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Source link: http://archive.mises.org/8124/what-caused-the-irish-potato-famine/

What Caused the Irish Potato Famine?

May 20, 2008 by

Was the Potato Famine an ecological accident, as historians usually say? Like most famines, it had little to do with declines in food production as such. Adam Smith was right that “bad seasons” cause “dearth,” but “the violence of well-intentioned governments” can convert “dearth into famine.”

In fact, the most glaring cause of the famine was not a plant disease, but England’s long-running political hegemony over Ireland. The English conquered Ireland, several times, and took ownership of vast agricultural territory. Large chunks of land were given to Englishmen. FULL ARTICLE

{ 18 comments }

Mr.huh? May 20, 2008 at 6:59 pm

This reminds me of a book I’m currently reading called “The Noblest Triumph” by Tom Bethell. A very interesting book that looks at the idea of property and private property throughout history including Roman times, British Common Law, the Massachusetts disaster, and one chapter about the Irish Potato Famine.

Carl Marks May 20, 2008 at 7:54 pm

Nice story, but I don’t buy it. I’m no expert on potatoes, but the reason why Peruvians, where potatoes originate, don’t have massive crop failures is because they plant many different types of potatoes. The country usually produces more than 500 varieties, but the Irish didn’t follow this process, setting themselves up for a big problem if disease among the crop were to arise or the climate became unfavorable to their potato variety.

I don’t deny that totalitarianism could be part of the story, but i doubt it is a large part. Europe had suffered many potato crop failures in the past and continued to do so during the 1846-49 period because they failed to learn the agriculture methods of the Peruvians

TLWP Sam May 20, 2008 at 8:21 pm

Hmmm . . .

Eric May 20, 2008 at 8:50 pm

Well, as usual, the real causes of shortages are nearly always some government intervention in the market place. This article has many examples.

The comments about the ship of charity being held up reminds me of the truckloads of supplies held up from going into New Orleans by our modern day equivalent of the English Ministers who make sure nothing disturbs trade, our beloved FEMA.

Mr.huh? May 21, 2008 at 12:28 am

Even if part of the problem was the lack of planting many varieties of potatoes like the Peruvians, it still doesn’t let the British government off the hook for all of the things that they caused. Stealing land from the Irish and forcing them to pay taxes and then pay taxes again to build roads and other such things while draining from agricultural output and holding off charity doesn’t bode well at all.

newson May 21, 2008 at 3:35 am

i’d already read a paper by author on the same subject and found it enlightening, though a bit light-on around the land question.

land-reform prescriptions: it’s not enough to merely point out that latifundistas own the best arable land. what i think is incumbent on those criticizing this injustice is some form of solution along austrian lines.

how could the irish have got control of more land, still respecting property rights? it’s not clear. perhaps the suggestion is that a popular war should be undertaken to retake the invaded land. but that seems dangerously like two wrongs not equalling one right.

the “welfare” aspects were well covered, and i hope that the vexed topic of land-reform in the third-world will get more of the austrian treatment in future articles.

RT May 21, 2008 at 4:59 am

I am English, but I live in Ireland and have for some years. As a result I’ve learnt quite a lot about this issue.

The Irish of that time did grow one variety of potato, “The lumper”, which was careless and no doubt exacerbated the crop failure. However, failures of the potato crop were not unusual at that time. They occurred in Britain and France, and in Ireland years afterward. These failures were not associated with widespread famine. (There was, for example, a small famine in Ireland in 1879.)

What Mark Thornton says is mostly accurate. Though I would disagree with some points.

A very important issue is the so called “Penal laws”. These were laws that discriminated against Catholics. One of them demanded that land be split evenly amongst all sons in a will. Over the years this led many irish farms to become smaller and smaller as they were split further. Although the land had value it was often more expense and trouble to sell it than it was worth. This made argiculture artificially inefficient.

This law repealed in the 1790s, 50 years before the famine. However, the damage had already been done.

It is hard to see what could be done about it. I think the best course, in the early 1800s would have been to have persued land reform. This was done rather clumsily in the late 19th century.

Mark Thornton May 21, 2008 at 9:40 am

I believe that Carl Marks has answered his own question. Yes, there were many crop failures based on the lumper potato, but most of these were not associated with famine and massive death. Sure, greater crop diversity would have helped, no doubt. In fact, this still puzzles me, except for the calorie loss from the potato.

RT May 21, 2008 at 10:02 am

Mark Thornton: I believe that Carl Marks has answered his own question. Yes, there were many crop failures based on the lumper potato, but most of these were not associated with famine and massive death. Sure, greater crop diversity would have helped, no doubt. In fact, this still puzzles me, except for the calorie loss from the potato.

What puzzles you? The lack of diversity?

Mark Thornton May 21, 2008 at 10:28 am

What puzzles me is why they didn’t grow carrots, onions, turnips, greens, cabbage, etc.

The only weakness of these crops vs the potato is the low calorie count, but surely it would have helped them survive better.

RT May 21, 2008 at 11:45 am

That’s an interesting question, I don’t know why they didn’t grow those crops.

I live in Ireland and a few of my friends know about the history of the famine. I’ll ask them what they know about that question.

I’m not gauranteeing I’ll find anything out, but I’ll ask and post here if I do.

P.M.Lawrence May 21, 2008 at 9:22 pm

‘A very important issue is the so called “Penal laws”. These were laws that discriminated against Catholics. One of them demanded that land be split evenly amongst all sons in a will. Over the years this led many irish farms to become smaller and smaller as they were split further.’

A couple of points. When any of the heirs were protestants (i.e., had converted), all the others were barred. And, that provision actually reflected old Celtic land rights customs, evolved for a more pastoral life style! The Irish themselves stuck with it until the famine showed how unrealistic it had become in changed circumstances. (It was actually an English initiative in the 16th century to force the Irish into more settled agriculture without enough cattle for the more autonomous pastoral approach, so they could be controlled more easily.)

Carrots etc. were sometimes grown – but that meant arrangements to obtain seed, and a lag time until results came in. By the time trouble hit, it was too late to switch (plus, of course, conditions had been so much more relatively favourable for potatoes, so the landlords had usually only left their tenants enough personal land to survive on when growing potatoes).

That time taken to switch is why British relief work wasn’t as misguided as it sounds, if you don’t use hindsight. Agricultural improvements would have taken time to show benefits, so there didn’t seem any point making them to handle what was expected to be a brief but serious crisis. On the other hand, communications improvements would have made it easier to distribute what there was even in the short term. (Malthus himself agreed that agricultural improvements were always worth while even though not enough, in the face of endemic poverty – but this was expected to be short.)

RT May 22, 2008 at 7:29 am

P.M.Laurence: “And, that provision actually reflected old Celtic land rights customs, evolved for a more pastoral life style! The Irish themselves stuck with it until the famine showed how unrealistic it had become in changed circumstances.”

Yes. I think that sort of thing is still going on.

My grandmother was Irish and died in 1997, just before she died she finally managed to sell a small piece of land in Donegal. That land had been split up between all of her family resulting in legalities about it that took about a decade to resolve.

Last week also I was talking to a friend of mine. She told me that her family had always split land or houses equally on a death. One of her parents had received part ownership in a house.

It’s not uncommon these days for property to be split equally amongst all children. Few believe anymore in giving it all to the eldest male. Maybe these modern examples are just an example of that.

michael May 22, 2008 at 8:45 am

Any explanation for the conditions leading to famine have to begin with the obvious: the switch from a peasant-based subsistence economy to an export market oriented economy.

The author notes the abrupt change in land ownership in Ireland, from simple cottage crofters with no formal title to absentee English landlords commanding them to grow wheat for the export trade. But the reality is quite sobering. When the Irish were defeated by Willam III at the close of the seventeenth century, Catholics were forbidden to buy land. And by 1714 only seven percent of the land was owned by native Irish.

http://www.humboldt1.com/~history/lexiso/

With nearly all the produce of the land going toward the aggrandizement of British personal fortunes, only small garden plots remained to feed the people– a situation not dissimilar to that of the USSR, when the majority of nonurban people subsisted on the produce of their own gardens. The potato was the most productive subsistence crop to grow, in terms of calories per acre… and so the potato became the standard diet of poor peasants turned share cropper.

One can’t help but notice a similar pattern in nations recently converting from traditional agricultural models to export-driven market agriculture. Food prices skyrocket, stocks are greatly reduced and there is no longer any cushion against hunger– whether from crop failure or from lack of affordability. The produce ends up abroad, and the profits in the hands of absentee owners and traders.

Richard July 27, 2008 at 2:58 am

“Catholics were forbidden to buy land. And by 1714 only seven percent of the land was owned by native Irish.” Excuse me, but this is a misconception made by a lot of people. NOT all Irish are Catholics, the major issue in Northern Island during the majority of the 20th century had a lot to do with the fact of religion. Protestant Irish and Catholic Irish. Americans seem to be under the impression that
1. All Irish are Catholic.
2. The problems in Northern Island were all Irish v’s English.

Religion in regards to the Irish migration from Ireland also has to be taken into account, and that is not only meaning English v’s Catholic Irish, but also Protestant Irish v’s Catholic Irish.
I am tired of reading that the Irish are all one nation and all suffered at the hands of the Crown. Please Americans look to your own history to see ethnic cleansing on am immense scale. Or is it ok to ethnically cleanse a race from their land if they are deemed ‘inferior’. I believe that the Native Americans do have a right to ask serious questions about their treatment by an almost ‘aggrandizement’ by the Federal Government of the US.

Dr. Mark Thornton July 27, 2008 at 10:14 am

Sorry Richard. I suppose there were Irish Catholics who voluntarily converted to Protestantism, but my understanding is that most of the Protestants were immigrants from Scotland and England, or Irish who felt compelled to convert under the harsh discriminatory circumstances. I could be wrong.

Area Man September 3, 2008 at 1:48 pm

What about inflation? Can any of the increase in rents be attributed to any currency debasement or other misguided monetary policy?

Last night I finished reading Edward Rutherfurd’s “The Rebels of Ireland” which is a work of fiction. But his account of the potato famine was critical of the government for some of the same reasons listed by Mr. Thornton in this article.

However, neither Rutherfurd nor Thorton talked about any impact of monetary policy (specifically) on prices, including for grain or for rents. So I was wondering if that’s just a non-cause in this instance.

Thanks for this interesting discussion.

Dano December 16, 2008 at 4:10 am

“What puzzles me is why they didn’t grow carrots, onions, turnips, greens, cabbage, etc.”

Irish farmers didn’t like turnips- they caused the milk of livestock fed on them to smell funny. As far as switching over after the blight hit, it’s not the nature of subsistence farming to just be able to turn everything around instantly. If the harvest in November is bad, you can’t grow much else until May or June, so there’s nothing to do but tighten your belts and hope for the best. Furthermore, nobody was expecting the blight to hit so hard several years in a row- previous crop failures had always rebounded by the next year; in this case, though, 1846 was an even worse failure than 1845. Add to that the difficulty of acquiring seeds for crops that nobody has been growing much (Ireland had very poor infrastructure- there was very little cash to go around, there were few decent roads, and most towns had no marketplaces doing anything more complicated than rudimentary local barter) and it’s easy to see why people didn’t just switch over to carrots and cabbage and the like.

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