Famine, Irish

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Famine, Irish (1845–51). The famine originated with the recurrent failure of the potato crop, devastating the Irish cottier and small farmer classes: around 1 million died in Ireland as a result either of starvation or—more commonly—disease. The origin of this demographic cataclysm lay with a fungus, phytophtora infestans, which destroyed half the Irish potato crop of 1845, and brought a near total crop failure in 1846. A partial recovery in 1847 was offset by a greatly reduced area under cultivation, so that although there was a good yield per acre sown, the total harvest was poor. The potato crop failed almost totally in 1848.

The social and economic consequences of the famine are disputed. But it is clear that excess mortality effectively doubled for the five years (1846–50). Mortality levels rose from 1846, reaching a peak in 1847–8, though there were social and regional variations. In addition the birth rate fell critically during the famine years. Emigration, a feature of Irish society since the early 18th cent., greatly expanded: between 1845 and 1870 there were at least 3 million Irish emigrants. Ireland emerged from the famine denuded of its cottiers and dominated by the farmer interest.

The political outfall from the famine offers few problems of interpretation. The Conservative administration of Sir Robert Peel initially tackled the blight with some success, importing Indian meal and establishing food depots. Peel's government fell in June 1846, to be replaced by a more doctrinaire Whig administration. The Whigs relied at first on an extensive scheme of public works, but this was abandoned in 1847, being replaced by soup-kitchens. The limited crop recovery in 1847 persuaded the government that the emergency had ended, and all special relief programmes were abolished. This apparent British complacency fired later 19th-cent. Irish nationalism.

The Great Famine affected all aspects of Irish life and remains one of the most emotive issues in modern Irish historiography. The dominant—‘revisionist’—view of the famine, until recently, was that it accelerated existing trends in Irish society: this, in turn, has been challenged by those who, like Cormac O Grada, emphasize the uniqueness of the event, and place less stress on the continuities.

Alvin Jackson

Irish famine

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Irish famine. See Famine, Irish.