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Chapter 8 – Nutrition and Mental Development

A Purgatory of Misery by Frank Parker and Pat Lillis – stave #9

Chapter 8 – Nutrition and Mental Development

Whilst history, geography, religion and the arrogance of the British aristocracy all played a part in creating the conditions for disaster, there remains an unanswered question at the heart of the story of the famine that devastated Ireland during the years from 1845-52. Why did those who suffered not fight back more vigorously? There certainly were incidents of theft, often punished severely. There were demonstrations outside the premises of merchants. There was a small rebellion by a group calling themselves “Young Ireland”, all of whom were comparatively wealthy. But accounts of such incidents are rare when compared to the numerous tales of people dying in their homes, succumbing to a dreadful apathy and resignation.

It was not only during the famine that Irish paupers were observed to be exhibiting such attitudes. The words of George Nicholls, quoted in Chapter 7, were written more than a dozen years before the potato blight struck. Phrases like: “If you … endeavour to reason with and show them how easily they might improve their condition and increase their comforts, you are invariably met by excuses as to their poverty” are revealing, and not only in the prejudice of the observer that they might indicate.

It is tempting to suggest that religion was to blame for this. The belief that the conditions the people endured were providential, that they were inflicted upon them as punishment for supposed sins, was certainly expressed in many quarters. The notion that prayers could provide the answer to a person’s problems, central to both Catholicism and Protestantism, encourages the idea that God will provide. And there is ample evidence that proselytising elements within Protestantism took advantage of the situation to preach the need for conversion to what to them was the “true faith”.

It is possible, however, that modern science provides us with a much more rational answer. To fully understand the impact of this it is helpful to recall that famines, or near famines, caused by crop failure, were frequent occurrences in the century or more that preceded the mid-eighteen-hundreds

Whilst there is evidence that the highly nutritious potato diet ensured that young men joining the British armed forces or working on English infrastructure projects were on the whole taller and stronger than their English counterparts, it is not unreasonable to assume that these individuals left Ireland to take up such employment before the annual summer dearth, the period following exhaustion of last years stock. Those whom they left behind, principally women and children, would have endured 2 to 3 months of near starvation before the new crop was ready to harvest.

Neuroscience is a comparatively modern discipline. Some of its practitioners have carried out studies aimed at identifying the impact of diet and nutrition upon the development of the human brain. These have been mostly aimed at assessing the value of various dietary supplements administered to pregnant women and infants. What they demonstrate inter alia is that there is a strong link between inadequate nutrition and impeded pre- and post-natal mental development.

It is, surely, not unreasonable to conclude that any child born during the ‘waiting months’ of July and August, or one or two months after that, would have his or her mental development impaired as a result of the absence of certain nutrients from their diet, or that of their mother in the final semester of pregnancy.

Furthermore, the periodic famines and food shortages that occurred in the years leading up to the years of potato blight, would suggest that there were many years during which a significant number of births were so affected.

And what, precisely, are those effects? In March 2013 the journal Frontiers of Neuroscience published a review of published papers on the subject¹. Some of the conclusions reached are interesting:

  • Since rapid brain growth occurs during the first 2 years of life (and by the age of 2 the brain reaches 80% of its adult weight), this period of life may be particularly sensitive to deficiencies in diet
  • studies of infants with vitamin B12 deficiencies reported a variety of abnormal clinical and radiological signs, including: hypotonic muscles, involuntary muscle movements, apathy, cerebral atrophy, and demyelination of nerve cells
  • severe iodine deficiency during pregnancy may cause “cretinism” in children
  • most observational studies on iodine deficient children found some degree of cognitive impairment
  • malnourished children have less energy and interest for learning that negatively influences cognitive development
  • even mild but persistent malnutrition in early life (i.e., during the first 2 years of life) negatively influences reasoning, visuospatial functions, IQ, language development, attention, learning, and academic achievement

What does all this mean? Surely the key point is that, whereas Nicholls and other English officials held the belief that the Irish were responsible for their condition because of an innate indolence and lassitude, the truth is the opposite: it was their condition that caused the observed behavioural deficiencies.

We will probably never know precisely what specific nutrients were absent from the Irish diet at different times. But, given repeated shortages of food over several generations, there can be little doubt that important minerals and/or vitamins were often lacking and that, as a consequence, pregnancies entered into during or shortly before such periods had a high likelihood of producing individuals with less than optimal subsequent mental development.


  1. Nyaradi, Annett; Li, Jianhong; Hickling, Siobhan; Foster, Jonathan; and Oddy, Wendy H: The role of nutrition in children’s neurocognitive development, from pregnancy through childhood in Frontiers in Neuroscience, March 2013.

Continue to Chapter 9

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