Causes and contributing factors
Since the Acts of Union in January 1801, Ireland had been part of the United Kingdom. Executive power lay in the hands of the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and Chief Secretary for Ireland, who were appointed by the British government. Ireland sent 105 members of parliament to the House of Commons of the United Kingdom, and Irish representative peers elected 28 of their own number to sit for life in the House of Lords. Between 1832 and 1859, 70% of Irish representatives were landowners or the sons of landowners.
In the 40 years that followed the union, successive British governments grappled with the problems of governing a country which had, as Benjamin Disraeli put it in 1844, "a starving population, an absentee aristocracy, an alien established Protestant church, and in addition the weakest executive in the world." One historian calculated that, between 1801 and 1845, there had been 114 commissions and 61 special committees enquiring into the state of Ireland, and that "without exception their findings prophesied disaster; Ireland was on the verge of starvation, her population rapidly increasing, three-quarters of her labourers unemployed, housing conditions appalling and the standard of living unbelievably low".
Lectures printed in 1847 by John Hughes, Bishop of New York, are a contemporary exploration into the antecedent causes, particularly the political climate, in which the Irish famine occurred.
During the Famine, Ireland produced enough food, flax, and wool to feed and clothe double its nine million people. When Ireland had suffered a famine in 1782–83, its ports were closed to keep Irish-grown food in Ireland to feed the Irish. Local food prices promptly dropped. Merchants lobbied against the export ban, but Grattan's Parliament, exercising the short-lived powers within the Constitution of 1782, overrode their protests. There was no such export ban in the 1840s. Some historians have argued, because exports were not stopped, the famine was artificial and a consequence of the British government's failure to retain foodstuffs in the country.
Laws that restricted the rights of Irish Catholics
In the 17th and 18th centuries, Irish Catholics were strongly discriminated against. They constituted the vast majority of the population, but they had been prohibited by the penal laws from purchasing or leasing land, voting, holding political office, living in or within 5 miles (8 km) of a corporate town, obtaining education, entering a profession, and doing many other things necessary for a person to succeed and prosper in society. By 1793, such laws had largely been reformed and the Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829 allowed Irish Catholics to again sit in parliament.
Landlords and tenants
During the 18th century, the "middleman system" for managing landed property was introduced. Rent collection was left in the hands of the landlords' agents, or middlemen. This assured the landlord of a regular income, and relieved them of direct responsibility, while leaving tenants open to exploitation by the middlemen.
Catholics, the bulk of whom lived in conditions of poverty and insecurity despite Catholic emancipation in 1829, made up 80% of the population. At the top of the "social pyramid" was the "ascendancy class", the English and Anglo-Irish families who owned most of the land, and held more or less unchecked power over their tenants. Some of their estates were vast; for example, the Earl of Lucan owned more than 60,000 acres (240 km2). Many of these absentee landlords lived in England. The rent revenue—collected from "impoverished tenants" who were paid minimal wages to raise crops and livestock for export—was mostly sent to England.
In 1843, the British Government considered that the land question in Ireland was the root cause of disaffection in the country. They established a Royal Commission, chaired by the Earl of Devon, to enquire into the laws regarding the occupation of land. Daniel O'Connell described this commission as "perfectly one-sided", being composed of landlords, with no tenant representation.
In February 1845, Devon reported:
It would be impossible adequately to describe the privations which they [the Irish labourer and his family] habitually and silently endure ... in many districts their only food is the potato, their only beverage water ... their cabins are seldom a protection against the weather ... a bed or a blanket is a rare luxury ... and nearly in all their pig and a manure heap constitute their only property.
The Commissioners concluded they could not "forbear expressing our strong sense of the patient endurance which the labouring classes have exhibited under sufferings greater, we believe, than the people of any other country in Europe have to sustain". The Commission stated that bad relations between landlord and tenant were principally responsible. There was no hereditary loyalty, feudal tie, or mitigating tradition of paternalism as existed in England (Ireland was a conquered country). The Earl of Clare observed of landlords that "confiscation is their common title". According to the historian Cecil Woodham-Smith, landlords regarded the land as a source of income, from which as much as possible was to be extracted. With the Irish "brooding over their discontent in sullen indignation" (in the words of the Earl of Clare), the landlords largely viewed the countryside as a hostile place in which to live. Some landlords visited their property only once or twice in a lifetime, if ever. The rents from Ireland were generally spent elsewhere; an estimated £6,000,000 was remitted out of Ireland in 1842.
The ability of middlemen was measured by the rent income they could contrive to extract from tenants. They were described in evidence before the Commission as "land sharks", "bloodsuckers", and "the most oppressive species of tyrant that ever lent assistance to the destruction of a country". The middlemen leased large tracts of land from the landlords on long leases with fixed rents, which they sublet as they saw fit. They would split a holding into smaller and smaller parcels so as to increase the amount of rent they could obtain. Tenants could be evicted for reasons such as non-payment of rents (which were high), or a landlord's decision to raise sheep instead of grain crops. A cottier paid his rent by working for the landlord.
As any improvement made on a holding by a tenant became the property of the landlord when the lease expired or was terminated, the incentive to make improvements was limited. Most tenants had no security of tenure on the land; as tenants "at will", they could be turned out whenever the landlord chose. The only exception to this arrangement was in Ulster where, under a practice known as "tenant right", a tenant was compensated for any improvement they made to their holding. According to Woodham-Smith, the commission stated that "the superior prosperity and tranquility of Ulster, compared with the rest of Ireland, were due to tenant right".
Landlords in Ireland often used their powers without compunction, and tenants lived in dread of them. Woodham-Smith writes that, in these circumstances, "industry and enterprise were extinguished and a peasantry created which was one of the most destitute in Europe".
Tenants, subdivisions, and bankruptcy
In 1845, 24% of all Irish tenant farms were of 0.4–2 hectares (1–5 acres) in size, while 40% were of 2–6 hectares (5–15 acres). Holdings were so small that no crop other than potatoes would suffice to feed a family. Shortly before the famine, the British government reported that poverty was so widespread that one-third of all Irish small holdings could not support the tenant families after rent was paid; the families survived only by earnings as seasonal migrant labour in England and Scotland. Following the famine, reforms were implemented making it illegal to further divide land holdings.
The 1841 census showed a population of just over eight million. Two-thirds of those depended on agriculture for their survival, but they rarely received a working wage. They had to work for their landlords in return for the patch of land they needed to grow enough food for their own families. This was the system which forced Ireland and its peasantry into monoculture, since only the potato could be grown in sufficient quantity. The rights to a plot of land in Ireland could mean the difference between life and death in the early 19th century.
An Irish Peasant Family Discovering the Blight of their Store
by Cork artist Daniel MacDonald, c.
1847. For economic reasons, the Irish peasantry had become dependent on potato crop.
The potato was introduced to Ireland as a garden crop of the gentry. The potato was not popular at first; however, after an unusual promotion campaign that was supported by landowners and members of royalty, who wanted their tenants to plant and eat the crop, it rose in popularity. By the late 17th century, it had become widespread as a supplementary rather than a principal food; the main diet was still based on butter, milk, and grain products. By 1800 to 1820, the potato became a staple of the poor, especially in winter. Furthermore, a disproportionate share of the potatoes grown in Ireland were of a single variety, the Irish Lumper.
With the expansion of the economy between 1760 and 1815, the potato was increasingly adopted by the people and became a staple food year round for farmers. The widespread dependency on this single crop, and the lack of genetic variability among the potato plants in Ireland and Europe (a monoculture), were two of the reasons why the emergence of Phytophthora infestans had such devastating effects in Ireland and in similar areas of Europe.
Potatoes were essential to the development of the cottier system; they supported an extremely cheap workforce, but at the cost of lower living standards. For the labourer, "a potato wage" shaped the expanding agrarian economy.
The expansion of tillage led to an inevitable expansion of the potato acreage and an expansion of the number of peasant farmers. By 1841, there were over half a million peasant farmers, with 1.75 million dependants. The principal beneficiary of this system was the English consumer who increased their consumption of beef raised in Ireland.
The Celtic grazing lands of ... Ireland had been used to pasture cows for centuries. The British colonised ... the Irish, transforming much of their countryside into an extended grazing land to raise cattle for a hungry consumer market at home ... The British taste for beef had a devastating impact on the impoverished and disenfranchised people of ... Ireland ... pushed off the best pasture land and forced to farm smaller plots of marginal land, the Irish turned to the potato, a crop that could be grown abundantly in less favorable soil. Eventually, cows took over much of Ireland, leaving the native population virtually dependent on the potato for survival.
The potato was also used extensively as a fodder crop for livestock immediately prior to the famine. Approximately 33% of production, amounting to 5,000,000 short tons (4,500,000 t), was normally used in this way.
Blight in Ireland
Suggested paths of migration and diversification of P. infestans
lineages HERB-1 and US-1
Prior to the arrival in Ireland of the disease Phytophthora infestans, commonly known as "blight", only two main potato plant diseases had been identified. One was called "dry rot" or "taint", and the other was a virus known popularly as "curl". Phytophthora infestans is an oomycete (a variety of parasitic, non-photosynthetic algae, and not a fungus).
In 1851, the Census of Ireland Commissioners recorded 24 failures of the potato crop going back to 1728, of varying severity. General crop failures, through disease or frost, were recorded in 1739, 1740, 1770, 1800, and 1807. In 1821 and 1822, the potato crop failed in Munster and Connaught. In 1830 and 1831, Mayo, Donegal, and Galway suffered likewise. In 1832, 1833, 1834, and 1836, dry rot and curl caused serious losses, and in 1835 the potato failed in Ulster. Widespread failures throughout Ireland occurred in 1836, 1837, 1839, 1841, and 1844. According to Woodham-Smith, "the unreliability of the potato was an accepted fact in Ireland".
How and when the blight Phytophthora infestans arrived in Europe is still uncertain; however, it almost certainly was not present prior to 1842, and probably arrived in 1844. The origin of the pathogen has been traced to the Toluca Valley in Mexico, whence it spread first within North America and then to Europe. The 1845–46 blight was caused by the HERB-1 strain of the blight.
Potato production during the Great Famine.
Note: years 1844, 1845, 1846, and 1848 are extrapolated.
In 1844, Irish newspapers carried reports concerning a disease which for two years had attacked the potato crops in America. In 1843 and 1844, blight largely destroyed the potato crops in the Eastern United States. Ships from Baltimore, Philadelphia, or New York City could have carried diseased potatoes from these areas to European ports. American plant pathologist William C. Paddock posited that the blight was transported via potatoes being carried to feed passengers on clipper ships sailing from America to Ireland. Once introduced in Ireland and Europe, blight spread rapidly. By mid-August 1845, it had reached much of northern and central Europe; Belgium, The Netherlands, northern France, and southern England had all already been affected.
On 16 August 1845, The Gardeners' Chronicle and Horticultural Gazette reported "a blight of unusual character" on the Isle of Wight. A week later, on 23 August, it reported that "A fearful malady has broken out among the potato crop ... In Belgium the fields are said to be completely desolated. There is hardly a sound sample in Covent Garden market ... As for cure for this distemper, there is none." These reports were extensively covered in Irish newspapers. On 11 September, the Freeman's Journal reported on "the appearance of what is called 'cholera' in potatoes in Ireland, especially in the north". On 13 September,[fn 1] The Gardeners' Chronicle announced: "We stop the Press with very great regret to announce that the potato Murrain has unequivocally declared itself in Ireland."
Nevertheless, the British government remained optimistic over the next few weeks, as it received conflicting reports. Only when the crop was lifted (harvested) in October, did the scale of destruction become apparent. Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel wrote to Sir James Graham in mid-October that he found the reports "very alarming", but reminded him that there was, according to Woodham-Smith, "always a tendency to exaggeration in Irish news".
Crop loss in 1845 has been estimated at anywhere from one third to as high as one half of cultivated acreage. The Mansion House Committee in Dublin, to which hundreds of letters were directed from all over Ireland, claimed on 19 November 1845 to have ascertained beyond the shadow of doubt that "considerably more than one-third of the entire of the potato crop ... has been already destroyed".
In 1846, three-quarters of the harvest was lost to blight. By December, a third of a million destitute people were employed in public works. According to Cormac Ó Gráda, the first attack of potato blight caused considerable hardship in rural Ireland, from the autumn of 1846, when the first deaths from starvation were recorded. Seed potatoes were scarce in 1847. Few had been sown, so, despite average yields, hunger continued. 1848 yields were only two-thirds of normal. Since over three million Irish people were totally dependent on potatoes for food, hunger and famine were inevitable.