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During the 1500s, Ireland was torn apart by constant warfare. As a result of this continual conflict, Ireland’s peasant farmers had a hard time growing enough food to feed people. In the year 1600, the potato was introduced.
No one is sure exactly who introduced the potato to Ireland. Some believe it was the famous English explorer, sea captain and poet, Sir Walter Raleigh. Others speculate that the potato washed up on the beaches of Ireland as part of the shipwreck of the Spanish Armada, which had sunk off the Irish coast in a violent storm.
Ireland was the first country in Europe where the potato became a major food source. By the 1800s, the potato was so important in Ireland that some of the poorer parts of the country relied entirely on the potato for food.
By 1840, the country’s population had swelled from less than three million in the early 1500’s to a staggering eight million people, largely thanks to the potato.
The disease attacked the potatoes as they grew in the fields and up to half of the crop was destroyed. Many of the potatoes were found to have gone black and rotten and their leaves had withered. The blight was the fungus Phytophthora infestans which turns potatoes into a soggy and inedible mess that smells badly. This blight caused a famine in Ireland.
Because of the potato famine, there is an estimate that between 500,000 and 1,100,000 died. Many historians suggest the death-toll was in the region of 700,000 to 800,000. In addition, in excess of one million Irish emigrated, mostly for America and Canada plus Australia and NZ.
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