I have been doing research lately on the Irish potato famine (1845- 1852). The famine was a terrible disaster. Countless lives due to a blight affecting the potato crop which was the primary food source for a large part of the population. It is likely that many lives could have been saved if certain aspects were handled differently. This is easy to say in hindsight, but at the time the future was less clear. During this time there was a lot of fear, uncertainty, change in the workplace, and misinformation (sort of like what we have just lived through these past two years). There was a lot of information to sift through, but in this post I hope to provide the best summary of events.
In 1841, the population of Ireland was calculated at about 8 million people. By 1851, there was only 6.5 million remaining. 1.5 million are recorded deaths (likely to be much more than this) and 2 million as a result of mass emigration. This single event changed the shape of Ireland permanently. Pre-famine Ireland had quite a large population boom at the end of the 18th century. Despite the recent Anglo-Irish Union, Great Britain was growing wealthier and Ireland more poor. Once the war against Napoleon was complete, Irish exports were no longer in demand. Industrialization in Ireland slowed down and was unable to keep up with the the industrial revolution in England (which was now given priority). With the collapse of industrialization and manufacturing in Ireland, many people were pushed back to the land.
The structure of the economy was something along the lines of : Elite landowning family-> landowners -> bound laborer -> landless laborers. The bound laborer were contracted to work for a particular farmer for a certain number of days where, in return, they would be given shelter and food. At this time, a barter system was very popular. In exchange for work, a one room cottage was provided and a small plot of land to grow potatoes. The landless laborer would move from farm to farm and make a wage which would be used for food and diet. 20-30% of the land was held by absentee landowners. Instead of re-investing their money into their lands and tenants, it would be used for their personal use. The majority of the Irish population fell into the bound and unbound laborer categories. The majority of the population were very poor.
The potato crop became so important during this era and made up the majority of a peasants diet. All of their daily meals would consist of potato and milk. Large quantities of potatoes were able to be produced for cheap and they were very nutrition rich. It would keep a large family well fed and likely contributed to the pre-famine population boom. Donnelly states in his book (The Great Irish Potato Famine) that the average male would consume 12-14 lbs of potatoes daily (combined with milk). Potatoes were also used to feed livestock (pigs, sheep) that many of the peasants raised for additional food source and for income.
The summer of 1845 was unusually cold and it was very wet. This allowed phytophthora infestans (the fungal disease which caused the potato blight) to grow. It likely originated in the Americas as the United States had their own potato blight in 1843/1844 (the United States did not depend on the potato crop as Ireland did, so it was not detrimental to their lifestyles). It then moved through continental Europe and Southern England. The summer of 1845 was cold and wet which encouraged the blight’s spread even more. The diseased crop would not be noticed in Ireland until early September. The initial reaction was restrained as they waited for more of the crop to be dug up. Officials and scientists had to be sure that it was not just a small portion of the overall yield that was diseased. Yet, as the autumn wore on, more concerned letters began to be sent. They reported that one third of the crop was destroyed, then one half, and so on. Some of the aristocracy would go so far as to deny the existence of the blight and all those who supported it were “dangerous radicals”. Yet, this blight was very real and due to lack of real government assistance and incorrect science this problem was not tackled well from the onset.
After an investigation by scientists, who were meant to determine the cause and find a remedy, they came to the conclusion (incorrectly) that it was not a fungal disease. They believed it was just a result of the unusually wet summer they had just had. They would encourage the citizens to continue to plant whatever healthy seed potatoes they had (they believed that only the rare instance of another wet summer would cause the crop to fail). Later it would be revealed that this was not the only factor and due to these reports the diseased crop continued to be planted.
By October 1845, over half the crop was destroyed and inedible. At this point, it was obvious that a food shortage and famine was on its way. Prime Minister Robert Peel’s government did take some action early on, despite the belief (and stereotypical thought process) amongst Parliament that the Irish were “exaggerating”. A large quantity of corn from the Americas was imported in an attempt to keep food prices low and provide additional sources of food for those in need (though they were expected to purchase this). Yet, the exports of oats grown in Ireland to England and other countries was not halted. This could have been another source of food used to avoid the impending starvation, but was, instead, sold outside of the country. The price of everything went up with the scarcity of the potato. The government’s hope was to sell this corn at wholesale prices to the local community relief committees and it was up to them to distribute as they saw fit. A lot of the government’s plan hinged on the local landowners and the “absentee” aristocracy to actually help and take care of their tenants during this time. Yet, this was not working out quite as envisioned.
A public works program was started as well (railroad, drainage, roads, etc) to try and increase employment for those in need and to provide wages to purchase the food supply. It was also hoped to improve the modernization of Ireland and the economy. Yet, like everything, this was easily corrupted. Landowners would begin to take the state grants whether there was need or not. The selection process for who got the jobs was left up to the local relief committees. They were meant to give it to the destitute, but many tickets were bought and sold to people unconnected. Those who did not have as dire need were finding their way onto the employment rolls. Many in Parliament and involved with the government believed that they were spending too much money on these programs.
In 1846, with another failed crop, the situation became dire. The first casualties due to starvation began to appear. The citizens were also not adjusting well to the new source of food. The corn had to be made a certain way in order to be edible and there was a lack of knowledge of what to do with it. It was also not as nutritionally dense as the potato had been. Many were forced to consume their seed potatoes which eliminate any attempt at a crop for the following year. The government would not provide seed as people would be “discouraged” to save their own. The decline in potato acreage was massive. With the public works program in place, the whole system of survival had changed as well. Previously, there was the barter system and many would work in exchange for land and a potato garden. Now wages were absolutely essential to survive and the public works jobs were limited (remember previously there were many on a barter system). Those who stayed on the farms found that the landowners would refuse to pay a cash wage (which was needed now in order to purchase the new sources of food) so many families were forced to leave. They had to leave and attempt to get one of the new public works job or enter themselves into a workhouse.
The loss of the potato staple also led the loss of livestock production. Food was the primary food source of the pigs and sheep as well. Due to the famine, families had to eat their investments or these were plundered by starving laborers desperate for any food. Families (at least early on) would also force themselves to go without eating for 8-40 hours in order to try and save whatever good potatoes they had in order to use them as seed for the next year. As rainy seasons kept coming, much of their sacrifice was in vain.
The only group that attempted to provide free food/clothing donations in 1846 was the Quakers (Society of Friends). They created soup kitchens and solicited donations from those with means. They would pass out clothing during the difficult and cold winter to those in desperate need and who received none of the minimal relief from the government. As the blight dragged on and on, the donations began to dry out and they were forced to shut down. The Quaker soup kitchens were able create an impact on their local areas and provided an example early on to another way of handling the famine.
1847 was the worst year of the famine as disease began to spread. Typhus and “famine fever” (dysentery and diarrhea caused by the malnutrition/starvation) , and general infection. There were not enough hospitals to support those affected. It became a normal sight to see sickness and death throughout the streets of town. Vagrancy became more and more common as well which contributed to the spread. People had to travel in any attempt to find some work to feed their families. Violence/thievery became more popular and, with the increasing evictions, many were forced to travel from one town to the next. The public work jobs began to fail as the work force became too weak to complete manual labor. This was from the lack of nutrition and sickness. It was common for on laborer to collapse mid work session and another would be in line to take their place and their wages. The wages provided by the government were inadequate for the rising price of food. The wages were not enough to feed one man let alone the family of five he had back at home. This all led to anger, frustration and real fear. The public works had to end as the results were not coming and most of the work force too weak to complete the projects. Additionally, the English government was unwilling to spend any more on it.
Mid-1846 there was a government change with John Russell elected as Prime Minister. The new government were more in favor of a hands off approach to the famine. They felt that it was on the landowners in Ireland to take responsibility and fund what was needed for their people. Yet, many of these landowners were absentee owners and did not live or experience the country. Why would they care to get involved? The new government also ended the public works program in 1847. They continued with the food exports from Ireland to England despite the amount of starving people who could use these resources. Death was becoming the norm and families were unable to give their loved ones proper burials as even coffins and funeral expenses were too much for them.
Due to the loss of rents, landlords began to evict tenants in large numbers. Families would lose their only shelter during the harsh winters forcing them to enter workhouses or wander. Some people left without prompting in order to qualify for ANY relief benefits that were provided by the government. After the public works program was dismantled, those in need were expected to go to the established workhouses (again, not enough to fill the demand). The workhouses were hated and dreadful places that were depressing and disease ridden. Yet, many just entered in order to have their funeral/coffin paid for on the government’s dime. Eventually, a Soup Kitchen Act was passed by the government to give out food free of charge, but it was likely already too late. The damage had been done. It was a very slow implementation process with months of delay. There were restrictions on who could receive the water downed broth they provided. They could not be receiving any wages (even though any public work wages were insufficient to purchase the food they needed). The unemployed were receiving more relief than those employed, so naturally this also contributed to the destruction of the public works program and labor force as well. People began to leave their jobs as it was more advantageous to. There was also the lack of adequate cooking facilities and the quality of some of the food was bad. Instead, these soup kitchens spread more disease than anything else. Yet, it probably allowed many a chance to live. Eventually, with lack of resources and the impatience of the government elite (to them the famine felt like a constant drain on their treasury resources), this program also petered out.
Most of the loss of population was due to emigration. They could no longer survive in Ireland, so their fortunes had to be sought elsewhere. Large amounts of people traveled to America, Canada, Australia and other parts of Great Britain where they would find new jobs and be free of the constant threat of starvation. It was cheaper for many landlords to assist with helping their tenants emigrate. They usually gave the choice of emigrating or eviction. It is obvious what one would pick. 2.1 million Irish adults and children took this opportunity. So many were leaving that not all was well regulated. Some of these ships, filled with those searching for a new life, were dubbed “coffin” ships as they were overcrowded and their was no separation of those sick and well. Many died on the way to a new life. On the other hand, those who made it were able to find a better life than the one they had just left.
The tension of the famine and the anger around the lack of sufficient government response spurned the nationalist movement in Ireland. The Young Ireland movement published articles that again sparked interest in separation from England and the Act of Union. Following the worst year of the famine, in 1848, the Young Ireland movement attempted to try and organize for a formal rebellion. Leaders William Smith O’Brien, Thomas Meagher and Richard O’Gorman traveled around Ireland in attempt to rose the population to support and join them in their mission. Yet, this was difficult as majority of the population was just concerned with staying alive. There was a small skirmish with what forces they had, but this was quickly squashed by the authorities. Smith O’Brien was sentenced to a punishment of transportation to a penal colony in Tasmania (originally sentenced to death for treason). Other leaders would emigrate to America after the failure of this uprising.
By 1852, after so much death, continuous crop failure, and people leaving the country, the famine began to recede. The crops were finally starting to be successful again and, due to the lower population, recovery became successful. With the lower population, there were less mouths to feed, more land to go around, and more jobs available. It is sad that this is what it took in order to recover from such a disaster when there were so many other opportunities with better government intervention and distribution of free food. Likely, some of the death and destruction could have been avoided. There was a bitter taste for the British government left in the the mouths of those who remained. The famine changed the landscape of Ireland forever. With fewer people, now they were facing a labor shortage which continued the slow progress of Ireland’s economic advancement. The dependence on the potato had diminished as well and people became more focused on themselves and their immediate family. As for those who emigrated, many of the Irish who came to America became very involved in labor and political movements and had a great impact in improving the workforce and welfare of its people. They assisted greatly in the boom of the American economy.
It was not until the 1990s that a formal apology was provided by a UK Prime Minister for the government response to the disaster.
This was a difficult topic to research as there are not many light spots throughout the reign of the famine. I found it disheartening that many did not take the problem seriously enough in order to act in a timely manner. This was often due to preconceived notions of how the Irish were viewed in other parts of the UK. There were ways that many of these lives could have been saved, especially if they had set up a food distribution system (one that was free or actually made sense with the amount of wages they were providing). Instead, it was left up to the absentee aristocracy and other higher up landowners who had their own interests at heart more than their tenants. The mass emigration movement did affect many other countries in the world as they gained a new cultural group. It often helped to make change for the better, like in America, and many of those who emigrated found more success and happiness than if they stayed. The Irish Potato famine had a huge impact on the development of modern Ireland and on other countries in the world.
The Great Irish Potato Famine by James Donnelly, Jr.
The Irish Potato Famine: The History and Legacy of the Mass Starvation in Ireland during the 19th Century by Charles Rivers Editors
The Graves are Walking: The Great Famine and Saga of the Irish People by John Kelly