“When the fever passed by, those neighbors who had come to themselves a bit would go to the houses where everyone had died and find nothing but bones lying there on the floor. The neighbors would gather the bones and bury them and then burn the houses to the ground, so as to burn the sickness out (Ship Fever, 194).” These were the conditions that the Irish found themselves immersed in during the Irish Potato Famine. Before the malady, about half of the agrarian Irish populace relied heavily on the potato crop for food. An outbreak that started with the infestation of Phytophthora infestans came to involve many other factors, which led to a devastating blow to the Irish population. Although the Irish Potato Famine was initiated by the failing of the potato crop, the epidemic turned into an artificial famine because of export of much needed food, failed governance and public works, and lack of funding.
In the beginning of the famine, little could be done to lessen the effects of the potato crop decimation. The crop had provided about and 60% of Ireland’s food and the fungus struck with little warning. With a gap this large, even a complete halt in exportation wouldn’t have provided enough food to feed the hungry Irish peasants. The British government took a hands-off approach and decided to use a free-market system to help alleviate the problem in hopes that the Irish would solve the problem through free trade. Corn Laws were repealed to allow the Irish to buy less expensive foreign corn, but the already impoverished masses had no money to spend on it. However, as time went by production began to reestablish itself in Ireland, and the British government did not stop landowners from exporting their crops. The mainly British Protestant landowners neglected to sell their crops and meat to the Irish, because the Irish had no money to spend on the luxury foodstuffs. Although the British government knew about the starvation in Ireland, it continued to allow wealthy landowners to export the food grown and raised through Irish labor for their own gain. If the grain had simply been kept in Ireland and reallocated to the needy the famine could have been lessened greatly. According to the BBC article, The Irish Famine, “There existed – after 1847, at least – an absolute sufficiency of food that could have prevented mass starvation, if it had been properly distributed so as to reach the smallholders and labourers of the west and the south of Ireland.” Restriction of exportation wasn’t the only issue the British government left poorly regulated, their poor attempts at establishing public works options and soup kitchens for the needy failed greatly also.
When the government was first presented with the Irish potato crop failure, their first proposal was to relinquish the responsibility of helping the poor to the landowners in Ireland. The justification behind this decision was that the poor worked for the landowners, so they were the responsibility of their employers. However, the landowners soon felt the weight of trying to provide for so many starving individuals. The Irish could not pay rent, and the landowners ran out of money to support them. This resulted in the eviction of up to 500,000 Irish during the years between 1846 and 1854. Once this plan of action failed, the government was forced to provide some sort of assistance to the Irish workers who were raising the crops and meat that would end up on British dinner tables. The British government opened soup kitchens, which were economical and successful. In fact, the soup kitchens were so successful that “as many as three million people were fed daily at the peak of this scheme in July 1847” (BBC). However, this option was terminated only 6 months later when England experienced a banking crisis. The Irish had no place to turn, but to workhouses. These institutions had dangerous work conditions, and because the British government did not have sufficient worker safely laws, many people died within them. According to the Digital History article, The Irish Potato Famine, “Some 2.6 million Irish entered overcrowded workhouses, where more than 200,000 people died.” The British government also attempted to provide public works jobs. These positions meant working on roads and other government funded projects. However, these restrictive positions lacked funding and were not a widespread solution either.
Money seemed to be the driving force behind what the British government decided to do to minimize the effects of the Irish Potato Famine. The initial concept of letting the Irish landowners take care of the starving was no doubt an act of fund preservation. Food kitchens were closed in an effort to conserve funds during the banking crisis, and the wages paid to Irish public works employees were too low for them to pay for food with price inflation considered. The British government supported their choice to keep wages low and jobs difficult to obtain by saying that they wanted to allow the Irish to be self-reliant, but in actuality, self-reliance meant less funding for the government and less responsibility for supplying jobs. Subsequently, the British government, despite being a world superpower, provided no shelter for the evicted Irish and offered no assistance to the Irish who wanted to leave the country in search of better conditions. The British government also neglected to ensure a safe voyage for the people who could gather the resources necessary to secure. The ships that left the port in England had cramped quarters and many people died at sea. Death and disease were common on these ships, but they were also common on shore in Ireland. Starvation was not the only heath concern for the Irish who had no money to escape their homeland. There were many secondary diseases such as typhus and dysentery and the government did little to provide medical attention.
The Irish Potato Famine was a horrible blow to the residents of Ireland. Much of the general public either fled to another country in search of jobs or died in the substandard living conditions within Ireland. So much of the population was decimated that when Ireland finally gained independence in 1921, nearly half of the population had disappeared since the time before the famine. What started as an unforeseeable plague, turned into an epidemic that could have been solved if funding, assistance, and food had been properly distributed. However, in the shadow of a country built on the backs of Irish laborers, one of the worst famines in history was allowed to run its course with little help from the British government.
Barrett, Andrea. Ship Fever. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1996.
Donnelly, Jim . “The Irish Famine- An Artificial Famine?.” BBC. 1 Jan. 2001. 14 Oct. 2009. http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/victorians/famine_01.shtml .
Donnelly, Jim . “The Irish Famine- Political Inertia.” BBC. 1 Jan. 2001. 14 Oct. 2009. http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/victorians/famine_01.shtml .
Mokyr, Joel . “Irish Potato Famine.” Britannica. 14 Oct. 2009. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/294137/Irish-Potato-Famine .
“The Irish Potato Famine.” Digital History. 14 Oct. 2009. http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/historyonline/irish_potato_famine.cfm .