Tuesday, 28 July 2009

The Irish potato famine

You looked in horror at the leaves. How could they have turned black overnight? With a deft hand you pulled up the plant, shaking the soil from its roots, holding up blighted potatoes, rotten on the stem.

It was too terrible to take in.

People had warned against relying on one source of food. When the blight had arrived in Europe the poor had other crops to rely on. But with the tiny amount of land you could rent, what choice did you have? Until now yields had been good; your population had risen rapidly, reaching eight million.

But now the blight had arrived. You would watch it devastate Ireland. For six years your potato crop would fail. Other crops would grow but you had no money to buy them. They would be loaded onto ships bound for England while you starved in the streets.

The British government would hesitate, send in bad grain, then stop the aid altogether, not wanting to make you dependent, deciding to let things run their course.

This was just six generations ago and yet the loss of a single crop killed more than a million people. Another million boarded ships for better lives, dying in their thousands on the way.