To this day, all over Ireland the landscape bears mute testimony to the events that occurred in the horrific period from 1845–1850. Starvation graveyards offer silent tribute to the millions of Irish men, women, and children buried in unmarked mass graves. Thriving villages were replaced by heaps of moss-covered stones. Although historians have not agreed on the numbers who perished, most estimates range between one and three million.
The Great Hunger began in September 1845 as leaves on potato plants suddenly turned black and curled, then rotted, seemingly the result of a fog that had wafted across the fields of Ireland. Phytophthora infestans, the fungus that invades the potato plant and causes its rapid decay, struck for the first time in the eastern United States in the summer of 1843. The invisible fungus spores were transported to Belgium in a cargo of apparently healthy potatoes, and in the summer of 1845 the fungus revived and reproduced, devastating the potato crop in Flanders, Normandy, Holland and southern England. By August of 1845 the blight was recorded at the Dublin Botanical Gardens, and a week later, a total failure of the crop was reported in Co Fermanagh.
Winds from southern England carried the fungus to the countryside around Dublin. The blight spread throughout the fields as fungal spores settled on the leaves of healthy potato plants, multiplied and were carried in the millions by cool breezes to surrounding plants. Under ideal moist conditions, a single infected potato plant could infect thousands more in just a few days.
The term “famine” often used to describe the lack of food leading to this desolation, is completely erroneous. Although it is certainly true that the fungus eliminated the potato as a food source, it is also true that only one crop failed. While her people cruelly suffered, Ireland was producing more than enough food to feed them, but food was being removed at gunpoint by Queen Victoria’s troops garrisoned in Ireland for this purpose. In 1847 alone, 4,000 ships carrying £17,000,000 worth of provisions, 10,000 head of cattle and 4,000 horses sailed to England. That same year, etched in memory as “Black 47,” saw 500,000 Irish people die of starvation and related diseases.
The Great Hunger in Ireland led to the greatest loss of life in western Europe in the 100 years between the Napoleonic Wars and World War I. Whole families and villages fell to starvation and accompanying diseases. Cholera, deadly fevers, dysentery, scurvy and typhus swept the population. People died in such great numbers that it was impossible to record all the deaths or to make enough coffins for burials.” Trap coffins,” which were made with a trap door in the bottom, were used for the trip to the cemetery. Once there, the coffin was placed over the grave and the trap door opened to drop the body into it, leaving the coffin ready for the next victim.
Tenants who were unable to pay the landlords found themselves evicted and their homes destroyed, so that they had no shelter as well as no food. The homeless, evicted from their small plots, died along the roadsides. Those arrested for taking food for their starving families could find themselves bound in chains on prison ships to Australia.
British government relief efforts were largely limited to establishing soup kitchens, poorhouses, and public works projects, which failed because they were too few and poorly managed. The main voluntary attempts to deal with the crisis, especially in the west of Ireland, were undertaken by The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) whose organisers included William E. Foster and James Tuke. Philadelphia merchant, John Wanamaker, headed the Relief Committee and also contributed to the Friends’ effort from this country. Eight ships filled with provisions sailed from Philadelphia. Others who contributed to the relief efforts included the Choctaw Indian Nation and The Society of the Friendly Sons of Saint Patrick of Philadelphia.
Gone were the laughter of children at play, the cheerful greetings as one neighbor met another: “The famine silence, as it came to be called, seized the imagination of visitors and gave them a deeper feeling of the country’s devastation than anything else they encountered,” wrote Thomas Gallagher, author of Paddy’s Lament. “It was,” he continued,” as if the entire country had become an open tomb, with voiceless specters moving about under a shattered sky whose thunder and rain alone made any sound.”