Ireland is a country steeped in history, with the Irish potato famine of 1845 considered to be the worst tragedy in that history. Even today, scars remain on the landscape in the shape of famine walls and famine roads. Particularly prominent in the west and southwest of Ireland, these structures stretch (seemingly pointlessly) along the rolling hills of Connemara, The Burren and Dingle Peninsula.
This natural disaster caused Ireland’s population to greatly fall. Once at a figure of 8 million, the potato famine lowered this to roughly 6 million. One million people died while another one million emigrated under the threat of starvation. Now in 2016, the population still hasn’t recovered to pre-famine numbers.
What was the Potato Famine?
There were many factors which contributed to the Irish potato famine being such a large-scale tragedy.
- Over-reliance of the Irish population on the potato crop.
- A disease called blight being accidentally transported on ships from America.
- The reluctance or sluggishness of the ruling British government to intervene. They operated a laissez faire system which meant they avoided getting involved in events involving the general population.
- The continued export of other food from Ireland to England.
Over-Reliance on Potatoes
The Irish climate and soil are perfect for growing potatoes. These nutritious and energy-filled vegetables can easily and cheaply be grown in large numbers, and on relatively small plots of land. It was for this reason that the poor of Ireland relied so heavily on potatoes. It was estimated that potatoes were the only source of food for half of the population, while the majority of others also consumed them in great quantities.
Famine and hunger were relatively common in 19th century Ireland due to high poverty and high population. There were usually minimal deaths though, as the food shortage would generally only last until the next harvest. What made the Irish Potato Famine different, however, was the fact that a disease called blight affected the potato crop for six years in a row.
This airborne disease was seemingly transported to Europe via the holds of ships travelling from North America. The potato crop became small, mushy and inedible. While blight was also spread to other European countries, Ireland was the worst affected.
The cold, damp and windy weather of Ireland allowed blight to thrive. Peasants would firstly notice black spots on the leaves of their crops which then spread to the vegetable. Acres upon acres of potatoes were destroyed at a time as the Irish population watched on helplessly.
The British Government’s Role
A laissez faire system of ruling was implemented by the British government. By not getting involved in the economics of society, they believed every problem would work itself out in a natural progression. Small amounts of food were initially imported and poorly run soup kitchens set up, however the relief effort wasn’t maintained.
The Irish people were expected to feed themselves. Large families, dying crops and no money to buy food meant that this was a recipe for disaster. Other foods continued to be exported from Ireland to England. Several attempts to hijack these exporting ships were made by starving peasants, meaning the British Government sent Royal Navy escorts.
Reluctance and out-bidding by other struggling European countries meant that food imports by the government were minimal.
The Famine Roads
The famine period also left numerous tracks and pathways crossing the hills and valleys in the most obscure places – seemingly going from nowhere to nowhere. It’s difficult to see any explanation behind these roads at all when one sees them today. There’s simply nobody out there and very little sign of anyone ever having lived here and used them in the past. However there is a reason for their existence. These roads are the result of an ill-thought out attempt at improving the situation during the famine. The idea was to put the Irish peasantry to work in return for monetary remuneration – even though there was no food to buy with said money, and as a famous man once said “you can’t eat money!” Initially envisioned by Robert Peel’s government, the hope was that this would provide better infrastructure and access to the famine-stricken regions of the west of Ireland, while simultaneously providing paid employment to precisely those subsistence farmers who had recently lost their crops and had no other means of supporting themselves. Instead the great masses flocking to these projects were more often than not already too malnourished to be of any use work-wise, with many arriving to find that the harsh conditions and exposure to the elements were no better than back home. Adding insult to injury was the fact that these roads were poorly planned, providing next to no longterm benefit anyway, and traversing unrelenting and craggy terrain. Also known as green roads, these tracks make up portions of many of Ireland’s most popular hiking routes, such as the Dingle Way, the West of Ireland Route in Connemara and Mayo, and the Kerry Way. Perhaps the most obvious of these roads is located along the Burren Way, where the emerald hues of the track contrast starkly against the grey limestone landscape from which it was roughly hewn. Yet another way to literally feel the history of Ireland beneath your feet.
Another melancholy relic of Ireland’s extraordinarily rough famine period is found in the multitude of famine villages dotting the country, especially the west coast. All that’s left are clusters of four-sided, crumbling stone huts, for the wooden roofs succumbed to the effects of nature long ago. Some of the most shocking examples are located on islands mere miles off the coast, where every last resident either perished from starvation or was forced to flee to the mainland. It’s hard to believe that so many people once survived on such a meagre diet of crops, often with buttermilk as their only source of fat and minimal protein. Furthermore, I find it hard to fathom that they only had turf to burn to keep warm and to cook, yet this had to be manually dug up and then hauled across the land and even out across the seas if you lived on an island! Hikers along the West or Ireland route through Connemara and Mayo can experience firsthand what it must have been like to survive in such conditions. Diverting briefly from the trail you can enter these ruined huts (with care of course) and get a glimpse into the history of Ireland. It’s from here that many people across the globe, and especially in America, can directly trace back their ancestry. Keep an eye out for groups of stone ruins on your next hike in Ireland and don’t be afraid to take a closer look.
As with the famine roads, many of the lengthy rock walls snaking their way up hillsides (especially in the Burren) were also built by the poor such that they could work for sustenance instead of simply being looked after by charities. Once again the result was a series of unnecessary walls criss-crossing the west coast. This explains why, when hiking around Ireland, many of the stone walls around you don’t seem to make any sense, launching off in all directions and directly up the sides of large hills and even small mountains. Luckily a great deal of these walls did and still do serve a useful and necessary purpose, separating farmers’ fields while having aided in clearing up the farmland from what was once an overly rocky expanse. Yet another example of how the famine changed the landscape of Ireland forever.