Searching For The Truth
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Just a few years ago, in 2013, a team of scientists worked together to solve a longtime mystery. Many people have tried to determine what caused Ireland’s terrible potato famine. Would this group be the ones to find the answers?
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Despite being the epicenter of the infamous famine, Ireland was not the birthplace of the potato. The first known potatoes were grown in South America roughly 10,000 years ago. Ireland’s first encounter with the popular vegetable can be traced to the demise of the Incas. The Spanish conquerors returned back to Europe in possession of potatoes. Thanks in part to their discovery, the world’s population increased dramatically.
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When the potato first made its way to Irish land, it wasn’t widely available. Only the wealthiest countrymen were exposed to the new discovery. Because they were only found in the gardens of the rich, potatoes weren’t immediately liked by most of the country. Although it took a few years, the people eventually became to admire the vegetable and eventually became dependent on it.
Seeing The Benefits
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With the potato now an accepted part of their lives, the people of Ireland started to realize how much they could benefit from it. One group of people in particular understood what was happening, farmers. With a lot of land to grow on and lots of workers to support, farmers began to grow potatoes at a staggering pace. You know what they say – everyone appreciates good food.
Feeding The Family
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Many things worked in the farmers’ favor. It didn’t matter if they owned good or bad land because the potatoes would grow almost anywhere. For people with large families, potatoes became a main source of consumption. Compared to many of the other food options, a single potato would do a much better job satisfying a person’s dietary needs. Furthermore, the potato would remain edible for a long time – making it easier to store the food without it going to waste.
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As people became more familiar with the potato, other old customs began to fall by the wayside. Potatoes usurped dairy and grains as the main component of a normal Irish diet. Other than tasting good and being convenient to the farmers, why exactly did the potato take over?
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To understand why the potato took over, we must first understand Ireland’s history. After the Jacobite rebels were defeated at the Battle of Aughrim in 1691, the Irish were at the mercy of Britain. The British enacted laws that discriminated against the heavily Catholic-Irish population. Despite upwards of 90 percent of the country being Catholic, Ireland was now run by Protestant families.
Part Of The UK
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More than 100 years after the Protestants took control of Ireland, another huge event furthered the country’s pain. In 1801, Ireland became an official member of the United Kingdom via the Acts of Union. Despite being a member of the UK, the gap between the Catholics and Protestants remained and the discrimination deepened.
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As the line between the two religious parties became more pronounced, the Catholics were oppressed further. They were faced with hardship after hardship. As a result, many were stuck being poor farmers. Many families were faced with poverty and had little to no way of making it out.
Gone Too Far
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Things didn’t begin to change until 1829 and the years that followed. In 1829, some of the harshest discriminatory laws against Irish Catholics were repealed. British officials worried that the Catholics could become a dangerous group if they were faced with too many hardships. If they struggled too mightily, the country could fall apart.
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With the British now taking notice of just how bad many Irish had it, some efforts were finally made to help. In 1843, the Royal Commission was founded. Its goal was to look at the problems facing the Irish, and figure out a way to improve their conditions. Unsurprisingly, the findings were bleak. In particular, one line from the Commission’s report stands out – “In many districts their only food is the potato, their only beverage water.”
Words Can Only Go So Far
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While the report may have acknowledged just how bad the Irish had it, things hadn’t yet reached their worst. The Commission alluded to the fact that the poor Catholic-Irish farmers dealt with a greater degree of suffering than any other group across Europe. Still, compared to what was to come, they had it easy.
Tracing The Path
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Making matters even worse, a devastating disease was about to destroy the country’s potato crop. Before arriving in Ireland in 1844, the disease, aka the potato blight, appeared in Mexico. The watery mold impacted Mexican crops before spreading to the eastern parts of the United States. A sign of things to come, the US lost a majority of its potato crop between 1843-44.
Across The Pond
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So, how exactly did the potato blight find its way to Europe? The most popular theory is that cargo ships from US port cities such as New York, Baltimore and Philadelphia, arrived in Europe carrying affected food. Due to the long travel, potatoes were a common food aboard the cargo ships – and were often devoured by the crew. While other European nations such as France and Belgium reported signs of blight, Ireland faced a bigger challenge.
A Dark Day
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First it was Mexico, then the United States, France, Belgium and finally, Ireland. September 11, 1845, marked the first documented proof that the feared blight had begun to wreak its havoc in Ireland. Two popular Irish media outlets, The Gardeners’ Chronicle and Freeman’s Journal, reported that the watery mold plaguing potatoes worldwide had appeared in Irish potatoes.
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Having dealt with religious discrimination and a lack of respect for years, the vast majority of Ireland natives had grown to detest the British government. Then, in an act that only worsened the tension between the two factions, the Prime Minister of Britain made it known that he partly blamed the Irish media for “exaggerating” the severity of the potato blight. He couldn’t have been more wrong.
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In all reality, by the end of 1845, upwards of half of Ireland’s potato crop had been destroyed by the blight. The microorganism responsible for ruining the potatoes is called Phytophthora infestans – or simply, water mold. The organism is most prevalent in wet, cool environments – making Ireland a prime candidate for the blight to spread.
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To determine if blight is present, there are a few noticeable signs. First, the leaves of the potato plant will begin to change colors. Usually a vibrant green, the leaves gradually turn darker – almost as if the plant were rotting. Are you wondering how the mold spreads? Well, the culprit is wind. The wind carries the infected potato spores across the land. Then, Ireland’s climate does the rest. The rain will push the spores down into the soil, causing the crop to become infected. Much like a rotting pumpkin, the potato will begin to turn different shades of white, grey and black.
No Potato Was Safe
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A rotten potato was obviously easy to spot. However, even a seemingly perfect-looking potato could be infected. From the first documented case in September 1845, through the end of 1846, nearly 75 percent of Ireland’s potato crop had been destroyed by the blight. Because the potato had become such a staple of the Irish way of life, the blight turned deadly.
The Good Deed That Didn’t Help
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Prime Minister Peel was an unpopular fellow. His dismissive attitude towards the Irish and the blight problem was a main point of contention. However, he began to realize the seriousness of the problem. In an effort to help the citizens, Peel spent $100,000 on cornmeal and maize to be brought over from the United States. Unfortunately, the Irish weren’t able to properly handle the maize and it became hard to digest. Needless to say, the Irish didn’t enjoy the “gift”.
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The potato blight was terrible from the moment it appeared in Ireland, but nobody could have anticipated the amount of devastation it came with. Two years into the blight, in 1847, more than 400,000 citizens died as a result of starvation. In an attempt to escape a near-certain death, thousands of Irish natives began to leave the country.
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From 1845-1849, more than one million people lost their lives due to the potato famine. As a result, Ireland?s population fell by nearly 25 percent – combining death and emigration. This all happened despite other nations and influential figures trying to help. The Pope, Queen Victoria, the Russian Tsar, the Ottoman Emperor and the United States all offered to help. In particular, the US sent more than $500,000 worth of supplies to Ireland.
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While people outside of Ireland wanted to do their part in helping, land owners on the island had different thoughts. They had no sympathy for those who couldn’t pay their rent and as a result, people continued to leave Ireland in droves. Upwards of one million people left Ireland during the four-year famine. Tragically, the journey away from Ireland proved deadly as well. Roughly 20 percent of the Irish citizens who left for Canada died during the journey.
The True Cause
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For years, the agreed upon theory for what caused the Irish Potato Famine was a strain of Phytophtora infestans known as US-1. Still a main cause of crop-loss to this day, the thought of US-1 being the culprit made sense. In an effort to determine the true cause, scientists from the United Kingdom?s Sainsbury Laboratory and Germany’s Max Planck Institutes came together to find the source of the blight.
How Did They Do It?
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Two sites, the Kew Gardens in London and the Bavarian State Collection for Botany in Germany, held crucial information. In their possession: a dried potato plant from Ireland’s potato famine years. Taking pieces of 11 blight-ridden plants, samples from the 19th century and samples from modern day blight-infected plants, the group was able to confirm that the blight did in fact originate in Mexico’s Toluca Valley.
Not That Herb
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Despite that confirmation, the scientists were not willing to say that the US-1 strain was responsible for the destruction of Ireland’s potato crop. The culprit? HERB-1. This particular strain wasn’t known to scientists until these scientists discovered it. Similar to the US-1 strain, the HERB-1 strain was likely spread to Ireland via the United States. Thankfully, the strain is believed to be extinct today.