The Great Hunger

By Kathy Conner Cornell VCE Southside Master Gardener We have heard about the Irish Potato Famine but how many of us know the history behind it and the devastation it took on the people of Ireland. Having had the good fortune to visit Ireland for my sixtieth birthday, I learned about the Irish culture that had their own language and of course their own religion. As far back as 16th and 17th century, Britain had conquered the island by force. Oliver Cromwell forces mutilated hundreds of Irish people and forced others from their land in Ulster and moved them to rocky land not suited for growing any crops but potatoes. In some areas, Catholics were not allowed to own land so they were tenant farmers on small pieces of property and paid rent to the owners – British “gentlemen”. Again, the potato was the only crop that could grow an ample amount of food in a small space. Priests were banished, the Gaelic language could not be spoken, Catholic churches and schools were closed. Every attempt was made to make the Irish people accept the Protestant religion, without much success I should add. In 1801, Ireland was officially governed as a colony of Great Britain and the two nations were known as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. At this time the population was around 8 million. It appears the country didn’t like that situation any more than the Thirteen Colonies but it took them until 1921 to gain their independence. Potatoes were introduced to the Irish in the mid-1700’s. The only potato grown was known as the Irish Thumper. As with today’s potatoes, new potatoes are grown from the eyes or buds of mature potatoes. Therefore, the Irish could maintain “seed” potatoes for next year’s crop. Right there was a big mistake – diversity should be maintained in the garden. Planting a monoculture will cause a pest to easily spread from plant to plant. In 1845, the disease Phytophthora infestans entered Ireland through winds. The plant lived up to its name meaning “vexing plant destroyer” by spreading rapidly to the Irish Thumpers. It is a water mold and sends out tiny bags of several spores that are carried on the wind. When the bag lands on a susceptible host, it breaks open. If the day is warm and wet, which is often the case in Ireland, the “zoospores” will germinate and send threadlike filaments into the leaf. When purple-black or purple-brown spots appear on the leaves, it is too late for the plant to live.
The lesions on this potato leaf show the spores of Phytophthora infestans, the disease that caused The Great Hunger in Ireland. The irony of it all, is that a considerable amount of foodstuffs were exported to England. Here the Irish people are starving and all the food that they are helping to grow is sent someplace else. Most of us know this time as the Irish Potato Famine. I was reading an article by a gentleman whose relatives lived through this. He felt famine was the wrong word since there was plenty of food. The time is also known as The Great Hunger, in the Irish language, An Gorta Mor. The infestation ruined up to one-half of the potato crop in 1845 and about three-quarters of the crop over the next seven years. A brave group of people, that I learned about while in Ireland, are those that chose to live on the Blasket Islands. Although the land was not user friendly, the people could speak and worship as they chose. Other groups of strong people sailed on “coffin” ships to the United States, Canada and Australia. Most started the voyage weak and with the unsanitary conditions, many died during the journey or while in quarantine. One thing I would love to be able to explain is why The Great Hunger ended. The cause of the potato demise was not discovered until the early 1900’s. There was no treatment provided to prevent the disease or new strains introduced. Potatoes were still grown out of necessity and the fact that disease spores live in the soil for years, makes it a mystery to me how the potatoes all of a sudden weren’t impacted. It is true that there were considerably less people to feed. There is some indication that drier weather for several years may have helped reduce the pathogen in the poor Irish soils. Today we have many varieties that are resistant to Phytophthora infestans.