Irish Potato Famine: History, Causes, Deaths, & Migration

When the Irish lumper potato was introduced in Ireland in the early 1800s, it thrived so well in the Irish soil and weather that it was soon cultivated as a major staple, especially for the poor.

The potato-friendly conditions coupled with the existing tenancy system encouraged farmers to cultivate more of the lumper than other crops. With the lumper, they could sustain their families and have something left to settle their rents to their English landlords.

But the fungus-like phytophthora infestans (also known as the potato blight) began to plague the potato fields in 1845, and Ireland spent the next seven years wallowing in the most perilous famine of the 19th century.

What exactly caused the Irish potato famine? How many people perished as result of the Great Famine?

In the article below, World History Edu takes an in-depth look into the famine, the British government’s reaction to crisis, and the social and economic effects it had on not just Ireland but the entirety of Britain.

Irish Potato Famine ravaged Ireland for about seven years in the mid-19th century.

Potato Cultivation and a thriving Ireland

By the turn of 1840, the potatoes, especially the Lumper potato, had become the most affordable food for the Irish poor. Aside from the nutritional benefits, the crop was beneficial in the sense that it reduced the cost of feeding farm laborers not only on potato fields but also in the cultivation of other crops and cattle rearing.

With potato cultivation thriving in the early 1840s, food was enough to feed the Irish population, which had grown to around 8 million people in 1845.

The Irish had enough food surplus that it could even export some to Britain, resulting in Ireland affectionately being called the “Bread Basket of Great Britain”. The island exported a variety of foods, including eggs, cattle, wheat, and oats, to Britain.

The onset of the Blight Disease

Beginning around the middle of 1845, Ireland was cast into a dark place when signs of potato blight, which was caused by Phytophthora infestans, began to appear on some Irish farms.

The British Government’s Response

In no time the infestation had spread enough to alarm Robert Reel, then-British Prime Minister, who proposed the repeal of the Corn Law of 1815. To protect English growers from cheaper imports, the law primarily required locally produced corn (and other cereals) to be sold at higher rates than imported ones.

Reviewing down the rates meant the Irish populace would be able to buy more corn and its delicacies like bread, but, at the same time, would tempt domestic corn traders to look for higher export prices, or discourage cultivation.

A cabinet meeting in October on Reel’s appeal divided the cabinet and the meeting was postponed until November.

The then-Secretary of the Irish Treasury, Charles Trevelyan called on the British government to intervene. Reel responded by shipping in flint corn worth £100,000 from America; but that was no free lunch as they sold the corn to the people.

Meanwhile, the cabinet that convened in November failed to repeal the Corm Laws, and Peel resigned only to be reinstated within few days.

With no intervention from the British government, Ireland, as at 1847, continued to export food stuff like beans, fish, and peas, to Britain. This was in spite of the millions of people who were starving on the island. An 1849 depiction of the starving Bridget O’Donnell and her two children during the famine.

Starvation and pain sweep across Ireland

By March 1846, the deaths in Ireland had begun to skyrocket as a result of starvation. Landlords were still taxed to finance public works and other government reliefs. That all changed after Reel was replaced by the free market advocate, John Russell in June.

The British mitigation policies included the opening of public works in 1847, but food trade was dominated by private companies which would hardly give any free lunch.

John Russell succeeded Robert Peel in 1846 as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Russell and his Whig Party did not have the political will to adequately tackle the Great Irish Famine

In September 1847, Russell’s administration suspended the public works and other government interventions, leaving people in the menacing famine with inadequate supplies from the Quakers and other small philanthropist groups.

The government came in again, but how could several thousands of famished people bear with the bureaucracy in food distribution? Living conditions and situation did not get any better even with the reinstatement of some social programs.

Interventions and Acts in 1847

In the 1847 season, not all farmers suffered the potato blight, and the few successful fields motivated them to resume intensive potato cultivation with minimal attention to other crops. But their foresight was wrong. The Phytophthora hit as hard on the potato fields as the famine which followed.

What was even worse was the fact that most farmers had invested so much to see potatoes boom again, only for them to be devastated by a yield of black and rotten potatoes.

The Penal Laws prohibited indebted landowners from selling their lands, and hence they had no choice but to discontinue leasing to farmers who could not make enough returns to cover rent.

In the same year, the British government implemented the Temporary Relief Act, also called the Soup Kitchen or Burgoyne’s Act, to serve cheap foods to the starving people. This relief was suspended in September, and the existing Poor Law was reviewed to fund all reliefs from the local Poor Act rate.

The colonial government feared possible upheavals that could overthrow their authority over their Irish subjects in the face of frequent demonstrations for better reliefs. The Crime and Outrage Bill of December 1847 was therefore enforced to control gun possession and required indigenes to assist police in arresting attackers and murderers of landlords and their middlemen.

The problem of Irish man, who went months without getting a slice of potato to gobble as the phytophthora infestans struck harder on the fields, was compounded by the Rickettsia bacteria, which unleashed typhus on the people in 1847. Famine and typhus combined to kill several thousands of the Irish people between 1847 and 1848.

Severity of the Great Famine

It was around 1845 when Ireland began to see the potatoes blackened and slimy when they were near maturity. By the close of 1846 the entire country had witnessed advanced stage of crops damage, with a domino effect on other crops like barley and wheat.

As the starving laborers could not work on other farms due to rising food prices, the British government compounded the problem by scaling down public works that could have cushioned the Irish a little bit.

The fishing communities relied on inadequate catches due to unfavorable sea currents and their small boats. Soon they gave up and sold out their boats to look for food elsewhere.

Prices of food across Ireland continued to soar, even at some point those with money could not find enough food to buy. Some Irish famers were left with no option than to munch down on rodents, insects and anything they could find edible just to fill their stomachs.

Damage to the potato farms aggravated overtime countrywide, and people were malnourished and began to die from hunger.

Landlords, however, continued to exact rents from farmers, who in turn resorted to oats and wheat cultivation. In the face of the starving populace most of these foods were exported outside Ireland so farmers would be able to cover their rent.

The English tax regulations required landlords to pay a rate on tenants with annual rent of £4 or less. In desperation, some landlords threw out their broke tenants to avoid paying the taxes altogether. Others also increased their rents.

The result was an increase in the number of homelessness. It was estimated that the number of homeless people in Ireland reached an alarming figure of close to half a million by 1850.

Donations

At the peak of the famine, various interventions in the form of food, cash and crop seeds came from top government officials and world leaders. The likes of Ottoman Sultan Abdulmecid, then-U.S. President James K. Polk, Russian Tsar Alexander II, then-U.S. Congressman Abraham Lincoln and Pope Pius IX all donated to help alleviate the Irish suffering. Charity organizations such as the Quakers, as well as various English philanthropists, also helped.

Contrary to popularly held opinion that Queen Victoria donated just £5 to the Irish people, the British monarch actually donated about £2,000 (which is about £62,000 in today’s pounds). Regardless, this did not stop her from receiving some sticks because of her inability to rally policy-makers in Westminster towards alleviating the misery of the starving population of Ireland.

Migration, and More Suffering, Diseases and Starvation

The Irish Potato Famine, also known as the Great Famine or An Gorta Mór in Irish, was a period of mass starvation and disease in Ireland from 1845 to 1852. Between one and two million people emigrated from Ireland during the Great Hunger. Engraving by Henry Doyle (1827–1892), from Mary Frances Cusack’s Illustrated History of Ireland, 1868

The starving Irish people migrated to such countries as Scotland, England, North America, and the United States. The voyages were terrible; some of the famished and tattered people died of typhus, hunger, and other complications before the ships could touch their destinations.

Host cities had rarely prepared for the thousands running from Ireland, so shelter, quarantine and healthcare facilities were inadequate. Scores died upon arrival, and thousands were stranded in the streets.

The massive emigration from Ireland translated into depopulation of country. Correspondingly, there was an increase in Irish refugees in cities across Europe and America. In Canada alone, Saint John and Toronto welcomed Irish immigrants who accounted for more than half of the cities’ population in the mid-1850s.

Back in Ireland, the famine had teamed up with occasional outbreaks like cholera, influenza, fever and smallpox to finish off the people. In 1849, blight still lingered on the fields, as people lived in unhygienic conditions. Quite frankly, neither the British nor the Irish government had a clue on how to get out of the Great Famine.

Post-Famine Ireland and Global Reaction

Starting around 1850, the Irish began to get some bit of respite as the potency of the famine decreased. Left in its path was hundreds of emptied communities and silenced the streets. It remains unknown whether or not the Irishman immediately went back to trust the potato fields.

A census in 1851 projected about 1,600,000 fall in the Irish population from the previous decade. It was estimated that a million people died from the famine. The number of emigrations hovered around a million as well.

The Irish people felt the Victorian overlords failed to respond adequately to their plight. In Peter Gray’s “The Irish Famine”, he claimed that British reliefs (estimated at £7 million) were worth less than half percentage of their (British’s) five year GDP. Many critics, including Dennis Clark and James A. Froude, pointed out Britain’s neglect, or at least, tepid response to their Irish subjects.

In the immediate aftermath of the famine, the Irishman came to deeply resent British rule. And part of the reasons for the Irish War of Independence in 1919 could be ascribed to experiences in the Potato Famine.

There has not been any official apology from Great Britain, but in 1997, Tony Blair delivered an official, or otherwise personal apology for British’s response to the famine.

Several memorials of the Great Famine have been erected in Canada, Australia and Britain, among others. In Connecticut, the Great Hunger Museum was built at the Quinnipiac University to keep academic materials on the famine. In Ireland, the famine is commemorated annually on a Sunday in May.

The Alex Pentek’s “Kindred Spirits” sculpture in Midleton, Ireland, is an appreciation to the financial help received from the Choctaw people in America. The Native American Choctaws, who had themselves experienced the ills of the Trail of Tears, donated about $170 dollars (around 5,300 in today’s dollars) to the people of Ireland in 1847.

Frequently asked questions about the Irish Potato Famine

What caused the famine?

The primary cause was a potato disease called late blight (Phytophthora infestans), which destroyed much of the Irish potato crop, the staple food for a large portion of the population.

How many people died during the famine?

It is estimated that around one million people died from starvation and famine-related diseases during this period.

Did people leave Ireland because of the famine?

Yes, more than a million people emigrated during or immediately after the famine, primarily to North America, but also to Great Britain, Australia, and other parts of the world.

How did the British government respond to the famine?

The British government’s response is widely criticized for being inadequate and, at times, exacerbating the crisis. While some relief efforts were made, many measures were ineffective or harmful.

Were there other food sources available?

While potatoes were the staple for the poor, Ireland was still producing and exporting more expensive foods like grain and livestock, which were often out of reach for the impoverished Irish.

Why was Ireland so dependent on the potato?

The potato was a high-yield crop that provided necessary nutrients, and a small plot could feed a family, making it the primary food source for the rural poor.

What were the ‘soup kitchens’?

In 1847, as a relief measure, the British government set up soup kitchens that provided free food, which at their peak, fed up to three million people daily.

What was the ‘Public Works Scheme’?

Introduced by the British government, this scheme provided employment for the Irish by building roads and other infrastructure, though wages were low, and the work was often unproductive.

Did the famine affect the entire island equally?

While the famine impacted all of Ireland, the western and southern parts were more severely affected due to their greater dependence on the potato.

How did the famine influence Irish culture and identity?

The famine profoundly affected Irish nationalism, diaspora, and memory. It also had lasting impacts on the country’s demographics, politics, and relationship with Britain.

What was the role of landlords during the famine?

Landlords’ responses varied. Some tried to help their tenants, while others engaged in evictions if tenants couldn’t pay rent. Many of the evictions exacerbated the crisis.

How is the famine remembered today?

The famine is commemorated in Ireland and among the Irish diaspora with monuments, museums, and annual remembrance events. It remains a significant event in Irish historical consciousness.

Were there any positive outcomes from the famine?

It’s challenging to speak of ‘positives,’ but the famine led to various land reforms in subsequent decades. The mass emigration also established significant Irish communities abroad, influencing global culture and politics.

Did other countries assist during the famine?

Yes, international relief came from places like the Ottoman Empire, the United States, and Australia, among others.

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