An Gorta Mór
The potato became the principal food of the Irish in the first two decades of the 18th Century. Before this, it was a supplementary food to an older diet consisting of butter, milk, eggs and grain produce. The expansion of acreage under tillage and an expanding economy in the early 18th Century secured the humble spud’s place as the main foodstuff of the Irish. There was very little variety in terms of potato crop in Ireland by the mid to late 18th Century. The Lumper potato thrived in the wet soil of many parts of the country, especially in the west of Ireland where there was the double hindrance of saturated ground and low nutrient content. In several places the Lumper was simply the only potato which would grow in the soil and, hence, a devastating dependence grew upon the waxy tuber.
In the early 1840s a disease of the potato crop emerged in the Toluca Valley, just west of modern day Mexico City. From there, it crept north into Texas and eventually reached the east coast of the United States. The disease, phytophthora infestans, or potato blight as it is more commonly known, reached Europe on board a shipment of seed potatoes from New York destined for Belgium. Throughout the summer of 1845 this ‘first contact’ was added to by dozens of trans-Atlantic crossings which exposed the European crop to the airborne disease which began to take hold in the late summer of 1845 on the continent. The Freeman’s Journal reported that ‘nearly the whole of the growth in the Rheinish provinces (of Germany) is lost’ and that desperate farmers were pleading with their chambers of commerce to stop the export of potatoes due to the low quantity of crops that were being saved.
The blight reached Ireland within weeks of its arrival in Belgium and Germany. Its effects were felt immediately and anywhere from a third to half of the crop was destroyed. Blight took hold on the crop in the first week of September 1845. Agricultural experts were divided on how to tackle the problem; had they anticipated the scale of potato loss in the following year’s crop they may have adopted a less laissez faire attitude to the crisis. A Cork Examiner report from September 1845 encapsulated the desperate state of affairs in Mayo;
The Potato Cholera – We regret to learn that the rot so prevalently complained of in other parts of the country, has broken forth in our neighbourhood. Several persons, residents of Castlebar, have informed us that while digging potatoes in their fields they encountered an intolerable stench, which, after examination, they found to proceed from the putrid state of the esculants they were in the habit of unearthing. Upon enquiry we learn that the disease was not remarked upon by the farmers here until about the 8th of this month, when the weather changed from hot to partial rain, which has since continued to fall at intervals’.
In 1846 over three quarters of the potato crop failed. The knock on effects for the following year were devastating as there was very little potato seeds left for planting. This double blow of crop failure and a lack of seed culminated in the black year of 1847 when starvation became widespread across the island of Ireland.
William Steuart Trench and the Famine in Camross
The story of the Famine in Camross is intrinsically linked to the story of one of Ireland’s finest agriculturalists of the 19th Century, William Steuart Trench. Trench was born in 1808 near Ballybrittas. He was the youngest of the fifteen children of Thomas Trench, the Church of Ireland Dean of Kildare and Mary Weldon, daughter of Walter Weldon MP. He was educated at the Royal School, Armagh, and Trinity College, although he does not seem to have completed his degree. In 1843 he acquired a tract of land in Cardtown. Two years later he resigned his post as Land Agent for the Shirley estates in Monaghan and went to reside in his property in Cardtown. His home was the first concrete built home in the midlands.
 Irish Examiner, 19 Sep 1845.