It was in September 1845, when the Dublin Evening Post reported that there was “a disease in the potato crop”. This “disease” was a fungus, called Phytophthora infestans, that infected the millions of potatoes on the potato fields of Ireland. This fungus starting destroying the potatoes and began a destructive process that would change the course of Ireland for the years to come. The ensuing devastation was known as “The Great Hunger”, also known as “An Gorta M???“r” in the Irish language. The Irish people were highly dependent on the white Andean potatoes for their survival. The crop gave them strength and was food to the rapidly rising Irish population. It is estimated that almost about 90 percent of their population were exclusively dependent upon the potatoes. This is why when the fungus hit the fields, it sparked off one of the worst catastrophes in 19th century Europe.
The fungus was highly contagious and it spread through the air. This caused the fungus to spread rapidly and extensively. The fungus was so strong that it destroyed the potato completely in about four to five days. The first sign of the disease would be that the potato leaves would turn yellow with a downy mildew. Potatoes in the field or in storage formed a reddish-brown and dry discoloration of the skin would extend into the tuber forming a slimy and foul smelling rotten mass. This 1845 blight would prove to be the worst blow to the Irish nation in over a century. The fungus destroyed about forty percent of the potatoes in 1845, and almost all the potatoes in the next year. Even though the fungus had abated by 1847, the famine persisted because there was a shortage of seed potatoes and not enough potatoes had been planted. This caused widespread starvation, and the spread of diseases like scurvy, dysentery, typhus and cholera that was to claim the lives of two million men, women and children.
Ireland was under the brutal colonization of England during that time. The poor Irish farmers had to pay taxes to their landlords under the rules of this colonization. Despite the famine conditions that lasted from 1845 until 1855, eight million dollars was paid in rents, taxes, and agricultural exports to the British government and landlords. If the tenants failed to pay their rent, the unscrupulous landlords would evict the tenants, burn their homes, or had the head-of-the-household jailed for non-payment. Without the means to pay for their food, and the inability to grow their only food source, the potato, left tens of thousand to starve to death along roadsides.
This was one of the worst spectacles that the world had seen when the starving Irish families were forced to eat grass. There were so many dead that many mass graves were built all over Ireland. England continued its exports of agricultural products, such as barley, wheat, cattle, sheep, pigs, and chickens, out of Ireland, despite the mass starvation. This created a lot of internal problems as well. Some American Indian corn was donated to Ireland, but this never got distributed to the starving Irish, as the corn was sold to the highest bidder. This was a sad turn of events when there was enough food available for the starving people, but it was continuously being exported out to England to pay taxes to the landlords. For every one relief ship sent to Ireland, four to five ships, full of agricultural goods, were sent to England.
In 1847 the Irish began their mass exodus to Great Britain, the United States, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia in hopes for a better life. This is recorded as one of the worst cases of devastation in Europe in that time. Over a million people migrated out of Ireland in an attempt to flee the oppression, starvation, and disease. As a result the population declined from 8,295,000 to less than 6 million by 1851. To this day in Ireland, that year 1847 is known as “Black 47”.