The Irish Famine


In Ireland there was a dependence of a large section of the population agriculture and the potato crop. The famine was the result of successive crop failures and the insufficient and ineffective relief for stopping the outbreak of starvation and disease. The famine was the most tragic and significant event in Irish history and one of the worst human disasters of the nineteenth century. Ireland depended on the potato as a staple crop after 1800. Population increased rapidly and reached eight million by 1841, two-thirds of who depended on agriculture. The Irish depended on the potato and the failure of the potato crop in 1845 was disastrous. The crop failed again in 1846, 1847, and 1848. By 1851, the population of Ireland had been reduced by more than two million due to starvation, disease, and emigration to Britain and North America.
The Irish Famine

Potato blight was not unknown in Ireland before 1845. There was a famine in 1741 that killed one quarter of a million people. Ireland struggled through crop failures and subsistence crisis throughout the nineteenth century including 14 partial and complete famines between 1816 and 1842. From 1845 until 1848 the people suffered from bad harvests one after the other. The consistency of famine was enough to reduce the population of Ireland by about two-and-a-half million. The wet summers of the Irish climate helped spread the blight. The harvest failed four years in a row and the peasants had no reserve to fall back on (Taylor, 1962). The famine together with the accompanying plaques became known as the Great Famine to the British, The Great Hunger to the Irish middle class, and the Great Starvation to the Irish peasantry.

The famine began in 1845 with the blighting and failures of the potato crop, the peoples' chief means of sustenance. The potato blight fungus, phytophthora infestans, attacked potatoes making them rotten and inedible. After the blight struck in 1845, more potatoes than ever were planted that spring because people did not expect the blight to strike again. There was a worse failure in 1846 and even worse in 1847, when suffering reached its climax (MacManus, 1944). This year is sometimes referred to as Black '47. There was also famine in Scotland and Belgium but with nothing like the Irish results.

The filth and dilapidation revolted travelers to Ireland. The streets were swarming with repulsive beggars fawning and wheedling in expectation of a penny, abusive and snarling if refused. The villages were half-ruined and the Irish peasants were half-naked or clad in dirty stinking rags. The most miserable of English paupers was better fed and clothed than the most prosperous of Irish laborers. Ireland was two nations, one of poor and one of rich. According to Costigan (1969), "There was nothing between master and slave, nothing between all the luxuries of existence and the last degree of human wretchedness" (p. 171).

Ireland before the Famine

Families who relied on the potato to keep them alive were left with nothing. Families who grew grain or barley had to either sell the food to pay the rent or eat the food and be evicted. The average man before the famine ate between seven and fifteen pounds of potato a day. Children even took potatoes to school for lunch. People would leave one thumbnail grow long because without knives, that was the best way to peel the potato. When the potatoes were boiled the pot was turned into a basket outside the door and the water drained off. They would put the basket in the middle of the floor and all sit around and eat. On a three legged stool nearby they would leave a bowl of salted water or just salt. They dipped the potatoes in the bowl before they ate. This was called "dip at the stool." Drinks of buttermilk or skim milk would complete their meal. Several different dishes could be made from the potato such as boxty bread, champ and fleatair. Among the peasant class, married men dressed better than women and their clothes were provided for first. Women had equal input in the economy of the household. Women did the daily work of cooking, cleaning, and rearing the children. Women of all were responsible for the fowl, pig, and making of butter. On market day better off farming girls and women would drive the horse or donkey to town with products of butter, eggs, and fowl and return in the evening with the goods they bought. Peasant families ate potatoes for every meal, except during the summer when their stock was exhausted. Most of the beggars were wives and children of able-bodied laborers. The husbands themselves rarely begged. In the very poor laboring families, while the husbands went to the east of the country or to England to find work at the harvest, women and children supported themselves by begging. They would travel away from their localities for prides sake. The greatest numbers of beggars were found during the summer months when there was little work to be found for the laboring men, who rarely begged. The population of Ireland had greatly increased in the years preceding the famine and this helped lead to a catastrophe (Taylor, 1962). Two-thirds of the population of 8.25 million Irish lived off the land.

Farming and Subsistence

After 1815 there was intense population growth that caused increased pressure on land and peasants holdings being divided into smaller and smaller lots (Costigan, 1969). With increased population there came increased competition for land. With a population of eight million land was scarce. Many families had to survive on half and acre of land and the only way to do this was to grow potatoes to feed themselves through the winter months. Only one-third of these families lived on farms of over fifteen acres in which a surplus could be produced. Half the rural population was landless laborers and their families. The Irish famine from 1845 to 1849 was the most severe famine in the history of European agriculture. Dependence of huge sections of the population on subsistence agriculture led to collapse when the blight appeared.

The Industrial Revolution never reached most of Ireland. There was little opportunity for employment outside of agriculture and agriculture did not pay well. The Irish diet before the introduction of the potato was based on cattle that were produced in vast numbers. Beef, milk, butter, and buttermilk were the staples of their diet. The potato was introduced in the late 1500's and the new crop thrived in the damp Irish climate. The importance of the potato grew in the 1600's and 1700's. In the late 1700's population began to explode, especially among the peasant class. Population of the lower class became more and more dependent on the potato. The Irish subsided on the potato called the "lumper". The "lumper" was the lowest member of the potato family. Some peasants before the famine grew plots of oats and most fattened a pig, but the pig and oats went to pay for the small plots of land they rented to grow their potatoes on. Ireland was heavily dependent on agriculture (Foster, 1988). After the famine and a departure of many Irish there was a smaller population and this allowed the remaining Irish more room and landholdings of families could increase.

In March of 1847, prices rose almost too high to purchase. The hardest hit were landless laborers who rented small plots of land to feed themselves and their families. When their own crops failed, they had to buy food with money they did not have and prices continued to rise. The poor did not readily accept their fate, food riots broke out and secret societies increased their activity. There was much crime and disobedience to the laws. They were dealt with by repression and violence if necessary. Before the famine, during the 1840's, it was common for laborers to hunger in the late summer before harvest. Before the famine housing and clothing were poor, and mud huts and rags were the norm for most of the Irish peasants (Beckett, 1966).


The unemployed roamed the country, begging and sleeping in ditches. An army occupation of fifty thousand was throughout country, backed up in every town and village by an armed constabulary (Costigan, 1969). The manner in which the Irish were clothed was a sure indication of great poverty and unavoidable sufferings. Some Irish thought that the potato would be permanently destroyed. In September of 1846 there was much alarm and apprehension. There were epidemics in crime as the people stole to survive. Ireland in 1849 was a land of ruins, beggars and silence.

Housing and Landlords

Cottages were crumbling in ruins and abandoned by their tenants who had emigrated. Before famine struck, nearly half of all rural families lived in windowless, one room, mud cabins. Many landlords were harsh. Some landlords were nearly as impoverished as their tenants, but it is not recorded that any landlords died of starvation. Irish landlords were much like "slave holders with white slaves." (Taylor, 1962, p. 174). Unable to pay rent to the landlord, thousands of starving peasants were thrown out. Thousands more were threatened to be thrown out of their home to perish on the roadside. A few landlords were even shot.

Death and Disease

People died of starvation in their houses, in the fields, and on the roads. Disease became epidemic. More died of disease than of starvation. About one million perished. Most were deliberated from long starvation when they finally succumbed to typhus, cholera, dysentery, and scurvy. There was even an increase in the number of certified lunatics in Ireland (Costigan, 1969). During the worst of the famine, peasants were perishing in the night and their bodies would be found in the morning partially devoured by rats. At the worst in 1847 the uncoffined dead were being buried in trenches. Starving dogs waited for the moment when the graves were unguarded. One million emigrated and many were dying from fever along the journey.

The population had fallen by one-fifth to 6.5 million by the end of the famine. The hardest hit regions were the south and the west (Gibbon, 1975). Cholera hit in 1849 and killed many of the famine survivors.

The British Government

The right of the rich few to sell food to the highest bidder came before the majority needs for food for survival, and the right to collect rent came before the right to housing. British government supported that by the Coercion Act enabling it to declare martial law and a curfew. Soldiers and constabulary were used to protect food for exporting from the starving. The British blamed Ireland for continuing to plant the potato after the first time the blight appeared. At the height of the famine the full system of English poor laws were extended to Ireland. There was food available to save the Irish people from starvation, but it was denied them. Ireland was at this time part of the United Kingdom, the wealthiest country in the world. The British government had insisted on undertaking responsibility for Ireland, but when crisis arose they ran away from it. The British were handling human beings as ciphers on a bit of paper. They looked up the answers in economic textbooks without ever setting eyes on the living skeletons of the Irish people. They excused the Irish for being hit by the blight once, but they condemned them for persisting in planting the potatoes after the blight appeared again. Most of all the British government feared that the entire social structure would topple down if men and women were once given food they could not pay for. It was easy for the British to believe the blight was the fault of the Irish because blight occurred in England too, but it was not nearly as severe. The first step they took to relieve the situation was to send over a shipload of scientists to study the cause of the potato failure. Money could not be used for seeding the lands, reclaiming the millions of acres of bog, or building railways because that would be giving the Irish farmer an unfair advantage over the English (MacManus, 1944).

The government was accused of genocide by the Irish and even of instigating an "Irish holocaust". The Irish were accused of marrying too early and having too many children. The efforts of the British government for relief of the Irish were half-hearted and inadequate. They set up relief schemes and pubic works to avoid mass revolt (Costigan, 1969).

Relief and Public Works

Many months passed in the beginning of the famine and many thousands died before the government would admit the necessity of direst financial help. When help was given it was free soup kitchens and public works that were designated to be useless so that they would not interfere with private enterprise. By 1847 half the population was being fed at public expense. (Beckett, 1966). With the exception of a few notable cases, the rich felt their only obligation was to make a donation to charity. After, they were free to party and hunt as they had always done. The government pushed much of the responsibility to feed the poor on the shoulders of charities. Religious groups and charities throughout Ireland set up soup kitchens. In some places soup was so watery that doctors would advise people not to eat it. Relief operations made very little impression on starvation, contributed to the spread of disease, and enriched many engaged in trading. The British set up emergency food deposits in 1846, but forbade them to be opened while food could still be obtained from private dealers (Gibbon, 1975). The British spent seven million pounds in direct relief, eight million in the purchase of maize from America, and private charity raised another million pounds. By the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1847, no peasant with a holding of one-quarter an acre or more was eligible for relief. This resulted in tens of thousands of farmers parting with their land.

Hundreds of thousands of men worked construction roads in places there was no need for them (Costigan, 1969). Impoverished peasants were asked to build roads that went from nowhere to nowhere for such low wages that they could hardly buy enough food to live on. Public works were not available for many people. In May of 1846, 400,000 people applied for 13,000 jobs. They were building roads where nobody ever traveled, starting anywhere and ending nowhere. Bridges were built where no rivers flowed and piers were built where no ships' sails were ever seen. Some of them can still be found today (MacManus, 1944). In March of 1847 the public works were abandoned.

Exporting in Ireland

Throughout the famine, food was being exported that could have kept people alive. Landlords continued to make cash through the export of foodstuff such as grain, as well as wool and flax. While thousands were dying of hunger Irish grain was being exported to England. An average of two million quarters of wheat was annually shipped out of Ireland, an amount that could have sufficiently fed the whole population. During the famine years, Irish agriculture continued to yield profit for Irish landlords and English merchants (Costigan, 1969). Shiploads of Indian corn were imported to Ireland from America. A ship with relief corn from America sailing into an Irish harbor would meet several ships with Irish foodstuff sailing out. More corn was sent out in a month than came in, in a year.

Black '47

Irish emigrants to America were now sending money back home by drafts and cash. Landlords began to issue notices to their tenants to appear in court for non-payment of rent. Terror of being placed in prison caused families to flee their small holdings and emigrate to England if they did not have money for the fare to America. In January, the government introduced soup kitchens, although they were already in operation by charities. The soup is given free to the infirm, poor widows, orphans, and children. By the end of January, much food was being distributed, but it did not meet the demand. Crowds waited for hours outside the distribution centers and fights often broke out. Famine epidemics began to spread of typhus, and scurvy. In February families were being found dead in cabins, their bodies being eaten by starving cats and dogs. The ships coming to America were overcrowded and under stocked with provisions. By June the streets of Montreal, Canada are filled with impoverished emigrants from Ireland. Many had typhus. There was discontent in England at the amount of their tax money being spent in Ireland. The crop in September was very good, but only one-fifth of the normal potato crop has been planted due to a shortage of seed.


More than one million Irish fled their country. More Catholic peasantry of Ireland stayed and clung tenaciously to their own hearths and hovels than any other group. No matter what their degree of misery they had shown little disposition to leave their native land. Fearing the effects of the absorption of their religious beliefs into the Anglo-Saxon and Protestant world of America the Catholic Church had also discouraged emigration to the New World (Costigan, 1969). Nearly two million Irish died of starvation and fever within five years. Another million fled bearing disease to Liverpool and the New World. Most who emigrated did so at their own expense and sent money back to their relatives to follow them. Some went to English manufacturing towns or London (Taylor, 1962). Thousands of fleeing Irish carried their fever aboard on ships or developed fever on the voyage. Many never saw the land and died on the ship or died when they reached their destination (MacManus, 1944).

Hundreds were rushing from their homes and country, not with the idea of making fortunes in other lands, but to fly from a scene of suffering and death. Within five years, through death and emigration Ireland lost more than two million people. By 1900, two-and-a-half million more left Irish ports to cross the Atlantic. When they emigrated they had a period of intense homesickness, loneliness, and humiliation. Emigrants were generally employed as menials. Boys and men did the hardest manual labor and girls and women did domestic services. They gradually recoiled themselves to life abroad and found opportunities for success that in their own homeland they had never known. Henry Ford was the grandson on one such emigrant from Ireland. The great grandfather of President Kennedy was another emigrant. Some emigrants found in America, Australia, and Canada only a grave, but other rose to positions of power and influence. Some large-scale emigration predated the famine in the 1840's, but the peak rate of emigration was in 1851 at 250,000 Irish (Foster, 1988).

Effect of the Famine on Language

The famine has an effect on the Gaelic language and tradition because many of the poorer families who died or left spoke only Gaelic while the rich and political leaders were very familiar with English. Losses by famine were greatest among the cotter class and in most Gaelic parts of the country. Many months passed in the beginning of the famine and many thousands died before the government would admit the necessity of direst financial help. When help was given it was free soup kitchens and public works that were designated to be useless so that they would not interfere with private enterprise. By 1847 half the population was being fed at public expense (Costigan, 1969). Very few counties were left with a large Irish speaking population, a language that dominated Ireland for two thousand years. English became the language of patriotism, politics, religion, and the fireside among the Irish (Curtis, 1950).


The Irish famine was the result of successive failures of the potato crop, the staple diet of more than half the population of Ireland. Most people depended almost exclusively on the potato. In many places the only food was the potato, the only drink was water, the cabins were seldom protection against weather, a bed or blanket was a luxury, in most places a pig and a manure heap were the only possessions. Since the crop needed little labor to harvest and a small acreage furnished a large yield, it was ideally suited to the poor economy of Ireland in the seventeenth century. By 1700 it had largely replaced grain as the staple food of the majority of the people. The potato originated from America; so did the blight that ruined it in 1845. In many places the promise of an abundant yield was converted overnight into the certainty of ruin. Leaves curled up and shriveled, black spots appeared on the potatoes, and a stench lay over the ground. The Irish famine was the worst disaster in Europe in the nineteenth century. During the nineteenth century throughout the western world population was rapidly increasing, in Ireland it was halved.


Beckett, J.C (1966). The making of modern Ireland. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Curtis, E (1950). A history of Ireland. Great Britain: Jarrold and Sons, Ltd.
Costigan, G (1969). A history of modern Ireland with a sketch of earlier times. New York: Western Publishing Company.
Foster, R.F (1988). Modern Ireland. London: The Penquin Press.
Gibbon, P (1975, Autumn). Colonialism and the great starvation in Ireland. Race and Class, 17,131-139.
MacManus, S (1944). The story of the Irish race. New York: The Devin-Adair Company.
Taylor, A (1962, November 23). [Review of the book Genocide: The great hunger]. New Statesman, 64, 741-742.
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