Who’d have thought that the physical and cultural landscape of a country could be changed so much by the humble potato?
Well, this is exactly what happened in Ireland between 1845 and 1852.
At the time, most of Ireland’s citizens were completely dependent on one staple food source – the Lumper potato. This potato breed was calorie-rich and flourished in the harshest of conditions, making it the staple food of both the agricultural and peasant classes.
Although fast growing, the Lumper was highly susceptible to phytophthera infestans (blight). This chink in the breed’s armour would prove to be detrimental in 1845, when widespread blight caused Ireland’s staple crop to rot in the ground.
Seven years of hardship, disease and starvation ensued, as blight continued to infect the Lumper as well as other potato breeds and crops across the country. Continued exports, insufficient famine relief and high inflation saw over one million people die and more than a million emigrate in search of salvation.
The affects of the Great Famine can still be felt and seen in Ireland’s culture, politics and physical landscape today. Here, we’ll take a close look at how the famine shaped modern Ireland.
Historians have theorised that such was the economic and social impact of the famine, that Ireland was numbed into political inaction for decades. Having been sapped of energy for the past seven years, nationalists were devoid of any appetite for activism or rebellion.
Pre-famine, Ireland’s political landscape centred around Daniel O’Connell and his bid for Catholic Emancipation and repeal movement. However post-famine, it would take more than a decade for a resurgence of nationalist feelings.
The Fenian Rising of 1867 was the first organised rebellion since the Famine, but it wouldn’t be until 1916 and the Easter Rising before Ireland would again rebel against the British crown.
The famine’s effect on the Irish language is still evident today. The majority of the two million people who died or emigrated during the famine were Irish speakers from the poorest parts of the country, mainly the West of Ireland.
In 1841, there were four million Irish speakers on the island, but this figure dropped drastically to 680,000 by 1891. The sharp decline in native Irish speakers and the rise of the English-speaking middle class resulted in English becoming the lingua franca of the country.
The Irish language was always rich in culture and folklore. Legendary stories and fables told in our native tongue, which were passed from generation to generation, were largely lost to America or the grave during the famine.
Karl Marx remarked that the famine “killed poor devils only”, with the poor, rural and landless likely to perish. This hierarchy of suffering is reflected in the demographic statistics for the period.
While no part of the country escaped the famine, mortality rates were regionally uneven. The Great Famine wiped out towns and villages in Connacht and Munster, while its effect was negligible on the east coast. West Cork was a notorious black spot but was over the worst of the famine by 1847, while the effects of the famine raged in County Clare until 1850.
It’s important to point out that infectious diseases – especially typhoid fever, typhus and dysentery/diarrhoea – rather than literal starvation were responsible for the bulk of mortality. The rich largely escaped illness as they could fund medical care or preventative measures which were out of the reach of the poor.
Ireland’s rural population fell dramatically, with Connacht’s falling by nearly 30% and Munster’s decreasing by 20%. In contrast Dublin, Belfast and Cork, cities least impacted by the famine, experience a growth in population as thousands rushed to escape hunger.
Even before the Great Famine, Ireland was known for its high levels of emigration. Between 1815 and 1845 more than 800,000 left Irish shores in search of better life. During the famine this number swelled considerably to 1.8 million.
Most emigrants were from the poor Irish-speaking regions of Ireland and were destined for the United States of America. This mass emigration pre and post-famine, led to the creation of huge Irish communities throughout America, but especially in New York and Boston.
By the 1911 census, Ireland’s population had fallen to 4.4 million – a massive drop from the pre-famine figure of 8 million. Even today the total population of the island is only around 6.4 million, which still leaves it 1.8 million (or almost 22%) lower than it was in 1841.
Aside from influencing the cultural and political landscape of the country, the famine directly affected Ireland’s physical landscape.
Even today Famine Roads, which were the result of forced labour by Irish peasantry during the Great Famine, scar the Irish countryside. These roads go nowhere and were built with no direction in mind and can be seen in the hills of Dingle criss-crossing up a hill before stopping completely.
Most workers were ill-treated and battled harsh working conditions on top of malnourishment and disease. One of the most famous Famine Roads in Ireland is the Healy Pass (R574) in Kerry. Despite its past, the route is a popular tourist attraction as it boasts panoramic views of Bantry Bay and the Kenmare River.
Another reminder of the Famine on Ireland’s soil is the vast number of workhouses which were built to house the nation’s starving masses. Overcrowding was commonplace, as the poor rushed to find relief from their hunger. Because of this, diseases spread quickly resulting in high mortality rates. By the end of the famine in 1852, there were 163 workhouses in Ireland.
After the establishment of the Free State the majority of these buildings were redeveloped into district hospitals and care homes. Naas General Hospital was built on the site of a former workhouse, while Donaghmore’s famine workhouse has been turned into a museum.
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