Canada's Worst Summer Ever


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Irish Connection Canada
This article was submitted to Irish Connection Canada for one of its spring, 2014 issues. We’ll let you know as soon as it is published. It's a much abridged version of a section of the book.

1847 is “Black 47” in Ireland -- the worst of a short span of years in which over a million Irish died of starvation and famine-related diseases and an equal number left the island forever. Thousands of Irish were forcibly evicted from their peasant huts and small potato fields, and placed aboard ships bound for Canada. They arrived in the summer of 1847. Canada never had a worse summer.

Centuries of English efforts to subdue the Irish led to a continual cycle of Irish rebellion and defeat, and English confiscation of rebel lands. Irish were pushed onto ever smaller parcels and onto land not especially suitable for agriculture. Such small parcels had to somehow support an extended family of three, sometimes four, generations living in the same peasant hut.

Only one crop could grow on a few acres with sufficient yield -- the potato. Potatoes are incredibly rich in calories, protein and essential nutrients. And, typically, enough potatoes could be grown in a small field to sustain a large family.

Potatoes are not native to Ireland. The plant was brought from South America by the early explorers. The plant adapted well to Europe and it became the Irish staple. But the rural Irish didn’t live on potatoes because they liked them. They lived on potatoes because they didn’t have income with which to buy anything else to eat, and the only food that could be grown on a few acres, at quantities coming close to feeding a family, was the potato.

The potato diet kept the Irish hovering around the subsistence level for over a hundred years. This is a polite way of saying that rural Irish starved when crops failed, and lived when the crops did not. The island saw many crop failures before, but it never what occurred in 1845 and the several years thereafter, in what some call the “Potato Famine”. In Ireland, it’s An Gorta Mor – the Great Hunger.

The culprit in 1845 was a fungus-like critter called Phytophthera infestans. Conditions need to be right for this critter to flourish, and, if right, these critters are potato eating machines. Conditions were perfect in Ireland during the Hunger years. About one-third of Ireland’s potato crop was destroyed in 1845. As bad as 1845 was, 1846 was worse. Every potato field, anywhere in Ireland, was destroyed.

The winter of 1847 was especially harsh -- one of the coldest of record. The starving Irish (or at least, those who survived that long) wore every item of clothing they had and huddled together for warmth under a single blanket. Strangers, roaming the countryside scrounging for food, joined in to keep warm.

One creature did reasonably well in this environment – the body louse. Lice live quite nicely on dirty clothes. They freely move from person to person, and feed off human blood. Lice are bothersome, in and of themselves, but they are also vectors of other organisms. Lice pick up a microorganism by sucking the blood of an infected human, and transmit it when biting the next.

Typhus is caused by one such microorganism, but there are a few others. The Irish didn’t know much about microbiology. All of these diseases were called “famine fever”. Hundreds of thousands died from one famine fever or another.

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