an unknown disease. The resulting food
shortage would spiral into a human
rights disaster that lasted years and
took the lives of over one million people. Fearing their
homeland would never recover from what
was being called the Great Hunger, millions
of Irish immigrants fled to the United States. It forever changed both
countries and the whole world. Today, we’re going to lay out
a timeline of the Potato Famine that changed Ireland forever. But before we get started,
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let us know what topics you would like to hear about. OK. So let’s see how
it all went down. Although the two are
frequently associated, potatoes are not
native to Ireland. And you might be
surprised to learn that it wasn’t until 1589 that
Sir Walter Raleigh introduced the potato to the Irish. It was unpopular at first,
but farmers and botanists eventually managed to
breed a species that was heartier and more nutritious
and tasted a lot better. The Irish eventually embraced
these modified potatoes and they became
especially popular in impoverished communities. Over the centuries, Ireland
became increasingly dependent on the pomme de
terre, a fact that would put them on the brink of
disaster by the 19th century. In 1844, across the world,
in Toluca Valley, Mexico, a new fungus emerged and began
infecting potato crops still in the ground,
rendering them inedible. This blight, which would come
to be called phytophthora infestans, or P
infestans, quickly spread throughout the
North American continent. Entire potato
harvests were ruined. But Americans bred a wide
variety of diverse crops. So they weren’t
impacted as badly as the Irish would be in
1845, when the blight arrived on their shores. Blights had happened
in Ireland before. Those previous experiences
cost scientists to initially misidentify
the cause of the crop failure as an overly
damp summer season, a not uncommon condition
they called wet rot. When crops all across Europe
began to similarly fail, it became apparent that
something much more serious was going on. Scientists issued warnings. But just like in every disaster
movie you’ve ever seen, those warnings were
promptly ignored. When the crops first
failed, those reports were also ignored. In fact, rather than
take decisive action to alleviate the problem, then
prime minister Robert Peel instead warned his
cabinet that the Irish were prone to exaggerating. The British government
would remain skeptical about the crisis, even much
later when people perishing by the hundreds of thousands. Once Robert Peel did
decide to take some action, he immediately ran
into a problem. Fighting the famine
would require importing large quantities
of American grain. However, imports were
heavily restricted by a body of legislation
known as Corn Laws. The prime minister
attempted to repeal the law. But isolationist elements in the
Whig party blocked his efforts. In early 1846, as the
first reports of casualties were being recorded, Peel
created a public works program with the purpose of giving
impoverished Irish citizens a chance to find employment,
so they could buy food. Unfortunately, the program
would be short lived. Peel lost the next election to
a Whig lord named John Russell. Lord Russell had
very different ideas about how Ireland’s problems
should be dealt with. The newly elected prime minister
entrusted the Irish relief efforts to a man who
would go on to become one of the most despised
and controversial figures in the history of Ireland,
Charles Trevelyan. Trevelyan had served as
the Assistant Secretary to the Treasury for
years under Peel. However, his personal
views were much closer to those of Lord Russell. Both men subscribed to the then
fashionable economic theory of laissez faire economics. That is they believed the free
market would sort the problem out, so long as the
government didn’t interfere, which some might consider
a surprising outlook for the person in charge of
leading government relief efforts. Even worse, Trevelyan
was straight up intolerant of
the Irish people. “The judgment of God
sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson. That calamity must not
be too much mitigated. The real evil with
which we have to contend is not the physical
evil of the famine, but the moral evil
of the selfish, perverse, and turbulent
character of the people.” From here, things only
got worse for the Irish. As if things weren’t
bleak enough already, the crop of 1846 failed just
as the previous one had. With no increased response
from the British government, the situation became desperate. A land agent traveling
Ireland at the time wrote, “the leaves of the
potatoes on many fields I passed were quite withered
and a strange stench, such as I had never smelt
before, but which became a well-known
feature, for years after, filled the atmosphere adjoining
each field of potatoes. The crop of all crops, on
which they depended for food, had suddenly melted away.” The few meager relief
programs were overwhelmed by millions of applicants. Evictions soared and a
cold winter was on the way. One of the few organizations
that did try and bring some measure of
relief to Ireland was the Society of Friends,
also known as the Quakers. The Quakers acted much
as today’s Salvation Army does, soliciting donations
from the wealthy and collecting clothing for the poor. After about a year,
when it became apparent how long the famine
would last, the Quakers found their donations
were drying up. They considered their operation
a failure at the time. But history would
vindicate their efforts, as thousands of people survived
thanks to their program. Nonetheless, by this
point, government neglect had left the problem too big
for a charity to deal with. So you’re probably
asking yourself, if growing different
crops mitigated the effects of the potato
blight in the Americas, why didn’t the Irish just
grow different crops? In fact, Ireland
was successfully producing all sorts
of other grain crops, along with meat and dairy. So how could the
people be starving? The landowner sold those other
crops to people in Britain. Almost none were ultimately
consumed in Ireland. As one politician
said of the situation, “the circumstances which
appeared most aggravating was that the people were
starving in the midst of plenty and that every tide carried
from the Irish ports corn sufficient for the
maintenance of thousands of the Irish people.” By 1847, the situation in
Ireland had become a nightmare. After visiting the rural
Western town of Skibbereen and neighboring Bridgetown,
London News journalist James Mahoney wrote, “not a
single house out of 500 could boast of being free
from hunger and fever, though several could be pointed
out with the lifeless lying close to the living for
the space of three or four, even six days without
any effort being made to remove the bodies
to a last resting place.” In yet another town
he witnessed, “a woman carrying in her arms the
lifeless body of a fine child and making the most distressing
appeal to the passengers for aid to enable her
to purchase a coffin and bury her dear little baby. This horrible
spectacle induced me to make some inquiry
about her, when I learned from the
people of the hotel that each day brings dozens of
such applicants into the town.” Peel’s public works
program didn’t fare well under the administration
of Charles Trevelyan. Workers would put in long
days for insufficient pay. Then, in March of
1847, Trevelyan ended the program entirely. He opted instead for a
system of soup kitchens that would simply
distribute food for free. Unfortunately, the
British government refused to meaningfully
back the program and the kitchens quickly
found themselves overwhelmed. Reports indicate
that, in some cases, a single kitchen would be
responsible for the impossible task of feeding 10,000 people. Exacerbating the
problem was the fact that the soup itself
was a watery paste, made from corn meal and rice and
it was served in portions too small for even a child. Needless to say, the
hunger grew worse. And the year 1847 got so bad,
it would become forever known as Black ’47. Things were bad. And many could not even
pay their own rent. Landlords who knew they could
use their valuable real estate to raise livestock
or profitable crops were eager to evict tenants. More chillingly,
some landlords were so eager to get rid
of their tenants, they would offer to pay for
their passage to America. The impoverished
tenants would then be placed on ships that
were overcrowded and rife with ailments, like
dysentery, typhus, and all manner of
infectious disease. These vessels quickly earned
the name Coffin Ships. When the Coffin Ships
reached their destinations, they would drop off
the sick passengers to perish on the streets
of the new world. The landlords never had to
worry about recriminations or consequences of any kind,
since their victims were unable to return to Ireland
and seek restitution. For the most desperate
people, there was always the option to
check into a public workhouse. Though they had existed in
Ireland since the 1830s, the workhouses were
ill-equipped to deal with the numbers of impoverished
people created by the famine. Most were overcrowded,
cruel, prison-like places that separated families,
imposed draconian rules, and spread disease
among its population. It is said that the
workhouses were so bad, many people literally preferred
going to prison instead. Inspired by uprisings in Paris,
Irish nationalist sentiment began to take root. While the famine dragged
on, an independence movement that called itself
the Young Irelanders, spread throughout the country. Led by a politician named
William Smith O’Brien, the Young Irelanders built their
followers from the starving masses and preached rebellion. In July of 1848, the group
exchanged fire with the police and were quickly dispersed. While they didn’t really
make much of a difference at the time, the movement
created crucial links between figures who
would go on to play important roles in the
fight for Irish independence later in the century. That great hunger lasted years. And the British government
never changed its policies. So what finally ended it? Well, the Irish did improve
the crop yields over time and their economy
did slowly adapt. But the real answer
is far grimmer. The game changer was the
significantly decreased population. So many had died or
emigrated by 1852 that the food supply
became adequate again. To underscore this point. In 1841, the
population of Ireland was about 8 million people. 10 years later, that
number sank to 6.5 million. By the end of the century, 1.5
million perished, 2 million had fled, and the
population of Ireland had dwindled to a mere
4.5 million people. In the year 1853, 43% of all
immigrants to the United States were Irish. With significant
religious differences between the mostly
Catholic Irish and the mostly
Protestant Americans, the new arrivals were faced
with legal oppression, economic hostility, and
widespread anti-Irish sentiment. Famously, job ads
at the time often included the warning,
“No Irish Need Apply.” It would take
decades for the Irish to overcome this
initial resistance. But in time, they
integrated themselves into all aspects
of American life. Today, Irish people are
accepted as important parts of American culture. In 1999, Prime
Minister Tony Blair acknowledged Great Britain’s
role in the great famine and apologized to
the Irish people, writing, “the famine was a
defining event in the history of Ireland and Britain. It has left deep scars. That one million
people should’ve perished in what was then
part of the richest and most powerful nation in the world
is something that still causes pain as we reflect on it today. Those who governed in London at
the time failed their people.” So what do you think about
the plight of the Irish? Let us know in the
comments below. And while you’re at it, check
out some of these other videos from our Weird History.