Maurice Earls writes: The fungal blight which arrived in Ireland in the Autumn of 1845 travelled on winds from the east. Although it attacked potatoes, rather than humans, it led indirectly to a great deal more deaths than the cholera epidemic which had raged in the 1830s.
The disease began a five-year period of famine, in which around one million people died, mostly poor people. It was a horrific time of epidemic, starvation and flight. But the long-term changes were, arguably, even more socially destructive than the horrendous event itself.
If we take it that the primary social function of any economy is to support the population in which it is based, we can say that an extended period of economic failure began in 1845. There was no V-shaped recovery, nor even a U-shaped one, but rather a protracted decline over twelve long decades. Government policy through the nineteenth century ensured that this was so.
The fall in population did not cease with the disappearance of the blight and the return of good harvests. Rather, it persisted year-in and year-out. People continued emigrating out of the country because the economy could not provide them with a living. The history of Ireland, from roughly 1850 to the 1960s, is the grim story of a losing struggle against a decline so remorseless it posed and existential threat to the future of the Irish people. It is impossible to make sense of that lengthy period without reference to this overarching reality.
For various reasons people can be slow to recognise a disaster unfolding before their eyes. In Ireland in the autumn of 1845 there were quite a few wishful thinkers.
On October 21st the Mayo Constitution referring to the potato as “this necessary article of food” reported:
We have made enquiries of persons from different parts of this county relative to the disease which is said to have attacked the potato, but could not learn from any one individual that he had seen it either in his own potatoes or in those of any of his neighbours …While there is, doubtless, some truth in the statements published about the extent and progress of the disease, we believe they are greatly aggravated.
On October 22nd the Kilkenny Journal reported on the blight in a similar tone:
Since our last publication, we have made diligent enquiries on the subject, and we are happy to state that we are confirmed in the views which we formerly expressed that the ravages of the disease are not near so great as some alarmists imagine.
There were also some confidently expressed remedies on offer. On October 20th it was reported, for example, that in Carlow the experience of several farmers was that if diseased potatoes unfit for human consumption were exposed “to the action of the air” for several days, they were found to be suitable for eating. And in a letter sent to the Southern Reporter, Horace Townsend stated that in some of his fields one-third of the crop was affected and in others only one-tenth tainted. He recommended separating the good roots from the diseased and keeping the good ones in pits or indoors covered in lime. He also said that diseased potatoes could be eaten, if the affected parts were cut away and the remainder boiled, adding “ I have as yet seen no potato so far gone as to be useless” and concluding “I have every hope that the dread of scarcity is much overstated”.
The Newry Telegraph reported that areas where accounts of the disease had been considerable were now only exhibiting “very trifling symptoms of its presence”. The Banner of Ulster declared that in the worst possible case, one-half of the crop would comprise “edible roots”.
The reality of subsistence peasant agriculture was somehow missed in this commentary. The rural poor had no accumulated resources to fall back on. A loss of half the crop or less would be an immediate disaster for a class, which is thought to have numbered around two million people.
The chaotic, dysfunctional and unsustainable character of the rural economy at the time was not something everyone was inclined to acknowledge. It was, nevertheless, a regular political theme in the 1840s and had been for some time before.
The Repeal movement, which dominated Irish politics at the time, blamed the landlord class for the disastrous condition of the rural poor. O’Connell’s supporters declared repeatedly that the peasantry was grossly oppressed, in particular families being open to eviction on the whim of a landlord, without compensation for any improvements made to their holding. Repealers argued that the order prevailing in rural Ireland was unsustainable and the prospect of mass starvation and death would have tended to confirm their analysis. It is possible that some comfortable farmers and landlords may have been disinclined to accept that things were quite that bad and might have been inclined to downplay the approaching apocalypse.
Others were less circumspect. The Repeal critique of landlord management of the countryside and its inhabitants was voiced at many political gatherings in the 1840s, including a massive public meeting held in Tralee in 1845 just before the onset of the disease was widely known. One of the speakers, John Lynch, a solicitor, declared that the laws between landlords and tenants, which he described as “class legislation”, were made by landlords to serve the interests of landlords. He proposed a resolution to the meeting:
That among the foremost evils resulting from the Act of Union is the uncertainty of the tenure of land in Ireland and that this meeting records its conviction that the British parliament is incapable and unwilling to legislate for its remedy.
Seconding the resolution, Rev Eugene O’Sullivan, who came to the meeting attended by a company of peasant farmers, “ a long line of hardy mountaineers”, referred to landlord clearances ‑ the practice used to empty land of tenants in order to facilitate the shift from tillage to more profitable pasture. He said that he had
witnessed the system of extermination; the evils springing from such a system were frightful to contemplate – whole districts depopulated ‑ countless families reduced from a condition of comparative wealth to misery ‑ and the creatures of God’s own likeness treated with greater barbarity than if they had belonged to the brute creation – and cast from the spot where they drew the first breath of life to some wretched hovel, forgotten and disconsolate till death put a period to their existence.
For Repealers, an independent legislature was the only answer to such evils.
If when the blight arrived some observers were slow to appreciate the disaster descending on the people, others were more perceptive. Very Rev Dr McEvoy, parish priest of Kells, who, it seems safe to assume, was a supporter of the campaign for legislative independence, apprehended the gravity of the situation from the outset and had no difficulty in spelling out the human, moral and political implications. In a letter to the pro Repeal Freeman’s Journal, he wrote:
On my most minute inspection of the state of the potato crop in this most fertile potato-growing locale, is founded my inexpressibly painful conviction that one family in twenty of the people will not have a single potato left on Christmas day next. Many are the fields I have examined, and testimony the most solemn I can tender, that in the great bulk of those fields, all the potatoes sizeable enough to be sent to the table are irreparably damaged, while for the remaining comparatively sounder fields, very little hopes are entertained in consequence of the daily rapid development of the deplorable disease. With starvation at our doors grimly staring us, vessels laden with our sole hopes of existence, our provisions are hourly wafted from our every port. From one milling establishment I have last night seen not less than fifty dray loads of meal moving on Drogheda, thence to go to feed the foreigner, leaving starvation and death, the soon and certain fate of the toil and sweat that raised this food.
For their respective inhabitants England, Scotland, Holland, Germany are taking early the necessary precautions ‑ getting provisions from every possible part of the globe; and I ask are Irishmen alone unworthy the sympathies of a paternal gentry or a paternal government. Let Irishmen themselves take heed before the provisions are gone … Self-preservation is the first law of nature. The right of the starving to try and sustain existence is a right far and away paramount to every right that property confers. Infinitely more precious in the eyes of reason ‑ in the adorable eye of the Omnipotent Creator, is the life of the last and least of human beings than the whole united property of the entire universe. The appalling character of the crisis renders delicacy but criminal and imperatively calls for the timely and explicit notice of principles that will not fail to prove terrible arms in the hands of a neglected, abandoned starving people.
Dr McEvoy, in his grim forebodings and apocalyptic fear, was closer to the truth than the sanguine rationalists quoted in the newspapers, but McEvoy, like many others, overestimated the likelihood of mass rebellion, and even this great clerical friend of the poor could hardly have contemplated the depth of social, economic and cultural destruction which would persist and deepen over the following century and beyond.
It was politics that turned a disease of potatoes and tomatoes into famine, and it was politics which ensured its disastrous aftereffects would disfigure numerous future generations.