Black Potatoes: The Story of the Great Irish Famine, 1845-1850 – Susan Campbell Bartoletti

PotatoesJoseph P. Kennedy, Sr. (1888-1969) frequently reminded those he knew that his ancestor had come to America to escape the “potato famine” in Ireland.  While Kennedy was certainly well versed at re-writing his family’s history, the famine did indeed exist and caused death and destruction across southern and western Ireland.  I had known of the famine and it resulting in the mass exodus of Irish families who made new lives in North America.  However, there was much about the famine that I did not know and felt that this book was the perfect choice to learn about a historical event that changed Irish history.  Those of you who follow this blog might recall some of the reviews I have posted regarding the conflict in Northern Ireland known as “the Troubles”.  Here, I am shifting gears a bit and taking a step back further in time.  And the first question I had for myself before reading this book was just what exactly did happen during the famine?   Author Susan Campbell Bartoletti provides the answer to that question and a wealth of information that will allow any reader of this book to fully understand the cause of the famine and the events that transpired. 

The story begins in 1845 as farmers begin to notice that their potato crops are turning black in color without any reasonable explanation.  Without the benefit of modern science, the farmers were at a loss trying to figure out the cause of the widespread devastation of their crops.  The actual cause is revealed by the author but the farmers could not have known in 1845 that it even existed.  Their response was to try all sorts of remedies that did nothing to stop the growing menace.  The diminishing of potatoes resulted in widespread panic and Britain began to take notice.   The relationship between Ireland and England has always been filled with tension and the cause can be traced back hundreds of years beginning with the actions of Henry VIII (1491-1547) in 1536 that gave the Crown a stronghold over Ireland that lasted until 1921 when the Republic of Ireland was formally created and instituted the persecution of Irish Catholics.   And in 1695, the archaic Penal Laws pushed the Catholic population into further destitution.   By 1845, Henry VIII was a distant memory but Queen Victoria was faced with a dire situation in the Irish colony.   Yet, even she could not have predicted just how deadly the famine would become. 

Before purchasing this book, I honestly do not think I had a fully accurate picture of life in Ireland during the famine. To say that life was hard would be an understatement.  It was nothing short of brutal and the average life expectancy was nothing to admire.  As the famine begins to take hold of Ireland, British officials realize that trouble is brewing and implement a series of relief measures to feed the population and prevent the outbreak of deadly viruses and diseases.  Sir Robert Peel (1788-1850) was the first to act upon realizing that the famine was causing a staggering number of deaths.  However, his efforts while heroic in many ways, were not enough and his successor, Lord John Russell (1792-1878) did not share the same beliefs.  Russell diverted from his predecessor’s path and took actions that only enhanced the misery of the Irish Catholics.  But in spite of the laws that are passed by Britain, we are left to ask the question, could the famine have been prevented in the first place?  

Bartoletti highlights a tragic irony of the situation that will make readers question why the famine was not prevented?  As I read through this section, I felt a sense of anger at British officials and empathy for the Irish families that starved and died horrific deaths in living conditions that were beyond sub-human.  And the descriptions of their lives will help readers understand the reason why even today, Irish Catholics want the British government to fully relinquish all control of Irish territory.   You might be wondering what the Irish did to help themselves and take action against Britain? Well, there are interesting facts presented in the book and the section regarding the Young Ireland revolutionary group is of particular interest, for it serves as a premonition to the Irish Republican Brotherhood and Irish Republican Army. 

I do want to warn readers that the descriptions of the living conditions in Irish slums is not for the faint at heart.  The author thoroughly discusses each and how the human body is affected until death is the end result.  The memories provided in quotes are equally as macabre and readers sensitive to descriptions of the deceased may have a difficult time with those sections in the book.  However, to fully understand just how deadly the famine was and just how miserable life was for Irish Catholics during the famine, it is necessary to know these stories.  Further, religion enters the picture as well and actions taken by the Protestants who are there to “help” the Catholics are in some cases, repulsive.  The divide is sharp and sadly continues to this day.  These tragic conditions are supported by the actions of Britain that is not sure how to save the Irish and compounds the problem in some situations.  Its official policy of laissez-faire is put under the microscope and its effect on the problem will have readers staring in disbelief.  Of course, there is far more to the story and this book is mainly a primer on the situation.  

Conditions continued to deteriorate and the Irish were left with one choice: emigrate.  Many families do leave Ireland and the journey they take to reach North America is simply surreal.  Large numbers did not survive the journey and the reasons for which are explained in the book. Further, conditions aboard the vessels are explored as well, in addition to the reality that awaited the new Irish settlers.  The romanticized image of Ellis Island welcoming new immigrants to America does not apply here and the reality for the Irish was far darker and without glamour.  The policy of many places against hiring the Irish immigrants is a sad example.  Today, we know that the Irish have prospered in America.  John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) is considered by many to be proof that the Irish had reached the top of American society.  Kennedy is only one person and there are many Irish men and women who have contributed greatly to the American experience.  But for all of them, their ancestors’ lives were stories to be remembered from an era when death was more widespread than life and an entire generation of people were subjected to the tyranny of the Crown’s rule, while enduring unimaginable living conditions in an ugly class-base system. The potato famine amplified the inequality between Irish and British and left Ireland a very different country.  If you are looking to understand the Irish potato famine from start to finish, this is a great place to start. 

“The Great Irish Famine changed Ireland forever. It swept away whole families and villages. It nearly wiped out the Irish language and centuries-old traditions and folk beliefs. Some even say it killed the fairies.” 

ASIN : B00LRI90PK

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