Phytophthora Infestans , European Famines and heritage.

In the middle of the 19thC, a fungal pathogen, phytophthora Infestans, commonly known as potato blight, wreaked havoc in Europe, recurrently decimating potato crops between 1845 and 1850. It caused untold misery on those populations that had come to rely on few food crops other than the potato, such as, in the British Isles, the Irish and the inhabitants of the Western Highlands and Islands of Scotland.

In Ireland, its effects were frighteningly devastating, resulting in severe population decline due to a heavy death toll and emigration. The very wording of this sentence, however, implies a direct causal link between this fungal disease and the human misery that ensued. If the emergence of the blight in Europe led to scientific debates as to the cause of the disease[1], even more intense were the subsequent debates that surrounded the British government’s decisions regarding the management of the crisis. In such arguments, the responsibility of the British government during the crisis dovetailed with issues concerning the causes of the socio-economic vulnerability of peasant communities who had become so highly dependent on the potato as a staple food, the consumption of which had sustained their demographic growth.

To the Malthusian interpretation of the crisis, was added a long-standing moralist vision of ecological disasters as ‘God’s visitation’ for human sins. God’s hands rapidly served political discourses that justified the complete restructuring of Ireland’s and, to some extent, Highland Scotland’s peasant economies, not simply as regards crop diversification, but above all in order to drive forth a reform in land use and holding in line with Liberal economics – a new social system. In 1846, on the second ‘visitation’ of the blight in the British Isles, Charles Trevelyan, the Assistant Secretary to the Treasury and keen advocate of free trade and limited government intervention in famine administration, described it as the ‘direct stroke of an all wise Providence [2]’. This Providentialist interpretation was also used in indictments levelled against the British Government and their management of the food crisis, as illustrated by the nationalist activist John Mitchel who, in typically polemical style, lashed out: ‘the Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the Famine[3]’.

Since then historians, political scientists and plant biologists, along with specialists of development economics have dissected and used the role of the Irish calamity in, for instance, histories of the potato, the birth of plant pathology, the dangers of genetic uniformity in crops, the spread of plant diseases through trade and travel. The Irish crisis has most notably informed scholarly discussions of the socio-economic and cultural forces producing vulnerability to environmental challenges, an approach, largely comparative and transnational, spearheaded by A. Sen’s entitlement theory[4].

Heritage, as a cultural process responsive to present ends and needs, is not only constitutive of meaning, values and shared memories, but also an economic and political resource. How has heritage been deployed to address the issues surrounding the representation of such an environmental disaster as the blight and its resultant famines? In the course of the discussion, the following issues may be unpicked:

  • The role of the past in the display of scientific knowledge (educating and warning): staple food crops, their genetics and adaptability to changing climatic conditions; their susceptibility to diseases and the dangers of globalisation in the spread of plant diseases.
  • The socio-political uses of the past by heritage practitioners: the use of a transnational perspective bringing awareness to contemporary issues such as refugee crises or climate change; heritage as future-making, in particular the endorsement of a programmatic approach engaging with the great concerns of decades to come.
  • Heritage-makers (professional and lay) and their choice of medium to translate information and / or alert the public to present and future issues: science museums, social history museums, monuments, commemorations…
  • Heritage, famine and the memory of catastrophe – identity, cultural transmission, trauma.

Laurence Gouriévidis (Université Clermont Auvergne)

[1] Some of the most penetrating were published in the horticultural periodical The Gardeners’ Chronicles.

[2] Quoted in Gray Peter, Famine, Land and Politics : British Government and Irish Society 1843-50, Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1999, p. 232.

[3] John Mitchel, The Last Conquest of Ireland (perhaps), London, [1861], ed. Patrick Maume, Dublin: UCD Press, 2005, p. 219.

[4] Sen A., ‘Famines’, World Development, 8, 1980, 613-21; Fraser E.D.G, ‘Social Vulnerability and Ecological Fragility: Building Bridges between Social and Natural Sciences Using the Irish Potato Famine as a Case Study’, Conservation Ecology, 7(2): 9, 2003 [online:] (Accessed 4/02/2020).


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