The Irish Potato Famine, also known as the Great Famine, was a period in Ireland’s history where over 1 million people died due to disease, malnutrition and starvation. The Irish potato famine began in 1845 and lasted until 1852 during which time the population of Ireland decreased by about 20-25% due to death and emigration. Much of Ireland’s population depended on the potato as their main source of food and this was the reason why so many died. However, there were also other causes that led to the worst famine the country had ever seen.
What Caused The Irish Potato Famine?
There are a number of factors that lead to the development of such a severe famine in Ireland. The first and most obvious factor was the spread of a potato fungus throughout Europe called phytophthora infestans. Potato plants with the fungus failed to thrive and produce potatoes causing a severe shortage of the vegetable. The leaves on the plant turned black, curled and then turned rotten. As the plant died a pungent smell emanated from the plant and nothing could be done to save it. Once one plant had contracted phytophthora infestans the infection spread quickly. The fungus also caused a shortage of seed potatoes for sewing in the following years.
However, the fungus alone was not the cause of the famine in Ireland. Many other European countries also experienced failed potato crops, but did not experience a famine like the one that took place in Ireland. The political nature of Ireland and the living conditions of many of its inhabitants were also a major factor that caused the Irish potato famine. Most of the land in Ireland was owned by an English upper class who rented the land to Irish catholic farmers and tenants. The political nature in Ireland meant that no Irish catholic could own land, so they had to rent it from the English Landowners. Rent was expensive and much of Ireland’s population was poor and barely able to feed their families. Many of these families grew extensive potato crops because they yielded high amounts of potato that could be used to feed the family and the animals for almost an entire year. Potato crops were also relatively cheap to maintain and harvest. The potato became a staple food throughout Ireland and for many poor tenants and farmers it was the only food that they had to feed their families and animals. When the fungus phytophthora infestans began to destroy the potato crops many families lost their only source of food and with no money to buy any other food they soon began to starve. Many people also died because of diseases associated with lack of nutrition such as dysentery, scurvy and black fever.