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...