'Emigrants Leave Ireland,' engraving by Henry Doyle (1827–1892),
from Mary Frances Cusack's Illustrated History of Ireland, 1868
Most know it as "The Irish Potato Famine." But in fact, it was also known as "The Great Hunger" and "The Great Famine." It was, all in all, a horribly painful period of mass starvation and disease in Ireland that started in 1845 and lasted into 1852. In the end, it is believed that at least a million people died as a result of the famine while another million fled the country.
Believe it or not, the potato was not native to Ireland. It is believed that England's Sir Walter Raleigh brought it to Ireland from the New World (America) around 1570. When it arrived in Ireland, it was found easy to grow, produced a high yield per acre, and absolutely thrived in Ireland's damp climate. Because of those factors, the potato was described as being almost "Heaven-sent" and a "gift from God."
As a result, during the period from 1780 to 1845, the potato is responsible for helping to double the Irish population from approximately 4 million people to 8 million. With the population explosion also came an increased demand for land. Because Ireland was a British colony at the time, the British solution was to divide the available parcels into ever-smaller plots for each succeeding generation. With that, the smaller plots of land farmed by tenant farmers meant that planting potatoes became the only crop that could produce a sufficient enough yield of food grown on such limited acreage.
What created the potato famine was a fungus-like organism called Phytophthora infestans that spread rapidly throughout Ireland. Brought to Ireland aboard ships, the infestation blight spread almost instantaneous to the potato fields where it quickly destroyed the crops. In reality, in no time at all, the infestation ruined up to one-half of the potato crop during that first year. This escalated to a loss of three-quarters of the crop in each of the next seven years. And of course, as one would think, smaller tenant farmers were immediately impacted and suffered the worst.
Why did the potato have such an impact on the Irish? Well, it is said that by 1840, over one-third of the Irish population was totally dependent on the potato for its nourishment. Because the tenant farmers of Ireland, were so dependent on the potato as a source of food, the infestation had a catastrophic impact. Because of the Irish dependency on the potato, the blight created starvation combined with increased susceptibility to diseases such as typhus, dysentery, and cholera. All of which devastated the population.
An Irish newspaper announced the arrival of the blight on September 13, 1845. By 1848, the British government tried to say that the worst was over. But in fact, the devastation lingered for years.
Of course, from 1570 to 1845, no one could have imagined how the potato would be responsible for a disaster that would devastate the Irish economy, kill at least a million people, and create the Irish Diaspora of the 1800s -- a period when the Irish people would be scattered around the globe. In fact, by 1890, 40 percent of Irish-born people lived somewhere other than in Ireland. And by 1911, Ireland's population had dropped to half of what it was in 1845.