The Potato Famine

by frankbeswick

Ireland's potato famine of the 1840s was the product of a long history of bad agriculural practice caused by social neglect and oppression.

In the 1840s the potato famine ravaged not only Ireland , but extended to Scotland and England, though to a lesser extent than in Ireland. The blight quickly spread to Western Scotland and parts of England, but England was hit by the fact that the English poor were cursed by the iniquitous corn laws that seriously worsened the problem in England. But the disease was many years a-brewing, fomented in agricultural and economic deficiencies that went back centuries and had social, economic and agricultural roots.

Image courtesy of Hans

The Early Roots of the Problem.

We can go back to the Cromwellian interventions in Ireland. Strangely, seventeenth century Ireland was not republican, as it supported the monarchy in the English civil war, for the Irish have always tended to be of Catholic disposition and so rejected the Puritanism of the parliamentarians. Cromwell was not well pleased with the Irish and so when he wanted money to pay his war debts he got it from the Irish by raiding Ireland and confiscating land, which he re-allocated among his own supporters. It was then that he responded to the question of where the dispossessed Irish would go with the riposte, "To Hell or to Connaught."

Cromwell's coming changed the economic structure of much of Ireland. Prior to his arrival, the Irish were a tribal and pastoral people, who dwelt on their traditional clan lands and kept herds of cattle,sheep and pigs. There was some grain production and there were estates farmed like England, especially in the East, but potatoes were not commonly grown and were thought a rich man's food.The Ireland of small farms and cottages had not yet developed. The new estate owners parcelled the land into small units based around an individual cottage. 

But population grew and family lands were shared out, resulting in smaller and smaller farms, and even before the 1840s there was emigration, and by the 1740s there was a well-established Irish community in Lancashire, where the Irish worked on farms. But this did not prevent the government developing a congested lands scheme to deal with the problem that for the peasant economy that they had in Ireland lands were too crowded to be cultivated using the agricultural system that was extant there. The peasant economy of small farms was failing. This was especially the case in the West,where land is marginal and where farms were therefore unproductive. 

The problem was landlordism. Tenant farmers had to grow grain to sell for the money to pay their rent, which was in the 1840s sold to the English market.The corn laws drove the export of grain from Ireland. These iniquitous exactions  enacted that foreign corn could not be brought into Britain until the price of British corn reached eighty shillings [four pounds] a quarter, a massive price. The landowners, represented by the Conservative Party, which exists to foster the interests of the rich at the expense of the common folk, preserved these laws at the expense of grinding poverty and starvation across the country. So Irish corn was being exported to England while the Irish starved. However, the Irish could rely on potatoes. Until the famine! Eventually in 1846 the mass suffering caused the Conservative leader, Robert Peel, to abolish the corn laws, at the expense of his career as prime minister, and this alleviated to some extent the misery in Ireland.  



The Agricultural Problem

By the late eighteenth century agricultural thinkers had realized the importance of crop rotation, the principle of which is that you operate a three or fourfold succession of crops: potatoes, peas and beans, brassicas, onions and leeks, and maybe others in a longer rotation. This technique obviates the possibiity of the build up of plant diseases, which occur if the same crops are grown on land year after year.

But the Irish peasants were unable to rotate crops,  for their poverty forced them to grow  cash crops for the English market, but the crops were not high quality and the same were grown year after year on the same piece of land. This meant that plant diseases accumulated, and there was  a really nasty one, which to make matters worse was completely new to  science: Phytophthera infestans, a nasty fungus that ravaged certain varieties of potato. So not only did the Irish meet a problem that they had never previously met, but they were growing a variety of potato that was susceptible to blight, the Lumper. The Lumper was a large, poorly flavoured,  cheap variety which appealed to the cheapest end of the market, to people already short of corn and for whom the humble potato was a staple food. Moreover, it was the variety that was grown across the country,so when one person was hit, many were hit by the blight. 

Blight is technically known as late blight to distinguish it from early blight, which is less harmful. So the Irish spent much of summer expecting a decent crop and then when funds were low found that the crop   had rotted, leaving them financially devastated. Disaster! 

The trouble is that blight likes conditions when light is low from dull skies and the air damp with high humidity. Conditions like these prevailed for three years from 1845 to 1848, so not only did one year's crop fail, but three years failed, but the Conservative Government persisted in its defence of the corn laws to defend the landowners' interests until the bitter end in 1846 when conditions became so dire that some of them actually developed a conscience. 

At that time no one knew that the condition was caused by a fungus and that there were chemical treatments for the blight, one of which was the later developed Bordeaux mixture, which was based on copper, which is toxic to fungi. This ignorance gave rise to the misconception common among some Irish nationalists that the English had invented the disease to commit genocide against the Irish, which was never true, for they had not the technical or scientific skill to invent the disease.  


Claims that the English intended genocide in Ireland are misguided. The English were not of one mind on the matter and many were horrified by the famine and wanted it rectified. But there were and still are ardent free marketeers in the Conservative Party who thought that charity interfered with the free market and were thus content that the Irish starve to death.  The principle of free market economics is that the state should not interfere with the operation of the economy,a view based on past experiences of state failures in economic intervention, but also on ideological self-interest of capitalists who want as little intervention as possible to enable them to exact as much as they can from customers and workers. 

Yet their hypocrisy is astounding, for the corn laws were themselves a significant intervention in the free market, for enacting that no foreign corn could be imported until the price of British corn reached eighty shillings [four pounds] a quarter was state intervention of a serious degree. Furthermore, the laws led to hoarding. Grain  dealers held back corn until the  price rose and then released, creating a cycle of surplus and scarcity. This to the free marketeers was what the free market was about. 

They also opposed charity, but could not stop generous people from giving, and as Queen Victoria herself donated to the Irish cause the extreme free marketeers could do nothing. The Queen pleaded with her ministers to repeal the corn laws for the sake of the poor across the nation. Charitable giving was significant and not only from Britain, but even some Native Americans gave generously. 

Yet lurking behind the free marketeers was Malthusianism, the belief that population expands to the point at which people starve. Malthusians regarded famine as a means of population control, so Ireland, then with eight million people, was a test case for famine as a population control measure. The Malthusians positively welcomed famine as it brought down the numbers of the native Irish. Mixed in with this was the belief that the Irish were an inferior race, and Irish were often caricatured in cartoons as ape-like. This was even before the theory of evolution gave British racists another tool for downgrading their neighbours' humanity. 

But it is important to note that there were many British who did not subscribe to these ideas, wanted justice for the poor, be they Irish or British, and gave to alleviate the suffering across these isles. 





The spectre of famine  always lurks, and we must never think it a monster from a safely bygone past. Even though we now have a buffer between us and famine, the buffer can fall if conditions are serious enough. If and when famine occurs anywhere, the experience of the Irish potato famine should demand of us that we never let economic or political ideology stand in the way of charity and justice. We had a case recently when the Conservative politician, Edwina Curry, was on television decrying the provision of food banks, which are springing up in Conservative-run Britain to deal with the growing level of poverty and hunger. Apparently she thinks that they stop people buying food in the shops, despite the fact that people buy food in shops to contribute to the food bank. So the party that tried to preserve the corn laws is still with us. [Not every Conservative takes Curry's view, to be fair.] 

The relationships between Britain and Ireland have improved, thank goodness, but Brexit is straining them, as the campaigners for Britain's exit took no account of the problems that it would cause in Ireland, especially with the Northern Irish border, and now these problems are coming home to roost,for they are interfering with the possibility of the agreement of a new trade deal between Britian and the European Union. The right wing Conservatives behind Brexit casually dismissed the Irish, which shows that old attitudes to the Irish are not completely dead.  I wish that they were. 

We must never see the potato famine in nationalistic terms, for the suffering was spread among the poor across the British Isles, though the Irish suffered worst. We should see it in terms of economic structures which harm the poor, so any provision of future defences against famines, whatever the dearth and the cause, should aim not just for mere alleviation, but for structural reform. It is vitally important that we learn the lesssons from the past so that nothing like it happens again-anywhere,anytime.   


Updated: 11/27/2017, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick on 03/07/2020

Originally potatoes were a rich man's food and the Irish poor grew potentilla, silverweed. known in Gaelic as the seventh bread, until potatoes' potential for feeding the masses was recognised.

The potato famine affected England and Wales,as well, but not as badly as it did the subsistence farmers of Ireland and Scotland, including the islands.The famine contributed to the repeal of the corn laws, which kept British corn at an inflated price, four pounds a quarter ton before imported corn was allowed into the country, a capitalist policy that caused hunger and social unrest. These laws were repealed in 1848,as they were unjust and led to hoarding by unscrupulous dealers, a malpractice that caused rioting.

DerdriuMarriner on 03/07/2020

frankbeswick, Thank you for the photo, practicalities and product lines.
That's a haunting photo of Ireland with the boat perhaps ready for escape from harsh times and the darker landform in the middle seeming almost broodingly a huis clos (closed door) against the similar colors of the landforms center, left and right.
Might the potato have been considered rich man's food just because it was non-native or were there other reasons?
It seems that the potato famine affected Cornwall and Scotland. But what about England, the islands and Wales?

frankbeswick on 11/29/2017

Nightshades and potatoes belong to the Solanaceae family, as do tomatoes, so they are related.

blackspanielgallery on 11/28/2017

If I recall properly there was a resistance at first to potatoes due to a similarity in appearance to nightshades. So, there would have been prior crops, a well said point you have made.

frankbeswick on 11/28/2017

One sadly overlooked point is that prior to the cultivation of the potato the Irish [and Scots and Welsh] had grown silverweed [Potentilla anserina] known in Gaelic as the seventh bread, whose starchy root was a staple food. It is not susceptible to blight and would have fed the people. Parsnips, also, would have provided nourishment,for in England before the potato parsnip was used as a bulk vegetable as potatoes are now. You can even make parsnip chips that are just as good as potato chips. By the way, when British talk of chips we mean potatoes or other vegetables cut into this slices and fried, but not fully crisped.

dustytoes on 11/28/2017

I can't imagine how devastating it must have been to try to grow food for 3 years and have it all rot away. Such disasters must be lessons learned so it never happens again.

frankbeswick on 11/28/2017

Continental drift is an ongoing process, but the period of which you are thinking was over 200 million years ago. The geological foundation of Ireland was not a factor in the famine, as blight can occur anywhere the atmospheric conditions are suitable. Last year I suffered it on my plot, whose geological conditions are unlike those in most of Ireland, for my bedrock is New Red Sandstone overlain by alluvial deposits from the River Mersey, whereas the middle of Ireland is carbniferous limestone overlain by glacial deposits.

Farming in the West is difficult not because of the underlying geological structure [excepting for the far west where the rock is precambrian rock] but because of the bogginess of the soil and the general wet conditions. Boulder clay makes working the soil difficult in places.

Veronica on 11/28/2017

BSG The West of Ireland, which is largely our ancestral home apart from some ancestors from County Carlow, and also the south were the worst affected areas. All areas were affected in some way.

Ireland is very interesting geographically. Going back thousands of years, when we have the continental drifts, if you take a diagonal line from just north of Dublin down SW towards Limerick, the geological foundation is like that of the Caribbean, below that line the geological foundation is like that of South Pole! Farming can be difficult.

You make a good point about the mini Ice Age, There was also one in Tudor Times and lots of starvation then too.

blackspanielgallery on 11/27/2017

Well stated as the political history of the region goes, for we have little of this history here. I appreciate you sharing this. As another contributor, would you consider the Little Ice Age of significance? It continued until the 1870 period. There is a real possibility it was caused by the sun itself, for there was a prolonged period when sunspot activity ceased, a condition associated with cooling. And the industrial revolution may have added reflective particles to the air, causing more cooling. This went on from about 1300, and has been linked to such things as the black death. So cold did the planet get that the river Thames froze over in London. I suspect it played some role in the famine, and the politics exacerbated the situation gravely.
As with most things, there is often interaction of multiple contributions that add up to a real significant problem.
One quick , was the potato famine throughout Ireland, or restricted to the part under British control?

Veronica on 11/27/2017

An outstanding piece, well balanced and informative. Thank you.

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