Irish Potato Famine


          CASE NUMBER:        274
          CASE MNEMONIC:      POTATO
          CASE NAME:          Irish Potato Famine and Trade 


1.   The Issue

     Throughout the Potato Famine, from 1845 to 1947, more than one
million people died of starvation or emigrated.(1)  Additionally,
over 50,000 people died of diseases: typhus, scurvy, dysentery.(2)
Despite the famine conditions, taxes, rents, and food exports were
collected in excess of 6 million and sent to British landlords.(3) 
Within a decade, the population of Ireland plummeted from over
eight million to less than six million. (4) In an attempt to flee
the oppression, starvation, and disease that gripped Ireland, the
Irish people became the country's greatest export.(5) Although the
blight infected  crops in the United States, Southern Canada and
Western Europe in the years of 1845-1846, the overpopulated
subsistence farmers of Ireland were forced to export corn, wheat,
barley, and oats to Britain, which left the potato as the sole
dietary staple for the people and their animals.(6) While other
regions were able to turn to alternative food sources, the Irish
were dependent on the potato and the results of the blight were

2.   Description

     The "white" potato, know today as the Irish potato, originated
in the Andean Mountains. In 1532 the Spanish arrived in north Peru
and it is speculated that they brought the potato to Europe in the
second half of the 16th century.(8) Because they were classified in
the same botanical family as the poisonous nightshade, potatoes
were thought to be poisonous and people refrained from eating
them.(9) Potatoes were considered a novelty and became fashionable
in the mid-eighteenth century when Marie Antoinette wore potato
blossoms in her hair. During the eighteenth century, the monarchs
of Europe discovered the nutritional value of the potato and
ordered it planted.(10) By 1800, the potato had taken root and
ninety percent of the Irish population was dependent on the potato
as their primary means of caloric intake and as an export.(11)
Since the famine, the Irish have expanded their diets; however, the
potato continues to be a dietary staple in 130 countries today,
including Ireland.(12) 

     Potatoes contain nutrients, such as protein, carbohydrate, and
vitamin C, which are necessary for a healthy diet, but lack vitamin
A and calcium. Combined with milk, potatoes supply almost all food
elements required for a healthy diet.(13) To fulfill the daily
nutritive requirement in the mid-1800s, each person had to eat 3
kilograms (six and a half pounds) of potatoes. According to
historical accounts, a "burley farmer could down 15 potatoes" at
one meal.(14) 

     After the mid-eighteenth century, exports of corn rose and
population pressures forced families to sell corn crops to pay the
rent, while relying on potatoes to store over the winter to feed
themselves and the livestock, especially the pigs. As the land
holdings were sub-divided to feed a growing population, the old
virtues of husbandry and agriculture were forgotten. Additionally,
the farmers began to focus on specialization causing the production
of other staples, especially milk, to decline. When the famine hit,
people no longer possessed the agricultural skills to save
themselves or their families.(15) 

     English colonization of Ireland forced the Irish to pay
exorbitant rents and taxes, to export their crops, and to increase
their dependence on the potato crop.(16) During the end of the
eighteenth century and into the nineteenth century, Ireland
experienced rapid population growth, which strained the economy,
and left many peasants in subsistence living conditions.(17)  With
the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, the British soldiers
returned home, which increased unemployment. Further, as Europe
transitioned from warfare to a time of peace, a depression began
and the Irish economy began to falter. At this time, British turned
its attention from the European Continent and refocused their
attention to their colonial holdings. The primary economic goal of
British colonialization was to extract the greatest amount of
resources and exports from their colonial holdings to the benefit
of the British land-owners.(18) 

     With the colonialization, a tenure system was introduced into
Ireland that gave Protestant landlords control of  95% of the
land.(19) Every cottage had a garden equal to an acre and a half
and the farmland amounted to five acres.(20) As the population
grew, the holdings were subdivided and living standards declined.
To counter overpopulation, people moved to less fertile areas were
the potato was one of the few sources of food that could be
grown.(21) Most of these lands were under the ownership of absentee
landlords, who wanted to maximize the output with little or no
investment into the population. 

     The British instituted Penal laws, which denied the Irish
peasant population freedom. Irish were forbidden: to speak their
language, to practice their faith, to attend school, to hold an
public office, to hold certain jobs, to own land, or  to ". . .own
a horse worth more than $10." (22) These Penal laws were enacted to
push the Irish into submission by force and inferiority and were
justified by the British government as necessary to retain the
character of the Irish.(23)

     "From 1816 onward, wet weather destroyed crops, the potato
failed in several provinces and, weakened by hunger more than 100,
000 Irish died of starvation and disease."(24) According to one
farmer, in late September of 1845 a "queer mist came over the Irish
Sea. . .and the potato stalks turned black as soot."(25) The next
day, the potatoes were "a wide waste of putrefaction giving off an
offensive odor that could be smelled for miles." The potato blight
(photophthora infestans), which caused the Great Famine of Ireland,
results from an "airborne pathogen" that spreads rapidly among
crops "during precise weather conditions."(26) The disease attacks
not only the crops in the field, but the crops in storage during
this mild and damp period.(27)

     In 1845, the potato blight destroyed 40% of the Irish potatoes
and the following year, approximately 100% of the crop was ruined.
Successive crop failure led to "Black '47," with increases in
famine, emigration, and disease. Although the potato crops from
1847-1851 were unaffected by the blight, famine conditions
intensified due to a lack of seed potatoes for planting new crops
and an inadequate amount of potatoes having been planted for fear
that the blight would persist.(28) 

     Tenant farmers held short-term leases that were payable each
six months in arrears. If the tenants failed to pay their rent,
they were jailed or evicted and their homes burned. During the time
of the Great Hunger (1845-1847), approximately 500,000 people were
evicted, many of whom died of starvation or disease or relocated to
mismanaged and inadequate poor houses.(29) The alternative to
eviction, poorhouses, or starvation was emigration, which pre-dated
the Potato famine, but rose to over two million people from
1845-1855. In 1851, the largest number of emigrants, a quarter of
a million people, left for overseas destinations. The emigration
continued through the 1850s and into the 1860s, with an average of
an eighth of a million people.(30) Emigrants tended to follow along
family routes, which were found mostly in Great Britain, United
States, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia.(31)

     The British were reluctant to provide relief to the inferior
people of Ireland.  In the 1840s, laissez-faire philosophy
dominated the British economic policy. The government officials
supported a policy of non-intervention, which maintained the belief
that it was counterproductive to interfere in economics.(32) The
chief instrument of relief came in the form of low-paid work
projects to build an infrastructure to promote industrialization
and modernize the Ireland.(33) Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel
repealed the Corn Laws, a protective tariff enabling the Irish to
import grain from North America. For this relief measure, Peele was
ousted and replaced by Lord John Russell, who was less lenient on
the Irish.(34) Relief measures, such as corn importation, were sent
from North America; however, these shipments were mere tokens to
the necessary relief required to comfort the starving.(35) 

     Charles Trevelyan, Assistant Secretary to the Treasury under
the Prime Minister Lord John Russell, oversaw famine relief
efforts. In 1846 Trevelyan wrote: "'The problem of Ireland being
altogether beyond the power of man, the cure has been applied by
all-wise Providence...'"(36) Various relief schemes were tried and
abandoned: public works projects, importing corn from America, soup
kitchens, workhouses, even sending agricultural advisors to the
west of Ireland where they found no surviving farmers.(37)
Ultimately, the Russell government ". . .was not prepared to
allocate what was needed to head off starvation, but was always
ready to dispatch police and troops of dragoons to help a landlord
evict destitute tenants or protect a shipment of cattle or grain

     In November of 1845, to lessen the plight of the Irish,
Russell approved the purchase of corn and meal; however, the shift
from potatoes to corn as the staple food caused dysentery and
scurvy due to the lack of nutrients and resulted in additional
deaths. Additionally, loans of 365,000 sterling were granted to the
Irish in 1845-1846 to lessen the starvation.(39) In principle, they
believed that the best interests of the Irish were served by
exporting agricultural goods from Ireland, so that they could pay
their rents.(40)

     In 1847 ("Black 47") the public works projects were abandoned
by the government and instead poor houses were established by
private groups, such as the church and the Quakers.(41) During the
famine peak, one hundred and seventy-three workhouses were built
throughout Ireland. During Black '47, the Galway Vindicator
illustrated the degree of workhouse overcrowding when it cited 2513
occupants in the Limerick workhouse, which was built to accommodate
800 occupants.(42) Generally, poor houses or work houses were
mismanaged, overcrowded, and inadequate to provide relief for the
starving peasants of Ireland. People entering the workhouses were
"forced to wear prisonlike uniforms in fetid male and female
dormitories and hoped to avoid the adjacent fever hospital by
subsisting on 'poorhouse porridge,' a watery oatmeal soup ladled
from a huge iron 'stirabout pot.'"(43) Additionally, soup kitchens
gave soup (a broadly defined term) to 3 million people daily.(44)

     To limit the number of people seeking relief and the expense
to the British government, The Poor Law Extension Act of 1847 was
instituted to deny aid to tenant farmers with over a quarter acre
of land. This Act promoted emigration, increased land clearance,
and disintegrated the structure of rural society, which were
beneficial to  British landowners, who sought profit, power, and
larger plots of land. (45)  According to the Poor Laws, landlords
were bound to support peasants sent to the workhouse, which cost
$12 pounds a year. Instead, some landlords sent peasants to Canada
on "coffin ships", which cost $6 pounds.(46) Coffin ships were
"wet, leaky holds" of timber ships returning to North America that
were "crammed in with as many as 900 [people], with barely room to
stand."(47) Approximately half of the people died during the voyage
and the other half arrived in North America unable to disembark,
without assistance, due to sickness and starvation. (48)

     The British rationalized that landlords and industries, who
needed laborers, would find it in their best interests to protect
their investments (human laborers).(49)  However, with the
industrialization of agricultural processes, the decrease in tenant
farmers proved advantageous to most landlords, who were intent on
maximizing profit by increasing the size of plots. Thus, the
absentee landlords were distanced from the peasants and focused on
the maximization of trade and luxuries rather than the welfare of
the people.(50)

     President of Ireland, Mary Robinson, has described the famine
as "an event which more than any others shaped us as a people.
It defined our will to survive and our sense of human
vulnerability.  The nightmare images of the bailiff, the workhouse
and the coffin ship have equally terrible equivalents for other
people at this very moment."(51) 

     One hundred and fifty years after the famine, the results are
evident in the number of Irish descendants scattered around the
globe, the treeless landscape, and the shells of homes that were
rendered uninhabitable after the landlords evicted their
tenants.(52) While the blight provided the catalyst for the famine,
"[t]he calamity was essentially man-made, a poison of blind
politics, scientific ignorance, rural suppression, and enforced
poverty." (53)

     The blight that devastated a nation, remains the "number 1
pest of potato plants world-wide."(54)  Further, for the past three
years, Ireland has once again been plagued by this blight and has
suffered poor potato crop output.(55) A new aggressive blight,
cousin to the blight of the 1840s, was first reported in the early
1980s and spread from Florida to Maine. The fungus thrives on the
wet weather that has beleaguered the states of Idaho and Oregon as
well as Maine and other parts of the country.  Last year, New
York's third largest cash crop, potatoes, lost 3% of its $50
million crop to the blight. Additionally, Maine lost $25 million
last year.(56)  According to experts, this blight is the worst to
hit the United States and will affect potatoes and tomatoes.
Experts fear that this blight may cause a famine in South America
if it is not controlled.(57)

     Because the current blight can reproduce sexually, it
possesses greater genetic variation, spreads faster, survives
harsher weather, and resists more chemicals. In addition, the
spores can last for months in the soil. (58) The original "lumper"
potato, a poor quality potato that grew in abundance in Ireland
before the famine, has been banned and heartier strains are
cultivated. Scientists are researching potatoes that have proven to
be more resistant to blights than others: Kennebec, Sebago,
Sequoia, Merrimack, and Cherokee. (59)

     A recently engineered blight-resistant potato will resist the
disease, but experts believe that the resistant potato may arrive
too late. The blight-resistant potato provides the only way to halt
this disastrous blight and will not be available for several years. 
According to researchers, the current potato blight has brought the
worst crop failure worldwide since the Potato Famine of Ireland in
the 1840s. (60)

3.   Related Cases

BEE Case

     Keyword Clusters:

     (1): Trade Product            = Potato
     (2): Bio-geography            = TEMPERATE
     (3): Environmental Problem    = INFESTation

4.   Draft Author:  Theresa Purcell


5.   Discourse and Status:    Disagree and Complete

6.   Forum and Scope:    Ireland and Unilateral

7.   Decision Breadth:   2 (Ireland, UK)

     Ireland, a colonial holding of Britain during the Potato
Famine, was exploited as a resource for producing agricultural
products. Indirectly, the US, Australia, New Zealand and the UK
were effected by the influx of emigrants from Ireland who were
fleeing from the Famine. 

8.   Legal Standing:     LAW


9.   Geographic Locations

     a.   Geographic Domain:  EUROPE
     b.   Geographic Site:         West Europe
     c.   Geographic Impact:  Ireland

10.  Sub-National Factors:    YES

11.  Type of Habitat:    TEMPERATE


12.  Type of Measure:    IMTAX

13.  Direct vs. Indirect Impacts: DIRECT     

14.  Relation of Measure to Environmental Impact: 

     a.   Directly Related:   YES  Potato
     b.   Indirectly Related: NO
     c.   Not Related:        NO
     d.   Process Related:    YES  INFESTation

15.  Trade Product Identification: Potato 

16.  Economic Data

     Exports to UK: In 1842, 6 million was paid in rents, taxes,
and agricultural exports to the British government and landlords.
Despite the famine conditions that lasted from 1845-1851, the
British continued to export agricultural goods, collect taxes, and
demand rent from the Irish people. 

     Population Loss (Ireland): The population of Ireland fell from
over 8 million to less than 6 million people as a result of
emigration, disease, and famine between 1845-1851. Through the
1850s and 1960s, emigration contined on a scale of one eighth of a
million people per year.

17.  Impact of Measure on Trade Competitiveness:  HIGH

18.  Industry Sector:    [FOOD]

19.  Exporter and Importer: Many and Ireland


20.  Environmental Problem Type:  Potato Blight (Photophthora 
Infestans)- Famine

21.  Name, Type, and Diversity of Species

     Name:     Potato
     Type:          Vegetable/Tuber/Solanum tuberosum L.
     Diversity:     family of 90 genera and 2800 species
     IUCN Category: N/A

22.  Impact and Effect: HIGH and PRODuct

23.  Urgency and Lifetime: LOW and 1-3 Years

24.  Substitutes:   LIKE products such as corn, wheat, barley,
oats, meat, oatmeal, and dairy products.

F.   OTHER Factors

25.  Culture:  NO

26.  Human Rights:  YES

     With the colonialization of Ireland by the British, the Irish
people were exploited, forced to pay high taxes and rents to the
English Landlords. The people were forced to subsist on potatoes,
while other agricultral products were exported to Britain under
military escort. The British government believed that it was in the
best interests of the people to sell the goods for money, so that
they could buy food and pay rent and taxes. If tenants were unable
to pay the rent, the landlords evicted the tenants and burned their
home. Otherwise, the landlord sent the tenants to a overpopulated
poorhouse, shipped them to the United States on overloaded "coffin
ships," or jailed them. Further, the Irish people (Catholics) were
denied an education, the Gaelic language, the Catholic religion,
the ownership of land and barred from certain professions. 

27.  Trans-Border: NO

28.  Relevant Literature

The Cobb Heritage Museum. "Farwell to ERIN." Irish America, vol. IX
n.3 (May/June 1993): 44-47.

Connery, Clare. "Food Before the Famine." Ireland of the Welcomes,
v.44n.3 (May/June 1995): 21-24.

"Declan Bates' Response." (to "A History of Famine" by Conrad

"Purdue researchers genetically engineer blight resistant potato."

"The Famine Museum."

Foster, R.F. The Oxford Illustrated History of IRELAND. Oxford:
Oxford University   Press,1989.

Foster, R.F. Modern Ireland 1600-1972. London:Penguin Press,1988.

"The Great Famine."

"Hall's Ireland."

"The Hanging Gale."

"The Hanging Gale."

"The Hanging Gale."

" A History of the Famine."

"Nutritional Information." The Idaho Potato Expo.       

"Origin of the Potato." The Idaho Potato Expo.               

Judge, Joseph. "The Travail of Ireland." National Geographic.
v.159n.4 (April 1981):432-440

Kennedy, Liam. "The Great Exodus: The Nineteenth Century." Ireland
of the Welcomes. v.41n.4 (July/August 1992):10-15.

Mulligan, Hugh A. (AP Special Coorespondent). "Irish Potato Famine
Painfully Remembered."   Hickory Daily Record. September 10, 1995,
sec. C:8.

Out of Ireland. Dir. Wagner, Paul and Ellen Casey Wagner. Narrated
by Kelly McGillis. American Focus, 1994. (National Endowment for
the Humanities)

"Photophthora Infestans Bulletins."

Ugent, Donald. "Potato." The Encyclopedia Americana. 1993 ed. 

1.   Judge, 440.
2.   "History of the Irish Potato Famine."
3.   The Cork Heritage Museum, 46.
4.   Wagner. 
5.   "History of the Irish Potato Famine."  
6.   Connery, 23; "The Great Famine."
7.   "The Great Famine."
8.   "The Idaho Potato Expo."
9.   Ugent, 467; "The Idaho Potato Expo."                         
10.   Ugent, 467.
11. "The Great Famine."
12. "The Idaho Potato Expo." 
13. ibid.
14. Mulligan, C:8
15. Connery, 23-24.
16. The Cork Heritage Museum,46.
17. Kennedy, 10.
18. "Hall's Ireland."
19. The Cork Heritage Museum,46.
20. "The Hanging Gale."
21. Connery, 24.
22. Judge, 440.
23. "Hall's Ireland."
24. The Cork Heritage Museum,46.
25. Mulligan, C:8
26. "The Great Famine."
27. "Famine."
28. "The Great Famine."
29. Wagner.
30. Kennedy, 11.
31. Kennedy, 13.
32. "History of the Irish Potato Famine."
33. ibid.
34. "The Hanging Gale."
35. "Hall's Ireland."
36. "The Hanging Gale."
37. Mulligan, C:8
38. ibid.
39. "History of the Irish Potato Famine."
40. ibid.
41. ibid.
42. Mulligan, C:8
43. ibid.
44. ibid.
45. Foster,  Modern Ireland 1600-1972, 328.
46. Mulligan, C:8
47. The Cork Heritage Museum, 44.
48.  ibid.
49. "History of the Irish Potato Famine."
50. "Declan Bates."
51. Mulligan, C:8
52. Judge, 440.
53. ibid.
54. "Photophthora Infestans Bulletins."
55. ibid.
56. ibid.
57. ibid.
58. "Photophthora Infestans Bulletins."
59. Ugent, 467.
60. "Purdue researchers genetically engineer blight resistant

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May 10, 1996