The Irish Famine: A Legacy

The Irish Famine has been given many names, each conjuring up an image of the event: The Great Hunger, Black ’47, The Great Starvation and so on. The horror of the event seems so long ago but similar events appear daily in our news headlines.

In the 1840s the Irish survived on the potato, it fed sixty-five percent of Ireland’s population. It was not a meagre foodstuff; the diet of potatoes and milk is extremely nutritious and exceeds our modern recommended daily allowances of vitamins, calcium and Iron. It was not its nutritional value that made it so popular, however. It was the only foodstuff that the people could afford as a result of mounting economic conditions.

Between 1845 and 1852, a potato blight swept thorough the Irish Potato crop. The Phytophtora infestans blight affected much of the potato crop of Western Europe between these years. The effects of the fungus were most severe in Ireland, particularly in the poverty-stricken west of Ireland: Half of the potato crop was lost in the first year. This was disastrous to the large numbers of people who relied upon it as their only source of food.

Failure of the crop was not new but continued failures as a result of this ‘new disease’ in subsequent years had dire consequences for the Irish population as a whole. The population went hungry and hundreds of thousands starved or chose to emigrate. The numbered dead as a result of actual starvation and related disease are disputed, but the population drop as a result of the famine years speaks for itself. According to the 1841 Census, Ireland had a population of around eight million but this figure dropped to around six million by the time of the 1851 Census.

During the 1840s and for generations afterward people left Erin’s Isle for lands across the sea: Their names can be seen across the globe upon monuments in locations as diverse as Australia and Argentina or on the list of named missing New York Police and Fire Department officers following September 11.

What turned the blight into a famine is a complex question, but the event nonetheless shaped the lives of the Irish worldwide.

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