The Effects of a Mass Migration Caused by a Potato

Sophie Nasrallah

Most living organisms leave their place of origin at some point in their lives. From seeds that are blown about in the wind to geese that fly south for the winter, migrations of many sorts occur across a wide variety of different walks of life. Humans are just as susceptible as any creature to undertaking great voyages in an attempt to improve their living conditions. Such migrations tend to have an either positive or negative impact on the humans’ environment as well as their technologies.

During the Irish Potato Famine, for instance, millions of Irish people travelled to America, and the mass exodus dichotomously affected the technology and environments of both Ireland and the United States. The arrival of the Irish in the US spurred American technological progress while harshly affecting the US’s forested areas. Meanwhile, the decline of the population in Ireland slowed the progress of this country’s technological developments while also damaging its natural environment. Ultimately, the mass migration of Irishmen instigated by the Irish Potato Famine stirred technological advancement in the United States, but hindered technological progress in Ireland while also negatively affecting the environments of both countries.


The mass migration of the Irish people during the famine was primarily instigated by disease and starvation stemming from the loss of the potato crop (Mokyr). As high-calorie, nutrient-rich, and easy-to-grow plants, potatoes quickly became an Irish staple after they were first introduced to Ireland (Mokyr). By the mid-nineteenth century, more than half of the Irish people relied on just a few species of potatoes as a primary food source (Mokyr). The poor were especially dependent upon the cultivation and consumption of this crop (Mokyr). As potatoes became a more integral constituent of the Irish diet, planters artificially selected for only a few specific varieties of the crop, resulting in a decline of genetic variation in this crucial source of sustenance (Mokyr).

In 1845, the arrival of North American traders in Europe introduced new goods as well as new diseases to the continent, including Phytophthora infestans or blight (Wilkes). Blight made its way across land and sea via traveling traders until the disease comfortably settled into Ireland’s abundant fields of homogenous potatoes. Once the malady took hold of the crops, afflicted potatoes would grow to be squishy, undersized, and inedible (Wilkes). With the loss of a vital food source, famine and its associated diseases (including typhus) became widespread throughout Ireland, causing the deaths of over one million people and the exodus of over two million (Mokyr). In the essay Environmental Degradation as a Cause and Effect of Displaced Persons, classmate Ben Staplin suggests that refugees and displaced peoples become trapped in an injurious feedback loop when they lose access to the primary resources they traditionally used to survive (Staplin). In the case of the Irish, the emigrants were forced into a vicious cycle that began with the loss of familiar foods, which led to the loss of income, then of family, then homeland, and so on until future generations had long settled into other countries. Famine and disease thus instigated a mass movement of humans that would have an invariable effect on both the technology and environment of the country being emptied and the country being filled.

potato blight

The arrival of over a million Irish immigrants decreased the health of the environment yet spurred the development of technology in the US. This great influx of human beings initially began harming the environment because of their lack of housing. Poverty-stricken, many Irish people were forced to lodge in basements and abandoned buildings (“Gone to America”). Those that inhabited backyards and alleyways cobbled wood together to construct hovels (“Gone to America”). Presumably, the wood came from whatever trees were nearby, and with over two million impoverished immigrants seeking shelter, natural areas must have been destroyed in their desperation. It is also likely that native vegetation and animal populations declined in the immigrants’ search for food. The Irish slums were also rife with disease, especially cholera (“Gone to America”). As there was no way to properly dispose of human waste, it piled up until it adversely impacted a number of the US’s water sources in addition to both marine and landlocked life.

In terms of their effect on American technology, Irishmen were primarily hired for menial jobs upon their arrival in the US (“Gone to America”). After the Civil War, these men provided America with a large labor force, and the country began to industrialize (“Gone to America”). The immigrants worked in carpentry, boat building, railroad construction, and coal mining (“Gone to America”). These activities, especially the creation of railroads and the digging of coal mines, added to the involuntary harm that the Irishmen brought onto the American environment by aiding in the growth of cities and thus the decline of natural areas. Nevertheless, the immigrants’ contributions as the backbone of American industrialization helped to transform US technology from animal labor to steam power, gas, and electricity (“Rise”). Irish women also played a role in American technological development, specifically in architecture. Their funding of Catholic parishes brought about the erection of schools and cathedrals outfitted with stained-glass windows and religious monuments (“Gone to America”). Ultimately, Irish emigration to America heralded great technological development, but at the same time, harshly impacted the native environment of the US.

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The mass exodus of the Irish also had a great effect on the technology and the environment of Ireland. By 1827, the US possessed a running steam engine industry and a newly acquired plethora of Irish labor, and so was well on its way to having an industrial revolution in the 1840s and 50s (Pursell, “Rise”). Ireland, on the other hand, had lost millions of people to starvation and emigration during the famine, and the country’s workforce had only recuperated to half of its original size by the beginning of the 20th century (Wilkes). This greatly encumbered the advancement of Ireland’s technological development, especially in comparison with the US. Ultimately, Ireland did not have its industrial revolution until 1959, a full century after the US (Barry).

The reduction of the Irish population also impacted the state of Ireland’s natural environment. With a decline in the number of individual landholders due to emigration, numerous plots of land were united and converted into centralized farms (Mokyr). As less land was needed for human habitations, more land was plowed over and employed for agricultural purposes. Pastures for livestock became especially abundant (Mokyr). The Irishmen who could not leave the country also modified the environment. Numerous Irish people became so poor that they were reduced to making themselves mud hut houses, and many were found to have starved to death inside of these huts (“After the Famine”). The bodies were commonly disposed of in mass graves (“After the Famine”). Furthermore, it is estimated that the Irish population declined by about 2,500,000, during this time, with 1 million people emigrating from the country (“After the Famine”). Altogether, this means that the 1,500,000 people who remained in Ireland gouged out the land to form mud huts. Moreover, enough graves to accommodate 1,500,000 people were dug from the earth. In sum, the exodus and deaths of Irishmen during the famine hindered the development of technology in Ireland while also negatively impacting the country’s environment.


The mass migration of the Irish people as a result of the Irish Potato Famine stimulated technological advancement in the United States, but stunted the same advancement in Ireland while also harming the natural environments of both countries. In America, the influx of immigrants spurred the country towards an early industrial revolution, but at the same time, reduced natural forested areas. In Ireland, the diminished population greatly slowed the country’s technological growth as well as decreased the quality of the country’s natural land. Each of these effects of the Irish exodus can still be seen in the modern day, over two centuries later. Two thirds of the land in Ireland, for instance, is currently used for agricultural purposes, especially as pasture for livestock (“Ireland’s Environment”). The United States is a highly urbanized and technologically advanced civilization, and over 17 million acres of its forested land was cut down and developed between 1982 and 2012 alone (“2012”). In all, mass migrations of humans can have such a large impact on future generations that the trends exoduses laid down in the development of technology and the treatment of the environment continue long into the future.


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