The Irish Famine of 1846 killed more the 1,000,000 people, but it killed poor devils only. —Karl Marx, Capital Volume 1 (1867)
Behold the potato chip! It’s the perfect substrate for immersing in delicious oils, an adroit vehicle for conveying toothsome flavors to the mouth. If one eschews the oils and the suspicious flavorings, the potato is almost a complete meal in itself. Mashed along with a little buttermilk it fueled, as is claimed with some hyperbole of course, the construction of a British empire. Viewed with a squint, it is as if the Irishman with spade in hand was the subterranean potato tuber’s extended phenotype – another starchy being anxiously grubbing back into the dirt. Hundreds of thousands of potato-fed and buttery Irishmen left for Britain during the 19th Century to find employment as navvies and there they dug ditches, canals, and built a railroad system. And during and after the Great Potato Famine (1845-1849) millions more left for North America and elsewhere.
For me this is personal. Because of the enormous productivity of potato – an acre of potato producing more calories than thrice that of grain – I am now living in the US. I am, if my assessment is correct, the very last of the post-potato-famine migrant from Ireland. As soon as I left (in 1994), the exiles commenced their return, and though migration out of Ireland has begun again it is no longer, it seems to me, the same demographic pattern initiated by the failure of the potato crop.
My principle concern here is not the potato nor the Irishman nor the empire: I am interested in revisiting the demographic implications of events surrounding the Irish Potato Famine; examining the way in which economic and social historians have assessed the population growth running up to the famine before the horrible consequences of the potato failure unfolded. Let me make my main point here: nothing could be seemingly simpler to come to grips with than the pattern of a population growth in the century leading to Irish famine, and the increasing reliance of the poor on a single crop and the subsequent crash of the population after the failure of the crop. And yet despite the beguiling but horrifying simplicity of the pattern almost no aspect of the story is as easy to explain as it may seem. To keep this post to modest length I am discussing only the debates over causes of population growth before the famine here and will post follow up comments on my blog in the coming months about the population disaster that followed the potato failure – another complicated story.