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.
This content uses functionality that is not supported by your current browser. Consider upgrading your browser.
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?