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


some of the worst land in the country.18  O'Grada estimates that at the time of the famine about 3 million people depended on just such a potato monoculture.19  Further, Woodham-Smith cites the 1836 Poor Inquiry as stating that 2.39 million Irish were already "in a state of semi-starvation every year, whether the potato failed or not."20  As Crawford describes,

"Cereals, meat, and butter continued to be widely consumed among the better off during the 18th and early 19th centuries, but for the poor potatoes largely took their place as more and more meat, butter and grain were exported. On the eve of the famine, however, cereal-based foods were not available to most of the poor, who neither grew grain nor had the money to buy it."21

Beginning in 1845, the famine swept through and cut out the means of support for the most marginal people in society. But it also did much more. Through the wake of the famine traveled two diseases that commonly accompany scarcity: dysentery and typhus. Both diseases caused mass mortality-"relatively few died from actual starvation, the majority succumbing to diseases which were collectively described by one medical observer as 'famine poison.'"22  However, typhus usually killed the rich while the poor most often succumbed to dysentery. Mortality rates increased as the infections climbed the social ladder, leading to a theory that the poor had built up more immunity to the more deadly typhus than had those in higher social strata.23  Both diseases were spread by a body louse that spread from person to person thanks to the concentrations found at poor relief facilities such as the soup kitchens.

18. Whelan, in Poirteir, 26.
19. O'Grada, 13.
20. Woodham-Smith, 62-63.
21. E. Margaret Crawford, "Food and Famine," in Poirteir, 62.
22. Crawford, in Poirteir, 81.
23. Crawford, in Poirteir, 82-83.
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