Famine Memorial

Sept-9-1845: Dawn of the Great Irish Hunger

On this day in 1845, the first reports of a potato blight are reported in the Dublin Evening Post.  The blight was caused by Phytophthora infestans, a parasitic mold that once it infected a potato plant it could reach thousands more in a matter of days. The blight did not originate in Ireland but appears to have originated in Mexico (the potato was first domesticated in Peru and Bolivia), causing crop failures in the eastern United States in 1843 and 1845 and then was transported across the Atlantic and spread through much of northern and central Europe.

The Cost of the Famine

When it reached Ireland, the results were catastrophic as mass starvation and disease claimed between one to three million lives between 1845 and 1851 – the greatest loss of life in western Europe in the 100 years between the Napoleonic Wars and World War I.   The Hunger, as it is known, led 2.5 million Irish to emigrate to the United States, Canada and elsewhere during this period (with as many as one-fifth dying during the journey).  In the 1840’s, the Irish constituted half of all U.S. immigrants.

The Cause of the Famine

While other countries suffered crop failure, only Ireland suffered mass starvation and disease.  There were only approximately 100,000 deaths in the rest of Europe due to the potato blight.  As Irish nationalist John Mitchel, explained, “[t]he Almighty indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the famine.” 

The famine hit an Irish population of tenant farmers impoverish by British rule that restricted their ability to own their own farm land or even fish, as they toiled for absentee landlords in England.  As Wikipedia explained:

One historian calculated that, between 1801 and 1845, there had been 114 commissions and 61 special committees enquiring into the state of Ireland, and that “without exception their findings prophesied disaster; Ireland was on the verge of starvation, her population rapidly increasing, three-quarters of her labourers unemployed, housing conditions appalling and the standard of living unbelievably low”.

Having created conditions for catastrophe, the British government, while slow to respond, only made matters worse through adherence to a laissez faire approach to the crisis.

  • Ireland had net food exports throughout the “famine”, as the British refused calls to restrict exports to address domestic needs as had been done in the past.  Even worse, the wheat that was imported during the famine was largely used as livestock feed.
  • Relief efforts were miserly and actually decreased as the blight progressed.
  • Relief was tied to punitive measures that prohibited relief to anyone who held at least ¼ acre of land forcing farmers with the choice of land or starvation.  This drove nearly 200,000 people off their farms in 1849-1850 alone.

The Kindness of Strangers

Donations poured in from across the world.  Ottoman Sultan Abdülmecid I offered to send £10,000, but British diplomats convinced him to reduce the sum to £2,000 to avoid donating more than Queen Victoria.  From the United States donations came from U.S. President James Polk ($50), Congressman Abraham Lincoln ($10), the Choctaw Indians ($174), slave churches in the American south and $150,000 in goods from Massachusetts businessmen as repayment for Irish assistance during King Philips War.

The Irish have been especially grateful to the Choctaw Nation who themselves knew starvation during the Trail of Tears.

  • In 1992, a group of Irish men and women walked the 600-mile Trail of Tears, raising $170,000 to relieve suffering in famine-stricken Somalia—$1,000 for every dollar donated by the Choctaw people in 1847; and
  • In 2017, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar visited Choctaw Nation headquarters to announce a yearly scholarship for Choctaw students to study in Ireland.

In addition, Irish donors were inspired by the Choctaw’s generosity to give $1.8 million for COVID-19 relief to the badly impacted Navajo Nation and Hopi Reservation.

Was it Genocide?

Many Irish recoil at the word “famine”.  As great Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw notes, it was not a famine, but a “starvation.  When a country is full of food, and exporting it, there can be no famine.” Regardless of the term used, some contend that the British role in this human catastrophe amounts to genocide, citing the governments open bigotry towards its colonized subjects. 

Consider this assessment by the British head of administration for famine relief:

The judgement of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson, that calamity must not be too much mitigated. …The real evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the Famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people.

— Charles Trevelyan

As one author notes, genocide connotes some intention of elimination of a people and the famine “was rather a case of catastrophic neglect and ideological blindness than deliberate malice.”

Or as one Irish-American historian explains, the famine was:

the culmination of generations of neglect, misrule and repression. It was an epic of English colonial cruelty and inadequacy. For the landless cabin dwellers it meant emigration or extinction

— Dennis Clark

See September 9 Part 2 – America’s Bloodiest and Unknown War, the Stono Slave Rebellion and the Bombing of Oregon.

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