Wednesday, April 29th
Good morning, Good morning,
A number of days ago I wrote to you about St. Kateri Tekakawitha and the smallpox epidemic introduced to her home in upstate New York by the early colonials. The disease killed her family and many of the local Indians. At that time I alluded to a virus found in New York that would vex the people of Europe, but most notably the Irish. It would cause the Irish famine. Rather than have me clutter up the conversation on the famine, I am enclosing a very very interesting report I picked up on the internet. What caught my eye in the report is that the forensic scientists actually tracked the culprit virus, “Phytophthora infestans,” to Mexico, in the farm region just west of Mexico City. It was somehow brought to America where it devastated the potato crop of New York and much of the Eastern seaboard. And by way of cruise ships may have been transported to Europe. The current American pandemic, Coronavirus, experience is very similar to the human experience that devastated many of our ancestors. At the conclusion of this report I will mention something that was heroic with the Americans and tragic with the British.
“How and when the blight Phytophthora infestans arrived in Europe is still uncertain; however, it almost certainly was not present prior to 1842, and probably arrived in 1844. The origin of the pathogen has been traced to the Toluca Valley in Mexico, whence it spread first within North America and then to Europe. The 1845–46 blight was caused by the HERB-1 strain of the blight.
Potato production during the Great Famine. Note: years 1844, 1845, 1846, and 1848 are extrapolated.
In 1844, Irish newspapers carried reports concerning a disease which for two years had attacked the potato crops in America. In 1843 and 1844, blight largely destroyed the potato crops in the Eastern United States. Ships from Baltimore, Philadelphia, or New York City could have carried diseased potatoes from these areas to European ports. American plant pathologist William C. Paddock posited that the blight was transported via potatoes being carried to feed passengers on clipper ships sailing from America to Ireland. Once introduced in Ireland and Europe, blight spread rapidly. By mid-August 1845, it had reached much of northern and central Europe; Belgium, The Netherlands, northern France, and southern England had all already been affected.
On 16 August 1845, The Gardeners’ Chronicle and Horticultural Gazette reported “a blight of unusual character” on the Isle of Wight. A week later, on 23 August, it reported that “A fearful malady has broken out among the potato crop … In Belgium the fields are said to be completely desolated. There is hardly a sound sample in Covent Garden market … As for cure for this distemper, there is none.” These reports were extensively covered in Irish newspapers. On 11 September, the Freeman’s Journal reported on “the appearance of what is called ‘cholera’ in potatoes in Ireland, especially in the north”. On 13 September, The Gardeners’ Chronicle announced: “We stop the Press with very great regret to announce that the potato Murrain has unequivocally declared itself in Ireland.”
Nevertheless, the British government remained optimistic over the next few weeks, as it received conflicting reports. Only when the crop was lifted (harvested) in October, did the scale of destruction become apparent. Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel wrote to Sir James Graham in mid-October that he found the reports “very alarming”, but reminded him that there was, according to Woodham-Smith, “always a tendency to exaggeration in Irish news”.
Crop loss in 1845 has been estimated at anywhere from one third to as high as one half of cultivated acreage. The Mansion House Committee in Dublin, to which hundreds of letters were directed from all over Ireland, claimed on 19 November 1845 to have ascertained beyond the shadow of doubt that “considerably more than one-third of the entire of the potato crop … has been already destroyed”.
In 1846, three-quarters of the harvest was lost to blight. By December, a third of a million destitute people were employed in public works. According to Cormac Ó Gráda, the first attack of potato blight caused considerable hardship in rural Ireland, from the autumn of 1846, when the first deaths from starvation were recorded. Seed potatoes were scarce in 1847. Few had been sown, so, despite average yields, hunger continued. 1848 yields were only two-thirds of normal. Since over three million Irish people were totally dependent on potatoes for food, hunger and famine were inevitable.”
In her book, “The Great Hunger,” Cecil Woodham Smith, a noted British Historian, offers and interesting insight on early American generosity with the blight of Ireland. The Americans sent shiploads of corn to the Irish ports and, for political reasons, none of the ships nor their cargos were identified with the United States. For every one ship that entered the Irish ports from the Colonies, five would leave full of wheat, heading for other markets. Those ships and cargo were marked… but not as Irish or American. The landowners of Ireland did not live in Ireland… if you know what I mean.
I remember finding this book among my mother’s library of ten thousand books. A library that amply filled the Gould basement. The great affliction for me was a terrible allergy to mold and mildew. Once, when home from Niagara University, on vacation, I sat and read The Great Hunger in one very fast sitting, scratching all the way through it. It is worth reading.
As recently as 1996 the British scientists were trying to assess the impact of blighted potatoes consumed by pregnant mothers. The analysis of the problem indicated a rise children suffering from spinal bifida and anencephalic brain issues. The children suffering from the first condition would be handicapped for life while the second group with undeveloped brains may have only survived for a few days. There studies indicated each of the problems affected three out of every one thousand people.
Ironically, in recent times, there have been quips of humor that we should expect an increase in the conceptions of children following the pandemic since all have been locked down with little to do. References have been made to the rise in pregnancies nine months after the night in 1965 when the lights went out in New York City. There is another story in that. But, the pandemic we sit in is not a simple night in New York but a blight that may have some very long standing issues for the general population in coming generations. And there may well be a story in that but we are too close to the origin of the coronavirus to review what has yet to happen to the children. Let us pray for one another.
And now, the rest of the story. Recently Scott Grimard, Grand Knight of our local council of the Knights of Columbus wrote a note to me indicating the recent parish collection of food for the food bank in Leesburg was one of the largest the Knights have done up to this date. Last week, they collected 1400 pounds of food and $14,000.00 in donations for the folks in need at the food pantry. God bless the Knights and all in the parish for reaching out to the people in need of assistance. Allow an old Irish adage, “If you are good to the people in need than people will be good to you when you are in need.” Well done every one. Let us pray for one another.
In closing. Today is the feast day for St. Catherine of Sienna. I leave you with her life story but want to add that she was one of twenty five children, born to the same mother. Half of her siblings died during the fifteenth century plague, including her twin sister. Let her be a good advocate for all of us in the lockdown. And now the story.