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How the potato famine changed Ireland forever and should we prepare for something similar?

Disclaimer: This Article was First Published On Forreason.com and is published here with approval.

When we think of Ireland, we think about great beer, Celtic culture, St Patrick's day, and green shamrocks. But did you know that a huge, painful part of Ireland's history is strongly tied to...potatoes?

How the potato famine changed Ireland forever and should we prepare for something similar?
circa 1830: A cartoon satirizing the failure of the potato crop, and the state of the vegetable market. Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Yes, potatoes, these tasty root vegetables that can be cooked in so many different delicious ways. Who doesn't like potatoes? Well, the Irish have a complicated relationship with them and not just because of the ridiculous amount of calories in French fries but also because in the 19th century, potatoes literally ruined their lives. The Great Potato Famine was the result of a disease that found its way into Ireland in 1845.

How the potato famine changed Ireland forever and should we prepare for something similar?

The disease ruined that year's potato crop, which doesn't sound like that of a big deal, but everything that took place after that definitely was. We know it's hard to believe, but if you just keep reading, you'll find out all about how potatoes ruined Ireland.

How the potato famine changed Ireland forever and should we prepare for something similar?
January 1847: A funeral at Skibbereen, County Cork, during The Great Famine (1845 - 1849) which was caused by the failure of the Irish potato crop and British government inaction. 1 million people died from starvation and disease and another million fled as emigrants to Britain and North America during the Irish Famine. Original Publication: Illustrated London News - pub. 1847 Illustration - Smyth Photo by HultonArchive/Illustrated London News/Getty Images

1. The Potato Comes to Ireland

The truth is that up until the end of the 16th century, the Irish people lived pretty well without potatoes. The vegetable was introduced to the island in 1589, and at the beginning, the Irish weren't really all that excited about it.

How the potato famine changed Ireland forever and should we prepare for something similar?
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But after a while, they started interbreeding the potatoes to make them more nutritious and, most importantly, tastier. At this point, the potato gained popularity not only in Ireland but also but the lower class in Russia and in the U.S. The Irish now depended on potatoes.

2. Evil fungus

Now, let us take you to Toluca Valley, Mexico, wherein 1844, unbeknownst to the poor Irish people, a tiny yet evil fungus emerged. It was called Phytophthora infestans, but its gangster name was P. infestans.

How the potato famine changed Ireland forever and should we prepare for something similar?
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P. infestans infected innocent potato crops and made them disgusting and inedible. This fungal virus spread from Mexico all the way to the Americas. But, luckily for them, they did not rely only on potatoes, so the fungus didn't hit them quite as hard. In 1845 the fungus finally made its way to Ireland, and it was ready for destruction.

3. crops began to rot

With the arrival of P. infestans to Europe, crops all over Germany, France and England began to rot. At first, scientists claimed the problem was due to "Wet-rot."

How the potato famine changed Ireland forever and should we prepare for something similar?
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They claimed the crops failed and rotted because of an extremely damp summer. But soon enough it became clear that the real problem was a lot bigger than just some wet potatoes and that something had to be done. Well, it was clear to everyone but the Brits, who like to bury their head in the sand, or in this case, in the soil.

4. Keep Calm and Let the Irish Suffer

Some scientists caught up with what was happening and warned Prime Minister Robert Peel. But as the first crops around Dublin began to fail, Peel said that the Irish are known for being hysterical.

How the potato famine changed Ireland forever and should we prepare for something similar?
The aftermath of famine, Ireland (1840s), 1886. Distress in Ireland as people Collect limpets and seaweed for food in west of Ireland. Failure of the potato crop in previous year had made condition of these people desparate. Wood engraving. Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images

In the meantime, the Famine continued to spread and kill crops all over Ireland. The British government, on the other hand, was busy discussing different laws that could help manage the Famine problem, but they just couldn't come to an agreement. While the prime minister was busy arguing, the evil fungus took its first casualties in 1846.

5. An Election Amidst a Criss

Peel finally started thinking logically. He tried organizing a public program to help the Irish buy food and make money. But while trying to execute his plan, he lost the election to Lord John Russell.

How the potato famine changed Ireland forever and should we prepare for something similar?
English statesman, John Russell, 1st Earl Russell (1792 - 1878), the third son of the sixth Duke of Bedford. He was a Liberal and became Prime Minister at the head of a Whig administration in 1846. Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Lord John Russell appointed a man named Charles Trevelyan to attend to the Irish problem. Appointing someone to the Irish potato problem sounds like a good, responsible idea, right? Well, for reasons that would because apparent later, Charles Trevelyan was extremely controversial and definitely not the right man for the job.

6. He was a firm believer in the Free Market

Charles Trevelyan grew to become one of the most hated political figures in Irish history. He did not believe in doing much to help the Irish resolve their problems since he was a firm believer in the Free Market.

How the potato famine changed Ireland forever and should we prepare for something similar?
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Just like Lord John Russell, Charles Trevelyan was sure that if the market was just left to its own devices, the problem would solve itself, and there would be no need for the government to interfere. He also believed that the Famine was sent to the Irish by god to teach them a lesson about being less selfish and wicked.

7. Reeking Black Fields

Well, the Irish apparently weren't learning their lessons because the Famine continued to get worse and worse. In 1846, another potato crop failed, and the Irish grew more and more desperate.

How the potato famine changed Ireland forever and should we prepare for something similar?
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The government remained indifferent to the Irish misery and pain. Many potato fields began to smell and stink. What was once the Irish's source of both income and pride was now just reeking black fields. Thousands of people had to be evicted out of their homes because they couldn't pay rent, and the situation kept getting worse.

8. Quakers to the Rescue

Just when the Irish realized there's no way they could trust their government to help them, the Quakers, also known as The Society of Friends, came to the Rescue.

How the potato famine changed Ireland forever and should we prepare for something similar?
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The Quakers assembled relief committees that were supposed to provide the Irish with food and clothing. The committees started in Dublin and were expected to spread to nearby cities. The committees got their clothes and produce donations from local businesses. But, as the Famine continued, it became apparent that the committees would not be enough to help the impoverished Irish.

9. The Quakers Failed

The Quakers tried to come up with longer-term solutions for the growing famine problems, but by 1847 their donors stopped providing with money, and they had no resources left.

How the potato famine changed Ireland forever and should we prepare for something similar?
A Quaker meeting in the eighteenth century, vintage engraved illustration. Magasin Pittoresque 1843. Shutterstock.com

The Quakers considered their operation as a failure since they couldn't solve the problem. Having said that, their committees helped thousands of people survive, and their care and compassion warmed the hearts of those who were so brutally ignored by their own government. It was a dark time in human history, but the Quakers made it a little brighter.

10. The rich get richer, and the poor get poorer

Up until now, you probably thought all of the Irish were suffering together, but the truth was a lot gloomier than that. The truth is that during this time, the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer.

How the potato famine changed Ireland forever and should we prepare for something similar?
Starving people searching for potatoes in a stubble field during The Great Famine (1845 - 1849) which was caused by the failure of the Irish potato crop and British government inaction. 1 million people died from starvation and disease and another million fled as emigrants to Britain and North America during the Irish Famine. Original Publication: Illustrated London News - pub. 1849 Photo by Illustrated London News/Getty Images

Ireland's economy did not rely solely on potato crops, and many landowners were producing other crops and selling them while their less fortunate fellow citizens were hungry and moneyless. So, while many farms in Ireland were still producing enough food to feed thousands, the deprived potato farmers saw none of that. All of Ireland's meat dairy and grain were shipped away to England.

11. Can't afford Coffins

In the rural countryside, the living famine victims were cold, hungry, and sick. There was no distinction between the dead and the living, and many left their dead loved ones next to them for a few days before even trying to burry them.

How the potato famine changed Ireland forever and should we prepare for something similar?
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Honestly, they just couldn't afford it. A witness tells that in one village, a poor mother had to ask passersby for some money because she didn't have enough to buy a coffin to bury her child in it. But the sad part is that this wasn't anything special. For famine victims, it was an everyday occurrence.

12. Families had to pick who would be the one to eat - Children were left hungry

The public works relief program that was started by Peel before he lost the election was becoming more and more penny-pinching under Charles Trevelyan. Charles didn't want to spend any money helping the poor.

How the potato famine changed Ireland forever and should we prepare for something similar?
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His version of a relief program included extremely long workdays with no breaks. Those who took part in the relief programs worked incredibly hard but didn't even get enough money to feed themselves and their families. Families had to pick who would be the one to eat, and many times it had to be the parents that needed energy for work. The children were left hungry.

13. Failed Soup Kitchens

As if starving children wasn't bad enough, in March of 1847, Trevelyan and the government decided to put an end to what was left the public work systems, A.K.A., the relief programs.

How the potato famine changed Ireland forever and should we prepare for something similar?
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Trevelyan decided to open soup kitchens instead, where the impoverished potato farmers would be able to get free food. He believed that the free market would take care of the rest. Either way, the policy failed miserably since the government didn't give enough resources to the soup kitchen. Some kitchens had to feed more than 10,000 people but had no way of doing so.

14. Starving on Soup

Under Trevelyan, every measure was taken in order to save money and help the free market stay as free as possible. So, even the soup kitchens that did manage to feed all of their poor did very little to improve the situation.

How the potato famine changed Ireland forever and should we prepare for something similar?
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The so-called soup the kitchens served was as thin as and as nutritious as water. The ration each person was given wasn't even enough to feed a child, not to talk about working adults or pregnant women. After the public works program ended, and the soup kitchens opened that situation only became worse. That led to one of the worst years of Irish history: 1847.

How the potato famine changed Ireland forever and should we prepare for something similar?
'The Irish Ogre Fattening on the Finest Pisantry', 1843. Daniel O'Connell (1775-1847) 'The Liberator', leader of the Repeal (of union with Britain) movement, shown growing fat on his supporters. Cartoon from Punch. (London, 1843). Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images

15. Black '47: The Evictions

Black 47 is the nickname the year 1847 got for being one of the worst years for potato famine victims. Many tenants could not afford to pay rent, and their landlords were desperate to evict them.

How the potato famine changed Ireland forever and should we prepare for something similar?
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The landlords wanted to use their property to grow crops or raise livestock. Both would be more profitable than keeping unpaying tenants. The evicted tenants usually had nowhere to go, and they had to live in the streets during Ireland's freezing winter.

How the potato famine changed Ireland forever and should we prepare for something similar?
Evicted Irish peasant family, 1848. Irish peasant family unable to pay rent because of failure of potato crop due to blight, evicted from their tumbledown cottage. From The Illustrated London News December 1848. Wood engraving. Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images

16. Black '47: The Scheme

Some incredibly greedy and uncaring landlords didn't want to wait for the long legal process of eviction to happen. So, they came up with a scheme to trick tenants into moving out.

How the potato famine changed Ireland forever and should we prepare for something similar?
Irish immigrants sailing to the US during the Great Famine (aka the Irish potato Famine), 1850. Original publication - Illustrated London News - pub 6th July 1850. Photo by Illustrated London News/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The landlords promised the poor tenants tickets for a ship that would take them to America, where they would get food a place to stay. Many potato farmers boarded those ships, which were full to the brim with other starving, poor farmers. Pretty much anyone who boarded these ships immediately got either typhus, dysentery, or some other infections disease.

17. Black '47: The Coffin ships

In the dark spring of dark 47, the coffin ships arrived from Ireland to Canada. The ships were full of sick infectious passengers, who were soon returned back to Ireland.

How the potato famine changed Ireland forever and should we prepare for something similar?
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Many died on these ships, which is why they go the name Coffin ships. The ships barely had enough food, and they were so full, there was no room to breathe. Those who did survive the trip back to their homeland had no food and no place to stay, and many of them died in the streets.

18. Notorious Workhouses

At the time, workhouses were places where the poor could work and get food and a place to stay in return. Though it may sound like an ideal solution to the problems caused by the Famine, workhouses were terrible places to stay in.

How the potato famine changed Ireland forever and should we prepare for something similar?
1846: Starving peasants clamour at the gates of a workhouse during the Irish potato famine. Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

During the years of the Famine, workhouses were swamped with people. The workhouses operated like military bases with cruel military officials telling the poor what to do. The workhouses had strict rules, and the officials usually separated children and parents from each other. The workhouses were so bad that many favored going to prison over staying at a workhouse.

How the potato famine changed Ireland forever and should we prepare for something similar?
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19. The February Revolution

The February Revolution in Paris, France, a revolution where the French people demanded the right to work, inspired some young Irelanders to try and do something about their terrible situation.

How the potato famine changed Ireland forever and should we prepare for something similar?
1848, The French revolution: burning the royal carriages at the Chateau d'Eu, Feby. 24, 1848 Shutterstock.com

In 1848 the French managed to overthrow King Louis Philippe. The Young Irelanders, who saw what was happening in France, wanted to demand independence after being neglected and mistreated by the British government during The Great potato Famine. Their attempt at a revolution was led by the young politician William Smith O'Brien.

20. A lost Battle

The young Irelanders led by William Smith O'Brien spent most of their time campaigning and convincing others to join them. They had one problem: They were all starving.

How the potato famine changed Ireland forever and should we prepare for something similar?
Muster of Irish nationalists at Mullinahone acclaiming William Smith O'Brien (1803-1864) as their leader, July 1848. The Insurrection failed. Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images

Obviously, people who want to rebel and fight must be fed to have the energy to do so. The young Irelanders weren't so lucky. In July of 1848, they chased a unit of policemen into a farmhouse, and a shouting match started between the two. But, the young Irelanders were outnumbered and way too hungry to be able to fight. They lost the battle.

21. An All-Time Low

We would have loved to tell you that The Great Potato Famine ended because of some Heroic act of a young rebel or because the British government finally decided to care, but the truth is a lot gloomier than that.

How the potato famine changed Ireland forever and should we prepare for something similar?
Irish peasants starving during the Potato Famine (1845- 1849), 1846 Shutterstock.com

The Famine continued. The crops continued to fail and take the lives of many. Others were forced to emigrate out of their beloved home country. The British continued ignoring the Irish trouble, and many felt desperate. It felt like it would never come to an end. Until it did.

22. The End of The Famine

So what did end the Famine? Well, at some point, so many people died or emigrated to other countries that Ireland remained half empty.

How the potato famine changed Ireland forever and should we prepare for something similar?
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In a span of 10 years, between 1841 and 1851, Ireland lost 1.5 million people. By the end of the century, they lost almost half of their population, with over 1.5 million dead and 2 million gone to find better lives in other countries. This was a genuinely Tragic time for the Irish. The Famine ended because it no longer had anyone to afflict.

How the potato famine changed Ireland forever and should we prepare for something similar?
Starving townspeople raid a potato store in Galway during a famine, Ireland, 13th June 1842. Food riots occurred all day in the city. Original publication: Illustrated London News - pub 25th June 1842. Photo by Illustrated London News/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

22. Those British Basterds

Now, it's pretty evident to everyone that when millions lose their income and then die of starvation, it's a bad thing, right? Well, it was obvious to everyone but to the uncaring British government.

How the potato famine changed Ireland forever and should we prepare for something similar?
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It's not only that the Brits weren't sad about the loss the Irish people had suffered, but those Basterds were also actually happy about it! They thought that it was remarkable and gratifying that the Irish population was diminished. They found the results of the Famine satisfactory. W.T.F. Brits?

23. Meanwhile in America

The Irish who came to America had a hard time assimilating, and they faced severe discrimination in the U.S. They were perceived as poor and sick, and many places did not want to hire them.

How the potato famine changed Ireland forever and should we prepare for something similar?
Taking the pulse of a sick Irish emigrant on board ship bound for North America during the potato famine of the 1840s, c1890. Wood engraving. Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images

Even though they were quite a large group, making up 43% of all emigrants who came to the states in the '50s, the religious and cultural differences created tension and disdain between them and the Americans. After everything they've been through in their home country, all the Irish wanted was to make a living. But many American businesses had a policy against hiring them, they even had a saying "positively, no Irish need apply." Ouch.

24. Nevertheless, They Persisted

After everything they have been through, the Irish were tired, for sure, but they did not let the Americans break their spirit. With time, many Irish emigrants, who were dedicated hard workers, managed to find themselves in key positions all over America.

How the potato famine changed Ireland forever and should we prepare for something similar?
chrisdorney / Shutterstock.com

Yes, some Americans were still anti-Irish and anti-Catholic, but with time and effort, the Irish managed to assimilate and even become integral to the American culture. Most famously, President John F. Kennedy was of Irish descent.

25. A long overdue apology

Till today, the great potato famine is a painful part of Ireland's history and monuments for Famine victims can be seen throughout the country. But what about the Brits? Did they ever apologize for how they treated the Irish?

How the potato famine changed Ireland forever and should we prepare for something similar?
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Well, we think it was too little too late, but in 1999 an official apology was issued by the British government. I was read out in a Festival dedicated to Famine victims. The British admitted they failed the Irish in their time of need. Now, the real question is, can anything like this ever happen again? And if so, will our governments fail us like the British failed the Irish, or will they help us get through? Only time will tell.