EarthRx: The Irish Potato Famine Was Caused by Capitalism, Not a Fungus

Science Features Irish Potato Famine
EarthRx: The Irish Potato Famine Was Caused by Capitalism, Not a Fungus

Put on the U2 and The Cranberries and let’s down some green brew folks, it’s that time of year again. But while St. Patrick’s Day is cause to celebrate everything Irish-American, it’s also a good time to ponder just why more than a million Irish were forced to leave Ireland while another million were dying of starvation in such a short period of time in the first place. The answer, which also explains why millions of children are currently going without enough food in the U.S., has much more to do with market systems than Mother Nature.

Most of us were taught in school that the Irish Potato Famine, which took place from 1845 to 1852, was simply caused by a previously unknown fungal blight (Phytophthora infestans) that wiped out the potato crop of the Emerald Isle just at a time when too much of the population was dependent on a single type of potato for daily sustenance.

While the blight did strike and take down most of Ireland’s potatoes, the truth is that Ireland was exporting more than enough food to feed everyone at the same time as the famine was happening. Run as a colony of the vast British Empire, Ireland was a colonial food-producing operation, much like India and the sugar islands of the Caribbean, but locals were not allowed to eat the very food they were producing.

In other words, a million Irish starved for no reason other than greed.

“Ireland’s economy had always been made subservient to British interests,“ Quinnipiac University Professor Christine Kinealy says. “Following the appearance of the potato blight, a number of people in Ireland requested the government to close the Irish ports to keep food inside the country. [The British] refused to do so on the grounds that merchants would bring food in under free market forces.”

“Of course, this did not happen.”

Author of several books on the Irish Potato Famine, including a graphic novel for young adults on the subject entitled The Bad Times, Kinealy is also the director of the Great Hunger Museum in Connecticut. I contacted her to find out just exactly what happened in those bleak days of starvation and mass exodus and how the systematic forces behind that great tragedy may still be in play today.

“Potatoes were only one of the crops grown in Ireland and accounted for approximately 20 percent of agricultural produce,” Kinealy says. “Ireland produced large amounts of other foodstuffs—mostly for exportation to Britain.”

“On the eve of the Famine for example, Ireland was exporting sufficient quantities of corn, wheat, barley, oats etc. to Britain to feed an estimated two million people. Clearly Ireland was producing an agricultural surplus.”

Anyone wondering how the richest empire in the world, as Britain was at the time, could allow millions of its subjects to starve while there was a actually a food surplus going on need simply to look a little closer at the modern-day United States. Nearly 16 million households suffer from food scarcity in the U.S., the richest country in the history of countries, yet we are experiencing a food surplus so huge that the government is actually stepping in to buy millions’ of dollars worth of staples like cheese just to keep the market alive.

In fact, more than 800 million people around the world suffer from hunger despite the fact that we currently produce enough food to feed two or three times the global population. Like Ireland during the famine, these millions are starving because of bad policies and ideologies, not because there is not enough to go around.

“Regardless of the wealth of the British Empire, it repeatedly refused to use its resources to either effect structural changes or alleviate food shortages when they occurred,” Kinealy says, explaining how the Irish Great Hunger was not an isolated incident. “Famines occurred periodically in both Ireland and India in the 19th century. In both countries, the rulers in London blamed the indigenous poor for their own poverty—creating the myth that they were lazy, socially backward and uncivilized.”

Sound familiar? Of course it does. Blaming poor people for being too lazy or unmotivated to succeed is an extremely popular pasttime in the U.S., despite the fact that, just as the Irish who starved were hard at work producing profit for their rich British landlords, most American food stamp recipients are employed full-time.

“The issues that faced the Irish people in 1840 are not unique to this time or place,” Kinealy says. “Poverty, hunger and famine exist today—sadly because the same social structures and attitudes towards poverty still exist.“

Kinealy is right. Thirteen million children in the United States go hungry every day as the “land of the free” now has the highest child poverty rate of any developed country in the world despite its tremendous economic output.

Or maybe because of it.

Like 19th-century Britain, whose empire spanned the world, the United States now runs the globe through a “free market” system of trade laws that concentrate wealth in the hands of the few while dispossessing almost everyone else. Inequality within countries is growing at an alarming rate as the rich monopolize industry through trade subsidies and resource wars.

“The British government at the time of the Famine is often described as being committed to ‘laissez faire’, that is, non-intervention in the market place,” says Professor Kinealy. “However, the British government was the most interventionist government in the world when it came to their commercial and other interests—a stark example of this is the Opium War with China (1839-42).”

It’s a game as old as Empire. Our own modern-day stark examples include wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and other regions like Syria, all of which funded by taxpayer dollars, while poor people at home go without food. These wars are also producing a refugee crisis of epic proportions that the world is struggling to understand.

But consider that there are seven times as many Irish-Americans in the U.S. than Irish in Ireland—which is largely due to the Great Famine migration—and the pattern is clear. Capitalism is a beast.

“Refugees generally leave their homeland out of desperation,” Kinealy says. “Those who fled Ireland during the Famine—over one million people in the space of six years—were doing just that. Undertaking a voyage into the unknown in the hope of survival.”

So as we tilt back that Guiness this year and don those Leprechaun hats while doing the Riverdance, let’s also take a closer look at the daily news about migration from abroad and social unrest in poverty stricken areas here at home. The truth is that the forces behind the Great Irish Famine are still at work today and we are going to need all the “Fighting Irish” spirit we can muster to change that.

Photo by Rob Hurson, CC BY-SA

Ocean Malandra writes the EarthRx column for Paste Magazine and will be downing an old school proper Irish stout in the middle of the Amazon rainforest this St Paddy’s Day..

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