Irish Potato Famine

Cause of Irish Potato Famine

In the previous page we talked about Ireland before the Famine. Now we look at how the Famine came about.

The problems began in September 1845. The cause of the potato Famine was an airborne fungus called phytophthora infestans, which became commonly known as “blight”. It seems to have originated in America and was brought over to Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland on ships plying the trade routes, and then carried with the winds.

The seeds would fall on the leaves of the potato plant which would then begin to turn black and rot giving off a horrible smell. The rotting leaves would provide nourishment for the fungus which would grow and spread by the wind to other potato plants. A few infected plants could in turn infect thousands of others throughout large areas.

A Farmer Inspecting His Damaged Potato Crop

The blight affected not only the leaves but also the potatoes. When dug out they at first appeared in good order, but would rot within days. Most of the crop of the 1845 harvest was destroyed. While the scale of the disaster was great, despair had not yet set in. The Irish had learned to weather past smaller famines and thought they will weather this nationwide one too.

Meanwhile, prime minister of Britain Robert Peel, becoming aware of the potato famine purchased shipments of corn and redirected them to Ireland. These shipments helped to alleviate the suffering, but by no means solved the problem.
The Difficult 1846

As the summer of 1846 approached people were optimistic. Having weather the worst they looked forward to a good harvest. They didn’t think that the disaster of the previous year would be repeated. Initially the plants looked healthy. But soon the signs of the blight appeared again and spread throughout the island. The crop was totally destroyed.

The second half of 1846 and the first part of 1847 were probably the worst months of the Famine. As the government changed in London, the cheap corn shipments stopped. the new government tried to provide an income for the destitute by launching a railroad building scheme and other public projects. Then soup kitchens were launched. But even such projects failed to solve the problem.

1847 Onwards

The harvest of 1847 was blight free. But that did not mean that everything was back to normal. Because only few healthy potatoes had been planted the harvest was only a quarter or the normal yield. Furthermore, in 1848 the blight returned with a vengeance destroyed nearly all the crop again. It would be several years before production reached normal levels again and things came back to anything resembling normalcy.

Now you can read about the consequences of the Great Famineconsequences of the Great Famine.

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