The Irish Potato Famine, also called The Great Famine or The Great Hunger (Irish: An Gorta Mór), is the name given to a famine which struck Ireland between 1846 and 1849. The Famine was at least fifty years in the making, due to the disastrous interaction of British economic policy, destructive farming methods, and the unfortunate appearance of "the Blight" —the potato fungus that almost instantly destroyed the major food source for the majority population. The immediate after-effects of The Famine continued until 1851, and in the five years from 1846, over a million deaths and some two million refugees are attributed to the Great Hunger (estimates vary), and much the same number of people emigrated to Great Britain, the United States, Canada and Australia (see the Irish Diaspora).
The immediate effect on Ireland was devastating, and its long-term effects proved immense, permanently changing Irish culture and tradition up to today. The Irish Potato Famine was the culmination of a social, biological, political and economic catastrophe, caused by both Irish and British factors, which would have sharp and lasting influences on the World.
- The first half of this article focuses on the political and economic dimensions of the famine, first by detailing the relationship between Ireland and Great Britain, and land tenure within Ireland. The second half focuses on the agricultural and demographic dimensions of the famine, first by discussing the place of the potato in the Irish farm economy, and then by discussing the blight itself.
Ireland and Great Britain
The Act of Union 1800 stipulated that Ireland would have in the United Kingdom one-fifth the representation of Great Britain, that is 100 members in the House of Commons. The trouble was not Irish representation in the British parliament but that the UK parliament, by definition, was less in tune with the needs of Ireland, given that the vast majority of the non-Irish MPs and ministers had never set foot in Ireland. The union of the churches of England and Ireland also cemented British rule, strengthening the preeminent position in Ireland of the Anglicans by securing the continuation of the British Test Act, which virtually excluded Protestant nonconformists and Roman Catholics from Parliament and from membership of municipal corporations.
Part of the agreement that led to the Union Act stipulated that the Penal Laws were to be repealed and Catholic Emancipation granted. King George III, however, blocked emancipation, arguing that to grant it would break his coronation oath to defend the Anglican Church. A campaign under lawyer and politician Daniel O'Connell led to the conceding of Catholic Emancipation in 1829, so allowing Catholics to sit in parliament. O'Connell mounted an unsuccessful campaign for the “Repeal” of the Act of Union.
Not until 1828-29 did the repeal of the Test Act and the concession of Catholic Emancipation provide political equality for most purposes, including free trade between the British Isles and that Irish merchandise would be admitted to British colonies on the same terms as British merchandise.
The effect of laissez-faire economics
Political equality and laissez-faire were mixed blessings though. These advantages were not enough to offset the full effect of Britain's Industrial Revolution. The time of the Potato Famine coincided with the era of Pax Britannica between the Congress of Vienna (after the defeat of Napoleon) and the Franco-Prussian War. Britain then reaped the benefits of being the world's sole modern, industrial nation. Following the defeat of Napoleon, Britain was the "workshop of the world", meaning that its finished goods were produced so efficiently and cheaply that they could usually undersell comparable, locally manufactured goods in other markets.
Within half a century agricultural produce dropped in value and estate rentals declined while the rural population increased substantially. When harvests of potato, the staple food of rural Ireland, were devastated through the onset of blight in the mid-1840s, thousands died of starvation or fever in the Great Famine that ensued, and thousands more fled abroad. British food relief can be summarized as too little, too late; some blame the economic policy of laissez-faire, which argued against state intervention, while others look towards government inefficiencies and lack of transportation. While no one knows how many died (state registration of deaths, even if was possible given the vast numbers dying, did not exist, while the major religion, Catholicism, only just freed from the Penal Laws, was poor at keeping records), best calculations suggest somewhere in the region of 500,000 died. One entire class, the cottiers, or farm laborers, was wiped out.
Traditional methods of supplementing the diet, such as game hunting and fishing often resulted in imprisonment and deportation to other parts of the British colonies (notably Australia and Tasmania), because the land and the wildlife thereon now belonged to the landlords. Excessive rents often led to evictions and compounded the problems, with many Irish families left homeless.
Suggestions of genocide
That the Famine "amounted to genocide" by the British against the Irish is a divisive issue and largely representative of the difference in perspective and attitudes among the Irish-Americans from Irish nationals. Few Irish historians accept outright such a definition, as "genocide" implies a deliberate policy of extermination. All are agreed that the British policies during the Famine, particularly those applied under Lord John Russell, were misguided, ill-informed and disastrous. Professor Joe Lee once called what happened a holocaust.
There is little or no conflict on the facts. The records are incomplete, however, for whatever cause. Thus the "debate" is largely a moral one attempting to ascertain whether within the policies of the British Empire lay a racist, forgetful, or simply inconsiderate mentality that, despite its power, made it impotent to handle a humanitarian crisis in its own backyard.
Irish, British and US historians F.S.L. Lyons, John A. Murphy, Joe Lee, Roy Foster, and James S. Donnelly, Jr., as well as historians Cecil Woodham-Smith, Peter Gray, Ruth Dudley Edwards and many others have long dismissed claims of a deliberate policy of extermination. This dismissal usually does not preclude any assessment of British Imperial rule as ill-mannered or unresponsive toward its subjects.
The notable difference between the Famine and other humanitarian crises was that it occurred within the imperial homeland, at a time well into the modern prosperity of the Victorian and Industrial age. Even today, such crises tend to be far away from centers of power such that the subjects of empire, almost by definition, are of distant cultures, languages and religious beliefs. Within the imperial culture, the reportage of a crisis among its subjects moreoften uses dismissive and dehumanizing terms, and treats otherwise urgent matters with little relevancy or interest. Although human suffering during the Great Famine itself was never photographed, it immediately and profoundly altered the course of generations of Irish and Irish diaspora —for whom history has a rich record.
The catastrophe that was the Famine was the product of a number of complex problems which affected nineteenth century Ireland. One of the most central was the nature of land-holdings. From the middle ages onwards, Irish ownership of the land of the island had been in decline, as waves of settlers, from the Elizabethan plantations on, assumed control of large tracts of land. A practice of consolidation of lands into large estates was widespread in Europe, but in Ireland it was complicated by the discriminatory laws applied to all faiths other than the established Church of Ireland, but which most directly affected Irish Roman Catholics, by far the largest religion on the Island, and the religion of the overwhelming majority of Irish people. Under the Penal Laws, Irish catholics faced the threat of confiscation of property. While the enforcement of the law fluctuated both in terms of period and geography, and by the time of the Famine the laws had in any case been repealed, the cultural effect of the discrimination they embodied helped shape Irish attitudes towards land. As a result of all of this, by the time of the Famine most Irish Catholics were restricted to holding small, frequently impoverished tenancies, lacking what came to be known as the 'Three 'Fs'; fair rent, fixity of tenure, and free sale.
This was further complicated by a cultural tradition known as 'sub-division', whereby lands and property, instead of being inherited by the older or oldest son (primogeniture) was divided equally among male heirs, both legitimate and on occasion illegitimate. (This tradition, which had existed to pre-Norman times, covered not merely land inheritance, but even inheritance of Irish kingships, where Irish monarchs and chieftains were not succeeded by their oldest son but by a family member elected by and from five generations of family members.) In its nineteenth century land-holding form, it meant that, over each generation, the size of a tenant farm was reduced, as it was split between all living sons, though by the 1840s, sub-division was increasingly only found among the poorest people on the smallest farms. In 1845, for example, 24% of all Irish tenant farms were of 0.4 to 2 hectares (one to five acres) in size, while 40% were of 2 to 6 hectares (five to fifteen acres). This included marshland and bogland that could not be used for food production. As a result, holdings were so small that the only crop that could be grown in sufficient quantities, and which provided sufficient nourishment to feed a family, was potatoes. A British Government report carried out shortly before the Famine noted that the scale of the poverty was such that one third of all small holdings in Ireland were presumed to be unable to support their families, after paying their rent, other than through the earnings of seasonal migrant labour in England and Scotland.
As a result, the Irish landholding system in the 1840s was already in serious problems. Many of the big estates, as a result of earlier agricultural crises, were heavily mortgaged and in financial difficulty. (10% were eventually bankrupted by the Famine.) Below that level were mass tenancies, lacking rent control and security of tenure, many of them through sub-division so small that the tenants were struggling to survive in good years, and almost wholly dependent on potatoes because they alone could be grown in sufficient quantity and nutritional value. Furthermore, efforts of tenants to increase the productivity of their land was actively discouraged by the threat that any increase in land value would lead to a disproportionately high resulting increase in rents, possibly leading to their eviction.
The potato in Ireland
The potato contains considerable food energy, and yet is very easy to cultivate. Typical farming practice of the era seeded a field once after being hoed, and future years' crops were "seeded" by simply leaving some of the potatoes unharvested in the ground. Weeding was minimal, and irrigation unnecessary. The potato had become Ireland's major food crop after being introduced sometime around 1650, though its dominance was not achieved until around the 1780s. Even small plots could provide enough food energy for a family (and also to feed pigs, providing access to meat, while they could also be sold, providing extra income.) Other lands were used for cash crops like flax. The abundance of food and cash led to a rise in population in Ireland.
The potato's benefits also led to a dangerous inflexibility in the Irish food system. The majority of food energy was being provided from a single crop. That alone is not unusual, and is still the case today for many subsistence farmers around the world. However, the traditional Irish practice of sub-dividing plots among the male children of a family, though diminishing, was still widely practiced in the poorer areas of the country. The use of the potato and sub-division produced two interlinked side-effects; with increased food energy the number of surviving male heirs was quickly increasing, while with the prospect of inheriting a land-holding, heirs married young and produced large families-hence increasing subdivision into smaller estates for their own heirs.
Although the origins are still unclear, in 1845 a potato blight struck across Europe, turning potatoes into a soggy, black, inedible mess. The Freeman's Journal (the main nationalist newspaper) on June 27 1846 carried a headline Disease in the New Potato Crop, recounting an early outbreak in County Mayo. By Black '47, the vast majority of that year's crop was ruined. Food stores and emergency supplies made up for some of this setback, but the blight appeared again in 1849, and there was no reserve capacity remaining. The result was widespread famine, though it affected different parts of the island to different degrees.
No-one knows for certain how many people died in the Famine. State registration of births, marriages or deaths had not yet begun, while the Roman Catholic Church's records, where they exist at all, are incomplete, understandably given the sheer scale of deaths. Many of the Church of Ireland's records (which included records of local catholics, who paid tithes (local taxes) to the local Church of Ireland), were destroyed when the IRA blew up the Irish Public Records Office in 1922 (an act virtually universally condemned as pointless).
One possible estimate has been reached by comparing the expected population with the eventual numbers in the 1850s. Earlier predictions expected that by 1851, Ireland would have a population of 8 to 9 million. This calculation is based on numbers contained in the ten year census results compiled since 1821. (However, a recent re-examination of those returns raise questions as to their accuracy; the 1841 Census, for example, incorrectly classed farm children as labourers, affecting later calculations on how many adults capable of child-bearing existed to produce children between 1841 and 1851!). What we do know is that in 1851 the actual population was 6.6 million. Making straight-forward calculations is complicated by a secondary effect of famine, a key side-effect of malnutrition, namely plummeting fertility and sexual activity rates. The scale of that effect on population numbers was not fully recognised until studies done during African famines in the twentieth century. As a result, corrections based on inaccuracies in census returns and on the previous unrealised decline in births due to malnourishment have led to an overall reduction in the presumed death numbers. Modern historians and statisticians reckon that between 500,000 and 1,100,000 died. Many historians suggest the death-toll was in the region of 700,000 to 800,000.2 Others give a figure of over five million  In addition, in excess of one million Irish emigrated in notorious coffin ships to the United States, Great Britain, Canada, Australia, and elsewhere, while more than one million emigrated over following decades; by 1911, a combination of emigration and an abnormally high number of unmarried men and women in the population, had reduced the population of Ireland to 4.4 million.
The initial British government response towards the early famine was, in the view of many historians such as F.S.L. Lyons 'prompt and relatively successful'.3 Furthermore, contrary to myth, as Professor Joe Lee observed:
there was nothing unique, by the standards of pre-industrial subsistence crisis, about the [Irish] famine. The death rate had been frequently equalled in earlier European famines, including, possibly, in Ireland itself during the famine of 1740-41.4
In the case of the 1846-49 Irish Famine, with tragic consequences the Tory government of Sir Robert Peel (who had served in the Dublin Castle British administration, having begun his political career as an MP for a rotten borough of Cashel, County Tipperary and so had some understanding of Ireland) was replaced (with the help of Irish MPs under Daniel O'Connell) by a Whig ministry under Lord John Russell. Russell believed in a laissez-faire economic policy of non-intervention in the economy. So whereas Peel had imported Indian maize to feed the starving, Russell instead focused on providing support through public works and work-houses. A disastrous Gregory Clause of the Poor Law Extension Act was introduced, making aid available only to those who owned less than one quarter of an acre (1,000 m²) of land. This forced poverty-stricken starving tenants either to give up their homes and land, and so become destitute after the famine, or hold on to them and risk starvation.
In a final disastrous twist, local relief was paid for through the Poor Law Union, which was funded by rates (local taxes) paid by landlords, on the basis of an estate's tenant numbers. This produced the sick farce of increasing local reliance on the poor law leading landlords to evict impoverished tenants in order to control their rapidly rising rates bills, only to see those evictees, now reliant on the Poor Law Union pushing up rate bills further, leading to more evictions. But if they kept on tenants unable to pay rents, they then might be unable to meet their rates bill (many estates were already in financial trouble), meaning the Poor Law would not be able to offer local relief, leading to more starvation. 5 Only central funding of Poor Law Unions from the exchequer could solve this conundrum, but Russell's government was in principle opposed to this because as 'state involvement' it ran against the principles of laissez-faire. Some landlords to avoid ex-tenants relying on the Poor Law, provided passage to other countries, on what became known as coffin ships. All too many emigrants, already weak, some with cholera, died during the passage to North America.
Ireland experienced a massive number of evictions, due to the absence of the Three Fs, specifically rent control and security of tenure. Some landlords evicted for financial reasons, others infamously to 'clear' their lands to allow cattle grazing. Some evicted reluctantly because of their climbing rates bills, others with notorious brutality to make money from the Famine. 90,000 people were evicted in 1849 alone, though up to one third were allowed to return as 'caretakers'. 109,000 were evicted in 1850. 6 Many estates did however provide help for their tenants, with reduced rents and the provision of soup kitchens, in some cases bankrupting themselves in the process. (10% of all states were bankrupt by 1850) The failure of Britain to control the behaviour of landlords has often been criticised. However in the mid-nineteenth century, few states internationally restricted the rights of landlords; restrictions in Ireland were only imposed from the 1870s, as under the Land Acts which conceded the Irish nationalist demand for the Three Fs and which finally allowed tenants to buy their farms.
From 1846 a disastrous application of the laissez-faire economic theory and ignorance in London of the scale of the problem, coupled with the lack of the 'Three Fs' to protect tenants, turned a crisis into a catastrophe. Large sums of money were donated by charities; Pope Pius IX sent funds, Queen Victoria personally gave the modern day equivalent of €70,000, while some Native Americans famously sent money and grain (an act of generosity still remembered to this day, and publicly commemorated by President Robinson in the 1990s). Nevertheless such charitable donations could not solve the scale of the problem.
Critics have observed how during this time, Irish & Anglo-Irish landowners exported corn (and other crops) which could have saved the lives of many Irish people. Conversely, it may be argued that such arguments mis-understand the nature of the famine economy, where many estates were only kept afloat and so were able to avoid mass evictions, provide famine relief through their rates to the Poor Law Union or were able to reduce rents, through the grain exports income. Economic historians have argued that not to continue the export could have plunged the entire Irish economy into economic meltdown; if estates went bankrupt, so would all the local towns that depended on them, throwing hundreds of thousands more into destitution. Without rates from estates, the Poor Law Unions wouldn't have money to feed the destitute, while speculators were already buying up bankrupt estates and evicting all the tenants! (No tenants meant no rates to pay!) There were also not enough mills immediately available in Ireland had all the corn been kept to be used at home. Peel's solution was simple: keep exporting to avoid economic collapse, while importing Indian maize to feed the starving. Unfortunately Russell failed to do the latter.
Decline in population 1841-51 (%)
|Table from Joe Lee, The Modernisation of Irish Society (Gill History of Ireland Series No.10) p.2
Potato blights continued in Ireland, especially in 1872 and 1879-1880. These killed few people, partly because they were less severe, but mainly due to a complex range of reasons. The growth in the numbers of railways made the importation of foodstuffs easier; in 1834, Ireland had 6 miles of railway tracks; by 1912, the total was 3,403. The banning of sub-division, coupled with emigration, had increased the average farm holding, enabling tenant farms to diversify in terms of produce grown. The increasing wealth in urban areas meant alternative sources of food, grain, potatoes and seed were available in towns and villages. The 1870s agricultural economy thus was more efficient and less dependent on potatoes, as well as having access to new farm machinery and product control that had not existed thirty years earlier.
Crucially, the economic policy of laissez-faire that had been fashionable in the 1840s was no longer so fashionable in the 1870s. Some claim that because of this, state intervention was quicker, more effective, and more directed than had been the case in the 1840s. Of particular importance was the wholesale re-organisation of the agricultural sector, which had begun after the famine with the Encumbered Estates Act and which in the period (1870s-1900s) saw the nature of Irish landholding changed completely, with small owned farms replacing mass estates and multiple tenants. Many of the large estates in the 1840s were debt ridden and heavily mortgaged. In contrast, estates in the 1870s, many of them under new Irish middle class owners thanks to the Encumbered Estates Act, were on a better economic footing, and so capable of reducing rents and providing locally organised relief, as was the Roman Catholic Church, which was better organised and funded than it had been in 1847-49.
If sub-division produced earlier marriage and larger families, its abolition produced the opposite effect; the 'inheriting' child would wait until they found the 'right' partner, preferably one with a large dowry to bring to the farm. Other children, no longer with the possibility of inheriting a farm (or part of it at least) had no economic attraction and no financial resources to consider an early marriage.
As a result, later mini-famines made only minimal effect and are generally forgotten, except by historians. However, even though by the 1880s Ireland went through an economic boom unprecedented until the Celtic Tiger (1995-2002), emigration, often of children who no longer could inherit a share in the land and who as a result chose to go abroad for economic advantage and to avoid poverty, continued. By the 1911 census, the island of Ireland's population had fallen to 4.4 million, about the same as the population in 1800 and 2000 and only a half of its peak population.
The same mould (Phytophthora infestans) was responsible for the 1847-51 and later famines. When people speak of "The Irish potato famine", or "an Gorta Mor", (pronounced, 'on gore-chuh more') they nearly always mean the one of the 1840s, even though a similar Great Famine in fact hit in the early eighteenth century. The fact that only four types of potato were brought from the Americas was at the root of the famine. In fact the lack of genetic diversity in the food made it possible for a single fungus-relative to have those devastating consequences.
As a result of the famine, many Irish families were forced to emigrate from the country. By 1854, between 1.5 and 2 million Irish left their country. In the United States, most Irish became city-dwellers. With little money, many had to settle in the cities that the ships they came on landed in. By 1850, the Irish made up a quarter of the population in Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, and Baltimore.
Memorials to the famine
The Great Famine is still remembered in cities with large populations descended from Irish immigrants.
- Robert Kee, The Laurel and the Ivy: The Story of Charles Stewart Parnell and Irish Nationalism p.15.
- Note 2: Joe Lee, The Modernisation of Irish Society p.1. Cormac Ó Grada suggests the higher number of one million.
- Note 3: FSL Lyons, Ireland Since the Famine p.42.
- Note 4: Lee, op.cit p.1.
- Note 5: Lyons, op.cit p.43.
- Note 6: ibid. p.43.
- Cormac O'Grada, An Economic History of Ireland
- Robert Kee, Ireland: A History (ISBN 0349106789)
- John Mitchel, The Last Conquest of Ireland (1861) (out of print)
- Cecil Woodham Smith, The Great Hunger, 1845-49 (Penguin, 1991 edition)
Last updated: 08-18-2005 11:28:17