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Last Updated: Jan 8th, 2011 - 16:45:13 

History & Government  

Irish Potato Famine: 1846-1850
By Sarah Lane
Aug 23, 2006, 10:31 PST

Irish Potato Famine: 1846-1850

Irish Potato Famine

Little did the Irish know that when a South American plant called the potato arrived in 1600, it would be a blessing and a curse. For the next 200 years the Irish would grow potatoes and reap the benefits, such as good nutrition and a minimum of labor, training, and technology to produce more calories per acre than any other crop. Storage was simple and potatoes could be kept for up to 12 months. Some families lived for a year on one acre’s worth of potatoes. This eventually proved too good to be true.

The downside to such an advantageous crop was that three million people depended on it as their only source of food. By relying on one single crop, they left themselves open to pests, disease, and adverse climate conditions. In 1845, a fungus called Phytophthora infestans arrived accidentally from North America causing potatoes to rot in the fields. With no surplus and no income from these crops, there was no money to buy seed to start new crops. There was also no money to pay for the other more expensive crops intended for export. Ireland was producing food, yet the populous was too poor to afford the cost.

From 1845 to 1847, potato crops went from two million acres down to 300,000. As a result of this blight, half a million people were evicted from their homes, and one and a half million people emigrated to America. Ireland’s population dropped from eight million to five million due to famine, disease, and emigration. This new wave of immigration helped to shape the history of the United States and Britain. Learn how by exploring the Learning Links below.

Source:     The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Learning Links

The Irish in America
Learn how to trace immigrant ancestors, hear how Irish surnames sounded back when they were pronounced in their original language, explore Irish music, and meet notable Irish Americans.
Source:     WGBH and PBS

Irish Archives
Search papers and collections online in conjunction with the Irish Potato Famine. Read distress papers, transportation registers, prison registers, letter books, and more. This is an invaluable source for many types of research.
Source:     The National Irish Archives

The Irish Famine
Aside from the summary, you can explore reporting and commentary on the famine from Voices from Ireland, and other sources. Browse photographs, drawings, and prints.
Source:     University of Virginia

Famine Pictures
From this master picture list you can access images of Irish cabins, outdoor scenes, landlords and ejectment, food riots and attacks, relief, workhouses, funerals, embarking, voyages, and life in America.
Source:     Vassar

The Potato: Then and Now
Get facts about potatoes and read about when they came to Ireland, through the famine period, the effect of the blight, and many more articles from the side bar on the left.
Source:     Canada’s Digital Collections

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