Happy Saturday, everybody. Earlier this month, we did an episode on indentured workers in the Caribbean, in particular Irish indentured workers, and in that episode we made some references to other aspects of Irish history, including the famine that struck Ireland in the 19th century after a blight that killed the potato crop for multiple consecutive seasons since we really couldn't get into the details of that in our July episode. But it's relevant to the greater story there. We thought we would bring it out of the archive for the next two Saturdays.
This episode originally came out on June 17, 2013.
Welcome to Stuff You Missed in History Class A production of I Heart Radio. Hello and welcome to the podcast. I'm Tracy Wilson. And I'm Holly Fry. I like to tell you a story. When I was little, we learned a history lesson about the Irish potato famine, and it was basically summed up as all the potatoes died and a lot of people either starved or moved away. Right. That was sort of the summing up.
That's pretty much the way I was taught about it as well. Right. So my little kid question was, well, how come they didn't eat something else?
I think a lot of little kids ask that question. Right. And so now grown up me kind of looks back at little kid me.
And until I learned the whole story, I was like, that is a very privileged question, right? Because we were a pretty modest family and we did grow all of our own vegetables, but we grew a whole lot more than just potatoes. They also generally had enough food to eat. But it turns out, why didn't they eat something else is a really, really good question about the Irish potato famine.
And that's what we are going to talk about for the next two episodes. This is a popular request. It is indeed done, done a lot of times.
I actually ran into Katie and Sarah over the weekend and they said they had also been asked to talk about it very often and that they didn't have the heart to do it because it's not exactly like a fun jolly joyride. No, it's one of those things where it's clear from the beginning that it's not a jolly joy ride because about a million people died and about two million people left their homes and emigrated elsewhere. It's way worse than just that.
Yeah, there's definitely a lot of suffering to the story. So I know that going in.
Yes. And it's also one that requires a fair amount of background to understand why it is that we got to this point that everyone was only eating potatoes. Right.
So this is going to be a two part episode. And the first is going to really set the stage for many of the layers of what went terribly wrong here.
And then the second episode, we'll get into how all of that played out in the history of Ireland. So we're talking about the mid eighteen hundreds in Ireland. Catholics were really deeply disenfranchised in this point in Irish history.
IRA Ireland had been part of Britain since 1800 and under the British Act of Union. And under this act, Ireland was granted representation in parliament. But Catholics were not allowed to be members of Parliament, and Catholics were the overwhelming majority of the population of Ireland.
So while Ireland technically had representation in parliament, the majority of its its population were not really represented right.
And there had been a number of laws in place restricting very basic aspects of life for Catholics like owning property and having jobs.
And some of these dated back to the 1930s when Irish Catholics sided with James, the second in his battle with William of Orange for the British throne.
So lots of very old rules and laws and prejudices that were affecting these people in a very real way.
Well, and things that we really take for granted, like being allowed to get a job. Yeah, Catholics were not allowed to do. Most of these laws had been repealed in 1829, which is also when Catholics were allowed to become members of parliament. But by that point, anti Catholic bigotry was really deeply entrenched in the Irish culture. And a lot of those past social norms about what people were allowed to do and how they were allowed to practice their religion had been extremely slow to change.
So while maybe things were legal now, it still was not really easy, right?
People to do things like get jobs and property in Ireland at this point was also extremely deeply impoverished as a nation. Only about one quarter of the population was literate in in a theme we've discussed in other podcast, modernisation had really stripped a lot of the working people there of their livelihoods. The linen and wool industries, for example, have been industrialised.
And so the people that made a living in those trades suddenly could no longer find work in rural areas. Large families were living in tiny mud cabins that didn't have windows or chimneys, and most of them were subsistence farmers. None, virtually none of them owned the land that they were farming.
For the most part, they were overwhelmingly Catholic tenants who were paying their rent to overwhelmingly Protestant absentee landlords, who for the most part were living in England, not in Ireland.
And many of these Irish families weren't paying their rent directly to their landlords. So there was a level of complexity to it. Much of the land had been parceled out through a middleman system which had been in place since the seventeen hundreds. So a Protestant middle man would rent a sizeable piece of land from the land owners, subdivide it and then rent that out to tenants. And the tenants paid the middleman in the. Oman paid the landowner, and so that inflated the rent and to raise their profits, middlemen would divide the land into smaller and smaller parcels and raise rent at the same time.
So by 1845, half of these little farms were on five acres or less, and pretty much everybody had less than 10 acres like they were all really pretty small for a farm.
So to add just another layer of ugliness to this whole situation, a lot of these tenants were renting land that their families had previously owned, but had been confiscated from them following Cromwell's invasion of Ireland in the 17th century.
So you have people who really are pretty poor in terms of how much money they have living on a tiny amount of land, paying inflated rent to people who own land that their own families used to own and don't anymore already.
Very uplifting story.
I know. We'll just let that settle for a minute. Yeah.
And there were some communal aspects to this setup. People often bartered instead of using money and those who couldn't afford land would often find work with tenant families, and these laborers would help with chores and help bring in the harvest in exchange for being able to build their own cottage and plant their own little garden plot.
And this brings us to the potatoes. Potatoes really thrived in the Irish soil and climate. It was a reliable and pretty nutritious food staple.
It although, you know, potatoes get a lot of flak now and nowadays for their high carbohydrates and all that stuff be a starchy food, a very starchy food.
But they have lots of vitamin C, lots of other nutrients. And so people who were living largely on potatoes a lot of times really were better nourished than people who were living mostly on, say, bread.
Right. So the introduction of the potato had led the Irish population to double between 1780 and 1845. So more people meant that they needed to grow more food. And as the supply of arable land got used up, farms were getting smaller and smaller to accommodate this increase in the population.
And of course, smaller and smaller farms made it harder for farmers to grow enough food to feed their families.
So doing this required potatoes, which had a much larger yield than any other food crop with a good harvest and a cultivated plot of land.
A family of six could subsist for a year on an acre of potatoes, including potato scraps that they could feed their animals and it would take three times as much land to grow the same amount of grain. So enough grain to feed that same family would take a lot more land.
So people were planning potatoes because that was the only way they could get enough food. Any other land they rented was being used to keep animals or to grow crops, and those were grown to sell so that they could pay rent rather than eating and providing that for their family.
Right. So potatoes were for eating and everything else was to sell. Yeah. Thanks to this combination of factors, by 1845, 60 percent of the Irish food supply was potatoes and the poorest people in Ireland were living almost exclusively on potatoes.
And most people were also planting the same variety of potatoes, which were called lumpers, and they gave a really high yield, but they weren't as nutritious as some other varieties they'd plant around March and harvest around September or October, and then they could bury the harvested potatoes into pits where they'd keep until around July of the following year. So this meant that July and August were really rough and lean months, even in the best of times.
And it also meant the diseases were really likely to spread easily because everyone was planting the same strain of potato. Yeah, there wasn't a lot of diversity to resist pathogens that came around.
This also meant that life for farmers in Ireland had some periods of intensely hard work during planting and harvesting and some spans of relative leisure in between. The potatoes didn't involve they didn't require tons of upkeep. And so even when people were farming other stuff, a lot of times they had a life that balanced hard work with periods of rest. Unfortunately, in many places of the world that were not Ireland, people viewed this as laziness and idleness and selflessness.
And that may have contributed to some of the reluctance to send help once help was really needed here.
So to characterize the start of the problems involving the potatoes, the Irish potato famine, which is what it's called in the rest of the world, but in Ireland it's called the Great Hunger or on the more or the bad life. Dracul started in 1845 when a blight destroyed part of the potato crop.
The blight hit potatoes in other parts of the world, too, and it had economic effects in other areas as well. But really nowhere else in the world was relying as much on potatoes as Ireland was. So while the effects were much more wide reaching in terms of the food supply, Ireland was really hit the hardest.
And this blaze started by attacking the leaves and stems, causing them to turn black and rot. And the potatoes would look edible when they were dug out of the ground. But within days they turned slimy and black.
The initial response from the government was actually kind of on the ball. The prime minister, Sir Robert Peel, sent a commission to evaluate what was going on that October.
And the commissioner came back with the report that Ireland was probably going to lose half of its potato crop. The scientific community pretty quickly concluded that some kind of disease was to blame. But the people whose lives really depended on those potatoes, as we said before, not a very educated community, blamed everything from static electricity to fumes from the newly built railroads.
And this was by far not the first potato blight that had ever happened in history.
Crops had failed certainly before this, but even a whole season of crops had failed before. But Ireland had never seen anything on this scale, and it had never encountered two years of blight in a row, which you can imagine was really devastating. Yes.
So when Prime Minister Peele made some efforts to send relief because everybody was kind of expecting this to be a temporary thing that would resolve itself with the next year's harvest, it wasn't a huge governmental response.
The general consensus was sort of that things would be back to normal. This was going to be a short lived, difficult period that would resolve itself in another season.
But unfortunately, in 1846, the blight returned and to sort of add insult to injury, it was actually much worse the second year, thanks to the wet weather conditions and the fact that diseased potatoes had been used as seed, it spread farther and faster than it had in its initial incarnation.
So people didn't have enough to eat and they didn't have enough to feed the animals.
And hunger related illnesses like typhoid and cholera started to spread. And since people have been getting most of their vitamin C from potatoes, scurvy also became a problem.
The British government did a couple of things to try to help Prime Minister Peel pushed through a repeal of the corn laws.
These were laws that were meant to protect British grain growers from foreign competition by imposing really high tariffs on imported grain. So by reducing the grain supply, the corn laws caused British grain growers to be able to get a higher price for their crops.
Repealing the corn laws was supposed to bring more grain into Ireland and drive prices down. But Ireland and the Irish people didn't really have enough money to buy the grain.
Even at the lower prices that spring, Prime Minister Peul, without going through parliament, bought maize from the U.S. to be distributed as food.
Maize was cheap, but it also needed to be milled to be edible, and there weren't enough mills to actually handle it.
On top of that, maize is a very sturdy grain that needed more processing than other grains. So the mills that already were not numerous enough to process it were strained even more because it took more time to process the amount that they could handle.
Once it was milled into meall, the maize was going to be sold at the rate of a penny per pound. But just like with the imported grain, a lot of people who really needed it just could not afford to buy it.
This corn meal was also a lot different from the potatoes that the Irish were used to eating, both in terms of nutrition and digesting it. And so diarrhoea and scurvy became really common complaints among the people who were managing to buy this cornmeal to eat.
Additionally, the British grain industry was really angry over both the repeal of the corn laws and the import of maize. The conservative government started to falter and prime minister resigned on June 29th of 1846.
The new liberal government, also known as the Whig Party, came into power and it really followed the principle of laissez faire, which was basically leave it alone and it's going to work itself out. The Liberal government was really reluctant to make decisions that would affect private enterprise. So once Prime Minister Peul was out of office, the British government did not do a lot to intervene in the blight. There were no big influxes of food or monetary relief coming from the government.
This is a concept that probably seems incomprehensible to the ears of a modern audience in a world where disasters lead to immediate efforts at relief. But that's not what the ideology was like in the mid 19th century. And there were private fundraising efforts internationally, notably in major cities in the U.S. and India. Quakers led fundraising efforts and the Choctaw Indians recently relocated during the Trail of Tears, actually sent a donation as well. So while there was some international response and some relief on the part of private citizens, it still just was not enough.
Under the new prime minister, John Russell, famine policy fell to Charles Edward Trevelyan, who was the assistant secretary of the British Treasury.
He had been involved in the famine response during Peel's administration, but now he was basically running the show. He ordered an end to the sale of maize and he rejected an incoming shipment of it, saying that he was going to try to prevent the Irish from becoming dependent on government handouts.
Apart from the laissez faire principles under which the Whig Party was operating, Trevelyan himself had a belief in divine Providence, which also influenced his hands off approach to the whole situation in the famine.
Everyone was sort of working under the assumption that private citizens were going to step up and provide relief and that Ireland could use its tax revenue to fund public works projects that would employ Irish farmers. The farmers income would be taxed, and that tax money would fund more projects and a cycle that would pull Ireland up out of poverty. But the Irish government didn't really have enough money to start with. People's wages were too low for income tax to keep up with the need for government spending and also really too low for people to actually meet their own daily needs.
So in addition to they weren't making enough money to buy things their wages were not enough to for the tax revenue to be adequate for the government. So what happened instead was that public works projects were flooded with way more workers than they could possibly use or pay.
And so that's where we're going to pause on this part of the story.
So we're leaving at 1846. Ireland's situation is extremely dire. And Britain has taken a largely hands off approach to mitigating this crisis, so in the next part of this episode, we're going to pick up in 1846 and 1847 and tell how the rest of the the famine unfolded in Irish history.
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