By Tom Walsh
Each year with the run-up to St. Patrick’s Day, a litany of tired old ethnic jokes is dusted off and trotted out, including the one about inviting your friends over for a seven-course Irish dinner: a six-pack and a boiled potato.
While good for a chuckle now, the potato was a matter of life or death for millions of Irish peasants throughout the 19th century. As tenant farmers enslaved to a backward agrarian system, their fragile lives were inextricably linked to economic and political allegiances to England. When an American potato blight surfaced in Europe in 1845, it triggered the great potato famine, which persisted in all its pestilence into 1851.
Conservative estimates put the number of deaths at 775,000. Respected Irish historian Joel Mokyr puts the figure at 1.9 million.
It was political economy that made the potato a dietary staple in 19th-century Ireland. Potatoes were not native to Ireland, but they were prolific, nutritious and cheap. Because their cultivation required only one-third the acreage of wheat and potatoes could be easily grown and stored, the British imported the potato from America. Not long after England imposed the potato to its first colony, spuds provided three-fourths of the sustenance for nine-tenths of Ireland’s laboring class.
During the extended famine of 1845-51. British Prime Minister Robert Peel dismissed the first reports of the potato crop failure as typical Irish exaggeration. When he finally accepted the grim reality of the famine, he repealed taxes on grain imports to lower the price of bread, never understanding that those at risk of starvation in Ireland couldn’t afford bread at any price.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 actions and the many inactions to follow made things worse. Hundreds of thousands died needlessly because of British economic dogmas requiring minimum interference with the forces of supply and demand and insistence that government charity not undermine private initiatives nor interfere with private enterprise. It was a dogma that saw Lord Brougham declare in the House of Lords that the rights of property take priority over the rights of Irish tenants to survive.
Given that political cover, greedy Irish landlords exported food raised and processed in Ireland to stable markets in England and France, instead of using it to feed their starving tenants.
It was a myopic, laissez faire approach that saw starving wretches herded into workhouses to earn pittance wages too low to buy food at free-market prices inflated by scarcity. Public works projects killed workers weakened by hunger while providing Ireland with roads to nowhere and piers along coastlines too rugged to accommodate shipping.
Above all, perhaps, it was an approach that galvanized anti-British sentiment among the Irish and an Anglo-phobia that persists into the 21st century. And why would it not? In 1848, Whig economist Nassau Senior expressed his disappointment that the famine that year would reduce the surplus Irish population by only a million souls. To many Whigs, including Charles Edward Trevelyan, the British bureaucrat in charge of Irish famine relief, the famine was seen as divine intervention worthy of a wicked, indolent, ignorant and perverse people.
Such short-sided strategies never envisioned that insistence on self-reliance and free trade in the face of famine would bring a lingering plague of death to England. The thousands claimed by the famine provided the martyrs for causes with sacred oaths to drive the British from Irish soil at any cost, by any means — oaths that subsequently give rise to the Irish civil war of 1916 and, in time, the Irish Republican Army.
Though the potato blight has long subsided, the potato fields of Ireland blossom still as the great famine’s harvest of death lingers in Irish genetic memory, amid a modern-day free market in hatred, suspicion and terror.
Tom Walsh, a Bangor Daily News reporter in Maine, is a graduate of Dublin City University and a lifelong student of Irish-American history. He’s also a former Iowa City bureau chief for the Cedar Rapids Gazette. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org