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North Coast Current

News online for Encinitas, Calif.

North Coast Current

News online for Encinitas, Calif.

North Coast Current

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Historically Speaking: Irish-Americans are Here Due to the Potato

By Tom Morrow

The Great Irish Famine of 1845, was an unusual blight which devastated Ireland’s potato crop, the basic staple of the population. Approximately 1 million people died and 2 million more emigrated causing the island’s population to fall by between 20 percent and 25 percent.
The great influx of Irish immigrants to the United States from 1845-51 and years later can be attributed to the potato.
The majority of people depended upon the tuber for their diet. Most Irish peasants rented small plots of land from absentee British landlords, and because an acre of potatoes could support a family for a year, it became vital to survival. Potatoes are nutritious and easy to grow, requiring minimal labor, training or equipment. A spade is all that’s required. When the blight struck, the potatoes turned slimy, black, and rotten in just days after they were dug from the ground.
The proximate cause of famine was potato blight, which ravaged potato crops throughout Europe during the 1840s. However, the impact in Ireland was disproportionate as one third of the population was dependent on the potato for a range of ethnic, religious, political, social, and economic reasons, such as land acquisition, as well as absentee landlords. All of these contributed to the disaster to varying degrees and remain the subject of intense historical debate.
The famine was a turning point in the history of Ireland, which was then part of Great Britain. The famine and its effects permanently changed the island’s demographic, political, and cultural landscape.
The already strained relations between many Irish and the British Crown soured further, heightening ethnic and sectarian tensions. It boosted Irish nationalism and republicanism among Irish on the island as well as emigrants in the United States and elsewhere.
The blight resulted in what became known as “Famine Fever,” killing thousands of people suffering from cholera, dysentery, scurvy, typhus, and infestations of lice. Those trying to combat conditions reported seeing children crying with pain and looking “like skeletons. People’s features sharpened with hunger and their limbs wasted, so that little was left but bones.”
Masses of bodies were buried without coffins only a few inches below the soil. Some 750,000 Irishmen died from the famine over the next decade to 1855.
Despite pleas from the small population of well-to-do Irish as well as some British living in Ireland, the British-controlled government did little to help, merely forcing hundreds of thousands of peasants into workhouses.
Ireland wasn’t the only country to be struck by the fungus, known as Phytophthora infestans, it reached into northern Europe, primarily Norway, causing famine in that country. A great number of Norwegians also migrated to other countries in the New World and other parts of Europe.
During the decade of the famine, more than 2 million Irishmen left their homeland, migrating to the U.S., Canada, England, and Australia.
While most of the immigrants assumed they would be going to a better place, in reality the Irish were treated like second-class citizens, especially in the United States. Jobs that were available ranged from being servants and housekeepers for the women, and hard construction labor for the men. Many were uneducated, which limited the job possibilities. Enlisting in the military was commonplace for many of the young men. A good number of cities, most notably New York, hired the Irish for their police force, primarily because of their ability to police their own populace.
It took many years before being Irish didn’t hold a certain stigma in society. The discrimination of being Irish ranked just above being an African-American for much of the last half of the 19th century and into the early 20th century.


To Learn More about Tom Morrow, the author click here.
E-mail Tom Morrow at: [email protected]

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Historically Speaking: Irish-Americans are Here Due to the Potato