The History Place - Irish Potato Famine

The Blight Begins

The Famine began quite mysteriously in September 1845 as leaves on potato plants suddenly turned black and curled, then rotted, seemingly the result of a fog that had wafted across the fields of Ireland. The cause was actually an airborne fungus (phytophthora infestans) originally transported in the holds of ships traveling from North America to England.

Winds from southern England carried the fungus to the countryside around Dublin. The blight spread throughout the fields as fungal spores settled on the leaves of healthy potato plants, multiplied and were carried in the millions by cool breezes to surrounding plants. Under ideal moist conditions, a single infected potato plant could infect thousands more in just a few days.

The attacked plants fermented while providing the nourishment the fungus needed to live, emitting a nauseous stench as they blackened and withered in front of the disbelieving eyes of Irish peasants. There had been crop failures in the past due to weather and other diseases, but this strange new failure was unlike anything ever seen. Potatoes dug out of the ground at first looked edible, but shriveled and rotted within days. The potatoes had been attacked by the same fungus that had destroyed the plant leaves above ground.

By October 1845, news of the blight had reached London. British Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel, quickly established a Scientific Commission to examine the problem. After briefly studying the situation, the Commission issued a gloomy report that over half of Ireland's potato crop might perish due to 'wet rot.'

Meanwhile, the people of Ireland formulated their own unscientific theories on the cause of the blight. Perhaps, it was thought, static electricity in the air resulting from the newly arrived locomotive trains caused it. Others reasoned that 'mortiferous vapors' from volcanoes emanating from the center of the Tom Sullivan of County Kerry contemplates the extent of the blight. earth might have done it. Some Catholics viewed the crisis in religious terms as Divine punishment for the "sins of the people" while others saw it as Judgment against abusive landlords and middlemen.

In England, religious-minded social reformers viewed the blight as a heaven-sent 'blessing' that would finally provide an opportunity to transform Ireland, ending the cycle of poverty resulting from the people's mistaken dependence on the potato.

With the threat of starvation looming, Prime Minister Peel made a courageous political decision to advocate repeal of England's long-standing Corn Laws. The protectionist laws had been enacted in 1815 to artificially keep up the price of British-grown grain by imposing heavy tariffs on all imported grain. Under the Corn Laws, the large amounts of cheap foreign grain now needed for Ireland would be prohibitively expensive. However, English gentry and politicians reacted with outrage at the mere prospect of losing their long-cherished price protections. The political furor in Britain surrounding Peel's decision quickly overshadowed any concern for the consequences of the crop failure in Ireland.

Ireland's potato crop failures in the past had always been regional and short-lived with modest loss of life. Between 1800 and 1845, sixteen food shortages had occurred in various parts of Ireland. However, during the Famine the crop failure became national for the first time, affecting the entire country at once. British officials believed the 1845 food shortage would likely end with next year's harvest. Thus they reacted to the current food shortage as they had in the past by enacting temporary relief measures.

A Relief Commission was established in Dublin to set up local relief committees throughout Ireland composed of landowners, their agents, magistrates, clergy and notable residents. The local committees were supposed to help organize employment projects and distribute food to the poor while raising money from landowners to cover part of the cost. The British government would then contribute a matching amount.

However, in remote rural areas, many of the relief committees were taken over by poorly educated farmers who conducted disorganized, rowdy meetings. Local landowners, upon seeing who was on the committees, balked at donating any money. There were also a high number of absentee landlords in the remote western areas with little first-hand knowledge of what was occurring on their property. They also failed to donate.

Trevelyan Takes Over

The shaky Irish relief effort soon came under the control of a 38-year-old English civil servant named Charles Edward Trevelyan, Assistant Secretary of the British Treasury. Trevelyan was appointed by Prime Minister Peel to oversee relief operations in Ireland and would become the single most important British administrator during the Famine years. He was a brilliant young man of unimpeachable integrity but was also stubborn, self-righteous, overly bureaucratic, and not given to a favorable opinion of the Irish.

Unwilling to delegate any authority in his day-to-day duties, he managed every detail, no matter how small. All communications arriving from his administrators in Ireland were handed directly to him, unseen by anyone else. Important decisions were thus delayed as his workload steadily increased. He often remained at his office until 3 a.m. and demanded the same kind of round-the-clock commitment from his subordinates.

Trevelyan would visit Ireland just once during all of the Famine years, venturing only as far as Dublin, far from the hard-hit west of Ireland. Remoteness from the suffering, he once stated, kept his judgment more acute than that of his administrators actually working among the people affected.

In the spring of 1846, under his control, the British attempted to implement a large-scale public works program for Ireland's unemployed. Similar temporary programs had been successfully used in the past. But this time, Trevelyan complicated the process via new bureaucratic procedures that were supposed to be administered by a Board of Works located in Dublin. The understaffed Board was quickly swamped with work requests from landowners. At the same time, local relief committees were besieged by masses of unemployed men. The result was confusion and anger. British troops had to be called in to quell several disturbances.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Peel came up with his own solution to the food problem. Without informing his own Conservative (Tory) government, he secretly purchased two shipments of inexpensive Indian corn (maize) directly from America to be distributed to the Irish. But problems arose as soon as the maize arrived in Ireland. It needed to be ground into digestible corn meal and there weren't enough mills available amid a nation of potato farmers. Mills that did process the maize discovered the pebble-like grain had to be ground twice.

To distribute the corn meal, a practical, business-like plan was developed in which the Relief Commission sold the meal at cost to local relief committees which in turn sold it at cost to the Irish at justTurbulent opening of the store in Cork selling Peel's Indian Corn. one penny per pound. But peasants soon ran out of money and most landowners failed to contribute any money to maintain the relief effort.

The corn meal itself also caused problems. Normally, the Irish ate enormous meals of boiled potatoes three times a day. A working man might eat up to fourteen pounds each day. They found Indian corn to be an unsatisfying substitute. Peasants nicknamed the bright yellow substance 'Peel's brimstone.' It was difficult to cook, hard to digest and caused diarrhea. Most of all, it lacked the belly-filling bulk of the potato. It also lacked Vitamin C and resulted in scurvy, a condition previously unknown in Ireland due to the normal consumption of potatoes rich in Vitamin C.

Out of necessity, the Irish grew accustomed to the corn meal. But by June 1846 supplies were exhausted. The Relief Commission estimated that four million Irish would need to be fed during the spring and summer of 1846, since nearly £3 million worth of potatoes had been lost in the first year of the Famine. But Peel had imported only about £100,000 worth of Indian corn from America and Trevelyan made no effort to replenish the limited supply.


In deciding their course of action during the Famine, British government officials and administrators rigidly adhered to the popular theory of the day, known as laissez-faire (meaning let it be), which advocated a hands-off policy in the belief that all problems would eventually be solved on their own through 'natural means.'

Great efforts were thus made to sidestep social problems and avoid any interference with private enterprise or the rights of property owners. Throughout the entire Famine period, the British government would never provide massive food aid to Ireland under the assumption that English landowners and private businesses would have been unfairly harmed by resulting food price fluctuations.

In adhering to laissez-faire, the British government also did not interfere with the English-controlled export business in Irish-grown grains. Throughout the Famine years, large quantities of native-grown wheat, barley, oats and oatmeal sailed out of places such as Limerick and Waterford for England, even though local Irish were dying of starvation. Irish farmers, desperate for cash, routinely sold the grain to the British in order to pay the rent on their farms and thus avoid eviction.

In the first year of the Famine, deaths from starvation were kept down due to the imports of Indian corn and survival of about half the original potato crop. Poor Irish survived the first year by selling off their livestock and pawning their meager possessions whenever necessary to buy food. Some borrowed money at high interest from petty money-lenders, known as gombeen men. They also fell behind on their rents.

The potato crop in Ireland had never failed for two consecutive years. Everyone was counting on the next harvest to be blight-free. But the blight was here to stay and three of the following four years would be potato crop disasters, with catastrophic consequences for Ireland.

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