The ‘Great Famine’ began unexpectedly in the late summer of 1845. By September, potatoes were rotting in the ground and within a month blight was spreading rapidly. Three-quarters of the country’s crop, the chief food for some three million people was wiped out. The following year blight caused a total crop failure. In 1847, the blight was less virulent but in 1848 a poor grain harvest aggravated the situation further. 1848 proved to be the worst year in terms of distress and death during the whole history of the Great Famine. Both 1849 and 1850 saw blight, substantial in some counties, sporadic in others.
Why was there famine?
Famine caused by potato blight was nothing new to Ireland. There had been failures in 1739, 1741, 1801, 1817 and 1821. In 1741, perhaps 400,000 people died because of famine. The Great Famine in the 1840s was only one demographic crisis among many but most historians regard it as a real turning point in Irish history. It was simply a disaster beyond all expectations and imagination.
Contemporaries and historians have considerable difficulty in explaining why the Famine took place. It is, however, generally agreed that the structure of the Irish economy and especially its system of land tenure played a significant part. Most of the cultivated land in Ireland in the 1840s was in the hands of Protestant landowners. Estates were regarded as sources of income for these landowners, many of them absentees in England rather than long-term investments. This led to a failure to invest in Irish farming. Tenants were unable to invest in their land because of high rents. Where improvement in farming did occur in Ireland, it proved very profitable. Irish agriculture promised returns of between 15 and 20 per cent compared to 5 to 10 per cent yields in England. There was insufficient land available to satisfy demand, despite the conclusion of the Devon Commission that over 1.5 million acres of land suitable for tillage was uncultivated. This led to the division and sub-division of land. By 1845, a quarter of all holdings were between one and five acres, 40 per cent were between five and fifteen acres and only seven per cent over thirty acres. This created under-employment and forced many of the labourers to become migrant workers in England for part of the year. They became navvies for road building, canal digging and railway construction. Many turned seasonal migration into permanent settlement and were largely involved in work English people found dirty, disreputable or otherwise disagreeable--jobs like petty trading, keeping lodging-houses and beer-houses. Inadequate investment meant that Irish industrialisation could not provide the employment necessary to absorb its growing population.
The potato made the division and sub-division of land possible. It was easy to grow even in poor soil and produced high yields. Two acres of land could provide enough potatoes for a family of five or six to live on for a year. Potatoes could also be used to feed pigs and poultry. Subsistence on the potato allowed tenants to grow wheat and oats to pay their rent. The precise relationship between the potato and population growth in Ireland is difficult to establish. It is clear that there was a dramatic rise in Irish population in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The high birth rate and the early age of marriage were largely responsible for dramatic growth. Between 1780 and 1841, Ireland’s population increased from about five million to over eight million people, despite the emigration of one and a half million people in the decades after Union. This placed even greater pressure on land and greater reliance on the potato.
How did the British government react?
Peel’s response was rapid and, within limits, imaginative. The crisis convinced him finally of the necessity for dismantling the Corn Laws but he realised that this would, because of its contentious nature, take time. Immediate solutions were needed. In November 1845, a Special Commission was established to co-ordinate relief efforts. It did two things. First, work was needed so that labourers could afford to buy food. The government established public work schemes but on a much larger scale than before. These were the boom years of Irish railway construction. Food had also to be kept at a level that prevented profiteering. £185,000 was spent on supplies, chiefly Indian meal. These measures, however, only met the immediate crisis. Lord John Russell succeeded Peel in mid-1846 but he lacked Peel’s Irish experience. Economy and efficiency replaced Peel’s more humane policy. The full extent of the Famine was seriously underestimated in official circles. The problem, however, was not the shortage of food in Ireland--between September 1846 and July 1847 five times as much grain was imported as was exported--but of ensuring that those in need had access to that food. The failure was one of awareness, not compassion.
What were the consequences of the Famine?
Between 1841 and 1851, the population of Ireland fell from over 8 million to some 6.5 million. Emigration accounted for perhaps 1.5 million and became an accepted part of Irish life. This leaves about a million deaths as a result of the Famine. Actual starvation rarely caused death but weakened people sufficiently for diseases like typhus and fever to take their toll. In early 1849, a serious outbreak of cholera added to the problem. The impact of famine was felt differently in both regional and social terms. Western and south-western counties were hardest hit. Counties on the east coast, where food could be more easily imported, were least affected. The north-east did not suffer a crisis, despite its high density of population, because of the more industrial nature of its economy. But it was not unaffected. Many disease-ridden migrants crowded into Belfast, where poor living conditions helped spread disease, but this was a public health not an economic problem.
Labourers and small farmers were the chief victims of the Famine. In 1841, 71.5 per cent of holdings were less than 15 acres but by 1851 the figure was 49.1 per cent. There was a consequent increase in the number of holdings over 15 acres from 18.5 to 50.9 per cent. Livestock farming expanded encouraged by attractive prices in Britain and by reductions in transport costs. In 1851, the agricultural economy was apparently still in a state of crisis: the potato had lost its potency, low agricultural prices gave little promise of recovery to those who had survived, and slightly larger holdings hardly made up for increased Poor Law rates. But from the 1850s change was rapid. Livestock increased in value and numbers, arable farming declined slowly and tenant farmers, whose numbers remained relatively stable for the next fifty years, enjoyed some prosperity.
The Famine marked a watershed in the political history of modern Ireland. The Repeal Association of O’Connell was dead. Young Ireland made their separatist gesture in the abortive rising of 1848. A sense of desolation, growing sectarian divisions, the rhetoric of genocide and the re-emergence of some form of national consciousness eventually led to the emergence of a movement dedicated to the independence of Ireland from English rule.