Did Ireland stand a chance against the potato famine?
On the social causes of hunger
In the years of the great potato famine, it is estimated that Ireland lost one million lives to starvation and lost another one million in population to emigration. At least another five million left in the remainder of the 19th Century, meaning that the country had more total expatriates by the end of that century than its total population when the century had begun.
■ That so many of them ended up in the United States has of course borne enormous influence on what we perceive as "Irish" today. The concentration of migration then is no small contributing feature to why Chicago dyes its river green for St. Patrick's Day and small towns in Iowa put Gaelic greetings on their websites.
■ But the circumstances that exacerbated the famine are worth a second look. The reason the potato famine took such a toll was that so many Irish farmers were living at subsistence levels; half the country was effectively living on what meager products they could grow. When nature took aim at the potato and blight ravaged the crops in 1845 and 1846 with incredible speed, the result was mass hunger in practically no time at all.
■ The mismanagement of Ireland by the imperial British government did the Irish considerable harm in the immediate sense, as the response to hunger was slow and in some cases completely contrary to sound reasoning. But on a long-term basis, it appears that the British domination of the island (and the favoritism shown to British manufacturing) actually de-industrialized Ireland in the period leading up to the famine.
■ Had the country been free to pursue the kind of industrial development that was occurring across the Irish Sea in England and across the Atlantic Ocean in America, perhaps Ireland wouldn't have had such a large share of its population at risk of starvation. As in so many cases even in the modern day, famine is often far more a problem of social aspects of economics than of basic problems of nature. The economic experience of Irish emigrants once they reached the United States suggests that the poverty that led to the famine wasn't written in the stars -- it was bad policy-making.