The Tragedy Of Bridget Such-a-one

BY 1847 three million Irish were being fed in soup kitchens that were the apogee —and end —of the relief efiort.

Although central to Irish life, the potato was a relatively recent ecological interloper. It is said to have been introduced in Cork in the 1580s by Sir Walter Raleigh, a principal in the plantation of both Ireland and the New World. Until the potato arrived, cattle and oats were the Irish mainstays. The land itself was divided among an amalgam of Gaelic and Norman-Gaelic lords, who were often feuding with one another. In the east a wedge of English-controlled territory—the Pale—had variously expanded and contracted since its conquest by the Normans.

The Atlantic explorations, the contest for overseas empire, and the bitter ideological divisions that accompanied the Reformation conferred on Ireland a new strategic importance. Beginning in the 1540s and extending through a long series of bloody wars and rebellions that ended in the defeat of the Catholic forces in 1691, Ireland was brought under the control of the English crown. Political power and ownership of the land were relentlessly concentrated in the hands of a Protestant ascendancy. The widespread dislocation caused by the long struggle for mastery of Ireland opened the way for the spread of the hardy, reliable, nutritionally rich potato, which not only thrived in the cool, damp climate but yielded, per acre, three times the calories of grain.

Between 1700 and 1845, thanks in large part to the potato, a populace of less than three million grew to almost eight and a half million, to the point where Disraeli pronounced Ireland the most thickly peopled country in Europe. However, the population distribution was uneven. In pre-famine Ireland the general rule was: The worse the land, the more people on it. The greatest growth was in reclaimed bogs and on mountainsides. The number of small tenant farmers and laborers soared, particularly in the west, where the scramble for land drove an intense process of reclamation and subdivision.

The unit of Irish settlement was the clachan or baile , a cluster of cabins unlike the neatly laid-out village of school, shop, and church found throughout most of the British Isles. The clachan was a collection of families, often tied by friendship or blood, organized around a communal system of agriculture designed to ensure a fair distribution of the best land for tillage. The usually Irish-speaking culture of the clachan was carried on in the lives of the people, in storytelling, music, and dance, and in wakes, religious devotions, and fairs.

Like the potato, the fungus that destroyed it came from the Americas. In 1843 potato crops in the eastern United States were largely ruined by a mysterious blight. In June of 1845 the blight was reported in the Low Countries. In mid-September an English journal announced “with very great regret” that the blight had “unequivocally declared itself” in Ireland, then posed the question that anyone even passingly acquainted with the country knew must be faced: “Where will Ireland be, in the event of a universal potato rot?” The speed of the blight bewildered observers. Over and over they expressed amazement at how fields lush with potato plants could the next day be putrid wastelands. It was a generation before the agent of destruction was fingered as a spore-spreading fungus, Phytophthora infestans , and a generation after that before an antidote was devised.

WITHOUT PROSPECT OF a cure, Sir Robert Peel, the Tory prime minister, faced a crisis in Ireland. The appearance of the blight in late summer meant two-thirds of the potatoes had already been harvested, yet the near-total reliance of a sizable part of the population on a single crop left no doubt that extraordinary measures would have to be taken. Peel was an able administrator, knowledgeable about Ireland and its discontents. Responding quickly to the impending food crisis, he ordered the secret purchase of a hundred thousand pounds’ worth of American corn to be held in reserve and released into the market when demand threatened to drive food prices out of control. This same supply was to be available for purchase, at cost, by local relief committees. Landlord-directed committees were set up to cooperate with the Board of Works in funding work schemes. The aim was to provide tenants and laborers with the chance to earn the money they needed to buy imported food and avoid direct government handouts that would encourage what was seen as the congenital laziness of the Irish.