For many Americans, St. Patrick’s Day conjures memories of parades, green beer, and leprechauns. But St. Patrick’s Day in America as we know it started because of the Great Potato Famine in Ireland, which was certainly not a time of celebration. The Great Potato Famine lasted from 1845-1849, and it resulted in mass deaths and emigrations.
The Greatest Famine of Modern Times
According to the Multitext Project in Irish History by University College Cork, Ireland, “The Great Famine or ‘Great Hunger’ of 1845–49 is the most important event in modern Irish history. It was the worst catastrophe in modern European history before the twentieth century. If one judges famine by the percentage of the population that dies of it and its effects, it was the worst famine in modern times.”
Historians claim that the population of Ireland should have reached 9 million by 1851. However, the Great Potato Famine dropped the population to 6 million. Of this 3 million, 1 million died from starvation and related diseases, and 2 million emigrated. Emigration continued through 1921, leaving Ireland with a population of 4.5 million. Many of those fleeing the Great Potato Famine found their way to America.
Hence the start of the major St. Patrick’s Day celebrations we have here today. While there were previous St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in the U.S., it was the mass emigration during the Great Potato Famine that led to the creation of the more widely celebrated events.
As you celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, take time to learn about the most important event in Irish history and consider what this bleak period can teach us about preparedness.
What Caused the Great Potato Famine
Historians have dedicated their entire careers to studying the various causes of the Great Potato Famine. Rather than write a research paper, let’s focus on the causes that are most related to preparedness:
- A fungus: The potato crops of Ireland were hit with a fungal parasite (Phytophthora infestans) in 1845. There was a partial potato crop failure as a result. Unfortunately, it did not improve the next year. According to the Foundation for Economic Education, “Unusually wet weather meant that there was a total harvest failure the following year , and again in 1847 and 1848.”
- Dependence: The reason the potato crop failure became a famine is that so many of the Irish depended solely on potatoes. The Multitext Project in Irish History explains, “The Irish poor, two-thirds of the population, were dangerously dependent on the potato for survival. It is a food that cannot be stored for more than a year, and thus good harvests could not compensate for bad ones.”
- Food exported: Sadly, historians now know that a mass amount of food was exported OUT of Ireland during the Great Potato Famine. Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum claims, “Up to 75 percent of Irish soil was devoted to wheat, oats, barley and other crops that were grown for export and shipped abroad while the people starved. […] Almost 4,000 vessels carried food from Ireland to the ports of Bristol, Glasgow, Liverpool and London during 1847 […]. A wide variety of commodities left Ireland during 1847, including peas, beans, onions, rabbits, salmon, oysters, herring, lard, honey, tongues, animal skins, rags, shoes, soap, glue and seed.” The government did not help the people most in need at the time.
How the Great Potato Famine Affected the People of Ireland
With the food they depended on for survival infected with a fungus and other food exported, the poor people of Ireland were left to starve or suffer from starvation-related maladies. Here are some of the ways the Great Potato Famine affected the people of Ireland:
- Starvation: A number of men, women, and children starved to death.
- Vitamin deficiency diseases: Due to hunger, people became more susceptible to vitamin deficiency diseases, such as scurvy, pellagra, and xerophthalmia.
- Hunger-related fevers and diseases: Famine fevers and diseases, such as typhus, dysentery, and cholera, were prevalent.
- Weakened immune systems: Other diseases, such as tuberculosis, measles, and scarlet fever, rose during the Great Potato Famine as people had weakened immune systems.
- Rising food prices: The cost of food was on the rise to meet the demand, and the poor Irish workers could not afford the rising costs. They were also weak from malnutrition, so they couldn’t work to earn wages.
- Poor medical care: During the famine, most areas in Ireland lacked hospitals. Plus, the medical care at the time was not able to handle a crisis of this size, and medical professionals did not have adequate training.
- Mass emigration: Millions of Irish emigrated to America, Australia, and Britain. Unfortunately, tens of thousands died during the Atlantic Crossing and arrived in what was termed “coffin ships.”
We should view the harsh realities of the Great Potato Famine through an educational lens. There are four clear lessons we can learn from this tragedy to help us better prepare for possible famine or other disasters:
Don’t Depend on Only One Food Source
Since two-thirds of the Irish population was dependent on one food source (potatoes), the majority of the country went hungry when the crops were infected by a fungal parasite.
Today, most people would not make the mistake of relying on one type of food to sustain themselves. However, many of us have become dependent on our local grocery stores or delivery services.
For two years, the coronavirus broke down supply chains all over the world. International conflict is now adding to the problem. The need to diversify our food stocks are every bit as urgent today as they were 180 years ago. Consider the following facts:
- An ongoing potato shortage continues into 2022.
- A nitrogen fertilizer shortage is expected to drive down yields worldwide, skyrocketing the costs of staples like corn and wheat.
- And perhaps worst of all, after the Ukraine invasion, Russia now owns about a third of the world’s wheat, 75 percent of its sunflower oil, and substantial amounts of barley, soy, and other grain supply chains.
One way to deal with these problems is to grow your own food, but also to diversify your crops. In addition to growing a vegetable garden, grow sprouting seeds. Our sprouting seeds grow quickly and are potent sources of many vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and cancer-fighting compounds and enzymes. Additionally, learn to fish and hunt. If you can find your own food, you will achieve food independence.
It is also wise to stock long-term emergency food. Our food storage kits for long-term emergencies and survival provide meals averaging over 2,000 calories per day for a month to a year. These foods are ideal for economic collapse, global conflict, major natural disasters, pandemics or viral outbreaks, social unrest, and power grid failures. These meals are packed in rugged, stackable buckets and last up to 25 years in storage.
Don’t Depend on the Government
The Great Potato Famine is a clear example of government failure. While people were dying of starvation, food the people could’ve eaten was exported to other countries.
Undoubtedly, you can think of examples of times your government has failed to provide for its people in times of need. Keep this in mind the next time there is a natural disaster. Take care of yourself and your family rather than waiting on government assistance. (It is also helpful to know what and how to barter.)
Don’t Depend on One Skill
When the Irish immigrated to America, most were unprepared for jobs. According to the Constitutional Rights Foundation, “Most were illiterate, and many spoke only Irish and could not understand English. […] They settled in Boston, New York, and other cities on the East Coast. The men took whatever jobs they could find—loading ships at the docks, sweeping streets, cleaning stables. The women took jobs as servants to the rich or working in textile factories. Most stayed in slum tenements near the ports where they arrived and lived in basements and attics with no water, sanitation, or daylight.”
Do your best to continue to learn new skills to not only put on your resume, but to also help you survive in times of trouble.
Don’t Depend on Hospitals
Medical care during the Great Potato Famine was mostly nonexistent or ineffective. While we hope to never face a disaster of this magnitude, it is always wise to know basic first aid should you find yourself or a loved one in need of medical care when you are off-grid.
Take time to think about the lessons history has taught us about preparedness. Until next time, don’t fear—prepare.
Preparedness Advisor, My Patriot Supply