Sunday, September 27, 2009


The nineteenth century was a time of commercial awakening across much of Europe, poised on the cusp of the coming industrial revolution as was the New World across the Atlantic. Mercantilism was more and more the “engine” which drove social, economic and political change, especially for Great Britain whose empire stretched around the globe. Government in London, increasingly sensitive to the threat of competition from abroad, and pressed by a Parliament dominated by landed gentry with strong ties to the profits of “empire”, began to pass protectionist laws designed to keep profits close to home; that is in the hands of Englishmen.
To the consternation of a minority of more farsighted legislators, a series of laws crafted to curb the importation of low-priced grains from America and elsewhere came into being. They came to be known as “The Corn Laws”, and they (and ironically their later repeal) would eventually lead directly to one of the greatest human tragedies of modern times.
On a map of the world, England and Ireland appear to be close neighbors, sharing not only a piece of nearly-contiguous geography, but a commonality in genealogy and governance. In the early 1800s though, English lawmakers saw Ireland as little more than an island of troublesome, largely-uneducated “foreigners” whose exploding population was a growing concern. They were largely tenant farmers who worked the land which was owned by non-resident English gentry; often no more than vassals to distant employers who often, had never even visited Ireland.
Traditionally, Irish farm folks had based their diet on bread and cereal made from wheat, oats, barley and what was known then as Indian corn. The grains had to be imported however, and when it was discovered that potatoes grew well in the usually unfriendly Irish soil and climate, a major dietary shift took place. By the 1830s, a typical Irish working man consumed 14 pounds of potatoes each day. As unappealing as such a limited choice might seem to our society today, it worked well for that time and place, especially because each family could grow most of their own year’s food supply themselves. And of course it was easy on the purse strings of the “land lords”.
The type of potato which had become the almost-universal choice was known as the “lumper”, a variety with South American roots which had proved itself well adapted to Ireland’s growing conditions. Because potatoes are reproduced vegetatively – that is by dividing the sprouts from one generation to the next – each potato and its progeny are actually genetic clones of their parents with identical strengths and vulnerabilities.
In September of 1845, a wind and fog-driven fungus blew its way into southern Ireland, and the leaves of potato plants began to turn black and rot. There is some irony in the fact that the resulting blight and its deadly consequences probably originated at the docks of England, where the fateful organism arrived in the holds of ships being unloaded there. It is generally agreed by plant scientists that the airborne fungus was phytophtora infestans, but all the people of Ireland knew was that the same mysterious disease that blackened the leaves had also infected the tubers they dug; if not already rotting, they shriveled and died before they could be bagged and stored.
The scourge quickly spread across the country, devastating much of the 1845 harvest, and in the following year. . . there would be no harvest. British Prime Minister Bobby Peel and John Edward Trevelyan, the man he put in charge of the “Irish problem” never really understood the magnitude of the “perfect storm” confronting that island people, and the “solutions” they put in place only made matters worse. Repealing the corn laws and making “Indian corn” available to the starving people might have been a logical step, but the decision to make the victims pay for that grain with money they did not have, and to assume that they would somehow be able to make the rock-hard kernels edible without the necessary equipment to double-grind it only made matters worse. Scurvy, rickettsia and other diseases resulted from the absence of vitamin C in the new impoverished diet and people did not have the strength to work. Unhappy landlords seeing their profits dwindle began evicting Irish families from their tenant-based lodgings by the thousand, creating a self-perpetuating road to poverty for much of the population. Some in Parliament saw all this as evidence that Ireland did not deserve nationhood, and that somehow, a reduction in population as thousands died in the streets of Dublin and other cities might actually serve a useful purpose. Some even declared it to be “divine intervention.
1847 came to be known as the year of “The Great Dying”, with more than one million deaths from starvation and the disease epidemic which followed.
In the wake of what the world came to know as The Irish Potato Famine, the outward migration of Irish citizens was born: By 1861, more than two million Irish immigrants arrived in Boston and New York, with others landing in Canada and Australia. Much of the bitterness which to this day colors the relationship between the British and the Irish can be traced to that piece of unfortunate history.
Hidden in all the more dramatic aspects of this tragic chapter is the lesson in biological diversity we should all have learned. The importance of maintaining a large gene pool of agricultural food crops as opposed to a dependence on a narrow spectrum of plant species is often overlooked in a trend toward “high production-high profit” agri-business.

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