Ireland was no stranger to hunger on the eve of the Great Famine. At the beginning of July 1845, however, Ireland’s potato crop looked promising. The weather had been dry and warm and the maturing leaves looked healthy. On 23 July The Freeman’s Journal proclaimed that 'the poor man's property, the potato crop, was never before so large and at the same time so abundant'.

In August, however, disaster struck with deathly speed. The Gardeners Chronicle and Horticultural Gazette of 16 August reported ‘a blight of unusual character' in the Isle of Wight. Within a month the same publication announced, with regret, that ‘the potato Murrain has unequivocally declared itself in Ireland’.

But why did a disease that affected only one crop have such devastating consequences in Ireland? The answer is simple. The quality of life and the very existence of the landless labourer and the cottier class, ‘the poorest of the poor’ in 1845 depended entirely on the potato.

The Lumper potato became widespread in Ireland. It was the variety most affected by the blight

'Immediate and pressing' danger

On 8 November 1845, Lord Cloncurry, chairman of the Mansion House Committee that was convened in October to investigate the extent of the potato loss, reported their findings to British Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel. The danger of famine, he warned, was ‘immediate and pressing’: 

The Irish agricultural labourers and their families are calculated to amount to more than four millions of human beings whose only food is the potatoes – whose only drink is water – whose houses are previous to rain – to whom a bed or blanket is a luxury almost unknown, and who are more wretched than any other people in Europe … You will in your humanity easily judge what must be the horrors of their situation if the approaching famine be allowed to envelope the entire population.

First cultivated about 5,000 years ago in the foothills of the Andes, the potato underpinned the development of the Incan civilisation in South America. Sixteenth-century Spanish invaders noted its value and by 1567 the potato had arrived in the Canaries. Within half a century the new crop had made its way across Europe, probably arriving in Ireland in by 1586. Its arrival would change the direction, if not the very course of Irish history.  

'Vive la pomme de terre!'

The potato thrived in the damp and temperate climate of Ireland and by the beginning of the eighteenth century, it had become an integral part of the Irish diet at every level of society. The proliferation of the tuber in the 1700s contributed to the mid-eighteenth-century population explosion.

Earlier marriages and higher birth rates were facilitated by the humble potato, which when combined with buttermilk, provided all the nutrients and vitamins necessary for a healthy adult. Eighteenth-century travel writers such as Arthur Young often commented on the health, height and vitality of the Irish labourer, despite the poverty of their circumstances.

By the time of Young’s visits to Ireland in the 1770s, ‘potatoes, milk and butter’ had become the staple food of labourers and cottiers, a diet, he suggested, that was responsible for the exceptional fertility of Irishwomen: ‘for twelve years nineteen in twenty of them breed every second year. Vive la pomme de Terre!'

Potato ridges  on Achill Island. Photograph by Frank Coyne, from the Atlas of the Great Irish Famine

Lazy beds

As well as being nutritious, the potato was relatively easy to grow in long ridges called lazy beds. A spade was used to dig long parallel trenches about three feet apart. A mixture of manure, seaweed and crushed seashells was placed in between the trenches and seed potatoes inserted into the mixture. They were covered with the surrounding sods of earth and when the shoots appeared, they were covered up again.

Legions of potato drills crept up the mountain sides and into the bogs during the eighteenth century, reclaiming land that would otherwise have remained unproductive. On hillsides in the west and south of the country, the traces of the ridges today are a poignant reminder of the devastation wrought by the blight of the 1840s. 

The dependence of the poorer class on the potato was reinforced during the early decades of the nineteenth century. The depression that followed the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815 was exacerbated by a series of poor harvests and the decline of the cottage industries in the wake of the industrialising north-east.

A matter of life and death

While high-quality corn was being grown extensively in Ireland, it was primarily for sale and export to the towns of Industrial Britain. By the 1830s, three-quarters of the labourers in Ireland existed without regular employment of any kind and one-third of the population depended on the potato for ninety per cent of its food requirements. The possession of a piece of land on which to grow potatoes was, for many, the difference between life and death.  

Potato ridges in Ballygriffin, County Kerry. Photograph by Frank Coyne from The Atlas of the Great Irish Famine

Land-hungry agricultural labourers were contracted to work for a farmer for a specified number of days per year in return for a cabin and a small plot of land (conacre). On the eve of the Great Famine, western and south-western counties were densely populated with cottiers existing on plots of less than one acre.

The potato was the only crop that could be grown in sufficient quantities to support a family. One acre of lazy beds could produce almost six tonnes of potatoes – enough to feed a family for almost a year.

Enter the Lumper

Numerous varieties of potato were cultivated in pre-Famine Ireland. Once called the ‘king of potatoes’, the high-quality Irish Apple variety was in decline by the 1830s. It was replaced in the diet of the poor by the nutritious, durable and high-yielding Lumper.

This watery but reliable variety was suited to precarious, near subsistence existence and by the 1840s a third of the population, especially in Munster, Connacht and west Leinster, grew nothing but Lumpers. A telling statistic provided by John Feehan in the Atlas of the Great Irish Famine gives a sense of the dominance of the tuber in 1845:

‘There were one-quarter of a million acres under potatoes in County Cork alone, much more than the total under all crops combined on the island of Ireland today.’

Salt, pepper and herring: how the Irish poor consumed their potatoes

The average agricultural labourer in the west of Ireland in the 1800s consumed between ten and fourteen pounds of potatoes a day. The women and children had smaller portions. Typically, potatoes were boiled in an iron pot or simply roasted on embers and eaten with the fingers. The flavourless meal was made more palatable by adding supplements (‘kitchen’) such as salt, pepper, herring.

In the northern counties, the potato diet was balanced with oatmeal and in the coastal areas, seaweed, especially dulse, was used to flavour the boiled potatoes. Levels of potato consumption reduced during what were called the ‘meal months’ or ‘waiting months’ of July and August – the period between the depletion of the old crop and the harvest of the new.

If the potatoes ran out, families would be forced to forced to purchase grain on credit, at exorbitant prices, from petty dealers – the dreaded ‘Gombeen men’. A worse and ever-present danger was the failure of the lumper crop. If that happened, there was nothing to replace the potato. 

This 1846 illustration from the Pictorial Times shows a family distressed by the failure of the potato crop (Source: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The dreaded blight arrives

The dreaded potato blight (Phytophthora infestans) arrived in Belgium in 1845 with a shipment of seed potatoes from the United States. Soon afterwards, the first signs of the fungal inflection were recorded in Ireland. By 12 November, the Cork Examiner reported that:

‘the disease is fast progressing … manifesting itself in pits, which a very few days since, were apparently free from taint.’

While the impact of the blight in 1845 was limited by its late arrival, it was a very different story the following year, when the now-established fungus almost totally devastated the potato crop.

On 15 August 1846 The Nation reported that ‘from Antrim to Cork, from Galway to Wexford, there is a universal cry of total failure and impending starvation’. The failure of the crop in 1846 and in subsequent years would have a devastating impact on the millions of Irish people dependent on it. 

This piece is based on the Atlas of the Great Irish Famine edited by John Crowley, William J. Smyth and Mike Murphy and its contents do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ.