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fungus

Phytophthora infestans

, which first appeared as whitish

patches on the plant’s withering leaves. The disease’s airborne

spores then spread rapidly, reducing fields of healthy tubers

within hours to rotting heaps of blackened mush, the stench

of which was unbearable. The following year was even worse

as the blight rampaged across the island. The loss of tens of

thousands of hectares, as one shocked witness recorded, was

but “the work of a night.”

The population’s over-reliance on the potato compounded

the crisis. A New World crop, potatoes were introduced to Ire-

land during the late 16th and early 17th centuries by English

colonists. At first, they were considered an upper-class delica-

cy. By 1800, a fleshy, knobby variety known as the “lumper”

potato—ideally suited to Ireland’s cool, wet climate—had re-

placed oatmeal as a dietary staple among the poor and work-

ing class. Cheap, high-yielding and nutritious, lumper potatoes,

when mixed with a little milk or buttermilk, provided enough

carbohydrates, protein and minerals to sustain life, presuming

enough were eaten. Thus, the average Irish male ate 45 pota-

toes a day; an average woman, about 36; and an average child,

15. Deeply entrenched in Ireland’s economy and lifestyle, the

potato was, in the words of a traditional Gaelic folk song, ador-

ingly praised as

Grá mo chroí

(“Love of my heart”).

Despite the loss of this beloved and critical resource, Ireland

was by no means bereft of food. Indeed, its farms and pastures

abounded with pigs, cattle and sheep, as well as wheat, bar-

ley, oats and vegetables; its streams, rivers, lakes and coastline

teemed with fish. The cruel irony was that most of this bounty

was off-limits to the starving populace.

The best land in Ireland, which was then part of Great

Britain, was owned by wealthy British and Anglo-Irish families,

many of whom did not live in the country or, if they did, rarely

strayed far enough from the urban districts of Dublin to set

foot on their agricultural estates.

“Much of Ireland’s ruling class came to take no more interest

in the land they owned than they would in the affairs, say,

of the South American mines in which they owned stock,”

observed historian Tim Pat Coogan in

The Famine Plot:

England’s Role in Ireland’s Greatest Tragedy

.

Further distancing the upper classes was the 1801 Act of

Union that dissolved the Irish Parliament and placed the af-

fairs of the country in the hands of distant London politicians.

While some British Members of Parliament (

MP

s

)

were genuine-

ly concerned for Ireland’s welfare, most had little understand-

ing of, let alone sympathy for, its people. To the most calloused,

the Irish were “a class which at best wallows in pigsties,” as the

London

Times

described them in January 1848.

Removed both geographically and culturally, many “ab-

sentee landlords,” as they were known, leased their proper-

ties to local wealthy farmers called “middlemen.” Like the

families that hired them, the middlemen notoriously cared

little for the estates they managed beyond their revenue-gen-

erating potential and, in turn, they sublet them to tenant

farmers at often usurious rates. The tenant farmers, primar-

ily in the eastern province of Leinster, further subdivided

the land by leasing plots to landless laborers called “cottiers”

who paid rent by working a certain number of days on the

landlord’s farm. In the west, in Connacht, tenant farmers

themselves subleased even smaller plots, called conacre land,

Top:

A decorative metal grid of the Drogheda Steam-Packet Company, founded in 1826 and by mid-century the city’s dominant maritime

business, is ornamented in each corner with the town’s crescent-and-star ensign (that here shows a six-pointed star). That it looks so

much like the crescent and star of the Turkish flag,

above,

led to inaccurate stories that, according to Drogheda historian Brendan

Matthews, began to circulate in the 1930s linking the town’s symbol with civic gratitude for Turkish aid.

4

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