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Irish Famine

Irish Famine

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Published by Anthony McCartney

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Categories:Types, School Work
Published by: Anthony McCartney on Dec 09, 2010
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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Leis an oceas mor (The great hunger)I raised my glass to toast the bride and groom. They were so in love. As I did, a fewmashed potatoes fell from the glass stem and someone made a joke about the Irish “paddy”. Thiswas an English church yard wedding, and I was the best man for my friend whom I had metwhen I arrived in London looking for work. I looked around at the vast amount of food beforeme that was still on each table. Some of the men had finally started to undo their shirts, get rid of their ties and breathe a little. I wasn’t a history major, but I could not help but think about theironies of life and remembered a sentence or two from one of my old history books. A famine hitIreland in 1845 that devastated the country. When it was over, over one quarter of its people wasmissing, either dead or had emigrated around the world. Although not very easy to put intowords, an article in
The History Place
describes the following scene which was characteristic of one you would see when travelling through the Irish countryside: “In a few minutes I wassurrounded by at least 200 such phantom [starving people], such frightful specters as no wordscan describe [their suffering] either from famine or from fever. Their demoniac yells are stillringing in my ears, and their horrible images are fixed upon my brain”. These are the poignantwords of a magistrate from county Cork describing a typical scene he would see while touringthe Irish countryside in the summer of 1847 or black forty-seven, as it has become known.The potato blight hit a lot of Western Europe in the autumn of 1845. The reason why ithit Ireland particularly hard was that the blight thrived in Ireland’s damp, wet climate and theIrish relied on only one crop for food: the potato. Potatoes were (and still are) the stable food of Ireland. “The potatoes were harvested twice each fall” as Susan Bartoletti correctly points out inher book 
 Black Potatoes: the Story of the Great Irish Famine, 1845-1850:
The early crop, known as the new potatoes was lifted in late August and the generalcrop, called old potatoes, was lifted in October. They provided protein, carbohydrates,and vitamins riboflavin, niacin and vitamin C. The potatoes from the previous year normally lasted through the beginning of summer, and then there was a shortage for about two months. This period was referred to as “the hunger” by the locals”. (7)Imagine, if you will, if every man, woman and child in the state of Idaho died either fromhunger or from some opportunistic disease. The population of Idaho today is close to 1.6million. This number is equal to a conservative estimate of the people who died or left on“coffin ships” during the famine years. Coffin ships are the name given to the ships that sailedfrom Ireland to North America during, and just after the famine years, in which over cramped,diseased conditions led to the deaths of thousands of emigrants. It is generally agreed byhistorians that around one million men, women and children died and another one, millionemigrated between the years 1841 and 1851. Although the famine was caused by blight, itseffects were magnified by a British government who stood by and allowed it to happen withoutadequate aid to the starving people across the Irish Sea.According to an article in the
Journal of the Irish Society for Archives
, “Times were verytough for the Irish, and by all accounts, its people were the poorest in Europe”. ( ). After hundreds of years of British occupation, the land was owned by the English aristocracy. Theywere known as absentee landlords, as they only visited Ireland once or twice a year and rentedtheir farm holdings to Protestants who had come to Ireland, or were “settled” there in thesixteenth and seventeenth centuries. These Protestants in turn rented to landless peasants, whoreceived basic food and shelter, but had to pay for these essentials. If they did not pay rent, theycould be evicted at anytime.
In the summer of 1846, blight spread across Ireland at the rate of 50 miles per week. Thiswas because of the fact that diseased potato had been used as seed. As the airborne fungus,(
 phytophthora infestans
), attacked the potatoes, it caused the stalks to wither and die, and the potato itself, within days of being dug, to die also. Robert Peel was prime minister of England atthe time. Rather than sending relief to the Irish, he set up a “scientific commission” instead toresearch the problem.The popular opinion in Britain was that the Irish should solve this problem themselves. No massive food aid to Ireland would happen. According to an article, “The Irish PotatoFamine: The Great Hunger” appearing in The History Place: “, The Irish began to live off wild berries, nettles and even some weeds and grass. Cries from malnourished children could beheard across the fields. Demonic wails could be heard across the meadows of this great land”.The winter of 1846 to 1847 was particularly harsh as blizzard after blizzard struck Ireland. There was little work. And those who found work didn’t earn enough to feedthemselves, let alone their families. The Quakers did a survey around this time and noted that“the Irish [were] like skeletons. The dead were buried just inches below the surface and their  bodies were being eaten by rodents”. Or even more tragic, “the bodies remained where they died because the families were too weak to bury them. Typhus, dysentery and famine dropsy “black fever” spread through the countryside. People lay down by the roadside and died”. This is alsonoted in the film “When Ireland Starved”. In the summer of 1847, a blight free crop washarvested, but ironically not enough had been planted as the men were away from home workingon public works to earn money to buy food for their families. An estimated half a million persons were evicted from their cottages. Landlords made phony threats to these people to go toAmerica or the men would be thrown in jail for nonpayment of rent. The landlords were blamed

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