A Social Justice Issue: Hunger

The Social Justice Challenge asks participants to examine a different social issue each month. For April the issue is hunger. This is not the issue of someone going to bed hungry because they’re on a diet. This issue of hunger involves people staying in bed because they are too weak. These people, often children, are starving for lack of food. For this issue I chose to read and review the following book.

BLACK POTATO: The Story of the Great Irish Famine, 1845-1850

by Susan Campbell Bartoletti

Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001

I chose this book for a selfish reason: I absolutely love potatoes. They are one of the joys of my eating life. I can’t imagine what life would be like without them. Occasionally, I’ll encounter black spots inside my potatoes and I’ll think about potato blight. What would it be like if potatoes were the mainstay of my daily meals, and they were suddenly all bad? If I had no money to buy food and this was my only source of food, how would I feed by children? I read this book on the history of the Irish potato famine to find out.

The small island of Ireland in 1845 was lush and green. The soil was versatile. Potatoes could be grown on a small patch of land and produce a harvest large enough to feed a family for most of the year. They ate potatoes at all three meals.

Ireland had over eight million residents in 1845. Of those eight million, at least one-third were poor farm laborers. The Irish land system in place at that time meant that those three million people owned no land. They rented a spot to build their cabins, work for the landlord and plant their potatoes in a small plot of land. They could be evicted at the whim of the landlord and many were. Since potatoes were the main source of food, these vulnerable farm laboring families were the first casualties of the potato blight.

The potato crop looked promising during the first harvest in August of 1845. But, by October, the potatoes in the ground were “rotten, black, and slimy.” In checking the potatoes harvest in August they discovered they looked the same. That was their main source of food for a year gone in a matter of weeks.

Whole families began scouring the land for anything they could find to eat. Some began looking at night, partly because they were ashamed of what they were doing. Some looked at night because they were stealing from their neighbors. People sold furniture, clothing, everything they had to buy food. But then the prices for food kept escalating. The people couldn’t find food and couldn’t afford to buy it.

As the numbers of hungry people began to swell, very little was done by anyone in authority. Grain (wheat, oats, barley, rye) and cattle were available in the fields. But it was not available for the farm laborers. Those food products were exported to other countries. As the author states, “One of the harsh realities about famine is that it is not about a lack a food; famine is about who has access to food.”

The potato famine lasted a full five years. It took two years for the British government to set up soup kitchens. Many people died and many emigrated to Canada, the United State, Australia and Britain. By 1910, when the census was taken, five million people left Ireland, three million died. The population was down to four million – 50% less people.

The economics and the politics of this famine are too complicated to get into in this post. But, let me say that the outcome could have been avoided. To allow that many people to die of starvation is criminal, immoral, and inexcusable. Prejudice and twisted thinking kept responsible people from doing the right thing.

What would I have done if I were a mother at that time? I would have scrounged for any scrap or weed I could find. I would have joined the riots, the thieves, the looters, the emigrants.

This book gives a good, well-balanced look at this disturbing and historic event. It’s complimented by sepia illustrations (such as the one above) from the period and various Irish quotes at the beginning of each chapter. It’s recommended for students age 9 to 12 but I thought it was perfect for this adult.

I borrowed my copy of Black Potato from the public library.

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