No one will deny that Ireland has had its share of hard times. From adverse policies implemented by Britain to inequality abroad, the Irish have weathered countless struggles and horrors. Despite their often tragic history, the Irish have created a unique culture that has profoundly impacted the world at large.
Ireland's influence can particularly be felt in the United States. Scores of Irish immigrants fled to the states in the mid-19th century, landing in New York and forever changing the culture of both the city and country as a whole. The Great Potato Famine of 1845-1852 prompted this enormous exodus. The famine itself was caused by a disease that arrived in Ireland in 1845 and devastated the year's potato crop. In addition, the corruption of local landlords, negligence of British governors, and fragility of the Irish economy increased its detrimental impact.
What happened next would today be called a human-rights disaster. Famine, riots, massive emigration, and corruption plagued the nation for two years, reducing its population and hurting the national consciousness. Many thought Ireland would never recover from what was then called the Great Hunger.
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1844: The Blight Begins Overseas
Many consider the potato to be integral to Ireland's national identity, but it's perhaps surprising to learn that Sir Walter Raleigh introduced the potato to the island as late as 1589. Many years passed before the Irish people accepted the new food, but when they took to it, they did so wholeheartedly.
Farmers and botanists interbred potato species and gradually created potatoes that were more palatable, hardy, and nutritious than their natural forms. The modified potatoes began to gain acceptance, particularly by impoverished communities in Russia, the United States, and Ireland.
The Irish grew dependent on the potato, which led to disaster when the tiny fungus named phytophthora infestans, or P. infestans, emerged in Toluca Valley, Mexico, around 1844. This fungal virus ruined potato crops, infecting them in the ground and rendering them inedible. The blight made its way north, eradicating crops throughout the Americas. As Americans bred a diversity of crops, however, the blight hardly wrought the same impact as when it reached Irish shores in 1845.
September 1845: The British Ignore The Early Warning Signs
Irish potato crops had experienced blights before, but when P. infestans hit Europe in 1845, no one was prepared. Originally, scientists misdiagnosed it as "wet-rot," meaning the potatoes had rotted in the ground because of the particularly damp summer. As crops failed in France, Germany, and England, however, it soon became clear that the rot was anything but ordinary.
The few scientists who warned of the blight as a serious threat were ignored, as were the first reports of crop failure around Dublin. When Ireland's trajectory towards crisis was clear, Prime Minister Robert Peel warned members of his cabinet that the Irish habitually exaggerated their distress. This was typical of the British response throughout the event; even as the Irish perished by the hundreds of thousands, the British government remained skeptical about the catastrophe's real dimensions.
March 1846: The Famine Claims Its First Recorded Victims
In late 1845, the British government tore itself apart over the "Corn Laws," a series of laws that restricted imports. To manage the famine, the British would have had to import massive amounts of American grain, but the isolationist Whigs opposed Prime Minister Robert Peel's attempts to repeal the law and relieve Ireland.
As the British government squabbled, the famine began to take its toll on Ireland. The first reports of casualties came in early 1846, and they were the first trickle in what would become a steady stream of tragedy over the next five years. In response, Peel began organizing a public works program to relieve the impoverished Irish, giving them an opportunity to make money and purchase food.
But this program was interrupted when Peel lost in the next election to the Whig Lord John Russell. The man Russell charged with the Irish relief effort, Charles Trevelyan, would become one of the most controversial and hated figures in Irish history.
June 1846: The New Government Abandons The Irish
Charles Trevelyan was a lifelong government worker who had served as the assistant secretary to the treasury for years, a position that granted him authority over many aspects of the Irish famine. His personal views, however, were much more sympathetic to the new government of Lord John Russell, as opposed to the more liberal views of Robert Peel. Like Russell, he believed firmly in laissez-faire economics, confident that the free market would resolve the situation with minimal interference from the government.
Trevelyan's resistance ran deeper than simple politics. He was also unrepentant and intolerant, writing the following after the famine:
The judgment of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson, that calamity must not be too much mitigated... The real evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the Famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse, and turbulent character of the people.
Needless to say, his incumbency only worsened Ireland's already terrible conditions.