Ireland is in your hands, in your power. If you do not save her, she cannot save herself. I solemnly call upon you to recollect that I predict with the sincerest conviction that a quarter of her population will perish unless you come to her relief.
Daniel O’Connell to the British House of Commons, 1847.
There is nothing so comforting as a lovely bowl of mashed potatoes. For most Americans, potatoes are a staple food. Profoundly simple, the humble potato can be used in many ways to complete any meal whether it’s breakfast, lunch, or dinner.
But once upon a time, a long time ago, the lowly potato caused a very big problem. Actually, it wasn’t the potato, it was phytophthora infestans, an airborne fungus. And the problem began when an entire nation became completely dependent on the starchy tuber.
A member of the nightshade family, the potato originated in the Andes and made its way via Sir Walter Raleigh (possibly) to the British Isles in 1570. Ireland’s soil and climate seemed the perfect environment to grow the tasty new food. In the next three hundred years, it proliferated to feed the masses.
But something terrible happened in 1845. An odd little fungus stowed away on a North American vessel that sailed for Dublin. The powdery substance spread on the winds that are so abundant in the area, and found its way into the soil. The potato plants fermented, providing the fungus nourishment. The smell of the rotting foliage was incredibly bad. The farmers rushed to dig up the roots. At first the potatoes seemed edible, but two or three days later, they’d shriveled and rotted. The fungus had found its way into the roots.
Overcrowding was a problem in Ireland, but a dirt farmer could grow enough potatoes on a postage-stamp sized plot to feed his family approximately ten months out the year. In other words, the stored potatoes gave out before the new crop was ready. The last two months, they nearly starved.
Tragically, the potato famine killed upwards of a million souls. Another million or so emigrated to British North America (Quebec). Some Irish landowners paid the passage for pauper families living on their land, but the ships were built quickly and poorly. Many of these emigrants died en route. So many died that the ships were called “coffin ships.”