To look at Ireland in the present day, it’s difficult to believe that there was once a time when almost its entire population suffered from poverty, starvation, mass emigration and disease, in much the same way that some third world countries suffer today. Believe it or not, this was once the stark reality that many Irish people faced on a daily basis, being unable to feed their families, losing loved ones to emigration or premature death, and having little hope or opportunities for the future. What’s even more surprising is that this didn’t happen all that long ago, in the grand scheme of Ireland’s history.
The Great Irish Famine (or the Irish Potato Famine), as it came to be known, was a period from 1845 to 1852 when Ireland’s population dipped by a massive 25% in just seven years, with 1 million people dying from starvation and another 1 million emigrating across the water to the UK or North America. It had a profound and long lasting effect on all aspects of Irish society, politics, demographics, psyche and, in some ways, our culture. The people of Ireland never forgot the political circumstances that contributed to them losing so many family members, and it became a major focal point during the struggle for Independence.
It permanently changed the demographics and population of Ireland when the vast majority of young, educated people left the country never to return - the impact of which is still felt today. It was also the beginning of the massive Irish diaspora around the world, which is also still a very prominent part of Irish culture and tradition. In short, the Famine is one of the most important events in Irish history that shaped the landscape of the following centuries. It’s also one of the most complex events, so here is a brief insight into its causes and eventual resolution.
What caused the Famine?
There are several contributing factors that led to the Famine, the majority of them related to the economic and political landscape of the time. In 1801, the Act of Union brought Ireland entirely under British rule. The Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and the Chief Secretary of Ireland were the two elected representatives from Westminster who oversaw Irish rule. There was no government in place in Ireland: instead, members of parliament were sent across the water to represent the Irish people - 70% of them were wealthy upper class members of society, most often landowners, who were not greatly experienced in the daily life of most of the country’s people. At this time, Ireland was by no means a first world country, even by 19th century standards.
Almost everyone worked on the land or in low-paying manual labour jobs. The exception was the aristocracy, who in turn spent the majority of their time away from the island. In addition, people almost exclusively adhered to Catholicism, which the British government had trouble dealing with. As well as that, they also had rapidly rising population and unemployment rates to contend with, with virtually no supporting infrastructure. For the average Irish person, living standards and quality of life were much, much lower than their British counterparts, and poverty was normal.
In an effort to stamp out the prominent Catholic faith, a series of laws known as the Penal Laws were introduced to prevent members of the Catholic church from - among other things - purchasing land, obtaining education, entering a profession, holding political office or even living within 5 miles of a corporate town. Because of the Penal Laws, huge sections of Irish society had no choice but to farm the land, as it was often the only way they could legally make a living. They were also completely at the mercy of their landlords and ‘middlemen’ (those who controlled the land in the absence of the landlord, which was most of the time), with no rights to the land or the produce they grew on it.
Landlords could evict tenants with little or no notice, hike up rents whenever they pleased, and generally make life even more difficult for the poverty stricken Irish. Each tenant did, however, have a small plot of sub-divided land on which they could grow food for themselves. The only crop that could thrive on such a small plot was potatoes, so this was their main (and often only) form of sustenance. With all of these volatile factors in play, it only took one small incident for everything to come toppling down.
That small incident was a case of blight, a disease that affected the humble potato that so many people relied on. Although diseased crops were common, especially where the potato was concerned, this was a new disease that had somehow been transported from North America to Europe, spreading like wildfire and destroying vast quantities of the crop as it did so. Although it was expected that Irish crops would be damaged, the full extent would not be known until harvest time. In October 1845, it was reported that anywhere from one third to half of the national crop had been lost. By 1846, it had risen to three quarters. With no food of their own to last them through the fast approaching winter, famine was inevitable.
How bad was the Famine?
Because of the British hold over Ireland and laws that favoured landlords rather than tenants, as well as British demand for more food than they could grow on their land, the majority of the crops and cattle cultivated in Ireland was exported to Britain. Although the amount of food exported could easily have fed the Irish population in the absence of potatoes, the government had no clear picture of just how bad things were in Ireland - the people had no real means of communicating this since their landlords were absent, they had no adequate representation in politics, and they were forbidden from participating in just about every public forum.
Over 3 million people were dependent on the potato crop as their primary source of food, but poor living standards made things so much worse. As well as not having food, they had no money for medicines, no clothes for winter, and inadequate shelter since landlords were not required to make or pay for improvements to any tenant dwelling. Needless to say, things were looking quite bleak for the Irish people.
Families used life savings to send their children abroad as soon as they were old enough, or sent young children to ‘workhouses’ (institutions where residents worked in exchange for food and shelter) in the hope that they might survive. Older generations tried to fend for themselves with no supplies. On top of general poverty and starvation, landlords then began to evict tenants to cover their debts. Landlords were required to pay the rent of any tenant if it was less than £4, so to counteract this, they evicted anyone on smaller plots of land in order to group together larger plots and rid themselves of the rent costs.
Between 1849 and 1854, 250,000 people were evicted, with many more happening in the previous two years before eviction records began. Those that managed to escape hunger across the water had their share of difficulties too. 100,000 emigrants arrived in Canada in 1847 alone, with an estimated 20,000 dying soon after from diseases picked up along the way. Overcrowded, poorly constructed ‘coffin ships’ were used for the trans-Atlantic passages, where sanitary conditions were awful and mortality was high.
They sailed from small, unregulated harbours in the west of Ireland (which saw the worst of the famine in every regard), and while the US closed their ports to ships from Ireland, Canada was forbidden from doing so since they were a part of the British empire. There is no definitive answer to how many people died during the Famine, but experts have estimated it to be around 1 million. Contrary to popular belief, most of these million died from disease rather than starvation. Estimations have been impeded by the fact that in some cases, not just whole families but whole villages were wiped out, and no records had been kept beforehand.
End of the Famine and Legacy
There are still people today who firmly hold the belief that the British government caused the famine on purpose. While their refusal to close Irish ports to food exports (so that Irish grown food could be used to feed Irish people), as well as their withdrawal of relief works during the famine years didn’t exactly prove their innocence, it’s obvious that murder was never anyone’s intention. It’s far more plausible and accepted, however, that neglect and a lack of first hand knowledge were equally at fault with the potato blight itself for the suffering caused. Eventually towards the end of the worst famine years when the potato crops were showing slow signs of improvement, relief works were reinstated after a series of complicated political developments.
Workhouses and soup kitchens were set up and evicted tenants were given free passage on ships sailing across the water. Certain laws were repealed that allowed more grain to be distributed through the country, and charities and missionaries commenced work. Unfortunately, significant death and damage had already occurred by this stage. By 1852, the potato crops had returned to pre-famine levels and the death toll had reduced, but the country and its people were still in very bad condition.
The population was severely diminished and took several decades to catch up again - by 1911 it had finally reached the same level as in 1800. The lack of older generations meant that many of Ireland’s native customs and traditions as well as the Irish language were almost wiped out. There was a shortage of young workers due to emigration, and the infrastructure of the country had to be built from scratch in some places. The whole event fuelled even further resentment towards British rule, and talks of organised rebellion began, setting the wheels in motion for the independence movement that would eventually see Ireland become it’s own nation a century later.
There are several famine memorials in Ireland and in some destinations where the famine emigrants landed. Dublin’s Custom House Quay has a memorial in the form of emaciated statues walking towards the boats that line the docks ahead. In Manhattan, the spot where people would have disembarked their coffin ships has also been commemorated. All are fitting tributes for the people who suffered so greatly for so little.
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