|In September 1845 a strange disease struck the potatoes as they grew in fields across
Ireland. Many of the potatoes were found to have gone black and rotten and their leaves
had withered. In the harvest of 1845, between one-third and half of the potato crop was
destroyed by the strange disease, which became known as 'potato blight'. It was not
possible to eat the blighted potatoes, and the rest of 1845 was a period of hardship,
although not starvation, for those who depended on it. The price of potatoes more than
doubled over the winter: a hundredweight [50kg] of potatoes rose in price from 16p to 36p.
It is now known that the same potato blight struck in the USA in 1843 and 1844 and in
Canada in 1844. It is thought that the disease travelled to Europe on trade ships and
spread to England and finally to Ireland, striking the south-east first.
The picture on the left shows what a blighted potato looks like. They have a soggy consistency and smell badly. Note that this picture was taken recently, showing that potato blight still attacks sometimes today.
The following spring, people planted even more potatoes. The farmers thought that the blight was a one-off and that they would not have to suffer the same hardship in the next winter. However, by the time harvest had come in Autumn (Fall) 1846, almost the entire crop had been wiped out. A Priest in Galway wrote "As to the potatoes they are all gone - clean gone. If travelling by night, you would know when a potato field was near by the smell. The fields present a space of withered black stalks." The Prime-Minister, Sir Robert Peel, set up a commission of enquiry to try to find out what was causing the potato failures and to suggest ways of preserving good potatoes. The commission was headed by two English scientists, John Lindley and Lyon Playfair. The farmers had already found that blight thrived in damp weather, and the commission concluded that it was being caused by a form of wet rot. The scientists were unable, however, to find anything with which to stop the spread of the blight. It was in 1846 that the first starvations started to happen.
In 1847, the harvest improved somewhat and the potato crop was partially successful. However, there was a relapse in 1848 and 1849 causing a second period of famine. In this period, disease was spreading which, in the end, killed more people than starvation did. The worst period of disease was 1849 when Cholera struck. Those worst affected were the very young and very old. In 1850 the harvest was better and after that the blight never struck on the same scale again.
The precise number of people who died is perhaps the most keenly studied aspect of the famine: unfortunately, this is often for political rather than historical reasons. The only hard data that has survived is the 1841 and 1851 censuses, but the accuracy of these has been questioned. The reason for this is that the censuses recorded deaths by asking how many family members died in the past 10 years, but after the famine whole families had often left Ireland thus leaving many deaths unreported. It was argued by Edwards et al. that the precise number of deaths is of secondary concern to simple fact that a very many people died. Suffice it to say that estimates of deaths in the famine years range from 290,000 to 1,500,000 with the true figure probably lying somewhere around 1,000,000, or 12% of the population. We shall probably never know exactly how many lost their lives. It was undoubtedly the greatest period of death in Irish history, but its long term effects were to involve even more people than this.
In the years after the famine, scientists discovered that the blight was, in fact, caused by a fungus, and they managed to isolate it. They named it Phytophthora Infestans. However it was not until 1882, almost 40 years after the famine, that scientists discovered a cure for Phytophthora Infestans: a solution of copper sulphate sprayed before the fungus had gained root. At the time of the famine there was nothing that farmers could do to save their crop.
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