The potato is a tuberous vegetable that is native to the Andes of South America. Following the Spanish exploration and exploitation of the South American Indians, the potato was introduced to Europe where it had a profound, beneficial effect on diets of Europeans from Ireland well into Russia. It grew well all over Western Europe and Eurasia. A population explosion followed and continued well into the 19th century. The potato grew prolifically in Ireland and was a product grown on every Irish farm. With few exceptions, however, the Irish farmers were tenant farmers and had no rights on the land they farmed. If they grew wheat, barley oats, or raised cattle on their land, that produce was taken by the absentee landlords, most of whom lived in England and placed on English ships for export. The British Empire was maintained by so-called English beef, English wheat and barley, and English pork, all of which was produced in Ireland.
The Irish were considered too stupid to grow anything but the potato, and were barred from planting anything else. Their nutritional status was high because potato skins could be fed to hogs, one or two of which could be kept by a household, as well as chickens. If a farmer was fortunate enough to have a milk cow, their diet, based on the potato was highly nutritious. However, potatoes have predators. One of them is a fungus, the potato blight, which will destroy the entire potato plant from above ground leaves to tubers below the ground. At some point in the mid-1840s, one ship sailing from South America introduced potato fungal spores into Ireland. The result was absolutely catastrophic, with every Irish farm infected with the blight by 1846. With their primary food source cut off, the Irish began starving by the millions. Exports of Irish produce (so-called “English beef”) continued unabated throughout the (‘so-called famine’) Án Gorta Mór. All over Ireland, the odors of dead potatoes and starving, dead people permeated the countryside.
The potato blight did not just affect Ireland, but extended its reach all across Europe. Potato crops failed in France, Germany, Poland, and Russia but those countries stopped exporting food so they could feed their own people. No such thing happened in Ireland. It took weeks or months during 1846 for the news of the ghastly condition of the Irish people to reach the United States and other countries. In the states, the Quakers and wealthy Jews from New York collected money and shipped vast numbers of food to the starving Irish. The ships were stopped when they entered Irish ports and were required to be offloaded into English ships, which ended up distributing the food to horses owned by the British Army.
English authorities claim the population of Ireland was 8 million at the time of An Gorta Mór. A number of Irish writers have claimed that the population of Ireland was 11 million. If that was the case, over 5 million people in Ireland starved to death, cutting their population almost in half.
With few exceptions, the response of English society was one of denial and ridicule. Most people in England viewed it as a superb opportunity to cleanse Ireland of their poor, ignorant tenant farmers. Absentee landlords stepped forward with offer to pay passage to any starving Irish who were willing to emigrate. The ordeal aboard the ships that carried them to the United States were horrendous. The passengers were emaciated, filthy, near death and lice-ridden. Many ships were lost at sea, and the mortality rate aboard the ships reached 20% of all Irish emigrants. Deaths were so common onboard that the dead were thrown overboard without so much as a word of prayer or comfort said over them.
When they arrived in the States, the exploitation continued as soon as these poor souls stepped off the ships, promised room and board, alcohol and whatever few belongings they had left were stolen. But survive they did. The Irish went on to dominate politics all over the country, perhaps as a result of their gregariousness and wit. They became masters of the English language.
Featured Image | The Bridge of Tears (Droichead na nDeor) in West Donegal. Family and friends of emigrants would accompany them as far as the bridge before saying goodbye, while the emigrants would continue on to Derry Port