Potato power saved the Irish (for a while)
08 May 2010
Chances are that if you ever think about the Irish and potatoes, you think of how dependence on potatoes set up millions of people for famine.
But actually, for a while, the potato helped make the Irish more resilient, says archaeologist Brian Fagan in his book The Little Ice Age:
“The tubers were remarkably immune to sudden climatic shifts… Above all, they were an effective famine food [that is, famine-prevention food]. The potato-cereal combination offered a safeguard against the failure of either crop. As long as a balance was maintained between the two, the Irish had a reasonably reliable safety net against hunger.”
But the big problem, as Fagan explains, was that eventually there was no balance between the two. Poor farmers were pushed onto marginal land, where they had to rely on potatoes alone. Then when the potatoes were wiped out, and the British refused to halt wheat exports out of the country or otherwise aid the starving potato farmers, then the famine took its toll.
Hunger itself wasn’t always the biggest killer, though. In Ireland, Fagan writes, “famines were commonplace and invariably followed by plague and pestilence, which often killed more people than hunger.”