Echoes of a Famine from 150 Years Ago

January 01, 1996  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  Government

(GALWAY, REPUBLIC OF IRELAND) Grown men wept at the sight. Women screamed and tore their hair. Some fainted. For they knew that from Galway Bay to Dublin, from Cork to Belfast, death would soon stalk the land.

The event was the infestation of the Ireland’s potato crop with "late blight." It was to spark the "Great Hunger," the 150th anniversary of which we mark this year. Before it ended, a million Irish had died, and perhaps a million more had emigrated, and the future of Ireland — and the United States, where most of the emigres landed — would be forever changed.

Botanists will tell you the famine was caused by the fungus Phytophthora infestans. Yet wrong-headed government policies had at least as much to do with it. As one Dubliner put it to me during my visit, "Where you see famine, politics must lie just below the surface."

Before the famine, the Irish had been among the healthiest people in Europe. Their usual daily diet was potatoes. These comprised perhaps 60 percent of the food for the people in general but close to 100 percent for those in the poorer west and southwest regions of the country.

Potatoes could be grown economically even on the tiny parcels of land the Irish Catholics were allowed to cultivate. Further, they thrived even in the rocky, damp earth of the western part of the island.

The menu was monotonous but highly nutritious. If you ate enough — and the Irish men ate as many as 14 pounds a day — they supplied virtually every vitamin and nutrient your body needed.

But in 1845, this godsend became a deadly liability. That’s when the late blight first appeared. (Ironically, it could have been the result of importing a new strain of potato from America to make the current strain healthier.) The blight moved so quickly you could practically watch its progression, and in a matter of days a field would be destroyed. Like a dark veil it spread across parts of continental Europe, then England, and then hopped across the Irish channel.

Poor farmers watched in horror as their green field turned black and then began to give off a stench like putrefying flesh.

Still, in 1845 the blight only claimed about 60 percent of what would have been a bumper crop in Ireland. Food in storage was enough to tide the population over for a year. But when the late blight appeared again the next year, the stores had been exhausted and suffering would begin that the Irish to this day have not forgotten.

Many people died from outright starvation. Autopsies performed on the dead would find their bodies entirely devoid of food. Many more, however, in their weakened state, succumbed to "famine fever," a general term describing illness from typhus, dysentery, and cholera.

Reported the Cork Examiner of the poor in its community:

    Death is in every hovel; disease and famine, its dread precursors, have fastened on the young and old, the strong and the feeble, the mother and the infant; whole families lie together on the damp floor, devoured by fever, without a human being to wet their burning lips or raise their languid heads; the husband dies by the side of the wife, and she knows not that he is beyond the reach of earthly suffering; the same rag covers the festering remains of mortality and the skeleton forms of their living, who are unconscious of the horrible contiguity; rats devour the corpse, and there is no energy among the living to scare them from their horrid banquet; fathers bury their children without a sigh, and cover them in shallow graves, round which no weeping mother, no sympathizing friends, are grouped; one scanty funeral is followed by another and another. Without food or fuel, bed or bedding, whole families are shut up in naked hovels, dropping one by one into the arms of death. 

Despite the potato failure, much of this suffering was not inevitable. For just as was the case recently in Ethiopia and Somalia, crop failures play on a part in famines. The rest comes from the failure of government.

Ireland was at the time actually a part, albeit reluctantly so, of the wealthiest nation on earth, the United Kingdom. But many in Britain loathed its people. In those days before CNN, British papers often depicted the Irish as slothful and stupid "bogtrotters." British cartoonists depicted them as hairless apes.

Like today, the government promised much and delivered little.

Much of Ireland’s produce was in grains, but these continued to leave port for English and other destinations. Some food was imported, but then as today, powerful special interest groups prevailed upon the government to severely limit imports rather than to hurt their bottom lines.

Then, as today, the government set up public works projects to provide pointless make-work jobs, building roads that began and ended nowhere and docks where no port would ever be. Then, as today, people were huddled together in massive projects. Often as not disease ended their stay. (Today, it would be crime or drugs.)

Today the line, "We’re from the government and we’re here to help," has become a joke. Back then, nobody laughed. The hatred they developed has survived to this day and plays out in the bitter violence of the Irish Republican Army. The combination of a deadly fungus and a deadly government policy continues to be lethal today, 150 years later.