Beginning in 1845 and lasting for six years, the
potato famine killed over a million men, women and children in Ireland
and caused another million to flee the country.
Ireland in the mid-1800s was an agricultural nation,
populated by eight million persons who were among the poorest people in
the Western World. Only about a quarter of the population could read and
write. Life expectancy was short, just 40 years for men. The Irish married
quite young, girls at 16, boys at 17 or 18, and tended to have large families,
although infant mortality was also quite high.
A British survey in 1835 found half of the rural
families in Ireland living in single-room, windowless mud cabins that didn't
have chimneys. The people lived in small communal clusters, known as clachans,
spread out among the beautiful countryside. Up to a dozen persons lived
inside a cabin, sleeping in straw on the bare ground, sharing the place
with the family's pig and chickens. In some cases, mud cabin occupants
were actually the dispossessed descendants of Irish estate owners. It was
not uncommon for a beggar in Ireland to mention that he was in fact the
descendant of an ancient Irish king.
Most of the Irish countryside was owned by an
English and Anglo-Irish hereditary ruling class. Many were absentee landlords
that set foot on their properties once or twice a year, if at all. Mainly
Protestant, they held titles to enormous tracts of land long ago confiscated
from native Irish Catholics by British conquerors such as Oliver Cromwell.
The landlords often utilized local agents to actually manage their estates
while living lavishly in London or in Europe off the rents paid by Catholics
for land their ancestors had once owned.
Throughout Ireland, Protestants known as middlemen
rented large amounts of land on the various estates then sub-divided the
land into smaller holdings which they rented to poor Catholic farmers.
The middleman system began in the 1700s and became a major source of misery
as they kept sub-dividing estates into smaller and smaller parcels while
increasing the rent every year in a practice known as rack-renting.
The average tenant farmer lived at a subsistence
level on less than ten acres. These Catholic farmers were usually considered
tenants-at-will and could be evicted on short notice at the whim of the
landlord, his agent, or middleman. By law, any improvements they made,
such as building a stone house, became the property of the landlord. Thus
there was never any incentive to upgrade their living conditions.
The tenant farmers often allowed landless laborers,
known as cottiers, to live on their farms. The cottiers performed daily
chores and helped bring in the annual harvest as payment of rent. In return,
they were allowed to build a small cabin and keep their own potato garden
to feed their families. Other landless laborers rented small fertilized
potato plots from farmers as conacre, with a portion of their potato harvest
given up as payment of rent. Poor Irish laborers, more than anyone, became
totally dependent on the potato for their existence. They also lived in
a state of permanent insecurity with the possibility always looming they
might be thrown off their plot.
The most fertile farmland was found in the north
and east of Ireland. The more heavily populated south and west featured
large wet areas (bog) and rocky soil. Mountains and bogs cover about a
third of Ireland. By the mid-1800s, the density of Irish living on cultivated
land was about 700 people per square mile, among the highest rate in Europe.
Potatoes are not native to Ireland but likely
originated in the Andes Mountains of Peru, South America. In the early
1500s, Spanish conquerors found the Incas growing the vegetable, which
the Spanish called patata. They were taken back to Europe and eventually
reached England where the name changed to potato. About 1590, potatoes
were introduced to Ireland where farmers quickly discovered they thrived
in their country's cool moist soil with very little labor. An acre of fertilized
potato field could yield up to 12 tons of potatoes, enough to feed a family
of six for a year with leftovers going to the family's animals.
By the 1800s, the potato had become the staple
crop in the poorest regions. More than three million Irish peasants subsisted
solely on the vegetable which is rich in protein, carbohydrates, minerals,
and vitamins such as riboflavin, niacin and Vitamin C. It is possible to
stay healthy on a diet of potatoes alone. The Irish often drank a little
buttermilk with their meal and sometimes used salt, cabbage, and fish as
seasoning. Irish peasants were actually healthier than peasants in England
or Europe where bread, far less nutritious, was the staple food.
Irish farmers utilized an ancient 'lazy bed' planting
technique. Using a simple spade, they first marked long parallel lines
in the soil about four feet apart throughout the entire plot. In between
the lines, they piled a mixture of manure and crushed seashells then turned
over the surrounding sod onto this, leaving the grass turned upside down.
Seed potatoes were inserted in-between the overturned grass and the layer
of fertilizer then buried with dirt dug-up along the marked lines. The
potato bed was thus raised about a foot off the surrounding ground, with
good drainage provided via the newly dug parallel trenches.
Planting occurred in the spring beginning around
St. Patrick's Day. Most of the poor Irish grew a variety known as Lumpers,
a high yielding, but less nutritious potato that didn't mature until September
or October. Every year for the poor, July and August were the hungry months
as the previous year's crop became inedible and the current crop wasn't
quite ready for harvest. This was the yearly 'summer hunger,' also called
'meal months,' referring to oat or barley meal bought from price gauging
dealers out of necessity. During the summer hunger, women and children
from the poorest families resorted to begging along the roadside while
the men sought temporary work in the harvest fields of England.
By autumn, the potatoes were ready to be harvested,
carefully stored in pits, and eaten during the long winter into the spring
and early summer. The Irish consumed an estimated seven million tons in
this way each year. The system worked year after year and the people were
sustained as long as the potato crop didn't fail.
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