The Irish Potato Famine

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I saw the dying, the living, and the dead, lying indiscriminately upon the same floor.

James Mahoney, artist, 1847

At the onset of the famine in 1845, Ireland had a population of 8.5 million; by 1851, it had fallen to 6.6 million. Almost one million of these lost inhabitants had died in the Irish Potato Famine, while a further million fled to the United States. This marks it as one of the most deadly famines in modern history in proportional terms, which is made all the more remarkable by its occurrence within the United Kingdom, then the world’s wealthiest and most powerful state.

Immediately before 1845, Ireland faced a grave economic crisis. The 1824 free trade agreement between the Great Britain and Ireland was detrimental to Irish industry as more technologically advanced British companies were able to undercut the prices of domestic goods in Ireland. By 1845, excluding the Belfast area which had successfully transitioned into the industrial era, much of the Irish population had reverted to subsistence farming.

Ireland’s extremely inegalitarian social structure accentuated their vulnerability to the famine. Around 10,000 wealthy landowners, many descended from English or Scottish soldiers, owned the majority of Irish land, leasing small parcels to tenant farmers. Still more deprived were the agricultural labourers and their families, representing 2 to 3 million people, or one-third of the Irish population. They had no land, either owned or rented, but worked on that of others for small fixed daily wages. These families already lived close to starvation in normal conditions and would consequently be the most impacted by the famine.

Ireland’s demography should also be noted: Ireland in the mid-19th Century had one of the fastest growing populations in Europe, rising from 2.5 million in 1750 to 8.5 million in 1840. Economic and population pressures had already become sufficiently severe that over one million Irish had emigrated to America and England in the 30 years preceding the famine.

Finally, Irish farmers were highly dependent on potato crops. Potatoes possessed huge advantages for an impoverished population: they were cheap to produce and offered high yields; they contain large amounts of calories; they can be preserved for nine months after harvest; and are reasonably resistant to poor weather and soil. By 1845, 10% of Ireland’s land area was used to farm potatoes and they were the staple of one-third of the Irish’s diets. Despite obvious benefits, this critical dependency meant that the failure of one crop would be devastating.

Many blamed England for their troubles even before the famine’s onset. They particularly protested the Act of Union which politically united Great Britain and Ireland, since, despite geographic proximity, the two nations shared neither religion nor culture. As a result, a majority of Ireland’s population sought a return to independence and the end of the Act of Union, which England was not prepared to grant them. Extreme political rallies in Ireland were watched closely by the government in London, whose relations with Ireland were steadily worsening. When the crisis occurred, therefore, this may have contributed to England’s reluctance to aid Ireland.

In 1845, the phytophthora infestans fungus, more commonly known as mildew, began to spread in European potato cultures. On the European continent, much of the harvest was ruined, and around 100,000 people died. In September 1845, mildew reached Ireland, and the humid climate was an ideal area for proliferation. Since potatoes contaminated with mildew were inedible, 40% of the 1845 harvest was destroyed.

However, the most severe trouble for Ireland began in 1846. Ireland had survived several poor harvests in the 19th Century without exorbitant death tolls. This time, however, drought in May and June 1846 was followed by torrential rain which once again supported the spread of mildew. The 1846 potato harvest was down 80% on 1844.

Yet physical factors, that is to say climatic conditions and bacterial invasions, cannot alone explain the monumental impact of the Great Famine. The calamitous management of the crisis by the British authorities also contributed to the death toll. Starvation in Ireland was caused not so much by the failure of the potato crops as by the failure to find any substitute foodstuff to feed the people. Britain in 1845 was the wealthiest nation in the world, and could reasonably have afforded to import sufficient quantities of food to offset the famine’s worst effects.

Not only did the UK not increase food imports, it continued to export wheat and grain from Ireland. English economists advocated laissez-faire economic policy and so argued that free trade with Ireland should persist, regardless of the famine. Furthermore, the British press greatly downplayed the severity of the crisis, referring to Ireland as “a nation of beggars”, and demonstrated blatant racism towards the Irish, referring to them as an “uncivilised” race. This sentiment was not uncommon either due to the economic and demographic disparity between the two countries. Some Protestant fanatics even saw it as divine punishment for the Catholic-majority nation. All this meant the British government was not keen to aid the starving Irish.

When the British government did intervene in the winter of 1845, they remained determined to limit expenses and preserve the free market economy. Corn and barley were purchased from the US and sold (not given) to the Irish masses so the government could break even on the endeavour. They did accept many could not afford this food, however, and so offered food in exchange for labour for the government. While this did alleviate the issue for some, these workers, in their desperation, were exploited for labour that had a far higher value than that which they received for it even in the prevailing labour market.

These measures enabled the crisis to be contained in the winter of 1845, but a change in government in London in 1846 with the election of Sir John Russell as Prime Minister worsened Ireland’s crisis. He deemed even the limited expenditure spent on aid as superfluous to requirements, since Russell’s Whigs believed, even more than the previous Conservative government, in laissez-faire economics.

The aid program was therefore considerably reduced, even as the crisis worsened. The aforementioned public labour sites were maintained, but ironically they may have even been detrimental in 1846. The food from the labour programme was supposedly guaranteed, whereas food from farming no longer was; this led to many peasants abandoned their fields, further reducing the agricultural output of the nation.

The Poor Law of 1847 did promise aid to farmers outside of workhouses, which theoretically should have enabled more to continue to farm, with the stipulation that applicants for aid had to surrender all but a quarter-acre of their holdings. This should also have been beneficial since it meant more land was under the control of larger, more efficient farmers. In practice, landlords were unwilling to accept the land forfeitures of those who wanted aid. Landlords had to pay a fixed tax per tenant, so partial forfeitures reduced the rent received but not their tax burden; thus, they demanded that either no land was forfeited or all. Eligibility for aid was no guarantee of receiving it, and not receiving aid when landless was a death sentence. Thus, many tenant farmers in desperate need of aid were trapped on their land, slowly starving to death on their meagre harvests.

Those who did sell their parcels rushed into workhouses. The famine caused enormous overcrowding, and so cholera, typhus, and dysentery were rampant while the food supply was insufficient. Some 300,000 Irish died in government labour camps during this period.

Ultimately, the British government’s unwillingness to spend proved detrimental. The Irish economy was annihilated as fields lay barren and empty, factories were abandoned for workhouses and a quarter of the population either emigrated or died. In total, Great Britain spent between 7 and 10 million pounds to help Ireland between 1845 – 53, a fraction of what was necessary and equally insignificant compared to annual expenditure in far-flung colonies such as India or Canada.

Once the dust settled after the famine, calculating the number of victims proved remarkably difficult. Historians rely on government censuses taken once a decade (in this case the change between 1841 – 51), which suggest a quarter of the Irish population died or emigrated. It should also be noted that only one-tenth of the deaths attributable to the famine were directly caused by starvation. Most came from diseases that thrived in weak, hungry, unhygienic crowds, such as dysentery, typhoid fever, or cholera, since malnutrition increases susceptibility to these diseases. Many young children’s bodies also never recovered from the severe malnutrition they endured during the famine and so they died prematurely.

Emigration, though by no means a novelty in Ireland, was greatly accelerated by the famine, and from 1845, a population that had become unsustainably large began to shrink, which continued for nearly a century after the end of the famine. The more than one million Irish of all social classes who emigrated, in particular to the United States, formed an important diaspora which would prove vital to the growing US economy in desperate need of manpower. Today, over 10% of Americans have Irish ancestry, and this colossal diaspora is in no small part attributable to the famine – even many 20th Century Irish emigrants went because of links to the existing Irish-American community created by the famine.

Overall, the Great Irish famine was one of the most devastating famines in modern times, killing 12% of the total Irish population. This colossal death tally is made all the more shocking by the fact it did not occur in a wartime context, nor in a poor or underdeveloped state. It is a striking reminder that famine in the modern world cannot solely be attributed to physical factors, but also to human error and mismanagement, whether due to deep-rooted prejudice, ideological inflexibility, or failure to protect vulnerable populations.

Bensimon F. & Colantiano L., 2014. The Great Irish Famine. PUF.

Brillet P., 2014. The Great Irish Famine, 1845-1851. Ellipses.

Duffy S. & al., 2002. A Historic Atlas of Ireland. Editions Autrement.