Remembering the Irish Potato Famine

Star of the sea: farewell to old Ireland by O'CONNOR ...


Star of the Sea: Farewell to Old Ireland

By Joseph O’Connor

Published by Secker and Warburg (2002)

Book Review

Although fiction, this novel is based on more than a dozen books and website documenting the Irish famine, as well five eye-witness accounts published between 1847 and 1850, and passenger manifests from the Irish and Canadian national archives.

The plot concerns a trip aboard the fictional Star of the Sea in December 1847. Passengers included 402 in steerage, fifteen in First Class staterooms and 37 crew. Among the steerage passengers were 239 Irish victims of the potato famine who could pay the £8 fare to emigrate from Liverpool to New York.

Although the failure of the potato crop (from blight) starting in 1845 is blamed for the famine leading a million Irish to die and more than 1 million to emigrate, the causes of the famine were complex. The grain crops Irish tenant farmers produced for export to England were probably sufficient to feed the entire starving peasantry. However as frequently happens, the preeminence of the export market, dramatically inflated the cost of food in local markets.

There was the added issue of landlords setting fire to the homes of farmers unable to pay rent (to replace them with sheep). In these instances, it was clearly the sudden loss of their land, not the potato blight, that caused their families to starve to death.

Only the First Class passengers received regular meals. Steerage passengers were provided with biscuits and water unless they brought their own food. With only two water closets for 402 of them, living conditions were extremely unhygienic and smelly.

During the Atlantic crossing, which took 26 days, an average of three to four steerage passengers died daily of starvation and starvation-related infectious disease.

When the Star of the Sea arrived in New York, it, like other ships with large numbers of Irish immigrants, was refused permission to dock, leading to additional deaths from starvation. First Class passengers were rowed to shore after eight days. Those in steerage remained on board for almost seven weeks, awaiting interview by police and health officials from the Office of Aliens.


Food Security: Our Dangerous Loss of Biodiversity

Seed: the Untold Story

Directed by Jon Betz and Taggart Siegel (2016)

Film Review

This documentary raises the alarm over the disappearance of 90% of the food species humankind first identified 8,000 – 10,000 years ago . Most of these species disappeared over the last 50 years.

Of the 544 species of cabbage grown globally in 1983, 28 remain. Of 158 cauliflower species of, 9 remain; of 3 kohlrabi species (of 55); of 2 artichoke species (of 34), 2 asparagus species (of 46); and only 1 beet species (of 288). Ninety-one to ninety four of all other veggie species have been lost over the same period.

The small number of remaining species greatly increase the risk of famine in many parts of the world. The 1845-49 potato famine related, in large part, to nearly all Irish farmers growing the same species of potato.

The fact that chemical manufacturers like Monsanto own the great majority of seed patents has ominous implications for all global food security.

The main focus of the film is individuals and groups around the world committed to preserving food crop diversity via seed banks, including Vandana Shiva, Andrew Kimbrell, Jane Goodall and Winona LaDuke.

Seed banks are often a primary target during war. Iraq’s seed bank (containing seed species over 2,000 years old) was one of the first targets the US bombed during Operation Enduring Freedom. Likewise during World War II, Hitler sought to firebomb the St Petersburg seed bank. He was thwarted by civilians who camped there overnight to protect it.

Prior to watching this film I was unaware the US government provided their farmers free seeds until Wall Street industrialists figured out a way to profit from seed scarcity. One of the drivers behind the development of hybrid seeds in the late 19th century was a desire to discourage farmers from saving their seeds.**

*The Irish potato famine resulted from infection with a fungus called Phytophthora infestans.

**Seeds from hybrid plants (produced by cross-pollinating plants of different species) are just as likely to show the characteristics of one of the original species as those of the hybrid.

People who belong to a public library can view the full film free on Beamafilm.