A modern gal like me knows that to control weight gain, we need to watch the carbs. Many diets urge “no whites” – that is, watch the intake of potatoes and other high- carb foods. Since we tend to look at potatoes as a food to be discouraged in excess, it seems strange to associate potatoes with famine, yet millions died of starvation when the potato crops failed in Ireland in the mid-1800s. On a recent trip to Ireland, I was particularly curious to know about the history of the famine – an event that brought many of our Irish ancestors to America.
I found Ireland to be lush and beautiful, very capable of raising food crops as well as much grass and hay. In the 1840s, many of the landowners resided in England, often never seeing their land but renting it to farmers. At the time of the great famine, the grain crops grown were exported to England, Scotland and Wales, along with butter, sheep, pigs and cattle. The potatoes, cheap and easy to grow in abundance became the staple of the majority of rural Irish.
Fungus, the cause of the potato crop failure, was a condition that occurred with a wet and warm season. There had been lessor failures, and when fungus was identified early in the 1846 season, officials predicted a partial loss. When the fungus devastated the complete crop, the British officials responded with much mixed political adieu, as well as some relief measures and employment programs, for not only was there no potato to eat, there was no work to earn money to buy other food.
Eventually England began to supply corn to starving families, but Irish farmers couldn’t grind it sufficiently to eat it. Later England sent pre-ground corn, but it didn’t supply the right nutrients and dysentery was the result. To make matters worse, the winter was especially hard and harsh, forcing ships off the water that would have fished. Had fish been available, the peasants would have lacked the money to buy it and if caught personally, could not afford the salt to preserve it. Author Cecil Smith, in The Great Hunger, describes the 1845-49 famine as unnecessary; the Irish poor died of starvation while food in abundance was exported to other countries.
The peasants sold everything they could to get money for food, including the clothes they wore as rags. In desperation, families fled to the coast looking for work. The few who could get work did, others begged. Living in makeshift shelters in close quarters, filth brought contamination from lice. An estimated hundred died every week in the Cork area and the estimate for other southern cities was equally as bad. During 1847, 400,000 people died and 1,500,000 died during the three year famine.
The Quakers tried to help and initiated soup kitchens, utilizing the ground corn as the major soup ingredient, but quickly more knowledgeable people told them it was worse than no food at all, for it wasn’t digestible or nutritious. Soon meat and vegetables were added and some felt the Quaker effort was significant in assisting the starving. While in Ireland, I visited a site where a “famine pot” had been located.
Of course, we know that thousands emigrated to the United States as a result of the potato famine, but it was important to me to see the country they left and understand why they left it. My Irish ancestors must have been made of strong stuff and I hope their resilience was passed along to me. I am truly proud of them.