From The Nation, 25 October, 1845.
The fatal disease that has attacked the Potato crop may at length be partly estimated, at least as to its extent; though what its ultimate effects may be remains a problem which time only can solve. It may now be stated with some appromixation to certainty that fully one-half of the crop, on which millions of our countrymen are half-starved every year, is this season totally destroyed, or in progress to destruction.
As to the cause of the rot, the most elaborate and satisfactory account we have yet seen is that given by the Commission of Agriculture of the Province of Groningen in their Report upon the disease affecting the Potato in the Netherlands, and read at a late meeting of the Royal Agricultural Society of Ireland. They attribute it partly to the too rapid development of the plants this year, by reason of heat and moisture, and also in part to an unusual fog which covered the land on the twenty-first and twenty-second of July. We know not if such a fog were observed in this country at that time; but, indeed, an investigation of the exciting causes, though very important with a view to future precautions against the like, are of less present and pressing interest than the main questions, how far has the damage extended, and what practical remedies have been suggested and tried and found to answer, or otherwise.
The facts that may now be said to be ascertained are these: –
First. – There is not a county in Ireland in which the Potato-rot has not by this time appeared.
Second. – That in England and Scotland, in Holland and Belgium, and generally over the Continent of Europe, and in America – wherever, in short, potatoes are cultivated – the same disease has appeared to a greater or smaller extent.
Third. – That the disease is of the nature of putrefactive fermentation, accompanied by a fungus, or covering of parasitic cryptogamous plants; and that, therefore, the ordinary antiseptics – dryness and cold, salt, powdered lime, and chloride of lime, sprinkled over the potatoes when dug – are the first and most obvious method of preventing the spread of the distemper.
Fourth. – That early planted potatoes, which had finished their growth and arrived at maturity before the disease reached their neighbourhood, have been untouched by the rot, which seems to afford a kind of indication that the disease has by this time reached its limits, growth having now stopped even in the uninfected late potatoes.
Fifth. – That the sound parts of partially spoiled potatoes, the dark coloured portions being carefully removed, may be safely eaten; but that the black parts are very unwholesome, or even deadly.
Sixth. – That blackened potatoes, which are not quite rotten, may still be turned into wholesome food by making starch of them – a process which extracts the fecula, or farinaceous part of the tuber, and gets rid of the fibrous tissues.
A difference of opinion still exists as to the propriety of digging out potatoes so soon as the disease has appeared in the fields, or leaving them in the ground. The latter course is recommended by the Groningen Commission; yet some practical agriculturists in this country advise immediate digging. It seems, however, admitted that potatoes which are dug out, if not very carefully binned, with layers of very dry mould between them, had better been left in the ground.
We publish in another place extracts from various local papers, and suggestions of practical farmers, for which it is hardly necessary to entreat a careful perusal.
So much as to the mode of dealing with the potatoes themselves; but, with all the precautions that can be taken, and all the skill and science that can be applied, if it be really so that half the potato crop is lost, the serious question arises – how are the People to live until another crop is ready for use? and the not less-serious questions – how is that next crop to be produced? from what seed – on what ground?
As to the mode of securing wholesome seed, and on killing what infection may remain in the soil, we may surely expect sound practical instructions from the eminent agricultural chemists whom the Government have commissioned to investigate the subject scientifically. It may, however, we suppose, be for the present assumed that the most effectual enemy to the rot, in every shape, will be lime, in some one of its combinations. Whatever remains of the fungus may be in the ground, would certainly be destroyed by sprinkling or drenching the soil with chloride of lime; and that preparation, we apprehend, could be manufactured cheaply and abundantly enough to permit its general application.
Still the question remains as to the means of making the two ends of this season meet. From various parts of the country the letters of our correspondents give a gloomy enough picture of the popular feeling. One gentleman, writing of the county Meath, speaks of many “families of the peasantry who have been working all the year round for their acre or half acre of conacre, and have, consequently, paid in advance, and the crop a failure.” And he says “it is really heart-rending to hear them speak of the misery likely to ensue; if something be not done, and immediately, to allay their well-grounded fears, it is fearful to think what consequences may arise hereafter.”
Another, writing from a southern county, tells us plainly, “it is high time for the leaders of the People to take this subject into consideration, and apply some prompt remedy. Our old motto of ‘Patience and Perseverance’ will not do now, as no one can or will have patience to persevere in starving; and I have reason to know, from the way in which the People feel at present, that if those to whom they look for advice and relief do not promptly afford it, they will fight themselves; as, come what may, the People won’t starve.”
We fully agree with this correspondent in his slender expectations of aid from “the English Government, with their Commissioners and Chemists, who indulge in learned speculations on the cause of the calamity, while they leave us to feel its effects.” But, as to the landlords, we earnestly hope he makes an erroneous estimate of their disposition to alleviate the distresses of their poor tenants. He is inclined to believe “that they would first, if they could, force their tenants to sell their corn to pay their rents and then go and spend it where they did before, and leave the people to manage, as best they might, during the famine which must ensue if the corn is removed from the country.”
Surely there are not many landlords who would take so heartless a view of the case. Yet, looking to the past conduct of many of them, what is there to expect?
One word to the landlords. Do they, or can they, expect that during the ensuing season their tenants who find it hard in ordinary years to pay their rent and live, will be able to meet them at the gale days as usual? Can they hope if the ordinary driving and grinding system be pursued in this cruel year, that agrarian outrage, even of a more combined and extensive character than we have yet seen, will not stalk, in blood and terror, over the land, leading to a general disorganisation of society and reign of terror which it is fearful to think of. Once for all, let some effective and simultaneous step be taken by the land proprietors of this island such as may convince the terrified People that they are not watched over by enemies, and set by beasts of prey – or, Irish landlordism has reached its latter days, and will shortly be with the feudal system and other effete institutions, in its grave.
We have not touched upon this subject in relation to the exporting of food to foreign countries, which in other years is almost the only commerce of Ireland. Some Continental States, especially Belgium, have prohibited the carrying of grain, meal, or flour, out of the country; a course which, however objectionable under ordinary circumstances, and in point of abstract theory, yet may become sometimes absolutely necessary, when a calamity like the present occurs. Of this, however, we must not think. We have no domestic government or legislature to provide such a remedy; and, as for the English government, is not Ireland their store-farm? To prohibit themselves from importing food from hence would be like a man making a covenant with himself, in a season of scarcity, not to have recourse to his own barn. So long as this island is a “foreigner’s farm” that remedy is out of the question.
We earnestly invite our correspondents to give us all the local intelligence they can glean, and to send such suggestions as may be found useful in their respective districts.