The Great Famine
The potato was the principal source of nutrition for the vast majority of the
poorer classes because this crop produced more food per acre than wheat and
could also be used to generate income. The practice of Conacre/Land Division
meant that peasants needed to produce the biggest crop possible. The most
variety of potato was the ‘Aran Banner’ which, whilst producing high yields also
was very susceptible to Blight.
Many farmers had a few animals; the pig, easily fed on left-overs and requiring
little space, was quite common. In many cases , however, other crops and
animals were used to pay the rent and were never regarded as food
At the start of the famine over one half of the population of the country lived in
small 1 roomed dwellings. Little or no furniture and animals would be
accommodated with the occupants of the. The other half would live in 2 storey
houses or mansions – landlords or wealthy tenants – mostly found along the East
and the South Coast. Two thirds of the population were involved in agriculture.
The arrival of the month of June indicated the start of the hungry or meal months
in rural Ireland as old potatoes were not dug until August. People simply had
nothing to eat or at best could manage a meal of porridge. Hunger was
commonplace and small scale famines were therefore not unknown.
The potato became the staple diet of much of the country during the early 1800s
as it was ideally suited to the Irish climate, could be grown even in poor soils,
gave a high return per acre and a single acre could support a family of 5 – 6
By 1945, it is estimated that about one third of the entire population was totally
dependent on the potato, and in poor regions, like Mayo, it was the only food
eaten by up to nine – tenths of the population.
The policy of ‘Laisse Faire’ (meaning to leave alone) meant that Governments did
not interfere in business markets or the economy in general. This policy was
disastrous when famine struck as it meant that there was no way of quickly
rectifying the crisis. Scarce food became costly and the poor simply starved
While the population of Europe rose throughout the 19th Century, population
growth in Ireland was particularly dramatic. In 1800, the population was about 5
million. By 1841, it had risen to over 8 million according to the census of that
year. This growth can be explained by the fact that people married early in life
and they tended to have large families.
Unlike Britain, Ireland lacked major industrial centres. Jobs were scarce and there
was little point in trying to save up by waiting to get married. a part of the family
farm on which to grow food and a house built with stones and ‘mud kneaded with
straw’ was the most any married couple could hope for. Early marriages were
followed by large families – children were seen by parents as insurance against
starvation in their old age. As a result subdivision and holdings were gradually
reduced to tiny plots.
In the early summer of 1845, on the 11th September of that year a disease,
referred to as blight was noted to have attacked the crop in some areas. In that
year, one – third of the entire crop was destroyed. In 1846, the crop was a total
failure. This report came from a Galway priest.
“As to the potatoes, they are gone – clean gone. If travelling by night, you would
know when a potato field was near by the smell. The fields present a space of
withered black stalks”.
Though 1847 was free from blight, few seed potatoes had been planted, and so
the famine continued. Yet the country was producing plenty of food. As the Irish
politician, Charles Duffy wrote: “Ships continue to leave the country, loaded with
grain and meat”.
As food was scarce people would eat anything such as nettles, berries, roots,
wildlife, animals, dogs and cats in order to survive.
In the mid 1840’s, Bishop Loras of Dubuque, Iowa, visited Ireland. He was so
appalled by the conditions that he found there that he submitted a letter to the
London Tablet. Here is a portion of that letter:
I assure you, dear sir, the scene of poverty and misery in some quarters was
wonderful (that is, awful), and I am told that it is still worse in other counties. I
saw many poor cottages covered with straw, half buried in the ground, and
occupied by poor Catholic tenants, who cultivate in the sweat of their brow small
fields divided by poor green hedges or half-tumbled walls.
The manner in which many were clothed was a sure indication of great poverty
and unavoidable sufferings. At every station, at least in towns, the stage was
surrounded by whole families of beggars, who, by their pressing demands, would
elicit charity from the most hardened heart. Many of those cottages were
crumbling in ruins and abandoned by their tenants, who had emigrated to some
more hospitable shore. As I was traveling along I saw occasionally some of those
extensive and princely estates occupied by rich English lords, whose dwellings
and parks are surrounded by old lofty walls and shaded by quite annuated trees.
The contrast between great opulence and extreme poverty was truly appalling,
and one is at a loss to understand how this state of things can be tolerated in this
age of light and philanthropy.
Another contrast I cannot help noticing. As soon as I crossed the Channel from
Dublin to Holyhead, In England, I perceived great change for the better in the
face of the country, and in the look of the people; so much so, that one could
hardly believe that Ireland and England were both under the same laws, and
protected by the same government; and more than that, the poor Irish are either
incarcerated or transported, whenever they make any attempt to better their
truly miserable condition.
Subsistence-level Irish farmers found their food stores rotting in their cellars, the
crops they relied on to pay the rent to their British and Protestant landlords
destroyed. Peasants who ate the rotten produce sickened and entire villages were
consumed with cholera and typhus. Parish priests desperate to provide for their
congregations were forced to forsake buying coffins in order to feed starving
families, with the dead going unburied or buried only in the clothes they wore
when they died.
The potato crop of 1845 was destroyed by a fungus, Phytophthora infestans,
commonly known as Blight, which had spread from North America to Europe. By
the early autumn of 1845 it was clear that famine was imminent in Ireland, but
British government reaction was slow and incapable of responding to the
magnitude of the crisis.
Landlords evicted hundreds of thousands of peasants, who then crowded into
disease-infested workhouses. Other landlords paid for their tenants to emigrate,
sending hundreds of thousands of Irish to America and other English-speaking
countries. In many cases, these ships reached port only after losing a third of
their passengers to disease, hunger and other causes.
Conditions in the workhouses were desperate and often the only way to get food
was to fight for it, leading to misery, violence and even more despondency.
Diseases in the workhouses were common and included Typhus, Relapsing Fever.
Dysentry, Bacillary Dysentry. Scurvy and Asiatic Cholera. There was little in the
way of medical care for the victims.
The condition of the ships in which tens of thousands of people emigrated were
appalling as many middle-men used sub-standard vessels and carried too many
people, with a view to making a quick profit. On one of these coffin ships, of the
348 passengers, 117 died at sea; on another, going to Canada, 158 died of a
total of 476 passengers.
During the winter of 1845-1846 Peel’s government spent £100,000 on American
maize which was sold to the destitute. The Irish called the maize ‘Peel’s
brimstone’. Eventually the government also initiated relief schemes such as
canal-building and road building to provide employment. The workers were paid
at the end of the week and often men had died of starvation before their wages
arrived. Even worse, many of the schemes were of little used: men filled in
valleys and flattened hills just so the government could justify the cash
payments. The Irish crisis was used as an excuse by Peel in order for him to the
repeal the Corn Laws in 1846, but their removal brought Ireland little benefit. The
major problem was not that there was no food in Ireland – there was plenty of
wheat, meat and dairy produce, much of which was being exported to England –
but that the Irish peasants had no money with which to buy the food. The repeal
of the Corn Laws had no effect on Ireland because however cheap grain was,
without money the Irish peasants could not buy it.
In 1846 the major disaster began. This was due to number of factors. In 1845 the
crop only partially failed. It totally failed in 1846. Peel’s government was defeated
in England and Lord John Russell became Prime Minister of a Conservative
Government. He had a different attitude to that of Peel:
“It must be quite clear that we cannot feed the people…
We can at best keep down prices.”
The starving people had no money however to buy food at any price, so keeping
the prices down was useless. The Assistant Secretary of Ireland at this time was
Charles Trevelyan, who believed in laissez faire, the policy of ‘leaving well alone’.
To give anything to the people for nothing would, he said, result in
“Having the country on us for an indefinite number of years.”
He stopped the public works and sent back a boat load of Indian Corn which had
arrived from the U.S.A. The death toll steadily mounted, due to starvation and to
the spread of typhus and cholera. Thousands flocked to the overcrowded
workhouses and into towns – spreading disease and causing more deaths.
In September 1847 Russell’s government ended what little relief it had made
available and demanded that the Poor Law rate be collected before any further
money be made available by the Treasury. The collection of these rates in a
period of considerable hardship was accompanied by widespread unrest and
violence. Some 16,000 extra troops were sent to Ireland and troubled parts of
the country were put under martial law. The potato crop failed once more in
1848, and this was accompanied by Asiatic cholera.
In 1847 the Government realised that their policies were not working and made
money available for loan and established soup kitchens. Russell’s Government
ended what little relief it had made available in late 1847 and demanded that the
Poor Law rate, a tax on property to fund relief in Ireland, be collected before any
further money be made available by the Treasury. The collection of these taxes in
a period of considerable hardship was predictably accompanied by widespread
unrest and violence. Some 16,000 extra troops were sent to Ireland and troubled
parts of the country were put under martial law.
Government efforts were also helped by some local landlords who lowered rents
and distributed clothes and food to their tenants. As a result, many landlords
went bankrupt. The Quakers (The Society of Friends) also did much to help.
The Irish Famine of 1846-50 took as many as one million lives from hunger and
disease, and changed the social and cultural structure of Ireland in a number of
The Irish language, which was already in decline, suffered a near fatal blow from
the Famine, since it was the more remote areas which still used Irish that were
most affected by the famine.
Land holdings became larger, as the tendency to subdivide the family farm
declined. From now on, the farm was given to one son and the others often had
little choice but to emigrate. The Famine also changed centuries-old agricultural
practices, hastening the end of the division of family estates into tiny lots capable
of sustaining life only with a potato crop.
The famine affected the poorest classes – the cottiers and labourers – most of all,
the cottier class being almost wiped out.
It is estimated that at least one million people died from starvation and its
attendant diseases, whilst a further 1 million emigrated during the famine years.
The population of the island dropped from over 8 million in 1845 to about 6
million in 1850. By 1900, over 4 million had left Ireland and emigration continued
well into the 1950’s – averaging 60, 000 a year. Early marriages almost
disappeared and a decline in the birth rate resulted.
The millions who left Ireland on the emigrant ships took with them a hatred of
England and English rule that has survived to the present day. Suddenly, Irish
people realized that they had to take control of their own affairs. England had
failed in its obligations to the people that it ruled and a new generation of rebels
and agitators were born. Parnell and Davitt fought for and achieved land reforms.
The Gaelic Athletic Association was formed to promote a greater sense of Irish
identity. Rebels such as Padraig Pearse were expounding the need for national
independence from England. The 1916 Easter Rising and the subsequent War of
Independence, Civil War and ultimate Independence have roots in the Great
Famine and the 1798 Rising by the United Irishmen that proceeded it.
The Landlord class was ruined by the famine. The Government introduced the
Encumbered Estates Act in 1849, making it easier for landlords to sell off their
land. The land acts later in the century fought for by Parnell and Davitt finally put
paid to this hated system of authority in rural Ireland.
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