The Legacy of the Irish Potato Famine
Posted by Ola Kosakowska on the 5th of November 2015 at 10:19:32
The other day, as I was taking a walk in St Stephen Green’s Park in Dublin, I noticed a particular sculpture representing starved humans in dire straits. The sculpture was made by Edward Delaney, and called “Famine”.
Then suddenly, it hit me. As a foreigner I remember studying at school what is known outside Ireland especially as “The Great Potato Famine”:a period of mass starvation, disease and emigration in Ireland between 1845 and 1852. It is in fact one of the very first things foreign students learn about Ireland’s history prior to the 20th century. So before coming to Ireland, I remember being very moved by this episode of their History. And so I am taking the time right now to write about it, and to show you the legacy of this tragedy in modern Ireland, should you come to visit the country.
It is referred to as theIrish Potato Famine because about one third of the population was solely reliant on this cheap crop. And in the 1840s, a potato disease known aspotato blight,ravaged potato crops inEurope.
The context at that time was pretty rough and worsened things.
- The Penal Laws and the Property Act, under British rule, stated that the Irish lands had to be shared between all the sons of a same family rather than just to give it to the oldest, which led to a reduction of the size of crops and the farmers became more vulnerable.
- Many farmers also didn’t own their lands and had to pay a rent to a British landlord. So at that time, Irish families were pretty vulnerable and relied on potatoes to subsist, especially since potatoes don’t need much space.
During the famine approximately 1 million people died and a million more emigrated from Ireland, causing the island's population to fall by between 20% and 25%.
It had many repercussions in Ireland’s history, and still later on today memorials remind us of this tragedy.
For one, the massive famine soured the already strainedrelationsbetween many of the Irish people and theBritish Crown. Queen Victoria was called in Ireland decades later as the «Famine Queen». A claim was made that the Famine wasgenocideby the British against the Irish, meaning that the famine was part of a deliberate policy of planned extermination. Many emigrants, forced to flee from Ireland by a famine they blamed on British government policies, complained and encouraged Irish republicanism. All these factors eventually led toIrish independencein the 20TH century.
Secondly, this episode hadmajor demographic consequences. By 1900 the population of Ireland had decreased from 50% compared to its 1840’s population. It is at this period that the Irish diaspora, in Europe and in North America, really exploded (that’s why there are quite a few memorials of this period in the United States, and today a 10% of the US population self-identifies as “Irish American”.).
Thirdly, it also had linguistic consequences as a large proportion of people who died or emigrated were Irish speakers from the poorest districts. This led to the creation of an Ireland which thought of itself as essentially English-speaking.
Today in Ireland, many memorials focus on this period, and we invite to take look at some.
First of all there are a lot of museums, but also quite some sculptures.
In the Customs HouseQuays,Dublin, painfully thin sculptural figures, by artistRowan Gillespie, stand as if walking towards the emigration ships on the Dublin Quayside. More infos here.
The World Poverty Stone is a commemorative stone marking the United Nations International Day for the Eradication of World Poverty. It is sited to the east of the Famine Sculptures on Custom House Quay in the heart of Dublin's Docklands.
In Murrisk,County Mayo. A sculpture of afamine shipis also a reminder.
Also in County Mayo, a cross commemorates an event known as theDoolough Tragedy.
On Friday 30 March 1849 two officials of thePoor Board arrived inLouisburghto inspect those people in receipt of poorreliefto verify that they should continue to receive it. For some reason the inspection did not take place and the officials went on to Delphi Lodge 12 miles (19km) south of Louisburgh. The people who had gathered for the inspection were thus instructed to appear at Delphi Lodge at 7am the following morning if they wished to continue receiving relief. Hundreds of destitute and starving people had to undertake an extremely fatiguing journey, in very bad weather. Many died in the journey as a result, and the bodies of several people, were discovered on the roadside betweenDelphiand Louisburgh overlooking the shores of Doolough lake.
The monument in Doolough valley has an inscription fromGandhi: "How can men feel themselves honoured by the humiliation of their fellow beings?"
Don’t miss those places if you are interested in Ireland’s History.