When the sickening stench of decay hung over the potato fields, the farmers knew their crops were ruined. In the summer of 1845 potato crop after potato crop failed in continental Europe bringing great hardship to many; in poor, potato-dependent Ireland, the loss of the potatoes meant not just hardship but widespread famine. Almost two-thirds of Ireland’s population, the small farmers and agricultural workers, relied on the potato to feed themselves and their families, and now that their food source for winter was blighted and putrid, a great many faced the prospect of starvation. John Kelly movingly relates this disastrous chapter in Ireland’s history and examines with fresh eyes the British response to the tragedy in The Graves Are Walking: The Great Famine and the Saga of the Irish People.
Britain’s response to Ireland’s desperation was a lesson in how not to offer humanitarian aid. Those in charge of relief efforts saw the loss of the potato crop as providential: they thought potatoes were a lazy man’s crop and kept Ireland tied to subsistence farming, and thus poverty. If the small Irish farmers were forced to give up their small plots, commercial farms would bring more wealth and the peasants would work for a living wage. The British also had a horror of the Irish becoming dependent on the government, so although aid was given to the stricken Irish, it was done with an ulterior political motive and so many strings were attached that the famine continued. As Kelly says, tax collectors and coffin makers benefited from Britain’s relief efforts, but the rest of the people were too busy dying.