The world-chang­ing af­ter­math of the Irish Potato Famine

Bri­tain’s re­la­tion­ship with Ire­land is pep­pered with drama but, writes Pat Kinsella, one episode in mod­ern his­tory more than any other proved a wa­ter­shed mo­ment: the 1845-49 Potato Famine

History Revealed - - CONTENTS -

In less than a decade in the mid-19th cen­tury, the pop­u­la­tion of Ire­land plum­meted from 8.25 mil­lion to just over 6.5 mil­lion. Many were forced to flee their famine-struck home­land – then as much a part of the United King­dom as Corn­wall is to­day – in dan­ger­ously over­loaded ‘cof­fin ships’. The rest per­ished. The story of how a mil­lion deaths from mostly pre­ventable dis­ease and hunger hap­pened on the doorstep of the world’s wealth­i­est coun­try still shocks.

The col­lec­tive im­pact of the Irish Potato Famine, the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment’s re­ac­tion to it, and the re­sul­tant ex­o­dus of em­i­grants was pro­found and long last­ing. The di­as­pora of Irish peo­ple and Irish cul­ture, all over the globe, not to men­tion the famine it­self, gen­er­ated a fo­cussed fury that’s been ar­tic­u­lated in na­tion­al­ist pol­i­tics, poetry and folk songs ever since, and re­mains a thread in the fab­ric of the mod­ern coun­try. Ire­land con­tin­ued to haem­or­rhage its hu­man re­sources long af­ter the famine ended, and the legacy of the Great Hunger – famine roads, ghost vil­lages and memo­ri­als – can be seen across the land.


Ire­land was brought into the United King­dom by the 1800 Act of Union. The politi­cians who rep­re­sented the coun­try in West­min­ster, the vast ma­jor­ity of whom were wealthy, Protes­tant land­lords with Irish hold­ings, were very of­ten based in Eng­land. Most rent col­lected from the poor Catholic ten­ants – who com­prised four-fifths of Ire­land's pop­u­la­tion – went straight out of the coun­try via oft-un­scrupu­lous mid­dle­men and into the cof­fers of these ab­sen­tee land­lords. The prof­its from al­most ev­ery­thing pro­duced in Ire­land also trav­elled in the same di­rec­tion.

Cat­tle farm­ing took place, and crops such as corn were grown, but al­most all of the ex­portable food pro­duced in Ire­land was trans­ported to main­land Bri­tain. Dairy and corn-based prod­ucts sold in Ire­land were well beyond the mea­gre means of the vast ma­jor­ity, thanks to Bri­tain’s con­tro­ver­sial Corn Laws. These im­posed tar­iffs on im­ported goods and kept prices of lo­cally pro­duced food high, for the ben­e­fit of the landown­ing class. In­creas­ingly, the Irish be­came al­most wholly de­pen­dent on pota­toes. They were cheap, easy to grow and calo­rie dense but, as it turned out, ge­net­i­cally weak and prone to dis­ease.

Spuds are in­cred­i­bly nu­tri­tious, and some his­to­ri­ans have cred­ited a pota­to­heavy diet as a ma­jor con­tribut­ing fac­tor to the rel­a­tively low in­fant mor­tal­ity rate in Ire­land from the mid-18th cen­tury to the mid-19th cen­tury, an era that saw the is­land’s pop­u­la­tion more than triple in less than 100 years. Yet this pop­u­la­tion ex­plo­sion, com­bined with bad land man­age­ment by ab­sent land­lords and their ruth­less mid­dle­men, saw large fam­i­lies sur­viv­ing on ever-smaller plots of land. One frag­ile food source ac­counted for 60 per cent of Ire­land’s en­tire food needs, and there was no af­ford­able al­ter­na­tive in event of fail­ure.

So when a blight (a kind of mold called Phy­toph­thora in­fes­tans) swept across Europe and em­braced the damp con­di­tions it found in Ire­land, the scene was set for a com­plete catas­tro­phe.


Ini­tial re­ports about a ‘mal­ady’ in the potato crops of Amer­ica be­gan ap­pear­ing in news­pa­pers in 1844; by Au­gust 1845, the blight jumped the At­lantic, and reached Bri­tain and con­ti­nen­tal Europe. Shortly af­ter it was sus­pected in Ire­land, and when the crop was har­vested, the peo­ple’s worst fears were re­alised. Cru­elly, the pota­toes of­ten looked healthy when pulled up, only to rapidly turn into a pu­trid mush.

Be­tween a third and half the crop was ruined in 1845, but it was far worse in 1846, when up to 75 per cent of the potato har­vest was ined­i­ble. This led to a scarcity of seed pota­toes be­ing planted, which com­pounded the prob­lem in 1847, de­spite an im­prove­ment in yield that year. In 1848, the blight struck hard again, and by this stage mil­lions were des­ti­tute, many fam­i­lies had been evicted from their homes and deadly dis­eases were at epi­demic lev­els.

Many more peo­ple per­ished from pesti­lence caused by de­pri­va­tion than from ac­tual star­va­tion. Black fever (ty­phus), bacil­lary dysen­tery, re­laps­ing fever, scurvy and famine dropsy (hunger oedema, swelling of the body to burst­ing point) were all rife. And in 1849, when the worst ap­peared to be over, an epi­demic of cholera swept the coun­try, badly hit­ting towns and cities like Dublin and Belfast.

The tra­di­tional na­tion­al­ist nar­ra­tive (which was very much framed by the famine ever af­ter) paints a grim pic­ture of the heart­less Bri­tish gov­ern­ment turn­ing its back on the Irish and sim­ply let­ting them die. This isn’t quite true, at least not at the start.

Con­ser­va­tive Prime Min­is­ter Sir Robert Peel acted rea­son­ably swiftly to try and avert dis­as­ter. He im­ported £100,000 of In­dian grain to be dis­trib­uted to those in im­me­di­ate dan­ger of star­va­tion, and es­tab­lished a programme of pub­lic works, pro­vid­ing peo­ple with a sub­sis­tence wage to pur­chase al­ter­na­tive food sup­plies. Peel also de­fied his own party and suc­cess­fully re­pealed the Corn Laws, but this – com­bined with a de­feat dur­ing his at­tempt to im­ple­ment an Irish Co­er­cion Act – led to his res­ig­na­tion as Prime Min­is­ter.


Peel was suc­ceeded by a Whig gov­ern­ment led by Lord John Rus­sell. It took a more fun­da­men­tal­ist ap­proach, based on the pop­u­lar po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic ide­olo­gies of the era: self help and lais­sez-faire, which op­posed the pro­vi­sion of char­ity and re­jected in­ter­fer­ence in the econ­omy. The dis­tri­bu­tion of re­lief – in­clud­ing a short-lived but very cheap and ef­fec­tive soup-kitchen sys­tem, which fed up to three mil­lion peo­ple for the six months it was in op­er­a­tion – was com­pletely halted. Hun­dreds of thou­sands of des­ti­tute peo­ple were forced to toil on of­ten-point­less pub­lic works (build­ing roads lead­ing nowhere, later known as 'famine roads', and erect­ing walls around noth­ing) or forced into bru­tally over­crowded

work­houses to per­form hard labour. Mean­while, home­grown corn and other healthy food stocks con­tin­ued to be trans­ported out of Ire­land for English mar­kets, even dur­ing the un­usu­ally long and harsh win­ter of 1846-47, when the death toll soared.

Or­gan­i­sa­tions such as the Re­peal As­so­ci­a­tion and the Irish Con­fed­er­a­tion ur­gently called for ex­ports to be ceased and ports closed, as had hap­pened dur­ing a less se­vere famine in 1782-83, but they were ig­nored.

The ex­port of food from an is­land full of fam­ished peo­ple is a pow­er­fully evoca­tive snap­shot of the pe­riod, and it fea­tures in many folk songs. But to Vic­to­rian-era Whigs, this was sim­ply the econ­omy car­ry­ing on as nor­mal, some­thing they’d never in­ter­fere with. To other ob­servers, though, con­tem­po­rary and mod­ern, this ap­proach was tan­ta­mount to geno­cide. In­deed, the per­ma­nent sec­re­tary to the Trea­sury, Sir Charles Trevelyan – an in­fa­mous fig­ure in the an­nals of Irish his­tory, who was in charge of ad­min­is­ter­ing re­lief un­der Rus­sell, such as it was – openly talked about the dis­as­ter be­ing a heaven-sent ‘cure’ for the ills of Ire­land.

“The judge­ment of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a les­son, that calamity must not be too much mit­i­gated,” Trevelyan said. In his 1848 book The Irish

Cri­sis, he de­scribed the famine as “a di­rect stroke of an all-wise and all-mer­ci­ful Providence”. He went out of his way to ob­struct re­lief ef­forts, pub­licly play­ing down the sever­ity of the prob­lem, and pre­sented the Irish as an al­most sub­hu­man race, lack­ing in the moral fi­bre, hon­esty and in­dus­try to help them­selves.


By 1848, more food – mainly In­dian maize and corn – was com­ing into the coun­try than was be­ing taken out of it, but the pre­vail­ing poli­cies of the time meant that it sim­ply didn’t reach those in the great­est need.

The bur­den of dis­as­ter re­lief was shunted back onto lo­cal au­thor­i­ties, com­mu­ni­ties and prop­erty own­ers with spe­cial Poor Law leg­is­la­tion, which es­ca­lated the catas­tro­phe. Re­sent­ful of pay­ing rates and be­sot­ted with the price of wool, many ruth­less land­lords evicted their poverty-stricken ten­ants and de­mol­ished their mis­er­able shacks to free up the land for sheep graz­ing.

The sight of ema­ci­ated fam­i­lies wan­der­ing the roads be­came com­mon. Those who could scrape to­gether any amount of money headed for the ports, where they des­per­ately tried to get pas­sage on one of the dan­ger­ously over­crowded ‘cof­fin ships’ head­ing to Amer­ica, Canada or Bri­tain. Al­though the re­sponse to the dis­as­ter in West­min­ster was at best lack­lus­tre (at worst, it could be ar­gued, mur­der­ously neg­li­gent) well-mean­ing peo­ple such as the Quak­ers per­formed heroic acts

“God sent the calamity ... it must not be too much mit­i­gated” Sir Charles Trevelyan

LET US IN! A throng clam­ours to get into a work house, for the prom­ise of mea­gre meal

END­LESS WOE ABOVE LEFT: Peel as Sisy­phus, for­ever rolling the ‘stone’ of Ire­land RIGHT: Ema­ci­ated peo­ple were in­creas­ingly made home­less and left to wan­der the coun­try

THE EYES HAVE IT A US poster warns of the tell-tale in­di­ca­tors of blight set­ting in

NO ONE HOME Aban­doned vil­lages still dot the Irish coun­try­side, phys­i­cal re­minders of a gen­er­a­tion lost

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