Ireland The Great Starvation of Ireland I. The starvation in Ireland: 1845-1852 Over the years, the people of Ireland have suffered many hardships, but none compare to the devastation brought by the Irish potato famine of 1845-1857. A poorly managed nation together with ideally wicked weather conditions brought Ireland to the brink of disaster. It was a combination of social, political and economic factors that pushed it over the edge. After a long wet summer, the potato blight first appeared in Wexford and Waterford in September of 1845.
The phytophora infestans were carried in on ships from Europe and America. Less than a year later, in August of 1846, virtually the entire potato crop in Ireland had been destroyed. The following winter became unbearable for the already starving nation. The westerly winds, which usually brought warmer air, failed, letting cold conditions from Scandinavia and Russia overtake the island of Ireland. The effects of malnutrition from starvation combined with the unusually cold temperatures aided in the spread of disease and ultimately death among the nation of Ireland.
Starvation, respiratory disease, typhus epidemics, cholera, dysentery, scurvy, and deficiencies in vitamin A, all contributed to the loss of over a million Irishmen over a seven-year period. The practice of medicine at the onset of the blight was extremely inadequate. Ireland had only 39 infirmaries; this translated into one clinic for every 366,000 people. When looking at these numbers, one can easily understand why so many perished. Many of the deaths during the famine were never recorded, because of this the death toll may never be known.
The number of deaths related to starvation is estimated to range from one to one and a half million people. According to Don Mullan, 200-300 mass graves were discovered, and in each grave over 1,000 bodies were identified. The infant mortality rate in some areas reached 50%. It was mainly the deaths of babies and children were the ones that often went unrecorded. The beginnings of the starvation are said to be a “biometeorological phenomenon,” however, the British reacted in a sociopolitical manner. Relief from the British government was slow and insignificant.
The economic policies that existed were unhelpful and the British Parliament refused to make adjustments to provide for a national disaster. No free food was offered to the starving people as long as there was food for sale. Charities offered to undersell the merchants, but under Parliament policies, this was not acceptable. Ships carrying aid from other countries were intercepted before they could reach the hungry peasants. Several American groups contributed huge amounts of money, food, and clothing for relief purposes, but little, if any, reached the starving peasants of Ireland.
In March of 1847, Quakers and religious charities began funding soup kitchens and workhouses. For many of the hunger victims, this was the only kind of aid seen during the years of the famine. Before the peasants were fed, many protestant groups ordered the peasants to condemn Catholicism. Meals served by “soupers” consisted of watery soup and bread. These meals did not provide adequate nutrition to keep the starving people alive and, many times, made it worse. People who are starving to death suffer from water retention and nutritional edema and by trying to hydrate them with watered down soup, increased their chances of mortality.
The workhouses were overcrowded as well as unhealthy. There were as many as 173 workhouses in Ireland, more than the number of health clinics. The workhouses sometimes housed more than three times the amount of people they were originally built to hold. This promoted the spread of disease that was already rampant among the Irish. These aid efforts were halted to finance improvements in long term seed distribution. British soldiers were sent in during the 1846 food riots.
The troops were placed in depots, ships, and harvest fields. This action was taken by the British to ensure that the peasants did not keep their produce. During the same year, an Irish physician by the name of Dr. Dominic Corrigan wrote, “Starve in the midst of plenty, as literally as if dungeon bars separated them from a granary. When distress has been at its height and our poor have been dying in our streets, our corn has been going to a foreign market. It is to our own poor, a forbidden fruit.” By August of 1849, some relief from the crop failure finally came, but the potato harvest was limited.
By this time, at least one million had already died and just as many had fled the country. The death rate of people without food, money, or shipfare continued to rise, as another winter came and went. By the spring of 1851, the famine began to lift, but thousands still remain at high risk. II. Social, economic, and political factors that predisposed Ireland to starvation There were many repressive societal conditions under which the Irish peasants were forced to live and as a result became dependent on the potato. “Prior to 1845, Pre starvation Ireland was characterized by primitive technology, a colonial social organization dictated by an exploitive political policy, and an economic system that did not reinvest in Ireland.” Under the colonial system, the rents became extremely costly, in which individuals were often faced with a choice to pay rent or buy food for their families.
The relatively cheap and easy to grow potato was encouraged as a dietary staple and Irish peasants were forced to use the potato for survival purposes. Technology used for agriculture was also lacking. Quality lands were being used for grain, livestock, and flax forcing many families to use the barest lands for subsistence. Irish farmers were forced to farm on wastelands and marginal croplands, and the potato was the only crop that would flourish in these conditions. Due to these factors the potato became the basic food source for Irish peasants.
During the Napoleonic Wars, the French isolated Great Britain; the English took advantage of Ireland’s resources. Over the next ten years, grain and livestock, exported from Ireland, fed the British army and the factory workers who produced war materials. England’s economy fell into a post-war depression after 1815, and created further problems among Irish farmers. “Wheat prices fell by one third promoting the London Parliament to pass the Corn Law. Thin legislation, ostensibly enacted to “save the farmer” excluded imported grain (except from captive Ireland) from the British Isles until the price of domestic cereals reached a profitable target price in the marketplace.
Although the law led to continued growth in the export of grain from Ireland to England, guaranteed minimum prices favored the landlords and led to greater dependence on the potato.” Wars and rebellions were commonplace in seventeenth century Ireland. Sociopolitical conditions were yet another reinforcement that made the potato an ideal crop. “Potatoes were not easily trampled by calvary and did not require warehouses that could be burned by marauding armies.” Potatoes were ideal in their ease of preparation and long shelf life, good source of nutrition, as well as filling, when prepared with butter and milk. Potatoes were also ideal because they did not require more fuel or new utensils to prepare. In Ireland the common method of preparation boiling food and if stored in a cool dark place, could be kept for long lengths of time. III. British racism toward the Irish contributed to starvation Since the Norman Invasion of Ireland in the twelfth century, the English took an attitude of racism toward the Irish.
It was this viewpoint that hindered the Irish from receiving adequate aid from the English. The Irish were said to have no morals and careless breeding practices. The Irish came under great scrutiny by prominent members of the church and authors. Many newspapers of the time used God and religion to explain the starvation. They said the Irish peasants were essentially being punished for not participating in religion and having a tendency toward crime.
The British viewed the Irish as an inferior race and subhuman. This made it easier for them to “excuse one’s humanitarian obligations,” and essentially exterminate them. Many Irishmen were led to believe that they were responsible for the situation in which they were being placed. If …