There’s an old and more-than-less racist joke that surfaces every year around St. Patrick’s Day. It involves inviting your friends over for a seven-course Irish dinner: a six-pack and a boiled potato.
While it’s good for a chuckle now, during the 19th century the humble potato was a matter of life or death for millions of Irish peasants. They subsisted on potatoes, condemned to fragile lives as tenant farmers within a backward agrarian system driven by economic and political domination by England.
When an American potato blight spread to Europe in 1845, it triggered the great potato famine that devastated Ireland between 1846 and 1851. How many died in this Irish holocaust no one knows for sure. The most conservative estimate is 775,000, the highest 1.5 million. Bottom line is that there were many more people living in Ireland then than are living there now.
Famine was a matter of political economics. It was a byproduct of political economy that made the potato a dietary staple in Ireland throughout the 19th century. Potatoes are not native to Ireland. Because they required only one-third of the acreage of wheat (translates: bread) and could be easily grown and stored, the British imported the potato from America with the help of Sir Walter Raleigh, whose other historical scourge would be tobacco.
Not long after the British introduced the potato to England’s first — and last — colony, the humble spud provided three-fourths of the sustenance for nine-tenths of the Irish laboring class. It was prolific, nutritious and cheap. It also was subject to crop failure. Ireland experienced 14 partial or complete potato famines between 1816 and 1842, precursors to the horror of mass starvation and disease during the extended, blight-induced famine era of 1846-51.
The British prime minister of the time, Robert Peel, dismissed the first reports of the potato crop failure as “typical Irish exaggeration.” When he finally accepted the grim reality, Peel repealed duties on grain in an effort to lower the price of bread, never understanding that those at risk of starvation in Ireland couldn’t afford bread at any price. Peel’s action and others to follow were typical of laissez-faire policies that exacerbated the famine and starved hundreds of thousands.
The harshest critics of the British response accuse the Brits of genocide. And why not? Whig economist Nassau Senior was busy expressing his disappointment that the famine would reduce the “surplus” Irish population by only a million people in 1848.
To many Whigs the famine was viewed as divine intervention worthy of a wicked, indolent, ignorant and perverse people who in British newspaper editorial cartoons were depicted as apes.
A more balanced view suggests that hundreds of thousands died needlessly due to British adherence to a dogma of political economy that required minimum interference with the market forces of supply and demand and insistence that charity not undermine private initiative or interfere with private enterprise.
It was an approach that saw greedy landlords export food that was raised and processed in Ireland to stable markets in England and France rather than use it to feed their Irish peasant tenants.
It was an approach that saw starving wretches herded into work houses to earn wages too low to buy bread at free-market prices inflated by scarcity. It was an approach that launched public works projects that killed those weakened by hunger.
It was an approach that saw landlords evict skeletal tenants as a means of avoiding the tax burden of famine relief. Some landlords packed their tenants into rented “coffin ships” for trans-Atlantic relocation to Canada and to America on monthlong journeys that often claimed the lives of one-third of the festering human cargo.
Above all, it was an approach that galvanized anti-British sentiment among the Irish.
Such short-sighted strategies didn’t envision bringing a lingering plague of death on England itself. Those who survived the famine provided new and eager recruits for the Young Irelanders, the Fenian Brotherhood and the Irish Republican Brotherhood. Those who died in the famine provided the martyrs for causes whose sacred oaths to drive the British from Irish soil at any cost, by any means, would later give birth to the Irish civil war and the Irish Republican Army.
The potato blight is now a historical curiosity, and the potato fields of Ireland each summer bloom once again. Nonetheless, the great famine’s harvest of death lingers still amid a modern-day free market in hatred, suspicion and IRA-induced terror.
All of which has nothing, whatever, to do with corned beef, cabbage and pints of green beer.
Tom Walsh is the Washington County reporter for The Bangor Daily News. He is a lifelong student of Irish history and has lived and worked in Ireland, where he taught journalism at Dublin City University. His work has appeared in The Cork Examiner and The Irish Times.