This is article number six in my Irish History Week series.

Beginning in 1845, a disaster of almost unimaginable proportions occurred in Ireland. Calling it a famine is a demonstration of the inadequacy of words to convey some things in history. With millions dead and the entire country broken and destitute, the Great Famine is nothing less than Ireland’s Shoah (Holocaust). Although the trigger for the disaster came from the natural environment, what the Irish call An Gorta Mór (the “Great Hunger”) was almost entirely man-made. It changed Ireland forever, and the rest of the world as well.

The story of the Great Famine doesn’t begin or end with potatoes. It really begins with land ownership. By the early 19th century Ireland had been conquered by Britons many times, sometimes by military force and at other times by economics or demographics. By the 1840s Ireland was Britain’s closest colony–its workshop, food pantry and ATM machine. The way the British organized the system of land ownership in Ireland, predictably, benefited a few wealthy landowners, almost all of whom lived in England, not Ireland. They rented their estates through middlemen to the millions of poor Irish farm families who made up the bulk of the population. But these people, who paid ruinous rents to the middlemen, lived on only the marginal scraps of Ireland’s land that were left over. The choice lands in Ireland were given over to grain production or ranching cattle for the British market, and boatloads of cows, butter, cheese and similar products arrived on English docks every day of the year.

john russell

The government of John Russell, British Prime Minister during the Great Famine, disfavored relief efforts during the crisis, thinking the “free market” would solve the problem–a tragic and callous miscalculation.

This detail–the prevalence of land uses that benefited Britons, rather than farming that benefited Irish–proved to be the trigger of the disaster. Because they lived on the more marginal land with poorer soils, the poor Irish farmers simply didn’t have the space to grow rotations of crops. The only crop they could grow in their tiny fields that would have any chance of feeding their families was potatoes. Although originally introduced to Ireland as a supplement to traditional grain foods, by the middle of the 19th century the potato was the staple of many Irish diets. They simply didn’t have the land, money or economic ability to grow anything else.

Then the environment stepped in. In 1845 an organism called Phytophthora infestans somehow got loose in Ireland–possibly, in a stroke of irony, in potatoes served to passengers on ships sailing from America to Ireland. The blight quickly ruined the potato crops all over the island. Ireland’s subsistence economy, which barely functioned at all at the best of times, collapsed. By early 1846 poor people, especially children, were dying of hunger. The blight caused a cascading failure. Because no crops ripened in 1845 and 1846, there were very few seed potatoes available for the 1847 season. Ireland’s population was already straining the available resources, but when the food supply was essentially cut off, countless families were sentenced to an agonizing death by starvation.

The really tragic part of the story is that there was no need for Ireland to starve. Throughout the whole thing, from 1845 to 1852, Ireland continued exporting food to England–grains, cows, butter, beer, and everything else. The lands on which Britons grew wheat and ranched cattle weren’t affected by the blight, and they saw no need to change. If that food had been diverted to local consumption instead of export, no one in Ireland would have starved. Instead, the British government resorted to charity–buying corn meal and sending it to Ireland–while at the same time draining away the food resources that Ireland itself was producing. It’s no wonder that some modern historians have argued that this cruel indifference qualifies An Gorta Mór as genocide.

dublin famine memorial

This memorial to the Great Famine in Dublin is one of many remembrances of the tragedy.

The response of the Irish people to the famine was multi-fold. As is well known, many thousands immigrated to the United States, becoming the backbone of the urban working class in cities like New York and Boston. But Irish went other places too, including Canada, Australia and (surprisingly) England. Many of those who couldn’t immigrate died–by some accounts as many as 2 million of them. Politically and culturally the Great Famine caused an almost unresolvable resentment in Ireland against Britain. Although Ireland (minus Ulster) became a country independent of Britain in 1922, the break perhaps became inevitable in the 1840s.

Ireland did recover–well, sort of. Although its population declined startlingly in the mid-19th century, the potato crops staged a comeback in the 1850s, although the dangerous situation of monoculture and the ruinous land ownership laws remained largely in effect. For the rest of the 19th and going into the 20th century, though, Ireland remained a much poorer country than it probably should have been, with its proximity to England and its location on the western crust of prosperous Western Europe. Indeed Ireland’s course since 1850 has taken a much different tack than most of the rest of Europe. You could argue that this divergence began or at least was exacerbated by the divisions of the Great Famine.

The Famine remains today a central event in modern Irish history. There are many memorials to it, and not just in Ireland. You can visit “starving farms” in the Irish countryside today, gruesome tourist attractions that attempt to recreate conditions as they were during the Great Hunger. The debate over causes, responses, and the genocide question continues. You simply can’t talk about the Irish past without coming to grips, in some fashion, with the horror that happened there in the 1840s. That process of coming to grips will likely continue for as long as Ireland remains a nation.