Between 1844 and 1854, when Patrick and Anne Nolan were born (Bridget’s parents), Ireland was suffering the worst famine ever known in its history, as the potato crop, the staple diet, had failed. This had been caused by a fungal infestation that attacked the roots of the potato, which in turn caused most of the potato crops to wither and disintegrate to a smelly pulp. This fungus had never been seen in Ireland before, and it would be many years before scientists could identify it. In fact, the name of the fungus was Phytophthora, and it was only discovered by scientists in 1882, at Dublin University when- it was thought to have travelled from America via Europe.
There was another factor to consider in the failure of the potato crops, and this was, of course, the lumper seedling itself. It had been introduced into Ireland some years prior to the Great Hunger, as it had a reputation for sturdiness, high yields, adaptability to poor soil, and reliability. However, in the post analysis of the famine years, it was proven to be one of the worst kinds of potato that had ever been grown in Ireland. The lumper was described as an impoverished food: it was watery, tasteless, and the most unhealthy of vegetables, as it lacked the nourishment of other varieties such as the ‘the apple’ or the ‘cup’. The cup was one the Irish masses had found so tasty, with its skin bursting open like a ball of starchy goodness when cooked, giving a real sense of the goodness that a potato should contain. As a consequence of all of this, the potato that had fed the nation throughout Ireland’s history failed to do so in this period of its most vulnerable times.
When we consider that labourers of that era consumed between eight and twelve pounds of potatoes per day as their only food, with only butter melted in for flavour, it gives us a general insight into how the masses survived.
The lumper is now denoted in history as the tenant farmers having traded security for larger crops – they wanted to gain more money per acre of potatoes. The farmers, therefore, were in part just as susceptible to market conditions as any trader in modern Ireland. It is interesting to note, then, that all the potato seedlings sown during the years of the Great Hunger also succumbed to the blight.
Moreover, what has got to be understood in the context of the tenant farmers in 1844 is that 24 per cent of all Irish tenant farms had only one to five acres of land, while 40 per cent had five to fifteen acres. This led to the fields being sown year on year, as there was no land left to lie fallow. Therefore, the potatoes were unable to gain the nutrients that would normally be present in the land to help protect the crops. Holdings were so small that there was no crop other than potatoes which would suffice to feed a family or pay the rent. Neither was ‘ranching’ (the rearing of cows and pigs on the same small acreage of land) a possibility, due to the limited supply of land. The British government reported shortly before the famine that poverty was so widespread that one-third of all Irish smallholdings could not support their families after paying their rent, except by earnings from seasonal migrant labour in England and Scotland.
Following the famine, reforms were implemented that made it illegal to further divide landholdings, which gave some comfort to the tenant farmers. The census of 1841 showed a population of just over eight million. Two-thirds of those depended on agriculture for their survival, but they rarely received a working wage. They had to work for their landlords in return for the patch of land they needed in order to grow enough food for their own families and to pay the rent. This was the system which forced Ireland and its peasantry into a monoculture (the growing of only one single crop), as only the potato could be grown in sufficient quantity to make any type of living. The rights to a plot of land for the masses (who were Catholics) in Ireland could mean the difference between life and death in the in the nineteenth century
Therefore, as a consequence of this lack of scientific knowledge, combined with the inferior lumper potato, the fungus that had blighted the potato, plus the additional factor of the shortage of farmland, Ireland and its people were left ravaged and decimated during the Great Hunger from 1844 to 1849 (some historians say from 1844 to 1854).
Patrick and Anne Nolan (Bridget’s parents) had been born in the middle of the famine years, and they had first-hand knowledge of the horror and devastation that occurred during this era. Bridget’s assumption that her grandparents had been tenant farmers was gleaned from the many conversations that she had heard between her parents and the neighbours as time went by. Those people who had been evicted from their homes by the rich English landlords had had to stay alive by any means available to them.
In my book [That's Just How It Was- video below
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