Diseases and borders: Potatoes and St. Patrick's Day

Beannachtai lá le Pádraig, constant readers — or, for you English-speaking lot, Happy St. Patrick’s Day.

In Irish, the way to say “Once upon a time” is O fadó fadó — “Long, long ago…” So, for St. Patrick’s Day, an Irish story:

Long, long ago — or, by the calendar, in 1824 — the territory know as Peru broke Spain’s last hold on the New World. The nascent Republic needed trade relationships, and quickly: It had borrowed heavily from banks in Europe to finance its 3-year war of independence. But after 300 years of colonization, all it had to offer, bluntly, was crap.

No, really, crap. Bat and seabird crap, otherwise known as guano. In the centuries before the establishment of the chemical industry, guano was a precious commodity, a potent natural fertilizer packed with nitrate and phosphates. There were enormous deposits of guano on the Andean coast and offshore islands; they provided the currency that Peru’s new government leveraged into a web of trade relationships with England, the United States, and France. Guano quickly became Peru’s leading export and the basis of its entire economy. In 1841, the government nationalized the guano deposits, selling the stuff to its European and American partners in hundreds of shiploads — tens of thousands of tons — per year.

In the summer of 1843, something strange began to happen to potato plants in farm fields near Philadelphia, one of the largest ports for the eastern United States. Their foliage withered, and when the plants were pulled out of the ground, the tubers below them were spongy and misshapen with decay. The farmers who found it had never seen anything like it before.

Coincidentally, in Belgium, farmers were struggling with potato problems too: Their crops were infested with a long-familiar fungus called dry rot, which attacked the potatoes when they were bruised during harvest and turned them dark and unusable while they were stored. Maybe, they thought, New World varieties would be healthier; after all, potatoes had come from the Americas to start with, carried back to Europe by the explorer Sir Walter Raleigh 254 years before. On July 4, 1843, the provincial council of West Flanders voted to import seed potatoes from the United States and try them out on a farm in Cureghem, a few miles outside Brussels.

On Aug. 23, 1845, a British gardening weekly, the Gardeners’ Chronicle and Agricultural Gazette, reported: “A fatal malady has broken out amongst the potato crop. On all sides we hear of the destruction. In Belgium the fields are said to have been completely desolated.”

On Sept. 9, the Dublin Evening Post editorialized: “Happily, there is no ground for any apprehensions of the kind in Ireland.

Of course, they were wrong. Two days later, there were reports from Waterford and Wexford of potato plants slumping and blackening in the fields. The late blight — caused by a fungus, Phytophthora infestans, that originated in central Mexico and migrated to the Andes — had come to Ireland. The Great Hunger, an Gorta Mór, had begun.

In a country where the rural population and their sparse household livestock ate almost nothing but potatoes  — the only thing that would grow on the tiny plots of poor soil allotted to the Irish by absentee English landowners — the blight was a catastrophe. Abetted by contempt and neglect, it ballooned into a disaster approaching genocide. Within three years, 1 million Irish starved to death, out of a population of 8 million. Another million or more  fled, on boats that they called “coffin ships” because one out of every three passengers died en route. The sturdy, young and lucky — including my own several-greats grandfather — survived to reach Australia and Canada and the United States.

And so we get St. Patrick’s Day. Originally, in Ireland, it was a religious holiday, an officially sanctioned interruption of the strict fasts of Lent. In the US, from the 1700s, it was an expression of immigrant pride. To the famine refugees — and their descendants as recently as my grandparents — it was an assertion of ethnic and religious solidarity in the face of discrimination and suspicion. And now, of course, Worldwide Drinking Day.

St. Patrick’s Day, as we celebrate it now, is a holiday of dispossession, begun in the US and exported back to Ireland only in the past few decades. It would not be what it is, if not for Ireland’s vast diaspora. And those waves of emigration might never have begun, were it not for a disease that crossed borders, spanned continents and sailed oceans, ravaged a society, beggared a nation, and sparked an imperishable longing for home.

Enjoy your beer.

Cites for the history of Phytophthora infestans:

O’Neill TP, The Scientific Investigation of the Failure of the Potato Crop in Ireland, 1845-6. Irish Historical Studies, Sept. 1946. Bourke PMA, The Use of the Potato Crop in Pre-Famine Ireland. Journal of the Statistical and Social Inquiry Society of Ireland, Vol. XXI, Part VI, 1967/1968, pp. 72-96. Fry WE et al. Population Genetics and Intercontinental Migrations of Phytophthora infestans, Annu. Rev. Phytopathol. 1992. 30:107-29. Andrivon D. The origin of Phytophthora infestans populations present in Europe in the 1840s: a critical review of historical and scientific evidence, Plant Pathology 1996, 45, 1027-1035. Ristaino JB, Tracking historic migrations of the Irish potato famine pathogen, Phytophthora infestans. Microbes and Infection 4 (2002) 1369-1377.



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