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When the Potato Failed: Causes and Effects of the Last European Subsistence Crisis, 1845-1850

Author(s):Gráda, Cormac Ó
Paping, Richard
Vanhaute, Eric
Reviewer(s):Cohn, Raymond L.

Published by EH.NET (November 2007)

Cormac ? Gr?da, Richard Paping, and Eric Vanhaute, editors, When the Potato Failed: Causes and Effects of the Last European Subsistence Crisis, 1845-1850. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2007. 342 pp. ?66 (paper), ISBN: 978-2-503-51985-2.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Raymond L. Cohn, Department of Economics, Illinois State University.

This book consists of fifteen essays, fourteen of which were originally given at a conference held in Dublin in December 2003. The final essay (actually the first in the volume) is written by the editors and provides a comparative perspective of the conference findings. The idea of the conference was to encourage research on the effects of the potato famine in other European countries, and to compare the results to the latest work on the famine in Ireland. The editors (located at University College (Dublin), Groningen, and Ghent, respectively) claim: “This book is the first to offer a truly comprehensive perspective on the causes and the effects of what is sometimes considered as the ‘last’ European subsistence crisis” (17). Three of the essays (by ? Gr?da, Mary Daly, and Peter Gray) examine aspects of the famine in Ireland and another (by Peter Solar) looks at prices throughout Europe at the time. The other ten essays examine the famine period in other parts of Europe.

The essays on Ireland and the one by Solar do not break much new ground, but they do present a handy review of the latest work by experts on the Irish famine. ? Gr?da’s article provides an overview of the famine in Ireland, and briefly discusses public action, the demographic consequences, and post-famine adjustment. Daly’s contribution examines the government’s and landlords’ roles and describes efforts at the local level in providing famine relief. Gray summarizes the (very interesting) debates that occurred in Britain concerning whether and how the government should respond. Solar presents series on yearly, monthly, and weekly prices and concludes, “high prices alone do not make a crisis” (90).

The real contribution of this book is the ten essays relating to the other parts of Europe. The famine period is investigated in Highland Scotland (by Tim Devine), Flanders (by Vanhaute), the Netherlands (by Paping and Vincent Tassenaar), Prussia (by Hans Bass), South Germany (by Gunter Mahlerwein), France (two essays, one by Nadine Vivier and the other by Jean-Michel Chevet and ? Gr?da), Spain (by Pedro D?az Mar?n), Denmark (by Ingrid Henriksen), and Sweden (by Carl-Johan Gadd).

While one might expect the non-Irish essays to be of uneven quality, as usually results from such an endeavor, that is not the case here. According to the editors, all of the essays have been “significantly revised” since the conference (13). The result is that every paper generally addresses the same set of issues. Most importantly, the extent and type of crop failure is examined and done so at the regional level within each country or area. Thus, the reader is introduced to the wide variation in the onset and consequences of the crop failures not only between countries but also within each country. The papers also examine the demographic consequences, the government policy response, and connections to social unrest. In general, all of the former issues are more completely investigated than the final one. Though a few of the papers examine (and generally refute) possible connections between the crop failures and the unrest of 1848, the issue is not addressed in many of the other entries.

By the end of the set of essays, it is clear that events in Ireland followed a fundamentally different course than elsewhere in Europe. Outside of Ireland, extreme famine conditions existed in only a few local areas in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany. Though the famine caused about one million deaths in Ireland, only a few hundred thousand (at most) died in the much larger population in the rest of Europe. One gets the impression ? a point emphasized by a number of the authors ? that the period of the potato famine outside of Ireland was not very different from any number of other periods of bad harvests. Not pleasant by any means, but nowhere near as bad as in Ireland. So the issue becomes (with apologies to Joel Mokyr): “Why Ireland starved but not many other areas of Europe did.”[1] The answer is not surprising ? the Irish consumed more potatoes, planted potatoes on a larger portion of their available agricultural land, suffered crop failures over a longer period of time, and received little assistance from the English government. However, the data presented in the essays on the other countries make very clear how large the differences were between Ireland and the rest of Europe in the 1840s.

One factor that will make the essays on the continental countries potentially useful for some readers is that each summarizes in English a large body of work that has only been published in the local language. Since few economic historians speak the language of every country covered, these essays provide an excellent summary of the current state of research on the period of the 1840s. In covering such a restricted time period, however, many of these essays will appeal mainly to specialists. For others, an overview of the ideas presented in the book can be obtained by reading the excellent summary essay by the editors. This essay deserves to read by anyone interested in the latest work on the period of the potato famine.

Note: 1. Joel Mokyr, Why Ireland Starved: A Quantitative and Analytical History of the Irish Economy, 1780 1850. London: George Allen and Unwin, paperback edition, 1985.

Raymond L. Cohn is Professor of Economics at Illinois State University. He has written extensively on immigration from Europe to the United States during the antebellum period and is currently finishing a book manuscript on the subject.

Subject(s):Historical Demography, including Migration
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):19th Century