Ireland hates immigrants

The great famine

Small mushroom with a big impact

When natural disasters coincide with unfavorable political conditions, the consequences for people are often particularly devastating. The Irish had this experience in the middle of the 19th century, when several potato harvests were almost completely lost. A fungus called "Phytophthora infestans", introduced from North America, was the cause.

The fungus first attacks the potato tops and causes them to rot. In damp weather, the spores are then washed into the ground and attack the tuber. The tissue of the entire potato plant is destroyed. The disease spreads quickly across the field.

Today, however, there are pesticides, but in the 19th century the fungus ruined the food base of an entire people. In 1842 the pathogen had spread from the USA and spread to Western and Central Europe. In 1845 "Phytophthora" first appeared on a large scale in Irish fields.

The farmers had to watch helplessly as the entire harvest spoiled before their eyes. The few potatoes that could be saved from the fungal attack were far too small - because there was no time left to let them ripen.

Bad harvests, hunger and emigration

The potato smear had fatal consequences for the small tenant farmers in Ireland. They had to fall back on their supplies. The farmers usually kept part of the potato harvest so that it could be used as seed for the next year. But the low yield left the farmers no choice. They needed the potatoes for food and could not hold back anything for the next seed.

This poor harvest still remained within the framework of normal famine years because the farmers decided to attack their reserves. Most Irish therefore survived this first winter of starvation under terrible hardship.

But when the fungus continued to spread over the next three years and led to even more crop failures and the seeds were used up, the Irish smallholders were on the verge of ruin.

An estimated one million Irish starved to death, another one to two million emigrated in the following years - mainly to Canada, Australia and the USA. By 1920 five million Irish had emigrated.

Epidemics such as plague and typhus joined hunger. Hundreds of thousands of people died. The years between 1845 and 1849 went down in Irish history as The Great Famine.

English ruthlessness

The English landlords fared better on the island than the Irish peasants. Not only did they have sufficient resources to weather the bad harvests, they also enjoyed the special protection of the English government and the English legal system. According to English tenancy law, the landlords could not only terminate their land at any time. They were also allowed to tear down their homesteads to prevent them from returning.

They made extensive use of this, with the result that the potato pest robbed large parts of the Irish rural population of their livelihoods, but gave the English landowners unimagined land gains - land of a fertility that is nowhere else in the British Isles.

Help could have come from the English government. But the opposite happened. The starving Irish had to watch as the few potatoes were shipped to England by English landowners. Worse still: Even the grain harvest, which was normal and could have provided a basis for food, was exported because the poor Irish had no money to buy bread and flour.

It was the time of economic liberalism and many educated people in distant London believed that such a famine could regulate the impending overpopulation of Ireland. Under no circumstances should subsidized food endanger prices and thus markets.

Others saw the famine as a welcome opportunity to discipline what were, from the English point of view, rebellious Irish people. Whatever was omitted in favor of the Irish: It suited the English bourgeoisie, for whom a booming industry and colonial power politics promised rosy times.

Ireland was part of the English crown and in no way comparable with the distant colonies. But English politicians did not assume that the Irish would be loyal to English rule. The Irish could only emerge weakened and the English strengthened from the ongoing potato crisis.

The way to independence

The Irish have never forgotten the behavior of the English during the potato pest. The previously tense relationship between the Irish and the English turned into open hatred of everything English after the famine. As early as the 1870s, the first organizations were formed that wanted to achieve land reform and independence for Ireland. Many violent clashes with the British Crown were the result.

It was not until 1903 that Irish land became the property of Irish farmers. But that was far from appeasing the Irish, the struggle for independence continued. In 1916 the violent Easter Rising failed because of the overwhelming strength of the English army.

The Anglo-Irish War between 1919 and 1921 eventually led to the independence of Ireland with the exception of Northern Ireland, which is still under the United Kingdom to this day. Many historians see the great famine as the decisive trigger for the Irish struggle for independence.