Nick Wilson, "Political Ecology and the Irish Potato Famine"


B. The Structure of the Irish Famine: Malthusian Mortality?

The Irish potato famine began in 1845 with a loss of one third of the crop to a fungus called Phytopthora infestans. This loss was followed by a loss of 75% the potato crop in 1846 and 1847, and another loss of one third of the crop in 1848.11  Similar to Davis' argument concerning ENSO variability, Phytopthora infestans was activated by long term cyclical environmental variables. Indeed, while the potato blight, as it was called, had most probably been present in Europe from 1830, and had certainly migrated across the Atlantic by 1842, it did not result in widespread damage to the potato crop until 1845.12  In the mid 1840s in Ireland, however, the climate became perfect for the activation of the fungus: "in Ireland in 1846 [weather] conditions favored the spread of the blight fungus to an extent which has not been recorded before or since…the weather of 1846 was wet-'continual rain' but warm."13  Donnelly adds that while the blight did not originate with the weather, as was thought by some contemporary scientists, "the rain materially added to the progress of the disease."

Cormac O'Grada contends that the demographic picture of Ireland in the years leading up to the famine fits roughly into the framework of Thomas Malthus-an early demographer in the Victorian period-who argued that there is a natural limit to the density of population that a particular environment can support, and that when that limit is exceeded, a number of population controls-including pestilence, disease, and war-cause mass mortality. As O'Sullivan elucidates: "Malthus' theory of population growth implied that natural law would not tolerate

11. Kevin Whelan, "Pre and Post-Famine Landscape Change," in The Great Irish Famine, Charles Poirteir, editor, (Dublin, 1995), 27.
12. Cecil Woodham-Smith, The Great Hunger: Ireland 1845-1849 (New York, 1962), 94.
13. Woodham-Smith, 101.
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