Great Famine

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Great Famine

The Great Famine of 1845 to 1850 was the most serious peacetime catastrophe to afflict any part of nineteenth-century Europe. The 1851 Irish census revealed that the population had fallen from the 8.2 million recorded in 1841 to 6.6 million; when estimates of natural growth in the early 1840s are taken into account, the "missing" amounted to some 2.4 million people, more than a quarter of the island's population. Separating the number of emigrants from the dead is difficult, but research from the 1980s suggests that the total killed by famine and its associated diseases was around 1.1 million people.

The Great Famine was the consequence of a combination of structural and triggering causes. Although there was nothing inevitable about the onset of famine, by the mid-1840s Irish society was acutely vulnerable. The rural population had grown rapidly from the mid-eighteenth century as increasing British demand for imported foodstuffs had promoted a massive growth in Irish tillage production. From around 1815, however, this agricultural boom collapsed, leading to sharper landlord-tenant conflict, increasing evictions, and the ever-worsening impoverishment of the landless and land-poor peasant families who made up a substantial part of the rural population. The following decades also witnessed a sharp contraction of the cottage-based linen-spinning industry, which had spread rapidly in the west and center of Ireland. Many families now saw their earnings collapse and were thrown into greater dependence on the one subsistence crop that they could grow in sufficient quantities in their cottage gardens, or "conacre" land plots rented from larger farmers. While these adverse economic conditions led to a reduction in the rate of population growth and promoted a modest rise in emigration, the population of Ireland had by the early 1840s reached a density on cultivated land of around 700 individuals per square mile, among the highest in Europe. Over 1.5 million of the landless laboring poor had no other significant source of food than the potato; three million more from the cottier peasant class of families renting small plots of land were also very largely dependent on this subsistence food.

The fungal infestation of the potato blight reached Ireland from North America via the low countries and Britain in the fall of 1845. The disease was unknown and misunderstood, and no effective remedy was available to farmers until decades later. Accidental in its timing, the blight would produce an ecological catastrophe almost unparalleled in modern history. Up to a third of the Irish potato crop was lost in 1845. Mild and damp conditions favorable to the blight promoted its earlier appearance in 1846, when more than three-quarters of the crop was ravaged, leaving millions without their subsistence food or the seed vital to plant again in 1847. After a brief lapse the disease returned in 1848 and 1849, prolonging the famine crisis in many parts of Ireland. The blight faded in the early 1850s, but the potato never returned to the extraordinary levels of productivity witnessed before 1845. Further outbreaks in the early 1860s and in 1879 again threatened parts of Ireland with famine.

Much controversy surrounds the question of whether the failure of the potato crop alone was sufficient to produce famine in Ireland. Despite its economic malaise, prefamine Ireland was continuing to export large quantities of grain and animal products to Great Britain, for the profit of landowners and larger farmers. Export of these higher-valued foodstuffs continued throughout the Great Famine period, to the outrage of many commentators who were convinced that Ireland was "starving in the midst of plenty." However, the amounts of grain exported from Ireland in 1846 and 1847 amounted in food value only to around one-tenth of the loss occasioned by the potato blight. Even if exports had been prohibited, Ireland lacked sufficient food resources to stave off famine in this year. Furthermore, food imports to Ireland in 1846 to 1847, principally cheaper grains like maize and rice, were twice the volume of exports, and this proportion increased in the following years.

These aggregate figures mask an important truth. Food imports from the United States began to arrive in bulk only in the spring of 1847, after a "starvation gap" in the preceding winter when retention of the exported Irish grain would probably have kept many thousands alive. Moreover, even when imports did begin to arrive in bulk, driving down the price of food in Ireland from by the summer of 1847 to half the levels of six months earlier, destitution had rendered thousands incapable of purchasing what was available on the market. In its later years (1848–1850) the Great Famine changed its character from a total food deficit crisis to a "crisis of entitlement," in which mass unemployment, evictions, and physical vulnerability were more significant than aggregate food availability. As with all famines, human agency was central in determining the character and impact of the Great Famine.

The response of the British state to the Great Famine has been widely criticized. Sir Robert Peel's Conservative government did react reasonably promptly, initiating public-works schemes and establishing local relief committees and a central Relief Commission in early 1846. Peel also ordered the secret purchase of 100,000 pounds worth of American maize in order to regulate Irish grain prices and to introduce a taste in Ireland for the foodstuff that he hoped would permanently replace the potato. However, like his successors, Peel also hoped that the free market would ultimately solve the Irish problem in the wake of his repeal of the corn laws (which imposed tariffs on imported grains) in 1846. Peel was replaced in June 1846 by Lord John Russell's Whig administration, which immediately gave greater control over famine policy to the ideologue Charles Trevelyan, the senior administrator at the British Treasury. Under pressure from the merchant lobby the new government withdrew from all interference in the food trade and Trevelyan reorganized the public works to eradicate what he perceived as widespread abuses of the system by the laboring poor and self-interested landowners. The consequence in the winter of 1846 to 1847 was spiraling food prices and an overstretched public-works system, which neither produced improvements to Ireland's infrastructure nor provided the destitute with sufficient earnings to feed themselves. Outbreaks of typhus and relapsing fever, promoted by the harsh conditions of this bad winter, killed many thousands of the malnourished on the public works or in their cabins. Belatedly acknowledging the scale of human suffering, the government decided to abandon public works for direct feeding of the destitute at local soup kitchens in the late spring of 1847. These soup kitchens provided only the bare minimum of subsistence, but more than three million rations were being issued daily at their peak and undoubtedly they kept many alive.

By the late summer of 1847 the government considered the famine to be over and replaced the soup kitchens with relief through the mechanism of the Irish poor law. This decision proved catastrophic, especially in the south and west. Many devastated localities were unable to raise the heavy local taxation required to support the masses of destitute, and landowners engaged on campaigns of wholesale eviction to reduce their tax burdens and clear land for livestock farming. The over-crowded workhouses rapidly became breeding centers for diseases that continued to ravage the uprooted poor. Despite appeals from philanthropists and relief officials for government aid, virtually no state assistance was granted in the latter years of the famine. This was not the result of a deliberate policy of genocide, as nationalists later claimed, but of a dogmatic belief that relieving the famine was the responsibility of landowners and that a measure of suffering was required to break Irish so-called dependency on welfarism and state aid.

From late 1846 emigration from Ireland took on a new and extraordinary character. Over one million fled Ireland during the Great Famine years, some with savings and hopes of a better life, but the majority as economic refugees. Most first took the short and cheap crossing to Britain, frequently bringing typhus with them into the slums of port cities, and often onto the converted cargo ships that carried thousands to Canada in 1847. This was by far the worst route, with up to one in five emigrants dying on these "coffin ships" or shortly after arrival. Direct passage to America became more common from 1848, and while conditions were better, they were still harsh and mortality was high. Irish Catholic immigrants frequently faced hostility and exploitation on arrival in Britain, Canada, and the United States; most tended to congregate in urban areas seeking laboring work wherever available.

The Great Famine was a national catastrophe, although mortality was most acute in the southern and western counties of Ireland. The indifference to mass suffering of most of the landlord class and the government (each of which blamed the other) unquestionably worsened the situation and resulted in large numbers of unnecessary deaths. Unsurprisingly, it left a bitter memory within both Ireland and the extended Irish diaspora, which continues to this day.

SEE ALSO Agriculture: 1690 to 1845; Agriculture: 1845 to 1921; American Wakes; Family: Marriage Patterns and Family Life from 1690 to 1921; Famine Clearances; Indian Corn or Maize; Migration: Emigration from the Seventeenth Century to 1845; Migration: Emigration from 1850 to 1960; Mitchel, John; Poor Law Amendment Act of 1847 and the Gregory Clause; Population, Economy, and Society from 1750 to 1950; Population Explosion; Potato and Potato Blight (Phytophthora infestans); Protestant Ascendancy: Decline, 1800 to 1930; Religious Society of Friends (Quakers); Rural Life: 1690 to 1845; Rural Life: 1850 to 1921; Subdivision and Subletting of Holdings; Town Life from 1690 to the Early Twentieth Century; Young Ireland and the Irish Confederation; Primary Documents: On Rural Society on the Eve of the Great Famine (1844–1845)


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Gray, Peter. Famine, Land, and Politics: British Government and Irish Society, 1843–1850. 1999.

Ó Gráda, Cormac. The Great Irish Famine. 1989.

Ó Gráda, Cormac. Black '47 and Beyond: The Great Irish Famine in History, Economy, and Memory. 1999.

Póirtéir, Cathal, ed. The Great Irish Famine. 1995.

Woodham-Smith, Cecil. The Great Hunger: Ireland, 1845–1849. 1962.

Peter Gray

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Great Famine

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