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A talk given by The Inquisition at Defuse, on Wednesday 7th November 2012, as part of Designweek in Dublin, Ireland
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Notes from Reading the Irish Landscape, Frank Mitchell and Michael Ryan.
Most Irish people would like to think that they know the cause of the great famines of the nineteenth century. By and large they would tell you it was potato blight.
Things are never that simple. Few respondents would realise just how thoroughly shit a place Ireland was in which to live and how few resources there were for the predominantly rural population. To place the famine in context we would need to know how your common-or-garden muck savage (that’s Irish for rural resident), was living at the time.
Why should one crop failing lead to such catastrophe? Pre-famine Ireland was setup for a fall, and the blight was simply in the right place at the right time to wreak devastation. It was the coup de grace that finished off a populace that had the odds stacked against them. The depletion of resources was allowed to occur due to people having no forward-thinking which reflects through the ages right down to our recession now.
The population in Ireland expanded hugely in a very short period before the famine. The population had doubled from 2 to 4 million between 1700 and 1780. But it didn’t stop there – improved medical knowledge and farming methods caused this population to double again to 8 million in the 60 years preceeding the famine. This figure is huge in the context of an island this small, at a time when little food was being imported.
This placed an overwhelmingly excessive burden on domestic agricultural production. Lands that had been previously infertile were worked up into semi-productive states.
The standard practice for small holders became creating raised beds which had sand and seaweed as a base, thereby adding nutrients and drainage to previously waterlogged podzols (semi-swamped soils often found on higher ground). These new beds had to be productive as the rent was prohibitive to poor families with mouths to feed.
On farming land the problem was obvious – the average plot of land had shrunk through inheritance and was no longer big enough to sustain varied farming. The potato became the staple as the amounts needed could be grown by the average rural family, albeit with little or nothing left over for commerce.
Ireland currently has minimal forestry, having amongst the lowest percentage woodland coverage in the EU. All the same, this is a huge improvement over the desolate state of the landscape 150 years ago.
Over the centuries preceding the blight, the country had been completely denuded of tree, and even shrub, cover. It is hard to over-emphasise the boundless nature of this deforestation. Ireland had been deprived of all its mature trees outside the landed gentry’s personal demesnes. English landowners even employed armed wardens to protect their trees. The entire landscape was bare. Anything that could burn was fair game. People began to turn in greater numbers to turf cutting. They even improvised turf by drying out silt from lakes and cutting it into blocks. Desperate times…
The bogs were further pushed for fuel. On frosty mornings the locals would walk the bogs looking for clear patches on the gound. Wood from thousands of years past lay under these spots and could be retrieved and burned. Times were tough and anything the land could give was used without a view with what was to come. The land was depleting.
This fuel, however, was crucial. Most houses were poorly constructed lean-tos formed against land banks, ruins, walls and cliffs. Without heat these dwellings were damp and draughty and were unhealthy places in which to live.
Without degenerating into tired old anti-English sentiment it must be pointed out that native Irish were predominantly poverty stricken. Living at subsistence level there was little opportunity for improving their lot.
The victims were caught out by the nutritional benefits of the tuber. Eating over 3kg per day of potato could provide adequate longterm sustenance. It grows well in the temperate Irisih climate. It was adopted quickly as a dietary mainstay. The only problem was that, as mentioned above, producing the necessary amount left little room on farms for anything else.
A land which sustains only one crop, with no livestock and does not provide fuel is the last place to be when that one crop contracts an easily spread sickness. The legacy was lasting. Through death and emigration the population continued to fall for 90 years until it became half as small again – finally plateauing at 4 million in 1935.
Reading the Irish Landscape, Frank Mitchell and Michael Ryan, Town House Press, 2007