Irish History - Origin and History of the Potato Famine
The great potato famine also known as the potato blight and in Gaelic as 'An Gorta Mor' reached its peak in Ireland in 1847 and has had a huge impact on the history of Ireland. It caused death and mass emigration of millions of Irish people. The potato famine of the 1840's was not the first potato famine in Irish history, the potato famine of 1741 and 1822 killed hundreds of thousands of Irish people who relied on the potato as their main food source. The Potato Famine also known as the Potato Blight was caused by the fungus Phytophthora infestans.
It is widely believed by historians that although the potato famine was a significant natural disaster, its affect on the Irish people could have been minimised. The lack of assistance from the British government, particularly from the Prime Minister, Lord John Russell made the impact of the famine on the country of Ireland much worse.
Ireland have commemorated the great famine since 2009 by hosting a week long festival in May as well as a National Famine Commemoration Day. The festival is held at a different location each year and rotates between the four provinces, Ulster, Munster, Connaught and Leinster. Several events now take place annually to remember the potato famine victims, not just in Ireland but all over the world.
Effects of the Potato Famine
People did not just die from starvation during the famine, although many did. Other famine related diseases such as Cholera, Fever and Typhus claimed many lives. People were weak from the lack of food, their immune systems were low and they did not have the strength to fight disease. Many of the emigrants grew ill on the famine boats taking them to their new life. Booking brokers often misled people into believing they would be given food and drink on the crossing, unfortunately many were denied even clean water! Greedy captains filled the boats as full of emigrants as they could without a thought for the terrible conditions the people had to endure. Disease spread like wildfire and the dead were simply tossed into the ocean. The long wait at immigration depots caused even more deaths, boats were queued for days before their passengers were inspected, many were refused entry and sent back on the boats to face inevitable death at sea without ever setting foot on foreign shores.
Image of a potato dinner at Cahirciveen, Co. Kerry
Pictorial Times, February 28, 1846
Potato Famine Coffin Ships
The starving people fleeing from famine ravaged Ireland for a better chance of survival travelled to America and Canada on Famine Ships, often referred to as Coffin ships. They were named coffin ships due to the harsh conditions on board and the poor chance of survival for the passengers. Many of the passengers didn't even have fresh water let alone food for the long and stormy Atlantic crossing. Many of the emigrants were not dressed for the harsh Atlantic Ocean and were misled by the ticket brokers that food and drink would be supplied by the boats captain, unfortunately this was not the case. As a result many of the emigrants died before reaching their destination and their bodies were thrown overboard. Others who survived the crossing died at various immigration depots, the two most famous being Ellis Island in New York and Grosse Isle in Quebec, Canada. The emigrants did not all die from starvation, many died from Fevers, Cholera and Typhus, contracted from other passengers and the inhuman way they were transported.
Image of a Irish Emigrants leaving Liverpool for America
aboard the Mersey - Pictorial Times June 6th 1846
Potato Famine - Cause of Potato Blight
The Potato blight was caused by a fungus. Scientists have discovered that the spores of this fungus 'Phytophthora infestans' better known as 'Potato Blight' can travel long distances on the wind. The spores are then washed into the soil where they infect the growing tubers (potatoes). It has also been discovered that certain environmental conditions can be conducive to potato blight. A colder than usual winter followed by a wetter spring make perfect breeding conditions for these spores, the Irish winters of the mid 1850's were ideal conditions for this fungus!
Potato Famine - Potato Blight Symptoms
In the early stage, the blight can be easily missed and not all of the crop is affected at once. The following are symptoms of potato blight:
Dark blotches appear on on both the tips of the leaves and stems of the plants
White mould appears under the plants leaves in and the plant collapses
Infected potatoes (tubers) develop dark patches that may appear red or brown under the skin
The potato (tuber) decays quickly into a disgusting smelling mush!
Sometimes 'healthy' potatoes can rot in storage
Image of a Healthy Irish Potato Plant
Image of Freshly Harvested Healthy Irish Potatoes
Potato Famine Immigration
Grosse Isle in Quebec, Canada is also known as the Irish Memorial National Historic Site. It was operational during the Irish famine and it is believed that over 500,000 Irish people passed through the depot in the time it was opened (1832-1932) Grosse Isle was an immigration depot where thousands of Irish escaping the famine were quarantined on Grosse Isle between1832 and 1848. There are over 5000 Irish people buried on the Island. It is believed that approx 3,000 died on the Island from typhus or other diseases including starvation and the reminder died while waiting to pass through immigration. Any other emigrants who died before reaching Grosse Isle were buried at sea.
Potato Famine Facts
The worst year of the potato famine was 1847, it was nicknamed 'Black 47'
Ireland have commemorated the great potato famine since 2009 by hosting a week long festival in May as well as a National Famine Commemoration Day
Grosse Isle, Quebec has the largest famine grave outside of Ireland, it is estimated over 5,000 famine victims are buried there
John and William Ford, father and grandfather of Henry Ford (founder of the Ford Car Company) were both born in County Cork. They fled the famine in Ireland and travelled from Cobh in Cork to Quebec then onwards to Detroit
During the years of the Great Potato Famine in Ireland (1845 to 1851), it is estimated that one and a half million Irish people died or emigrated!
Queen Victoria was labelled 'Queen of The Famine' and there is a popular myth that she donated £5 to the famine fund. In fact she donated £2,000 of her personal allowance to the famine fund and was the patron of a charity that raised money for the famine victims
The most popular modern song about the potato famine is "The Fields of Athenry". It is an Irish folk ballad written by Pete St. John about a man called Michael who was punished by being sent to Botany Bay, Australia, for stealing food to feed his hungry family
The Irish people of today are keen to help other countries suffering from famine. In 1985, Bob Geldof a famous Irish musician organised Live Aid to raise money for famine struck Ethiopia. He revealed later that the people of Ireland donated more per head than any other nation!
Sinead O'Connor, the famous female Irish singer and songwriter wrote a song titled 'Famine'. It appeared on her fourth album 'Universal Mother' released in 1994
The British government who were in power during the famine years was led by Lord John Russell, 1st Earl Russell. It is widely believed that his lack of assistance to the Irish people made the effects of the famine even worse. It is also believed much more would have been done by the government to assist the people had the famine occurred in Britain!
The fungus 'Phytophthora infestans' infected the potatoes and caused the blight which resulted in the great Potato Famine