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In September 1845, all potato crops in Ireland mysteriously started to turn black and rot due to a potato disease that hit the country. People today believe that this was caused by phytophthora infestans, a airborne fungus that came in the holds of ships from North America. Today, with such a variety of food available it is hard to imagine that the failure of one type of crop can cause a whole country to starve, but back in the day it did, for several reasons.
Possible Contributors to the Famine
- The absent English landlord and Irish tenant system made farms very expensive to work and gave Irish farmers little opportunity to capitalize. Potatoes were economically the most viable food to grow because it did not deplete the land with intensive farming.
- Irish were over dependant on potatoes: an adult man lived of up to fourteen pounds of potatoes a day.
- The strict corn laws that existed at the time to keep corn prices high were repealed and as a result grain production was no longer profitable. Irish lands were rather converted to pasture, reducing the need for labor and putting a lot of Irish out of their jobs.
- Food that could feed the country was exported to fill the pockets of landlords
- The English created workhouses to provide jobs to suffering Irishmen, but wages were so low that the men used more calories that they could consume with the food they bought.
- Workhouses and other forms of relief concentrated starving people together in large groups, leading to the outbreak of diseases, which also killed a lot of people
- Maize was imported, but did not provide as much vitamin C to the people as potatoes, so they started to suffer from scurvy. People also found it hard to digest and difficult to cook and suffered from diarrhoea as a result.
- The Irish Poor Law greatly reduced private charity. Where English and Irish people used to provide aid in previous famines to help those in need, they were now heavily taxed to pay for the government's welfare programs. Irish taxpayers were now struggling financially themselves and the English felt that they were already contributing and the government was taking care of the situation.