For the most part, the Irish Potato Famine has been relegated to the dustbin of history, mentioned either as a casual example of British cruelty or, more often, as a joke. While some think the famine is best forgotten as an unfortunate combination of genetic accident and policy error, others see the famine as one of the earliest intentional genocides in modern history.
The story of the famine, like many historical tragedies, is too often told through a combination of statistics and dates, rendering it dry and abstract. To truly understand the desperation, the tragedy, and the human drama of the famine, it is necessary to examine what the Irish experienced on a personal level. The best way to do that is to look at their own writings and the accounts of those who witnessed their suffering.
These stories illustrate the range of perilous situations that the average Irish person could find themselves in. Starvation was common, but there were many additional dangers. Evictions contributed to the demise of many, as did illness and even highway slayings. The famine also resulted in one of the largest diasporas of the 19th century, in which up to a million Irish men and women migrated, many of them to America.
While the famine was vastly underreported - and mostly ignored in political circles - it was not unknown in London. The Illustrated London News commissioned Irish artist James Mahoney to create a series of sketches depicting the scope of the disaster, and to report on his findings as he toured the country.
It is unknown what impact Mahoney's reporting had on the English public back home, but today, his horrific account remains one of the most powerful and visceral records of the famine. While he describes many extreme incidents, his visit to the town of Clonakilty was typical of what he found in Irish towns. In 1847, he wrote:
...we came to Clonakilty, where the coach stopped for breakfast; and here, for the first time, the horrors of the poverty became visible, in the vast number of famished poor, who flocked around the coach to beg alms: amongst them was a woman carrying in her arms the [cadaver] of a fine child, and making the most distressing appeal to the passengers for aid to enable her to purchase a coffin and bury her dear little baby.
The Irish farmers had no way of knowing what was coming in September 1845. Even if they had heard of the crop failures overseas (unlikely, even for the most cosmopolitan of farmers), mere reports could not have prepared them for the severity of the collapse, or the strange effects it would have on their crops.
The spores of the microbe P. infestans spread rapidly due to an unusually wet summer. The resulting blight had a singular effect on the crops, rendering them not only inedible but also repellant to the eyes and nostrils. One farmer reported:
...a queer mist came over the Irish Sea, and the potato stalks turned black as soot. [The fields were] a wide waste of putrefaction giving off an offensive odor that could be smelled for miles.
While the British government’s efforts to address the blight, particularly those led by Charles Trevelyan, were dismal if not outright harmful, there were many individuals and organizations whose hearts were stirred by the suffering in Ireland. The Marquis of Waterford wrote in 1846:
The faces of these people were subdued with hunger; pale, or rather of a ghostly yellow, indicative of the utmost destitution. They are starving. We hurried with horror from these frightful visitations, which are permitted by Providence for his own wise ends, sick at heart.
Many organizations stepped up, particularly the Quakers. They organized relief efforts and soup kitchens in all major cities and towns, but were unable to expand their efforts into the remote villages and countryside where they were needed most.
Famine alone was not responsible for the miserable state of Ireland during the famine years. As the potato crop collapsed, many farmers could not make a living. Unable to find work, they were evicted from their homes and were exposed to the harsh Irish winter. As the Freeman's Journal in Dublin reported:
The potato rot here is most alarming, and appears with more virulence amongst those housed and pitted... The landlords for the most part, evince little sympathy for the people...
During this time, landlords became villains to the Irish people. This reputation was not entirely unearned, as many landowners were unkind and excessive in evicting poor tenants from their homes and farms.
This behavior led to reprisals. Wealthy landowners, many of them English, were ambushed and slain by enraged and desperate tenants.