An Gorta Mór / The Great Irish Famine
Irish Potatoes are back on the menu! The ANTIblog returns to its epic Irish Potatoes: The Spud in Irish Food Traditions series. This time out the tone is more tragic (than usual) as we cover what is known by its Irish term An Gorta Mór – The Great Hunger.
Part Five of the greatest love story (n)ever told – between succulent potatoes from Ireland and the hearts (and mouths) of Irish people the world over – is an extra intriguing installment.
As the Great Irish Famine is the key turning point in Irish-Potato relations, we’ve split the topic into this first piece on the early years of An Gorta Mor – and included some vital facts about the Irish famine that are usually misunderstood. There will follow a second part that brings you right up to date, as historians and statesmen continue to debate over whether ‘The Irish Genocide’ might be a more accurate term for what took place on the island of Ireland between 1845 and 1851.
Part V – In which AN GORTA MOR, defining tragedy, strikes an arrow in the locals’ love for IRISH POTATOES
An Gorta Mór looms
When we last saw our windswept Irish Potatoes & Co. merrily plying, or plowing rather, their trade, the tragedy of an event like An Gorta Mór was surely the farthest thing from their minds. Indeed, so busy toiling away on the cramped Irish potato farm was the typical Irish family that hunger (of any kind) didn’t bear thinking about.
Life was still no cakewalk, but thanks to the buoyancy of Irish potatoes, it seemed starvation had, at long last, been taken off the Irish menu. The British Empire was booming and Paddy the Peasant was playing his not inconsiderable part in fueling the ships of war and trade now grabbing the world by the brisket.
Moreover, Paddy had in his grip some short and curlies of his own, the all-natural honeypot that are the world’s greatest tubers. For, long before your TV personalities and Vloggers, there were superstars that simply shone brighter than the rest: Irish potatoes.
Alas, their fall from grace and the descent into An Gorta Mór was to be all the more shattering for what had gone before: the mercurial rise of potatoes in Ireland, from humble origins in the backwaters of South America. Fitting too that just as their journey to Erin’s Isle and export far and wide had been enabled by the seemingly never-ending advance in shipping, the downfall of fair, dashing Spud was to spawn from the very same chrysalis..
Irish potatoes & dishes served cold
It is mid-19th Century: With the well-fed, but still fairly destitute, Irish masses swooning under the weight of their Protestant overlords, news from afar tells of a novel strain of blight causing potato crop failure in the New World. To a people that, depending on their bodily dimensions and workload, eats between 7 lb and 14 lb of potatoes each (..day….!), this is more than a little worrying.
All the abundance they’d been enjoying just couldn’t have lasted, right? The luxury of being able to feed yourself. After centuries of famine, repression and 50 shades of misery, of course it must be too good to be true.
Meanwhile in dismal America – a place renowned for its breathtakingly high levels of disease and equally wheezy religious denouncement thereof – a long contemplated reverse charge has been registered. Obviously feeling it has gotten a raw deal in the ‘Gold for Germs’ program since the Age of Exploirtation, the American half of the Columbian Exchange has waited 350 years for vengeance and is now biting the plundering Europeans in the b.o.o.t.y.
Whatever the intention, a signature American kisskick, Phytophthora infestans, is soon stomping its way through the plains of the Old World. With potato yields in Belgium, the Netherlands and France all suffering shortfalls.
British Colony #1
But none of the areas hit by this new super-blight are so frequented by transatlantic shipping as Ireland. At this time, the island is officially a constituent partner in the United Kingdom (of Great Britain and Ireland), but in practice is ruled as a British colony – where the overwhelming majority live serf-like existences and a tiny ruling elite feast off their output.
And it has long been so. With the population bulging bigger by the day, emigration has become the main for escaping the bind of British Colony Number One. Each day, ships carrying destitute émigrés out – and bringing goods and homesick stragglers in – can be seen in Irish ports. What’s more, the dependence of the luxuriously emerald Isle on the potato sets it further apart from the areas in mainland Europe now feeling the sting of blight.
Worse still, the prevalence within the Irish monocrop itself towards only one single type of potato means that the Irish diet is disproportionately susceptible to any disruption in the food supply.
And unlike a sovereign state like Belgium or France, Ireland is a conquered land, a British colony, a dominion with no parliament of its own.
Should crisis hit, Ireland does not have the authority to react: on neither the national nor the local level can it take measures to protect itself from the oncoming onslaught or redress the detrimental effects that it will bring.
It had to rely on the London for that..
An Gorta Mór meaning
Even with the benefit of history and hindsight, there is still much debate over whether the actions of the British government during An Gorta Mór (meaning ‘The Great Hunger’) should perhaps be referred to by another term: The Irish Genocide. That is, a deliberate, sanctioned and sustained to ensure the death of a distinct group of people.
The English translation of An Gorta Mór is typically given as ‘the Great Hunger’ (with the term the Great Irish Famine being more commonly used in the English language). But the Irish term Gorta also carries a more figurative meaning.
It is a lack, an absence, a void.
A space from which something has been taken away
…and so is now missing (food, respect, love, soul, human warmth..).
Irish on the whole is a markedly poetic language, perhaps as far removed from the mechanical and precise Germanic stem of English as it’s possible to get in the Indo-European languages spoken in Europe. So the jump from a ‘Hunger’, with implications of a sense of emptiness and yearning, to ‘Famine’ is already something to bear in mind for the next part (VI) of this series, as semantics are at the heart of the debate over using the term The Irish Genocide, and indeed all such debates.
Potato Farm on the Brink
An Gorta Mór / The Great Irish Famine / The Irish Genocide begun about 175 years ago, in the mid-1840s, and the years for it are usually given as 1845-1849. However, the potato crop failure(s) and general catastrophe that ensued in fact continued until 1851. And for another century, if you count the sustained leakage of the Irish population to the other side of the Atlantic as a direct result of the tragedy.
This is what happened: After two years of potato blight in the Eastern states of the US, the Irish potato farm began to see emphatic crop failure from autumn 1845 on. At which time, historians note, the British administration entered a period distinguished by the unusually large discrepancy between the profusion of debate on ‘The Irish Question’ and the dearth of effective measures to fight the pathogen now attacking Irish crops.
They were all talk and no action.
Policy paralysis and piecemeal efforts to deal with the situation were the only tokens to emerge from London during the early stages of the Great Irish Famine. Whether this was done intentionally or not, what it amounted to was clear.
At a time when it was becoming plain that millions of fellow UK citizens were on the brink of extinction.
Having said that, there were some were voices among the Protestant elite in Ireland that urged British action. And it must be remembered that Ireland was always on the brink. In fact, it had become a country where perpetual crisis was probably the only real constant.
That it was now seeing a steady population boom on the back of the potato was certainly a turn up for the books. Living on and farming the land in such great numbers that the population swelled, with only minor disruptions to life. As opposed to, say, starving due to cataclysmic climate change or having half your population wiped out by Cromwellian fire and pestilences miscellaneous.
Taking a snapshot of nearly any couple of decades from this period illustrates this point.
The difference now was the frequency with which minor disasters were slamming the island, at a time when Irish food was being called upon to cover a population which was growing with astonishing rapidity. The supply of food in Ireland never quite ran out during these times, but things appeared to be speeding up.
Like a spaceship entering hyperdrive, it was all getting a bit hairy, rattling, the odd bit falling off here and there. Yet still the population continued to skyrocket.
From the 25 years prior to the outbreak of famine in 1845, historians count 14 separate incidences of blight affecting the Irish food supply. The provinces of Munster and Connaught were both hit hard in the early 1820s. Whilst in 1830-31, the potato crops of the Western seaboard from Galway to Donegal came in for similar treatment.
But rather than leaving the locals to recover, the gaps between these bouts of destruction became ever shorter. As the 1830s progressed, each year between 1832 and 1836 saw various types of pathogens cause either significant loss in yields or failure of the potato crop in various parts of the island. Yet, these regional scares were to pale in comparison to the widespread failures experienced throughout Ireland in 1836, 1837, 1839, 1841, and again in the year before the Great Irish Famine swallowed a civilization whole.
In short, Ireland was once again a place where calamity was the norm – despite the stabilizing effect which the nutritious potato had brought.
With a population of somewhere north of 8 million humans, the island of Ireland was now in the Top 20 most populous countries on the planet.
On a tract of land that would have been considered a pretty paltry Chinese estate.
Meanwhile, London was many days travel away and any voices insisting that the country was this time really on the brink of the brink (of the brink) seemed to be shouting into the wind.
Facts about the Irish Famine
Mired in confused nostalgia as they tend to be, key facts about the Irish Famine are often unknown to many, or get clouded in a more general rendering of the events that unfolded.
#1 on the Facts about the Irish Famine list must be:
The export of food from Ireland, the most bountiful part of the United Kingdom, continued as usual during this time – throughout the six years of rampant famine that now proceeded to decimate the Irish population.
Unlike Belgium or France, which could close their ports – keeping what was produced at home to feed the populace (and preventing further pathogens coming in), even during the worst years of the An Gorta Mor did Irish ports stay open.
If you weren’t directly affected, it was business as usual. Merchants went on wheeling and dealing as always, sending the produce of Irish land to other parts of the Empire, and beyond.
Which brings us neatly to #2 on the Facts about the Irish Famine list:
Irish potatoes were not the only food on the island. Just because the Irish peasant survived on potatoes doesn’t mean it was all Ireland produced. The situation was more complex than that.
As covered in Parts I-IV of this series of articles Irish Potatoes: The Spud in Irish Food Traditions, a long road had already been traveled to get to this place. A place where the fate of the Irish was now so closely linked to that of Irish potatoes.
Part of the reason the potato had become such a noose was because it meant a huge farming family could now satisfactorily feed themselves. As arduous though their existence may have been, with the vitamin-packed potato on their side the Irish peasant was far better fed than many parts of their European counterparts on the mainland, where the less nutritious bread typically formed the bulk of the diet.
So, the main thing Paddy the Peasant had to do was make certain the potato crop remained buoyant. Thus allowing him to raise other crops and livestock that he could sell – to pay the rent.
He was dependent on the potato and he was trapped in a system of subjugation. A system that had emerged centuries earlier and which, as time went by, embedded itself ever further, which in turn propped up and reinforced this system. And made the potato crop ever more indispensable for the Irish farmer.
Which appeared to be the point. The prevailing system had created, and now perpetuated, the perfect bind – elevating the rich even further whilst driving the poor ever deeper into the gutter.
Irish Famine, British response
Yet, it appears that even this asphyxiating imbalance of power was not enough. This system which had long exalted the British Protestant elite and reduced the Irish Catholic to scavenging for what he could to survive was undergoing a novel tweak. The cynical apathy which had prevailed among the ruling elite since British subjugation of the island was to be outdone.
During this latest Irish famine, British response seemed to now extend beyond a procedural unwillingness to help to what surely amounts to a criminally immoral unwillingness to help.
Citing the ideals of laissez faire capitalism, the British response centered on doing everything in its (considerable) power to sidestep the human atrocity taking place within its borders. Instead, treating what was unfolding as merely an economic crisis.
It was all quite simple, really. The supply of certain goods (potatoes, grain, sustenance of any kind) was merely outstripping paying domestic demand at this point in time. While the supply of another good (gaunt, frail, close-to-death workhorses) was outstripping demand for such.
The Great Irish Famine and the end of Gaelic Civilization
Sticking to their rigid insistence that the market must be allowed to correct itself, the response from the British government and its sacred Smithian capitalism stated that it could not intervene in the matter even if it wanted to. It is the market’s job to find the true value of Irish civilization.
Because the truth is that there was more than enough food in Ireland to feed the hungry. But due to the shortfalls of what was clearly more than just another crop failure, prices had soared to levels the average tenant farmer wouldn’t have been able to afford even if times were good.
And so the vegetables, grain, meat they produced continued to be taken out of the country, sold to those who could pay the asking price.
Irish bacon went on being eaten in all other parts of the UK.
Irish grain continued to be speculated upon in the London Stock Exchange.
Irish beef served for supper in Edinburgh.
As for the (absentee) British landlords, many reacted to the falloff in rent yields by simply kicking tenants off their plot, sending entire communities into the streets at a go. Mass evictions were already widespread by Black ’47 – a year in which 400,000 Irish women, men and children died of starvation and related diseases.
Despite some promising signs to the contrary, the potato crop had failed outright.
Hungry, murderous gangs roamed the countryside.
Those able to walk swarmed the cities and ports.
Reports of cannibalism were rife.
Join us for Part VI of the Irish Potatoes: The Spud in Irish Food Traditions series.
Coffin ship image appears courtesy of Tanya Hart/Flickr, used under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license.
More information about the haunting sculpture depicted, from the National Famine Memorial near Croagh Patrick, can be found at here.
Data presented in ‘Potato production in Ireland, 1844-1856’ extrapolated from P. M. Austin Bourke’s ‘The Extent of the Potato Crop in Ireland at the time of the Famine’; original image used under the Wikimedia Commons license.