The potato blight that arrived in Europe in the summer of 1845 was, like the potato itself, an American export. The fungus that caused the blight was a microscopic organism that would not be identified scientifically for another fifteen years. But even after its identification, no effective treatment for the blight would be found till a Frenchman named Millardet would notice that roadside crops remained free of blight because they had been sprayed with copper sulphate and hydrated lime by French agriculturalists who wanted to keep poor people from stealing their property. It took Millardet three years to develop a commercially saleable pesticide. This was in 1885 – 40 years too late for the millions of desperately poor Irish farmers who relied on the potato for almost all their nourishment and who wouldn’t, in any case, have been able to afford Millardet’s invention.
The spores of the fungus traveled through the air with lightning speed whenever the weather was warm and wet, attacking crops, decimating whole fields within hours, and rotting the potatoes to a foul-smelling mush. This sudden stench was the thing most feared, for it announced to the farmer that his hopes for a harvest were dashed. But in Ireland, as nowhere else, the sickening odor, carried on the breeze of late summer, became the perfume of death itself.
In the Middle Ages, Ireland had been a place of fabulous agricultural fertility. The early Irish monks and nuns, who tried for a time to be as strict with themselves as the hermits of the Egyptian desert, found that it was just about impossible to starve properly in Ireland, because the country abounded in delicious food of all kinds – “leeks from the garden, poultry, game, salmon and trout and bees,” as a salivating monastic poet of the seventh century put it. Indeed, Irish hospitality and generosity were legendary, for the Irish monks opened their doors and their cupboards to England and all Europe, educating whoever came to them without charging for tuition, books, room, or board.
But by the eighteenth century, Ireland had become what we today would call a Third World country, a colony of England, in which all the good land had been taken from the Irish by English planters – a place where everything from seed to salmon streams was owned by others, and the Irish had become unwanted poachers and vagrants on the rich soil that had once been theirs. The economic rape of Ireland began with its forests, the thick stands of trees that once covered every hillside and provided the habitat for Ireland’s abundant game. The Irish nobility, understanding that there was no future for them, took flight, gentlemen often taking military commissions in continental armies and founding new businesses like Hennessy Cognac in France. They left behind them a dispirited population of peasants who could do nothing but watch their world come to an end. A Tipperary poet of this period bemoans the flight of the local Irish lord and the ruin of his castle in these words:
What shall we do for timber?
The last of the woods is down.
Kilcash and the house of its glory
And the bell of the house are gone,
The spot where the lady waited
Who shamed all women for grace
When earls came sailing to greet her
And Mass was said in the place.
My grief and my affliction
Your gates are taken away,
Your avenue needs attention,
Goats in the garden stray.
The courtyard’s filled with water
And the great earls where are they?
The earls, the lady, the people
Beaten into the clay.
In the early nineteenth century, Alexis de Tocqueville, who toured Ireland three years after his American travels, wrote to his father:
You cannot imagine what a complexity of miseries five centuries of oppression, civil disorder, and religious hostility have piled on this poor people.... [The poverty is] such as I did not imagine existed in this world. It is a frightening thing, I assure you, to see a whole population reduced to fasting like Trappists, and not being sure of surviving to the next harvest, which is still not expected for another ten days.
And this was in 1835, ten years before the Famine began!
Pushed further and further away from their dark ancestral fields, the majority of Irish farmers found themselves trying to feed their families from ever smaller plots, so arid and stony that no one else wanted them, sometimes, as one old song has it, even attempting to plow the rocks themselves. Dispossessed of their property because of their race, deprived of all civil rights because of their religion (including the right to object to anything that was being done to them), the “mere Irish,” as the conquerors were fond of calling us, had sunk as low as possible. When former American slave Frederick Douglass visited Ireland in 1845 to rally support for the campaign to abolish slavery in America, he wrote of the Irish,
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