“Irish Famine” has been referred to a strange epidemic which has killed more than a million Irish, and has been examined as a biological case. The researchers found that strain of HERB-1 as the crucial element to cause this wide-spread and infamous famine. Surely, it was a biological event, yet, it occurred in a certain historical context which has brought Irish to suffer rather than others would do. Dominant regard on Great Famine fails to recognise that the development of famine was not an ideological or abstract question of diplomatic wrongdoings in terms of trade relations between England and Ireland, but a symptom of emerging capitalism. This essay tries to dissect what caused the Famine.
One cannot deny the crucial trade relation between the English and Irish over centuries. Island has lacked such wide plains and the lords have usually been stuck in-between whether they use land for cattle or crop. It may be helpful to outline the historical change in this choice and development of agriculture to understand what lies behind such massive use of potatoes. In the 16th century, peasant diet was usually composed of oat, milk, and beef where the farmers exported mainly wood to England. By the 17th century, beef has disappeared from peasant staple for London’s demand on meat products – which made Irish’s 75% of exports.
This dramatic shift from oat to potatoes has occurred in the 18th century when lords enclosed the lands, pushed the peasants, and started to produce cattle. Furthermore, by the Corn Law, there started tariff on importation of corns which led to raise corn prices and to increase grain production in Ireland. London was growing as it becomes the centre of the world’s strongest power, and, also, expanding as an industrial city. 19th century remarked huge population flow from Ireland to colonies, especially to America. When the Famine occurred during the period of 1845-49 over million Irish labour population has died, and many others have migrated to other lands. It is logical that since poor Irish peasants had nothing to eat but potatoes to survive their day-to-day life, an infection in potato would surely affect such huge numbers of labour population to starve to the death.
How the Irish has faced with such great starvation might be explained with the accumulation of such social and economic context. After all their main diet did not suddenly became potatoes, or it was not a matter of consumption choice, either. Mass removal of tenant farmers by the lords have left the Irish destitute, after the crop failure millions starved. Furthermore, governments of the time had not even reacted quickly, and “let them die.” Moreover, during the famine years Ireland continued to export food with an average of 100,000 pounds sterling. As the Irish revolutionary of 19th century John Mitchel says “The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the famine.”
John MITCHEL, The Last Conquest of Ireland (Perhaps) , ed. Patrick MAUME, Dublin: UCD Press, 2005, p. 219.
Kaan Kubilay Aşar