A population, whose ordinary food is wheat and beef, and whose ordinary drink is porter and ale, can retrench in periods of scarcity, and resort to cheaper kinds of food, such as barley, oats, rice, and potatoes. But those who are habitually and entirely fed on potatoes, live upon the extreme verge of human subsistence, and when they are deprived of their accustomed food, there is nothing cheaper to which they can resort.
They have already reached the lowest point in the descending scale, and there is nothing beyond but starvation or beggary.
Every year is thus left to provide subsistence for itself. When the crop is luxuriant, the surplus must be given to the pigs; and when it is deficient, famine and disease necessarily prevail. Lastly, the bulk of potatoes is such, that they can with difficulty be conveyed from place to place to supply local deficiencies, and it has often happened that severe scarcity has prevailed in districts within fifty miles of which potatoes were to be had in abundance. If a man use two pounds of meal a-day (which is twice the amount of the ration found to be sufficient during the late relief operations), a hundredweight of meal will last him for fifty-six days; whereas a hundredweight of potatoes will not last more than eight days; and when it was proposed to provide seed-potatoes for those who had lost their stock in the failure of 1845–6, the plan was found impracticable, because nearly a ton an acre would have been required for the purpose.
The potato does not, in fact, last even a single year. The old crop becomes unfit for use in July, and the new crop, as raised by the inferior husbandry of the poor, does not come into consumption until September. Hence, July and August are called the11 “meal months,” from the necessity the people are under of living upon meal at that period. This is always a season of great distress and trial for the poorer peasants; and in the districts in which the potato system has been carried to the greatest extent, as, for instance, in the barony of Erris in the county of Mayo, there has been an annual dearth in the summer months for many years past. Every now and then a “meal year” occurs, and then masses of the population become a prey to famine and fever, except so far as they may be relieved by charity.