Sunday, May 4, 2008

The Irish Potato Famine

In this world of ours, there is no lack of examples of “Man’s Inhumanity to Man”. My ancestors emigrated from Ireland to escape a sad history of poverty, disease and death. Our holocaust was the great Irish Famine, which was responsible for removing over 20% of the population from either starvation or forced immigration. Ireland’s population has never rebounded to its pre-famine days.

In Ireland, they called it “An Gorta Mor”, the“Great Hunger”. In the late 1840’s, Ireland suffered a series of famines due to the loss of their potato crop. The potatoes were attacked by a fungus from America turning the potatoes into inedible poisonous mush.

While the fungal infection was a natural disaster and impossible to combat, events in Ireland many years before the famine, the mindset and the behavior of the English government made this disaster much, much worse and led to the deaths of about 1.5 million people, the emigration of another 1.5 million and about another million unaccounted for.
The roots of this disaster actually started over 2 hundred years earlier. In the late 16th century, English forces put down a rebellion of Irish nobility. This defeat at the Battle of Kinsale lead to the exile of these Irish leaders. The English government confiscated their lands and protestant settlers from Scotland (loyal to the English) were “planted” on the land (like the way that the English later “colonized” the new world). This set the pattern for how England dealt with trouble from Ireland throughout the following centuries. Ireland, because of its proximity to England, would always have a role in internal English politics and had to be considered in English foreign policy. The Irish supported the Catholic King James II over the English parliament’s protestant choice, William of Orange. When James was defeated, Ireland was punished by even more confiscation of land, plantations of outside groups and a series of brutal “penal laws”, denying native Irish Catholics nearly all civil liberties and property. By the start of the 18th century most of the land in Ireland was held by outside Scottish or English settlers, English soldiers (who received land in pay for their service), land speculators and absentee landlords who lived in England, who used Ireland simply as a source of income.

As for the property that remained in Catholic native Irish hands, the penal laws required that their land should be divided equally between the children upon the death of the owner. This resulted in smaller and smaller parcels of land being passed on from generation to generation.

By far, though, most of the Irish were left landless, as tenant farmers. They raised what little food they could on small squalid plots, barely feeding their families and burdened with paying rent for the privilege.

The most unfortunate people, though, were the spalpeens or day laborers, working other peoples rented land for bare sustenance.

Into this mix, came the potato plant, introduced from the new world reportedly by Sir Walter Raleigh a favorite of Queen Elizabeth. The good thing about the potato was that it is a nutritious food, together with milk and butter, provided most vitamins that a family would need. The diet was filling, if not balanced and the Irish learned to make a lot of different dishes from the potato. It was easy to grow and it didn’t take much space to grow. With land at a premium and small parcels the rule, and rents high, you might just barely be able to feed your family with a patch of ground about the size of 2 classrooms. If you raise a pig on the side from the scraps, you could use that to pay the annual rent to the landlord. You could expect 2 crops a year, one in late spring and then one in the fall. The fall crop was the largest and it would have to be big enough to keep a family fed through the cold winter months. The disadvantage of the potato was that it is a delicate crop, the victim of several types of disease, easily damaged by bad weather, and subject to frequent failures. Potatoes wouldn’t keep also. You couldn’t store potatoes year to year, like you could corn or other grains.

We know now about the danger of relying on a single delicate crop, but at the time it seemed like a blessing. Despite the extreme poverty of the Irish people, the potato provided a decent diet for the first time in many years. With the introduction of a relatively nutritious food, and the relative peace in the early 1800’s, infant mortality improved, and the Irish population boomed to an estimated 8 million people. (Now it is about 4.5 million).

The first word about any trouble with the potato came in spring 1845 when there was news of a “potato blight” in the United States. There was fear that it would cross the ocean when there were reports of a similar blight in Belgium and on the Isle of Wight off England. Soon, reports from all over Ireland mentioned signs of distress with the potato. At first, government officials thought that the problem was local and exaggerated, especially since most potatoes appeared okay when first taken out of the ground. But after a few days of storage became piles of black putrid decaying mush. We know now that the disease was spread by airborne spores, which would attack wet spots on the potato leaves and skin and rapidly destroy a family’s entire annual supply in a few days.

As the year moved on, it became apparent that the failure of the crop was nearly universal in Ireland and that there was going to be general starvation if something wasn’t done. The Prime Minister at the time was Sir Robert Peel. He was no friend to the Irish, but was an efficient and capable statesman, and concluded that the Irish diet had to be supplemented by grain, but this was complicated to do. Corn was an important staple in the English economy, protected by high tariffs. If the government were to buy large quantities of corn in England, it would drive up the price for English consumers; on the other hand, certain tariff laws would need to be repealed if he were to bring in grain from somewhere else. This was not popular with English farmers, who relied on the protectionist tariffs to keep their profits regular. His efforts to repeal the “Corn Laws” nearly got him removed from office, but they were repealed and he was able to order a quantity of maize or “Indian corn” from the United States. They believed that the maize might not interfere so much with the English corn market, since there was already a market for it. Unfortunately, he would have needed to order at least 30 times the amount he bought to cover the need in Ireland.

Peel and his Secretary of the treasury, a man by the name of Charles Trevelyan believed in a philosophy of economics called laissez faire, a belief in government non-interference in private enterprise, commerce. Property rights also trumped all other rights. Peel and Trevelyan planned to use the corn not to feed the Irish directly, but to balance out the market and to force the price of corn low in Ireland so that it might be purchased by the Irish and sold by English vendors. The market, thus adjusted would make sure everyone was taken care of.

The problem with this plan, hatched in London, was that it bore no resemblance to the reality in Ireland, especially in those remote areas in the west of Ireland where the famine was the worst. Ireland had been degraded and so mistreated by England, that parts of the country couldn’t access markets and weren’t even using currency, as they were in a barter economy (trading a pig for rent, for example). There was no way for Ireland to reasonably respond to market forces. Things that made perfect sense in England would not work in Ireland. Furthermore, the English officials were morally opposed to simply give away the grain to starving people; no, they had to work for currency to be used to purchase the grain by doing make-work road building or workhouse projects. Since roads weren’t suppose to give any undue advantage to any particular landowner, crazy roads to nowhere were built, still to be seen today in Ireland.

Furthermore, some of the funding for the program was supposed to come from local landlords, most of which were in bad straights themselves. The most ironic thing about this period of time was that, while people were starving, Ireland was producing enough food to feed itself, but the English landlords had to export food out of the country to meet their own debts and expenses. Food production actually rose during the famine years.

The Indian corn also proved to be another problem. It was harder than regular English corn and required an extra milling to make flour. Once again the places that were struck the most with the crop failure, had relied mostly on the potato, so they didn’t have the infrastructure to even grind the grain. Once people had the grain, they couldn’t grind it finely enough to put it to use. Eating poorly ground grain caused dysentery in people already weak from hunger. The harbors near those places weren’t large enough to accommodate the ships carrying the grain.

Soon all depots for food distribution, workhouses and other accommodations for starving people were overwhelmed.

At about this time, there was a change in government in London. Because of the unpopularity of the repeal of the corn tariff in England, Peel was removed as prime minister and replaced by Lord John Russell. Russell came into power in time for the second annual total failure of the potato crop in 1846. Russell, however, was even more committed to a laissez faire than was Peel. He advocated no additional help for Ireland. Trevelyan, remaining as Treasury secretary believed that famine was brought on by God and that the Irish should simply deal with it themselves. They both believed that market forces and free trade would solve the problem. Instead, we started to see the first massive numbers deaths from starvation in October of ’46.

At first, most deaths came from wasting diseases due to malnutrition: typhus, relapsing fever, dysentery from eating badly prepared corn, seaweed, simply any plant or animal available, scurvy and dropsy. At the peak of the famine in 1847, many deaths were from outright starvation. They still refer to that year as “Black ‘47”.

Tenant farmers, held back as long that they could from eating their livestock. They needed to use that livestock, (possibly a pig) to barter for their rent. As bad as these thatched huts were, wet, cold, dirt floors, one room, smoky, the livestock living with the family, it was particularly horrible to be evicted from these shabby homes and all your belongings put out on the road. The process of eviction happened to thousands of families during this period; people were reduced to living in ditches, starving, no shelter, and no work. Your old cottage was “tumbled” i.e. intentionally destroyed and the roof torn off by the landlord’s agent and the sheriff. The rights of property were absolute, so the landlord could evict you with little notice and for no reason, if they wished, even if you could pay the rent. Some landlords “shoveled- out” i.e. paid for passage oversees for entire groups of tenants on boats bound for the new world called coffin ships. Many landlords took advantage of the famine to clear their land of all tenants to open up the land for grazing cattle or sheep. This was the Marketplace responding to the emergency.

With the government doing little, outside groups responded to the famine. The Quakers set up soup kitchens. There were donations from England, more from overseas from Irish Americans, the Ottoman Empire, and even American Indians. Some religious groups offered soup to people who converted to their particular sect. People scorned those who “took the soup” and changed their religion. They called them the “soupers”…

People were desperate to get out; laws prevented easy emigration to England after the first years of the famine. After a while, none of the ports in North America wanted to take the ships full of sick and dying people. Immigration to Canada was originally easier and cheaper than to the USA because ships bearing timber from Canada could return to North America with hopeless Irish. Canada had their own problem with quarantine centers with ships full of sick people. A small island in the St.Lawrence Seaway called Grosse Isle was the site of over 11 thousand deaths due to ship-born wasting diseases and starvation, because Canadian authorities could not allow them to land in nearby Quebec City.

It was in 1849 when my great-great grandparents, Francis and Ann Doyle brought their children Margaret, Thomas and Patrick from County Wicklow through the port of Cork to America through the port of Baltimore, Maryland. Patrick was my great grandfather. They ended up in Williamstown, PA, north of Harrisburg, where Francis worked in the coalmines. They had 5 more children in the new world before Francis died at age 49.

The famine changed Ireland forever. Besides losing an estimated 25% of the population, entire districts were cleared of people. The famine cut the heart out of the Irish language, Gaelic, as most of the victims were Gaelic speakers. English continues to be the dominant language of Ireland despite government efforts to keep Gaelic alive. Religious expression became much more strict and puritanical and Victorian. Pregnancy outside of marriage could be an economic disaster. People delayed marriage later and later, until the parents died and the oldest son inherited the farm. You ended up with many marriages consisting of late middle age (rather old men) men and very young women. Emigration became a fact of life for all the rest of the children in a typical Irish family, as there were few prospects for them at home. Those who did emigrate formed a ready-made group of people who really hated the English, who knew that Ireland, which was supposed to be part of the United Kingdom, i.e. an important part of the England state, had been abandoned and mistreated grievously. The Irish concluded that there was no way England could be trusted again to support Irish interests unless forced to. Soon, the Irish Republican Brotherhood was started in New York, which lead to more rebellion in Ireland and eventual home rule and separation from England in early the next century. Some have said that bitterness from these oppressive events led Ireland to sit out World War II as a neutral state while England was under attack from Germany.
I’ll end now with a few verses from an old song about the famine:

By a lonely prison wall
I heard a young girl calling
Micheal they are taking you away
For you stole Trevelyn's corn
So the young might see the morn.
Now a prison ship lies waiting in the bay.

Low lie the Fields of Athenry
Where once we watched the small free birds fly.
Our love was on the wing we had dreams and songs to sing
It's so lonely 'round the Fields of Athenry.