Potato III: Attack of the Clones
So, the Irish Potato Famine.
Famines are super common, historically speaking. They’re so common that a lot of historical texts barely bother mentioning them. There used to happen twice a decade. There were whole eras where practically all anyone did was starve. And since they happened any time there were more mouths than food, populations stayed remarkably stable.
But a few hundred years ago, things changed. Why? Potatoes (among other reasons). For somewhat obscure crop-rotational reasons, people could plant potatoes in fields that they’d have previously left fallow. Suddenly farms were producing way more food, which meant fewer famines, which meant populations skyrocketed. There were also very important non-potato reasons, but I’m ignoring them for now.
I feel like the Irish Potato Famine was a kind of Famine Reunion Tour, like Famine was an aging rockstar who decided to get the band back together for One Last Show. And what a show – within four months of its arrival in Flanders, the blight had ruined crops in France, the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, England, and Ireland.
Why was something that starved half of Europe get named after one leprechaun-filled island? I couldn’t find a direct answer to that question, but my guess is for two reasons:
* The US got like a million Irish immigrants from the whole ordeal, and mentioned it in a lot of movies and TV and whatnot.
* Other countries were hit by the blight, but Ireland was basically demolished.
The Irish really loved their potatoes. Everyone farmed them. In 1840, the population was something like 8 million, and an estimated 40% of them counted potatoes as the only solid food in their diet. Within a few years, more than 1 million had died and twice that had emigrated, mostly to the US. And here’s the bit that really stunned me: even in the 1960, Ireland was less than half as dense as it was before the famine. It’s now 170 years later, and their population still hasn’t recovered.
And I should mention that it wasn’t *all* potatoes that caused the starvation – apparently, when the famine started, England started coming up with all kinds of horrible ideas to make it worse. But I’m not super-informed on the whole England-Ireland blood-feud so I’ll leave it at that for now.
Turns out the US also had a major potato problem, but that involved the Colorado Potato Beetle. The best story I found about that, by far, is one where these beetles got so numerous that they’d totally cover railroad tracks. The tracks got so slippery with squished beetles that trains couldn’t get through.
Someday I’ll make Potato IV: Potatocalypse, but I’m mostly out of potato facts, so that’ll have to wait. Besides, I’ve got so many other comics to make. Next week will be Australia vs. Animals, and then I’m not sure. I’d like to do something Asian, and I have some ideas, but if you have any others, please do send me an email.