The Irish Potato Famine: Could thousands have been saved?

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1. Introduction

In the autumn of 1845 a sweet, sickly smell hung over Ireland’s potato fields. Potato blight, a fungal disease unknown to scientists, had invaded the country. Famine was the result. It engulfed Ireland from 1845 to 1850. Over a million people died of starvation and disease.

The reverberations were felt in Britain, North America and Australia as thousands fled for their lives. The island's population fell by a quarter in five years.

The Irish potato famine is a catastrophe that has never been forgotten, a pivotal point in the destiny of modern Ireland. But did a single person have to die on an island that was part of the United Kingdom?

2. From crop failure to mass starvation

The deadly potato blight invaded Ireland via imported seed potatoes. It fell on a society uniquely vulnerable to the loss of this single crop – about half the population depended on the potato for survival.

Ireland was England's breadbasket, producing vast quantities of grain for export through the backbreaking work of armies of potato-fed labourers. Ironically, the Irish poor were better nourished than the masses in other European countries because a potato-based diet is so rich in vitamins. Then, on 22 October 1845, a Belfast newspaper made this prediction: "The failure of the potato crop is confirmed. The Irish peasantry rely almost exclusively upon potatoes for their subsistence; they have nothing to fall back upon but grass, nettles and seaweed."

3. So much food, so few options

Ireland was rich in natural and farmed resources. So when the potato crop failed, why not just eat something else? Click on the image below and start exploring your options.

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As a poor tenant or labourer you wouldn’t have owned the fields you worked in. A minority of landlord families had that privilege. Many of these, especially those from the English nobility, never set foot on their Irish estates and sublet to local middlemen. You grew potatoes to feed yourself, and grain for the landlord to sell. When the potato crop failed, you couldn’t simply decide to diversify and grow another crop.

4. Too little, too late

It was two years into the disaster before the government set up free soup kitchens, but by then thousands had died of starvation and disease.

In 1847 ordinary British people responded to Queen Victoria's appeal for charity, and a national fast raised money for Ireland. The United States Navy carried American supplies to Cork. The Pope lent his voice and even the sultan of Turkey contributed. But as the famine ground on, many in Britain’s political élite and middle classes accused the Irish of bringing it on themselves through laziness and overpopulation. An economic downturn in Britain, political unrest in Ireland, and the arrival of hordes of famine refugees at British ports cemented the view that Ireland should be left to sort herself out.

5. What should have been done?

In June 1997 Tony Blair said of the famine: "Those who governed in London at the time failed their people." But what steps could the politicians have taken?

Feeding the destitute

In any food emergency, getting rations to those in need is a priority. This happened belatedly in summer 1847 when the government set up soup kitchens.

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Feeding the destitute

The closing of soup kitchens in autumn 1847 forced the poor into fever-ridden workhouses. Funding to keep them going would have made a major difference.

Giving free medical care

This is the most important factor in saving lives in modern famines, but from autumn 1847 underfunded workhouse hospitals could not cope with typhus epidemics.

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Giving free medical care

Even with the limited medical knowledge of the time, shelter and food in hospitals might well have kept many alive.

Assisting emigration

Only a few thousand people were helped to emigrate by the state or landlords. The majority had to find their own way out, many on overcrowded 'coffin ships'.

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Assisting emigration

Assisted emigration, if linked to employment and land distribution schemes in Canada and Australia, may have helped emigrants and their families back home.

Planning public works

Ireland required major development in railway construction and land drainage. Yet in 1846-47 people were employed in building useless roads that led nowhere.

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Planning public works

Public works on railways and drainage would have helped Ireland repay debts and employ people in future, while giving the needy meaningful work at decent wages.