We had an interesting lecture on Thurs afternoon at our English Discussion group by Robert Weintraub, a graduate of MIT and the librarian at the Shamoon Technical College in Beer Sheva, on the subject of potato blight and the Irish potato famine. He started out by telling us about Redcliffe Salaman, a British Jew who in the late 19th and early 20th century was a major expert on potatoes and published several iconic books on the subject. He was the person who classified potatoes into about 200 varieties and who studied the potato blight scientifically. By the way, about his name, his parents had many children and ran out of names, so they named him after the area of London where they lived.
The potato blight (phytophthora infestans) is a kind of fungus that first appeared in Mexico centuries ago. It gradually spread around the world and under the right climatic conditions (warm wet weather) could wipe out a potato harvest in 2 weeks. The problem in Ireland was that the British overlords had decreed that the Irish, who were mainly impoverished peasants, should live only on potatoes, that were cheap and nutritious, and all the other food produce was exported to England. Further, the whole of Ireland was growing the same variety of potato, the lumper, that was particularly sensitive to the blight. There were outbreaks of potato blight in other countries at other times, but the outbreak in Ireland between 1845-9 was the most catastrophic. Basically the whole potato crop was destroyed, resulting in a terrible famine. Of the ca. 8.1 million inhabitants before 1845, ca. 1 million perished and ca. 1.5 million were forced to flee, most to the USA (Boston, New York, Chicago and so on).
Unfortunately, in ignorance of the cause and effect of the blight, the farmers dumped the rotting potatoes around their fields and this allowed the blight to spread even more. Salaman and others conducted scientific and genetic experiments to try to find blight-resistant strains of potato, but were only partially successful, and even until today new supposedly resistant varieties are being produced. If ever there was an argument for genetically modified (GM) food crops, the Irish potato famine is it.
This was largely a man-made crisis, because the British had forced the Irish to eat only one variety of potato and the cruel irony was that there was plenty of food in Ireland, but the British Government refused to stop the export of the food to England. So while hundreds of thousands starved, food grown on their land, owned and controlled by the English, was being taken away. In England there was little sympathy for the Irish, who were Catholic and considered backward. It was generally felt that they were lazy and untrustworthy and deserved their fate. Nevertheless, the Queen gave GBP 1,000 to a fund for the relief of the famine. How generous. So while the potato blight could not be blamed on the English, the subsequent famine was a form of deliberate ethnic cleansing of the Irish people.
Approximately one third of all Irishmen died or left Ireland, a catastrophe in Irish history that resulted in pure hatred of the English and ensured a generation of Irish who were dedicated to expelling the English from Ireland. After the Easter Day uprising of 1916, it took until 1922 before southern Ireland achieved partial self-rule as the Irish Free State and until 1949 with full sovereignty as the Irish Republic, Eire.