Great Famine (Ireland)
An Gorta Mór/Drochshaol
|Total deaths||1 million|
|Observations||Policy failure, |
|Impact on demographics||Population fell by 20–25% due to mortality and emigration|
|Consequences||Permanent change in the country's demographic, political and cultural landscape|
The Great Famine (
The event is sometimes referred to as the Irish Potato Famine, mostly outside Ireland. The
The famine was a watershed in the
The potato blight returned to Europe in 1879, but by that point the
In the 40 years that followed the union, successive British governments grappled with the problems of governing a country which had, as
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
In 1843, the British Government considered that the land question in Ireland was the root cause of disaffection in the country. They established a
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
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
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
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".
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
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
With the expansion of the economy between 1760 and 1815, the potato was increasingly adopted by the people and became a
Potatoes were essential to the development of the
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
Prior to the arrival in Ireland of the disease
In 1851, the Census of Ireland Commissioners recorded 24
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
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
On 16 August 1845,
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
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
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