PAGE 1 BY LINDA MAGNUSSON
Ireland may be the country, which is most famous for its emigration of all
European countries. This is probably a result of the emigrations wide extent
as Ireland produced most emigrants of all the emigrant countries. For these
people America wasn’t seen as land of opportunities. They just fled as soon as
they could, wherever they could to avoid poverty, starvation and diseases,
which seemed to have existed in Ireland for decades.
Though there were many causes of the mass exodus from Ireland during the
19th-century, the most significant was the Great Famine that spread across the
island. The Famine, which resulted from the failure of the necessary potato
crop, caused many deaths due to starvation.
To fully understand the Great Famine, one has to examine events as far back as
1793. It was in this year that Great Britain started fighting a war with France.
This war affected Ireland greatly, as the English had to become close trading
partners with the Irish in order to sustain their population. Britain was
dependent on Ireland as a provider of foodstuffs, which in turn resulted in an
Irish agricultural boom at the beginning of the 19th-century. This great period
of prosperity eventually led to a higher birth rate, and Ireland was now able to
support a growing population. However, this changed when Britain and France
reached a peace agreement in 1815. Now Britain no longer had to rely on
Ireland as a supplier, as they could now trade with other European countries.
The Irish peasants despaired as their economy declined. Ireland was still
dependent on their now reduced exports to Britain.
By the late 1820s, the situation had worsened. The generation that had grown
up during the agricultural boom now wanted to start farms of their own. In
order to start their own farms, however, these young adults needed land. Land,
which was usually inheriting from parents, unfortunately had became very
scare. As families had grown, it had become impossible for the inherited land
to be split among the children. Consequently, the soil became divided into
smaller and smaller pieces as generations passed. A piece of land that in the
late 1700's only had to support a family of six, now had to feed six families.
Striving to feed the growing population, more and more poor, stony soil was
tilled by the ploughs of Irish farmers. As the amount of stony soil used
increased, the hardy potato crop became the only plant that people could rely
on. Even so, there were also other reasons for Ireland's reliance on the potato
Since the invasion of Ireland in the middle of the 17th-century, orchestrated by
Britain's then-ruler Oliver Cromwell, much Irish land was owned by the
British. The invading army had confiscated land from many wealthy
landowners since they refused to abandon their Catholic beliefs. Because
Ireland was still a feudal society at this time, and because the wealthy
landowners ruled the majority of Irish peasants, many of the poorer residents
became tenant farmers for the British. They worked the land and paid rent to
the English for the small piece of land that they used to support their family.
But as time went on, it became more profitable to graze sheep and cattle than
to grow crops. The Irish peasants were therefore left with little hope as the
British landowners took back their land. Many more evictions followed as the
landowners feared that their tenants wouldn’t be able to pay their rent. Though
there were some peasants that weren’t evicted, these tenants were left with less
and less land. The many thousands of evicted peasants, on the other hand, had
to live together in crowded and disease infested workhouses. Some of these
peasants were actually fortunate enough to have the opportunity of
immigrating to America, as their landlords paid their journey.
As less and less land was used to grow crops, the potato became a popular
foodstuff. Less land was needed to produce the same larger quantities of food,
and the potato didn’t leave the soil without nitrogen. By 1845, it had become
the most significant source, if not the only source of food, for over three million
people. Unfortunately, it was this abundant crop that led to such great
starvation. <PAR>A fungus, which easily spread among potatoes, appeared in
Ireland for the first time in 1845. Before anyone realised the danger the fungus
posed, it started to attack and destroy the potato crops. In the first year, not the
whole of Ireland was affected. However, by the following autumn, the blight
had spread throughout the entire island. “There is hardly a district in Ireland in
which the potato crops at present are uninfected, -- perhaps we might say,
hardly a field.”2