The Irish Potato Famine Essay

This essay has a total of 1442 words and 7 pages.


The Irish Potato Famine





The Irish Potato Famine

Around 1600 A.D. the potato was introduced in Ireland. Because of the high nutrients and
ease to grow the crop it was almost instantly adopted by the people, especially by the
peasants. With the high nutrient value of the crop, general health increased greatly.
Because of better health, the birthrate increased and the death rate decreased making the
population from 1600 A.D. to the time of the famine increase by about six million people.1

The population grew because of this wonderful food that had been brought from the New
World. People lived longer and healthier lives. Another factor in the population
increase was the ability to harvest large amounts of potatoes in smaller areas with less
farm work involved. This allowed more people to marry and raise new families which would
have otherwise not have occurred; before these people would have stayed at home and worked
on the farm to make it possible for the members of their family to eat and survive.

In the fall of 1845, the potato crop of Ireland was almost completely ruined because of
the potato blight. For over two hundred years the people of Ireland were almost
completely dependent on the potato. This blight caused two winters of hunger, because the
next year the crop failed again. Because the potato failed the entire life of an Irishman
changed forever socially and economically.

With the high dependence on potatoes by the Irish, farms were divided up into one and two
acre plots among people. Almost one half of the Irish population was living on these
plots. Generally people only owned enough land to cultivate their share of potatoes. The
people who lived in these small plots of land depended entirely on the potato to keep them
alive. When the crop failed they had no other alternatives or anything to fall back on so
that they may continue life as it was. When the blight hit, the people weren’t able to
support themselves or pay their rent to the landlords.

With the introduction of the potato, the people of Ireland were doing well as far as
survival but in the fall of 1845 disaster stuck. When the fungus, Phytophthora infestons,
had run its course at least 1 1/2 million, possibly as many as 2 million, Irish had died
and another 1 1/2 million had emigrated out of Ireland.2

The potato failure of the mid to late 1840's has been variably referred to as “The Great
Hunger”, “The Great Famine” and “The Great Starvation.” One's choice of words to describe
this colossal human tragedy is often determined by political ideology or personal agenda.
Irish landowners referred to the time period as that of "The Great Hunger." Most of these
landowners were absent and did not experience first hand the ravages of the potato blight.
They, unlike their tenants, were not dependent on the potato for their survival. While
potatoes rotted in the fields, landowners continued to eat a varied diet.

The British call it “The Great Famine.” The scarcity of food was blamed on the weather,
the potato fungus and, perhaps, most of all on the notion of overpopulation. The Irish had
over bred and there wasn't enough food to feed them all due to the crop failure. However,
as Frank O'Connor once observed, “Famine is a useful word when you do not wish to use
words like ‘genocide’ and ‘extermination.’”3

Later it was referred to as “The Great Starvation,” which is a more realistic way to refer
to the time period when Irish peasants starved. Barley, butter, eggs, oats, wheat, beef
and pork were exported from Ireland in large quantities during the famine. In fact, eight
ships left Ireland daily carrying these products. Starvation among the peasants is blamed
on a colonial system that made them dependent on the potato to begin with. Racist
insensitivity toward the troubles of the starving also played a major role in the death
and large-scale emigration which marked this time. The British failed to take swift and
comprehensive action in the force of Ireland's disaster.

In recent years there has been an effort among Tory revisionists to soften the upset of
the period and downgrade the role of the British. This is very evident in the tendency to
reduce the estimates of the number of deaths related to the starvation. Most of these
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