The impact of climatic change on the great potato famine

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The impact of climatic change on the great potato famine

Starting from the year 1845, Ireland was faced with a great famine that lasted for the next six years and which led to loss of live of million of individuals with others migrating to other countries in order to escape the scathing famine. In mid 1880s, Ireland was well established as an agricultural country with an estimated population of about eight million people. However, the poverty level in the country by this time was one of the highest in the world. This coupled with poor demographics in terms of life expectancy, mortality rate and literacy level further aggregated the effects of the famine once it hit the country.

despite the fact that land was mostly owned by tenant farmers who rarely put their feet on their property, laborers who lived in this large tracks of large were allowed to farm and bring part of their harvest as rent to the tenant farmers. In return to this, the laborers were allowed to erect small cabins in which they lived with their big families. In this respect, families in Ireland at this time were large despite the fact that infant mortality was still high (Kinealy, 1998, p. 78).

Most of the land titles by then were held by Protestants who had inherited large tracks of land that had been confiscated from Irish Catholics by British conquerors. However, landlords did not actually practice farming themselves but rather left their farms at the hands of laborers who would then submit parts of their harvest as rent payment. On this grounds, there was less farming activities in this farms as laborers always lived in fear of been thrown out of their farms and those who practiced farming had to give part of their harvest to the landlords who would then trade the produce in other countries.

Those laborers who could afford to save sometimes rented small fertilized plots in which they grew potato crop which by then was the common crop in the country. Geographically, the most fertile lands in the country were found in the east and north regions with the most densely populated areas being the west and south regions which consisted of large wet areas and rocky soil (Kinealy, 1998, p. 96). Having been introduced in the country at around 1590, potatoes thrived well in the country’s cool moist soil.

In fact growing the crop required very little labor and thus it was farmed by many. Moreover, given the fact that the crop is healthy and nutritious, it become the major crop in the region and can be regarded as the staple food of the time. As stated above, farming the crop require less effort and usually it was done during the spring season which is characterized by cold and dry climate and high temperatures sometimes, with harvesting taking place at around September and some time during the month of October.

Once harvested, the yields could sustain most of the population up to around July or August the following year and this two months were commonly referred to as the meal months or the summer hunger because the current crop was not ready for harvesting and the previous harvest by this time was usually inedible. By autumn which is characterized by cool polar air, the current crop would be usually ready to harvest and this was supposed to take the population up to the following earlier summer.

As long as the crop did not fail, people were sustained and the system was repeated year after year. At around September 1845, the famine mysteriously began with the leaves pf potato plants turning curled and black suddenly after which they rotted. At first it was thought that this came as a result of fog that had for sometime wafted across the fields. However, the actual cause of this was an airborne fungus which had originally been transported by ships traveling to England from North America (Kinealy, 1998, p. 71).

Despite the fact that the major cause of this disease transmission through human activities, the spread of the disease in Ireland fields and consequently the famine can be highly attributed to climatic factors. In this regard, a small climatic change that brought about warm and wet weather conditions in which the fungus could easily and fast thrive caused the major spread of the potato blight responsible for the failing crops. In essence, once the fungus had been introduced in the soils of Ireland, its spread to the inner areas was fast and within no time, most of the crop fields in the country had been affected (Kinealy, 1998, p.

93). One of the climatic factors that contributed to the spread of the crop disease was wind. In this regard, winds blowing from southern England were highly responsible for transporting the fungus around Dublin to other parts of the countryside. As the fungal spores settled on the crop’s leaves, the disease known as blight spread in the fields affecting even the healthy plants. As the disease took root in this field, it further multiplied and with the help of the cool breezes, the fungus was transported to the surrounding fields further affecting other crops.

As stated earlier, one of the major conditions that made potato crop to thrive well in the country was the moist soil on which they were planted. This coupled with the fog made it easier for the fungus responsible for the blight to spread fast and in many potato fields around the country. Due to the warm weather, the affected crops easily fermented thus providing good nourishment grounds needed by the blight fungus to survive. Once the crops had fermented and rotted, the fungus was easily transported to other crops through the wind or through the dump soil.

Further, the wet soil coupled by poor farming practices sustained the fungus for a relatively long period even to affect the following harvest (Kinealy, 1998, p. 94). Those potatoes that had rotten in the soil or once dug up retained the fungus and thus it took along time for the disease to be effectively dealt with. In this context, rotten potatoes once mixed with other manure contents used in planting the crop further aggregated the problem. Despite the fact that the country had experienced previous crop failures due to climatic conditions and other factors, this strange disease had not been seen in the country in previous years.

Despite the fact that most of the potatoes were destroyed during this particular harvest, people were left with something to eat. Furthermore, though the famine has been attributed to the massive deaths that occurred and the increased migration, people did not actually die out of lack of food. On the contrary, there was plenty of food in the country at this time but there were other legal factors that hindered access to food. In particular, the Corn Laws that protected the price of corn and other grains been imported to the country from England.

In this respect, the Corn Laws made it hard for the people to purchase corn since it was overly expensive for the poor population (Kinealy, 1998, p. 69). In the past, the country had always faced food shortages with most of them been regional and short lived. Potato crop failures in the past did not have major effects but rather, they were always associated with modest effects including low death rates among others. As such, any time the potato crop failed, temporary relief measures would be employed to cater for the needs of the population until the next good harvest.

This is one reason as to why the brutish officials and other concerned entities just reintroduced the temporary relief measures with the hope that the food shortage experienced during the year would end with the coming harvest. As it turned out however, they were wrong for the first time. For one, as compared to other crop failures that had affected only some regions in the country, this particular crop failure was experienced throughout the country. Still, the cause of the crop failure was not yet clear and only rumors and speculations were been circulated to explain the cause of the failure.

Some people believed that it was the wrath of God for the sins committed while others thought that the main cause of the crop failure was the mortiferous vapors that emancipated from the volcanoes. Other unscientific explanations were provided though none of these was backed by any evidence. All in all, most people survived the first year of the famine. The next spring when it rained, farmers started to plant some of the remaining tubers which were seemingly healthy. However, these tubers contained strains of the blight fungus and as the rains continued, the blight begun to incubate and spread again.

Coupled with the wet soil and other climatic conditions, the plants were soon overcome with the disease causing yet another food shortage (Kinealy, 1998, p. 78). Despite the fact that other crops were been grown in the country at that time, most of it was been exported to other countries and England in particular which in turn imported high priced corn to Ireland. In this context, the starvation that occurred in the country was not solely attributable to lack of food but rather lack of affordable food.

Given the fact that the poverty level in Ireland was high and the corn imported was also sold at a high price, the population could not secure enough food to survive. Further, what was home grown was usually exported by the tenants’ farmers in search for high proceedings than what the Ireland population could afford to pay. To pay for food commodities, many pawned or sold their properties including the tools through which they made their living. This further increased the poverty level among the population.

In addition, some people even consumed food that was intended to pay their rents out of a better option. This in particular triggered increased conflicts between the landlords and the laborers and consequently increased evictions from the farms. By the next planting season, it was evident that many people did not have any land to plant on or lacked the necessary planting tools. Further, some had also consumed what was intended to be the next season’s seed and due to the roaming poverty, there was no enough money to by seeds from the markets (Kinealy, 1998, p. 100).

Arguments to relax the Corn Laws were met by outrage from English politicians and gently who feared losing their price protections and as a remedy for this, a relief commission was set up in Dublin with the believe that the famine catastrophe would end just like other previous food shortages. Projects that would provide employment opportunities were sought though none of these projects offered enough earnings to cater for the needs of the now devastated population. Food was supposed to be distributed to the poor throughout the country with land owners expected to raise money to cover for the costs associated with these projects.

This was not as successful as expected and the food shortage hitting the country continued to press on. In rural areas, committees charged with the role of establishing employment projects were headed by poorly educated farmers who could not deliver on the objectives of the projects. There was general reluctance by the landowners to contribute any money to cater for the relief food besides the fact that most of these landowners did not live in the country but rather resided mostly in London and only visited their home country once in a while.

In this respect, food donations were low contributing to the overall failure of the relief effort. Another factor that contributed to the failure of the relief efforts was the appointment of Charles Trevelyan as the overseer of all relief operations. Charles though a brilliant individual was responsible for making all the decisions associated with the relief programs a fact that made decision making process slow and ineffective. Further, corn secured from other countries such as Indiana was considered a low substitute by the locals further frustrating relief efforts (Kinealy, 1998, p.

67). Within the period of the famine, many people died as a result of hunger and associated diseases such as relapsing fever, dysentery, typhus and famine dropsy. During this time, little curative measures were known and thus many who suffered these diseases did not make it. Still, those who attended to the sick also succumbed to the diseases further aggregating the problem. As a result, many individuals started to free with their families to various destinations some making it while others died along the way. It was through migration that the word coffin ship originated.

Families leaving the country made use of poorly constructed ships which traveled at a low pace taking months before reaching their destinations. During the journey, many people would succumb to death while those who made it to the harbor were required to wait in long queues to undergo medical examinations a thing that made more and more to die (Kinealy, 1998, p. 102). In conclusion, the six year famine that hit Ireland starting from 1845 had devastating effects as a result of many factors ranging from social, climatic and political factors.

The fact that there existed limited scientific knowledge at the time of the famine made it more and more destructive to the population claiming more lives than any other previous food shortage had ever done. The warm climate coupled by the wet condition made the potato blight responsible for the famine to spread throughout the country affecting nearly every part of the country and leaving it a the verge of total destruction. References: Kinealy, C (1998). This great calamity: The Irish Famine 1845-52. New York: Cambridge University Press; pp. 1-524


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  • Date: 8 October 2016

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