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An Gorta Mór

The British occupation, the potato famine, and Dillon family migration to the United States were factors throughout our trip to Ireland in 2006. These factors weren’t discussed outright, but their shadows, both horrific and hopeful, followed us throughout our three weeks in County Clare.

Potatoes were the diet staple of the poorest Irish, and County Clare in far western Ireland, would have been one of the hardest hit by the Great Hunger, An Gorta Mór in Gaelic.

Ireland was Britain’s first colony and had been part of the English and then British Empire for over 700 years. And those British occupiers only made things worse when the blight hit the potato plants. What the hell happened?

Potatoes were consumed in every form, for every Irish meal, with the occasional butter, cabbage, and onions. These ingredients were often combined in dishes like colcannon, boxty, champ, or bubble and squeak. Poor Irish Catholics, second-class citizens in their own country, often ate only potatoes, and so did their livestock. Once the fungus-like water mold Phythophthora infestans attacked such a crucial foodstuff, the bounty of and dependence on the Lumper potato became an absolute catastrophe.

Meet the Lumper: Ireland's New Old PotatoThe Lumper potato or Irish Lumper (at left), a white potato descended from plants brought from Peru in 1580, grew easily in poor soil and had an enormous yield. In a year, an acre could yield up to 12 tons of potatoes.

Because of these attributes, farmers often planted only the Lumper varietal of white potato. The pathogen responsible for the “late blight“ likely also had its origins in infected tubers from South America.

Characterized as a “wet, nasty, knobbly old potato,” nearly half of Ireland’s population in the 1840s ate only Lumper potatoes. When the Great Blight began turning leaves black and rotting tubers in September 1845, single-crop farms were devastated, starving, couldn’t pay their rent, and were evicted. Nearly one million people died in the famine. In Connaught province (Counties Leitrim, Sligo, Mayo, Roscommon, and Galway), as much as 25% of the population died. Another two million left Ireland.  

Yet, at the same time, Ireland was growing plenty of other foods. Oats and barley, untouched by the blight, were also produced during the famine years, but those cereals were grown for export and so did not belong to Irish growers and millers. Shipping records also indicate that 10,000 Irish calves were exported to England during 1847, up 33% from 1846. So, as the famine spread into full devastation after 1845, records show that peas, beans, rabbits, fish, and honey continued to be exported. So, as exports to the occupying country continued and sometimes increased, the Irish people tending the cattle and the crops starved and died.

Sam, Ed, and Monty’s ancestral Dillons most likely came from the central Ireland counties of Westmeath and Roscommon. As of 2022, the furthest back I’ve been able to trace those ancestors is to Elkanah Dillon,* my sons’ great-great-great grandfather. Elkanah was born in 1832 in southeastern New York, worked as a farmer in Michigan, and joined Company L of the Michigan Cavalry’s 3rd Regiment in the Civil War. He died in 1864 of an unspecified disease at age 32 in Lowell, Arkansas, which was used as an army camp by both the North and the South. Elkanah’s son Mansfield later moved to Kansas to farm.

An overwhelming 620,000 military deaths were recorded in the Civil War: about 2% of the U.S. population. Two-thirds of those deaths were caused by uncontrolled infectious diseases, such as pneumonia, typhoid, dysentery, and malaria. Soldiers also suffered and died from various fevers, chicken pox, smallpox, measles, mumps, chicken pox, and whooping cough. Adding gangrene and other infections of amputations and battle wounds to this toxic mix, many soldiers were doomed.

Roughly 200,000 Irish immigrants served in the American Civil War: 150,000 for the Union armies and 40,000 for the Confederacy. Elkanah Dillon didn’t die in the Irish potato famine that was raging during his lifetime, but likely his Irish relatives were affected, and perhaps Elkanah died just as agonizing a death.

The County Clare of our trip in 2006 was green, welcoming, and filled with traditional music and good food, including plenty of potatoes. Lumper potatoes are growing once again in Ireland after a concerted effort by the Glens of Antrim company, which grows many varieties of potatoes. Scientists believe the strain of fungus that caused the Great Hunger is now extinct.

* Elkanah is a figure in the Old Testament’s Book of Samuel. His first child was the judge and prophet Samuel.

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