The Great Potato Famine

The Great Potato Famine

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  • During the 1500s, there was a constant fight between the english rulers, Irish inhabitants and local nobles. Ireland was torn apart by constant warfare, and the peasant farmers had a hard time growing food. Ireland was starving, but soon, around the 1600's, the potato was introduced.
  • Once the potato arrived, it caught on very quickly in Ireland.  The potatoes grew more abundant than any other crops, though no one was sure how it was brought to Ireland. There were many theories, but is assumed to come from the Americas. Some theories include from the famous English explorer, Sir Walter Raleigh, to that the potato washed up on the beaches of Ireland as part of the shipwreck of the Spanish Armada.
  • Ireland was the first country in Europe where the potato became a major food source. By the 1800s, some of the poorer parts in Ireland relied entirely on the potato for food.  The potato was considered essential and important, and by 1840, the population had grown from 3 million to 8 million. Some people had caught on that it was dangerous to rely solely on one crop, but no one listened their warnings.
  • In the mid 1800s, most Irish people had a very low standard of living.  Irish people had potatoes for every meal.  A man could eat 4 kilos of potatoes a day. As potatoes would stay good for 10 months, June and July were known as the "hungry months", before the new crop was ready.
  • In September, 1845, the biggest fear hit Ireland: a disease attacked the potato crops. Spread from Canada, now known as "potato blight" destroyed between 1/3 and 1/2 of the crops. It was a fungus, Phytophthora infestans, which made the potatoes black, soggy and foul. In a result, a famine in Ireland began. No one knows how much people died; historians and statisticians estimate from 500,000 to 1,100,000. 
  • This resulted in 1 million Irish emigrating, mostly to America and Canada, a few to Australia and NZ.  Many died on their travelling boats, as conditions were crowded and dirty.  These boats became known as “coffin ships”. Emigrating to America was called the “American Wake”, as they would never see Ireland again. If they went back, there would be more poverty, disease, and English persecution. America was described as the "Golden Door" and a land of abundance.
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