The potato is widely thought to have been introduced to Ireland in 1586 by an American, Sir Walter Raleigh. The potatoes grown by Raleigh were not the potatoes we know today. Raleigh’s potato was a sweet potato and some people believe that the potato as we know it was not introduced into Ireland until 1590, when it was first planted by a shipwrecked Spanish sailor.
Whatever way it happened in reality, potato-growing spread very quickly to many parts of Ireland, and eventually the vegetable became a staple food of the peasantry. Ireland’s rural population grew rapidly in the Nineteenth Century. This was down to the fact that children would take care of their parents in later life. However, this also meant that large families needed large amounts of food and the land situation in Ireland was not geared to support large families.
The potato crop was very vulnerable to disease and no cure existed in Ireland for potato blight. Even if a cure had existed, it would not have been affordable. In 1844, a new form of potato blight was identified in America which turned a potato into a mushy mess that was completely inedible. By this time, a third of Irish people were completely dependent on the potato.
What was expected to be a bumper harvest in 1845 turned into a national disaster as the crop across the country had failed with a 50% loss of potatoes in this year. Each family always grew what they needed for that year and held little or nothing in reserve. The problem got worse in1846 when that years crop was almost a total failure and there was a very poor harvest in 1847. Three disastrous years in succession presented Ireland with problems on a scale never seen before.
Between 1846 and 1850, the population of Ireland dropped by 2 million which represented 25% of the total population. This figure of 2 million can by effectively split in two. One million died of starvation or the diseases associated with the famine and one million emigrated to North America or parts of England and Scotland. Many found that the areas where they settled were not welcoming as the Irish were seen as people who undercut wages.
Ireland continued to suffer de-population after the famine ended. Many young Irish families saw their futures in America and not Ireland. This affected Ireland as those who were most active and who could contribute the most to Ireland, left the country. Irish culture was severely hit by the famine. The sharp decline in the speaking of Gaelic has been specifically linked to this period in Irish history. The areas where Gaelic was at its strongest – in the west of Ireland – were the areas hit the hardest by the famine, both in terms of deaths and emigration.
Nowadays, Ireland's relationship with the potato is not quite as strong as it was. It is still widely eaten, especially in rural areas but is often substituted with rice or pasta as the dependence wanes. The potato will always have a huge place is Irish history as the Great Famine lead to a million Irish planting their family tree elsewhere and becoming such a huge part of countries the world over. The famine is also seen as the a turning point in the Irish struggle for independence.
When you visit Ireland, there are a huge number of monuments to the Great Famine of the mid-1800s. The town of Cobh in County Cork saw 2.5 emigrants through its port in the 100 years after the famine. In Cobh you can learn the story of Annie Moore who became the first ever emigrant to be processed in Ellis Island when it officially opened on 1st January 1892. Dunbrody Famine Ship, Strokestown House & Famine Museum and the Famine Memorial in Dublin all remain as lasting tributes to those who lost their lives or were forced to emigrate as a result of the famine.