It often seems amazing that a culture could have become so dependent on one crop that when it fails millions die, but in the case of the Irish potato famine there were simple and clear reasons for it, as Emily explains.
by Emily Beyda on August 17, 2012
The Irish potato famine is one of the most well known and lamentably preventable food tragedies in modern history. During the shockingly brief span of time between 1845, when the famine began, and 1852, when it finally came to an end, over one million Irish citizens died, and a million more fled the island to immigrate to foreign lands, notably America. By the end of the famine, Ireland’s total population had dropped dramatically by between twenty and twenty-five percent, changing Ireland, and the rest of the world, forever.
The cause of the famine was a fungus commonly called potato blight, which ravaged potato crops throughout Europe and the UK in the 1840s. But nowhere was the blight’s impact as devastating as Ireland, where the potato wasn’t just one agricultural product among many, it was the very bedrock of the national cuisine, a staple that provided the bulk of nutrients consumed by vast numbers of rural and lower class Irish families. While the fungus that destroyed kitchen gardens and fields across Ireland was deadly enough, it was an unfortunate confluence of massive rates of poverty and circumstantially enforced monoculture that conspired to make the potato blight so utterly devastating.
European explorers first stumbled across the potato in the mountains of the New World, where it was widely cultivated in every imaginable form, from buttery and knobbed little fingerlings, to enormous floury potatoes the size of small boulders, and even the sweet red, orange, and purple spuds the natives used to make celebratory cakes and puddings. When they returned to Europe, their ships were laden with all sorts of spoils from the land they had “discovered,” including clippings and seeds from exotic vegetation like the potato.
Back home, European natives were stunned by this strange new vegetable, which had formed a staple of the diet of native South Americans, and could be grown with very little effort on even the slimmest and least promising sliver of craggy mountain land. At first, the potato was introduced in Ireland and other European countries as a luxury crop, a fashionable New World novelty akin to the eggplant or tomato, mostly found in botanical gardens and the greenhouses of the upper class. But gradually, the potato began to enter the mainstream of the Irish diet. At first, in the early 1800s, it was a supplement to the more extensively eaten staples of milk, meat, and grain, served as a side dish or used to bulk up more expensive ingredients. By the early 1800s, the potato’s popularity had expanded wildly, as it became the basis of the diet of most rural families, as well as a large number of their urban counterparts.
The primary reason that potatoes became so successful with rural Irish families was the existence of the cotter system, under which poor Irish families were given one room cottages with small, rocky plots in exchange for a year’s work on some wealthy lord’s estate, usually spending their days raising animals like sheep or cows for export to England. Prior to the introduction of the potato, tenant farmers would frequently struggle to feed themselves. It was difficult, if not impossible, to grow enough grain to sustain a large catholic family on the single acre of rocky garden the average landlord provided his tenants with, a difficulty compounded when the able bodied men needed for the considerable work of growing grain would be working their landlord’s pastures during every available daylight hour. Additionally, grain was difficult to store through the winter months, often growing moldy or attracting fungal growths and weevils in the damp cellars where cotters stored their crops. And during the winter, when meat was prohibitively expensive, and fresh fruits and vegetables were difficult, if not impossible, to come by, many families suffered from malnutrition, and an imbalanced intake of vitamins and minerals.
So initially, the introduction of the potato to rural Ireland must have felt like an unexpected miracle, an answer to the prayers of legions of mothers longing to fill their children’s hungry bellies. Raising wheat and other staple grains required cotters to buy large quantities of expensive seeds, often going into debt to be able to afford to sow their fields. But even the oldest, most unassuming potato could produce enough sprouts to grow a good amount of new plants. Grains required good soil, watering, tilling, and constant labor to keep them healthy, but potatoes could simply be buried in a good size pit and left to fend for themselves, dug up whenever the family was ready to eat them. Potatoes would thrive happily on even the most barren and rocky corner of land a parsimonious landlord could offer. They would keep for a good amount of time in storage, ensuring that families were reliably fed throughout the winter, and, most importantly, they were far more nutritionally complete than grain alone.
While today we consider the potato to be the ultimate junk food vegetable, the basis of greasy fries, buttery mash, and cheesy gratins, compared to the other types of food a poor Irish farmer in the 1800s would have had access to they were practically manna from the gods. Potatoes are surprisingly healthy when eaten as the cotters prepared them, largely boiled or baked instead of fried. They are high in fiber, as well as a number of essential vitamins like potassium and vitamin C. Irish farmers traditionally ate their potatoes baked in the coals of their hearth, or in traditional dishes like colcannon, a cabbage and potato mash that was quick and inexpensive to make, as well as delicious, providing them with a hearty, reliable, and delicious source of nutritional bounty.
Cheap and easy to grow, delicious, and calorically dense, for a time the potato seemed to be the culinary miracle the poor of Ireland needed. Of course, there were occasional outbreaks of fungus or blight within the crops of individual farmers, but all crops had their diseases, after all, and the charitable help of neighbors and the community could usually be counted upon to get landholders back on their feet. Then, quite suddenly, in the autumn of 1844, something unthinkable happened. Cotters across Ireland began digging up crop after crop to find that their potatoes had mysteriously rotted away in the ground. It wasn’t just individual families that suffered. The blight spread like wildfire throughout neighborhoods, skipping disastrously from village to village until the whole country was suffering, leaving behind blackened and rotting crops unfit even for animal consumption. The cause was mysterious, and a cure seemed impossible to find.
By 1845, the whole of Ireland was suffering, the blight having destroyed over one third of the island’s total crops. By 1846, three quarters of the national crop was annihilated. With over three million Irish families dependent on the potato harvest for their health and wellbeing, famine was unavoidable. For the next decade, Ireland would suffer the deadly consequences of an Gorta Mor, the great hunger.
The Irish potato famine is a powerful example of the dangers of monoculture. Because of their societally enforced over reliance on a single, vulnerable, crop, the Irish poor endured a terrible crisis that changed the demographics of at least two modern countries, Ireland and America, forever. In a time when more and more farmers around the world are abandoning the traditional agricultural practices of their commuinities in order to grow more profitable monocultural crops for export, it would be wise of us to remember the hard earned lessons of the famine.