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Lessons from the great famine of Ireland

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By Wilson Chafutsa

Great Famine—also called Irish Potato Famine, Great Irish Famine, or Famine of 1845– 49—was a famine that occurred in Ireland in 1845–49 when the potato crop failed in successive years. The crop failures were caused by late blight, a disease that destroys both the leaves and the edible roots, or tubers, of the potato plant. The causative agent of late blight is the water mold Phytophthorainfestans. The Irish famine was the worst to occur in Europe in the 19th century.

The potato had become a staple crop in Ireland by the 18th century and was considered a hardy, nutritious and calorie-dense crop and relatively easy to grow in Irish soil.

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By the early 1840s almost half the Irish population, mostly the rural poor, had come to depend almost exclusively on the potato for their diet.

Heavy reliance on just one or two high-yielding types of potatoes greatly reduced the genetic variety that ordinarily prevents the decimation of an entire crop by disease, and thus the Irish became vulnerable to famine.

In 1845, a strain of the water mold Phytophthorainfestans, which causes late blight in potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant, pepper and chillies (crops in the Solanaceae family) arrived in Ireland accidentally from North America.

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Hot dry weather checks the spread of Phytophthora but, in 1845 Ireland had unusually cool moist weather, which allowed the blight to thrive. Much of that year’s potato crop rotted in the fields. That partial crop failure was followed by more devastating failures in 1846–49, as each year’s potato crop was almost completely ruined by the blight.

The British government’s efforts to relieve the famine were inadequate. British assistance was limited to loans, helping to fund soup kitchens, and providing employment on road building and other public works. By August 1847, as many as three million people were receiving rations at soup kitchens.

Between 1846 and 1850, the population of Ireland dropped by two million which represented 25 percent of the total population. This figure of two million can be effectively split in two. One million died of starvation or the diseases associated with the famine and one million emigrated to North America or parts of England, such as Liverpool, and Scotland, such as Glasgow.

Ireland continued to suffer de-population after the famine ended. Many young Irish families saw their futures in America and not Ireland. This affected Ireland as those who were most active, and who could contribute the most to Ireland, left the country.

Irish culture was severely hit by the famine. The sharp decline in the speaking of language has been specifically linked to the late 1840s. There was little use speaking Gaelic in England, Scotland or America. The areas where Gaelic was at its strongest – in the west of Ireland – were the areas hit the hardest by the famine, both in terms of deaths and emigration.

The political impact of the famine in Ireland was very great. Some believed that the government in London had done as little as it could to help the Irish. Therefore, they believed that the only people who could help the Irish were the Irish themselves.

The nature of the Irish land system contributed to the famine. Ireland had a land policy that affected keeping large numbers on the land and preventing agricultural improvement and this was disastrous. The Irish Corn Laws prevented large-scale importation of grain into Ireland until after they were repealed in 1846.

What should we learn from this terrible story? First, governments are not as powerful or effective in relieving disasters as many believe.

Second, laws that affect economic choice can have far-reaching and frequently perverse results. In particular, actions and laws that create the wrong kind of economic incentives can be truly disastrous and produce effects that are hard to reverse.

Finally, there is one serious lesson for contemporary policymakers. Many people today are foolish enough to advocate the deliberate support of traditional subsistence peasant farming in many parts of the world and resistance to measures such as free trade, which would lead to modern commercial farming.

NOTE: The author is an agricultural research scientist in the Ministry of Agriculture based at Chitedze, but writing in his own capacity

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