The Great Famine
America has about 35 million people of Irish descent. The population of the Republic
of Ireland is about one-seventh of that number, at just under 5 million. Why are there
so many more Irish-Americans than there are Irish citizens? The reason is a tiny fungus
called phytophthora infestans - also known as the Potato Blight.
In the mid-1800s, Ireland was thoroughly under the domination of the British Empire,
which parceled out the fertile land to various aristocratic families. These wealthy,
English-speaking Protestants owned nearly all of the land in Ireland, but the people who
worked it were poor, Irish-speaking Catholics. Overlapping ethnic, religious, and class
tensions were rampant.
While meat, grain, and dairy products were exported to Great Britain or consumed by the
landowners, Irish peasants subsisted almost entirely on potatoes, which could be grown
on tiny plots of land from a small number of “seed potatoes.” It was already a precarious
situation, especially in the poorer counties of Munster and Connacht.
Then, in 1845, a virulent strain of potato blight swept across Ireland and nearly wiped out
the potato crop. Within the space of a single year, hunger scoured the landscape like a
wildfire, and many people resorted to eating their seed potatoes - meaning they had noth-
ing to plant the following year. In the years 1845-1849, the Catholic population of Ireland
was cut nearly in half due to a combination of starvation and mass emigration, primarily
to the land of opportunity: America. Anyone who could book passage or stow away on a
merchant ship bound for America did exactly that, and they created huge immigrant com-
munities in cities like Boston and New York.
Back home, the British government's response to the famine was mixed. Many parlia-
mentarians excoriated their colleagues' lack of action and demanded that relief funds be
sent to the starving Irish peasants. But others, including many landlords within Ireland,
profited from the sharp rise in food prices and did nothing to help their starving workers.
Because of this malicious exploitation on the part of some English landlords and the Brit-
ish government's complacency, some Irish people have gone as far as to claim that the
famine was not only a natural disaster, but also an act of indirect genocide. Whether or