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Specimen of a potato infected with Phytophthora Infestans and collected by John Lindley in 1846 at the Royal Botanical Garden, Dublin, Ireland.

How blight caused the Great Irish Famine

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Specimen of a potato infected with Phytophthora Infestans and collected by John Lindley in 1846 at the Royal Botanical Garden, Dublin, Ireland.

At first, it seemed to be nothing. It was a curled-up dark brown leaf about the size of a good lock of hair and it was preserved in glass in a room in the Fairlow Herbarium in Cambridge, Massachusetts. A typewritten card alongside the leaf said that it was taken from an infected potato plant in Ireland during the famines of 1845-50. I looked at the leaf, read the card and began to walk away and, of course, did not leave. Here in this glass case was the weapon used by the earth when it turned against man and nearly ended a nation, the leaf that determined the character of its people, wherever they were, for generations at least. Behind the glass case, on long shelves, was an impressive line of books. There also was in the room a man who could help me decipher some of the written matter. I decided to forget about taking one of the morning shuttles to New York. I sat at a table. Usually, when you are around relics of things Irish, you hear in your mind a song or have the feel of a smile.

This time, the hand went for a book. At the time of the famine, the man in charge of the room observed, mycology, the study of fungi, was only beginning. People from a couple of places in the world went to Ireland to collect blighted plants and then took them back to their laboratories to study. But they could give Ireland no help.

By the time the famine was ending, the potato fungus was only being given a name: “phytophtora infestans.” One of the things most vile about the use of a dead language is the manner in which the message of horror becomes lost in the struggle to absorb the habitual syllables.The man in the Fairlow Herbarium suggested one of the books, The Advance of the Fungi by E.C. Large. The author noted that in good weather the potato fungus reproduced sexually. However, when conditions were constantly wet and chilly, the fungus reproduced asexually, and at great rapidity. On two occasions during the famine years, there was a chill rain that did not seem to end. Fungus appeared wherever the land was wet. Potato leaves became brown and started to curl up and the potato underneath became purple and mushy. With no food, over a million died and millions fled.

The book says that experiments over the years show that the blighted potato was edible. Because of the fungus causing the inside of the potato to break down, much of the starch turned into sugar, thereby giving the potato a strange, sweet taste. This is something that can be said in the safety of a laboratory. But while a million were dying, people tried to eat the potatoes and found they could not.

The potato originates in the Andes Mountains of Peru, where it grows in many varieties. However, the English, who introduced it to Ireland in the 16th century, planted only one variety, the clone, and it is susceptible to the wet fingers of fungus. With no second variety of potato plant to withstand the disease, the blight became total. The Irish, ignorant of all this, planted any eyes which seemed even vaguely uninfected and prayed that the next crop would be clean. But the new plants were as infected as the ones from which they came.

As I was reading this, I began to think of the crumbling stone building on Bantry Bay, in Cork. The ruin stands right on the bay, at a point where the rocky shore builds up to great cliffs that go along flat, deep water until the water begins to rise and fall in great swells and suddenly the land ends and now it is ocean, not bay, slapping against the bottom of the cliff and sending spray high into the air, up to the top of the cliff. The ruins sit in a tangle of rough brush and are difficult to reach.

In 1845, at the height of the famine, the place was a granary. Each day, while Irishmen died with their mouths stained green from eating grass, the British worked this granary and filled sacks that were placed on ships and sent to England. Near the end, when there were no people able to work in the fields and supply the granary, the British announced that the building would be donated to the people. It could be used as a Children’s Home, which is a twisted way of saying what it actually became: a morgue for children who died of not having food. The bodies of children were stacked floor to ceiling in the granary.

And now, in this room in Cambridge, with the time passing and the man in charge finding you still more to read about fungus and famine, the line in the English language I always think of first walked through my mind in all its stateliness and wisdom: “Too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart.”

The sons of this famine burned an orphanage in New York City. It was called the Colored Orphan Asylum, of course; when the maimed poor anywhere lash out, they seek not the blood of dukes and earls, but rather victims such as they. The Colored Orphan Asylum was on Fifth Avenue, between 43rd and 44th Streets.

At three p.m, on Sunday, July 12, 1863, a crowd of nearly 4,000 Irish broke through the front gate of the orphanage, rushed across the lawns and broke inside. The orphanage officials managed to sneak 400 terrified black orphans out of the back door and take them to the safety of a police station. The mob of Irish, meanwhile, ransacked and burned the orphanage. And throughout the city, mobs of Irish, their hearts shale, their souls dead, rioted and killed blacks.

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