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. Because the potato was so abundant and could feed so many people, it allowed the population of Ireland to grow very quickly.
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. Some men and women tried to warn everyone that it was dangerous for so many people in one place to be dependent on just one crop. Unfortunately, no one listened to their warnings.
September of 1845, a strange disease called the 'potato blight' made its appearance in Ireland. 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. A third to a half of its crop was destroyed. This blight caused a famine in Ireland.
No-one knows for certain how many Irish people died in the Great Potato Famine. Modern historians and statisticians 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.
One million Irish emigrated, mostly for America and Canada plus Australia and NZ. Of those who left, many died on board the boats they were travelling in because the conditions were so crowded and dirty. For this reason, the ships that carried Irish immigrants to the New World became known as “coffin ships”. Rags, disease, and the ravages of hunger were among the signs attached to them.
Though life in Ireland was cruel, emigrating to America was not a joyful event. It was referred to as the “American Wake” for they knew they would never see Ireland again. Those who pursued this path did so because they knew their future in Ireland would only be more poverty, disease, and English oppression. America was their dream. Early immigrant letters described it as a land of abundance and urged others to follow them through the "Golden Door".