Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Facts About The Great Irish Potato Famine

The Great Famine (aka: Irish Potato Famine, Great Irish Famine, or Famine of 1845–49) was a famine that occurred in Ireland in 1845–49 when the potato crop failed in successive years. The crop failures were caused by late blight, a disease that destroys both the leaves and the edible  roots, or tubers, of the potato plant. The causative agent of late blight is the water mold Phytophthora infestans. The Irish famine was the worst to occur in Europe in the 19th century.

Victims of the  Irish Potato Famine

In the early 19th century, Ireland’s tenant farmers as a class, especially in the west of Ireland, struggled both to provide for themselves and to supply the British market with cereal crops. Many farmers had long existed at virtually the subsistence level, given the small size of their allotments and the various hardships that the land presented for farming in some regions. The potato, which had become a staple crop in Ireland by the 18th century, was appealing in that it was a hardy, nutritious, and calorie-dense crop and relatively easy to grow in the Irish soil. By the early 1840s almost half the Irish population - but primarily the rural poor - had come to depend almost exclusively on the potato for their diet. The rest of the population also consumed it in large quantities. A heavy reliance on just one or two high-yielding types of potato greatly reduced the genetic variety that ordinarily prevents the decimation of an entire crop by disease, and thus the Irish became vulnerable to famine. In 1845 a strain of Phytophthora arrived accidentally from North America, and that same year Ireland had unusually cool moist weather, in which the blight thrived. Much of that year’s potato crop rotted in the fields. That partial crop failure was followed by more-devastating failures in 1846-49, as each year’s potato crop was almost completely ruined by the blight.

Victims of the  Irish Potato Famine

The British government’s efforts to relieve the famine were inadequate. Although  Conservative  Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel continued to allow the export of grain from Ireland to Great Britain, he did what he could to provide relief in 1845 and early 1846. He authorized the import of corn (maize) from the United States, which helped avert some starvation. Under the Liberal  (Whig) cabinet of Lord John Russell, which assumed power in June 1846, the emphasis shifted to reliance on Irish resources and the free market, which made disaster inevitable.

Sir Robert Peel

Lord John Russel

Much of the financial burden of providing for the starving Irish peasantry was thrown upon the Irish landowners themselves (through local poor relief) and British absentee landowners. Because the peasantry was unable to pay its rents, however, the landlords soon ran out of funds with which to support them, and the result was that hundreds of thousands of Irish tenant farmers and laborers were evicted during the years of the crisis. Under the terms of the harsh 1834 British Poor Law, enacted in 1838 in Ireland, the “able-bodied” indigent were sent to workhouses rather than being given famine relief per se. British assistance was limited to loans, helping to fund soup kitchens, and providing employment on road building and other public works. The Irish disliked the imported cornmeal, and reliance on it led to nutritional deficiencies. Despite those shortcomings, by August,1847, as many as three million people were receiving rations at soup kitchens. All in all, the British government spent about £8 million on relief, and some private relief funds were raised as well. The impoverished Irish peasantry, lacking the money to purchase the foods their farms produced, continued throughout the famine to export grain, meat, and other high-quality foods to Britain. The government’s grudging and ineffective measures to relieve the famine’s distress intensified the resentment of British rule among the Irish people. Similarly damaging was the attitude among many British intellectuals that the crisis was a predictable and not-unwelcome corrective to high birth rates in the preceding decades and perceived flaws, in their opinion, in the Irish national character.

Victims of the  Irish Potato Famine

The famine proved to be a watershed in the demographic history of Ireland. As a direct consequence of the famine, Ireland’s population of almost 8.4 million in 1844 had fallen to 6.6 million by 1851. The number of agricultural laborers and smallholders in the western and south-western counties underwent an especially drastic decline. A further aftereffect of the famine was thus the clearing of many smallholders from the land and the concentration of land ownership in fewer hands. Thereafter, more land than before was used for grazing sheep and cattle, providing animal foods for export to Britain.

Victims of the  Irish Potato Famine

About one million people died from starvation or from typhus and other famine-related diseases. The number of Irish who emigrated during the famine may have reached two million. Ireland’s population continued to decline in the following decades because of overseas emigration and lower birth rates. By the time Ireland achieved independence in 1921, its population was barely half of what it had been in the early 1840s.

Dublin Memorial To Those Who Died In The Potato Famine


After 168 Years, The Great Potato Famine Mystery
Has Finally Been Solved

An international team of scientists has finally solved one of history’s greatest mysteries: What caused the devastating Irish potato famine of 1845? The research team which published its findings in the journal eLife used DNA sequencing of plant specimens dating from the mid-19th century to identify the pathogen that led to the death of nearly 1 million people and the mass emigration of another two million from Ireland by 1855. The discovery marks the first time scientists have successfully sequenced a plant’s genome from preserved samples and opens the door for further research into the evolution of pathogens and the spread of plant disease around the world.

Scientists have long known that it was a strain of Phytophthora infestans (or P. infestans) that caused the widespread devastation of potato crops in Ireland and northern Europe beginning in 1845. P. infestans infects the plant through its leaves, leaving behind shriveled, inedible tubers. The most likely culprit, they believed, was a strain known as US-1, which even today is responsible for billions of dollars of crop damage each year. To solve the mystery, molecular biologists from the United Kingdom, Germany and the United States examined DNA extracted from nearly a dozen botanical specimens dating back as far as 1845 and held in museum collections in the UK and Germany, which were then sent to the Sainsbury Laboratory in Norwich, England. After sequencing the genome of the 19th century samples and comparing them with modern blights, including US-1, they were able to trace the genetic evolution of P. infestans around the world and across centuries.

The researchers concluded that it wasn’t in fact US-1 that caused the blight, but a previously unknown strain, HERB-1, which had originated in the Americas (most likely in Mexico’s Toluca Valley) sometime in the early 19th century before spreading to Europe in the 1840s. HERB-1, they believe, was responsible for the Great Famine and hundreds of other potato crop failures around the world. It wasn’t until the early 20th century that improvements in crop breeding yielded potato varieties that proved resistant to HERB-1 that the deadly infection was stopped in its tracks. Scientists believe that the HERB-1 strain is now extinct.

First domesticated in southern Peru and Bolivia more than 7,000 years ago, the potato began its long trek out of South America in the late 16th century following the Spanish conquest of the Inca. Though some Europeans were skeptical of the newly arrived tuber, they were quickly won over by the plant’s benefits. Potatoes were slow to spoil, had three times the caloric value of grain and were cheap and easy to grow on both large farms and small, backyard lots. When a series of non-potato crop failures struck northern Europe in the late 18th century, millions of farmers switched to the more durable spud as their staple crop.

The Potato Eaters by Vincent van Gogh

Nowhere was dependency on the potato more widespread than in Ireland, where it eventually became the sole subsistence food for one-third of the country. Impoverished tenant farmers, struggling to grow enough food to feed their families on plots of land as small as one acre, turned to the potato en masse, thanks to its ability to grow in even the worst soil. Requiring calorie-heavy diets to carry out their punishing workloads, they were soon consuming between 40 and 60 potatoes every day. And the potato wasn’t just used for human consumption: Ireland’s primary export to its British overlords was cattle, and more than a third of all potatoes harvested were used to feed livestock.

Victims of the  Irish Potato Famine Leaving Ireland 

By the early 19th century, however, the potato had begun to show a tendency toward crop failure, with Ireland and much of northern Europe experience smaller blights in the decades leading up to the Great Famine. While the effects of these failures were largely ameliorated in many countries thanks to their cultivation of a wide variety of different potatoes, Ireland was left vulnerable to these blights due to its dependence on just one type, the Irish Lumper. When HERB-1, which had already wreaked havoc on crops in Mexico and the United States, made its way across the Atlantic sometime in 1844, its effect was immediate and devastating. Within a year, potato crops across France, Belgium and Holland had been affected and by late 1845 between one-third and one-half of Ireland’s fields had been wiped out. The destruction continued the following year, when three-quarters of that year’s harvest was destroyed and the first starvation deaths were reported.

Victims of the  Irish Potato Famine

As the crisis grew, British relief efforts only made things worse: The emergency importation of grain failed to prevent further deaths due to Ireland’s lack of working mills to process the food; absentee British landlords evicted thousands of starving peasants when they were unable to pay rent; and a series of workhouses and charity homes established to care for the most vulnerable were poorly managed, becoming squalid centers of disease and death. By 1851 1 million Irish - nearly one-eighth of the population - were dead from starvation or disease. Emigration from the country, which had steadily increased in the years leading up to the famine, ballooned, and by 1855, two million people had fled, swelling the immigrant Irish populations of Canada, the United States, Australia and elsewhere. Even today, more than 150 years later, Ireland’s population has still not recovered its pre-famine level. Those that stayed behind, haunted by their country’s suffering, would form the basis of an Irish independence movement that continued into the 20th century.

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