Ireland’s Famished Years



Irelands Famished Years

The Irish Holocaust 1845 -1855

This document takes a look at what triggered the great hunger in Ireland, and what it meant for the people living there at the time. It also explores what happened to those Irish people who decided to leave Ireland because of the famine, and the impact they had on their new homes. Finally the paper introduces one of the stickiest issues in Irish history; the ownership of the land, the attempts that were made to rectify the situation.

The Great Famine of the 1840s marked a watershed in modern Irish history. Of course, there had been famines before in Irish history, and there had been heavy emigration before the 1840s and changes in family structure, farm size, marriage patterns, agricultural output, religious practice, even political outlook, can be detected before the arrival of the potato blight. Nonetheless the extraordinary intensity of the Great Famine, that is to say, the compression into a few years of changes that would ordinarily have taken decades to work through, moves it decisively beyond the role of a mere accelerator of earlier trends. Especially, the famine set in train the unprecedented mass emigration which throughly reconfigured Irish life and society in the later 19th and 20th centuries. From the 1850s on, with the formation of an Irish nation abroad, the history of Ireland and the history of the Irish people decisively diverged, with profound consequences for both Ireland and the Irish.[1]

In September 1845 the first signs of a fungal disease in Irish potatoes appeared. The potato had fed generations of Irish people and now was inexplicably rotting in the fields and people started to go hungry. The impact of the potato blight was immediate. So much so that the editor of the Gardeners Chronicle made a dramatic announcement “We stop the press with very great regret to announce that the potato Murrain has unequivocally declared itself in Ireland. The crops above Dublin are suddenly perishing. Where will Ireland be in the event of the universal potato rot?” In that year only one third of the crop was lost, but in 1846 the fungus reappeared and the failure of the potato harvest was near total. The crops failed again in 1848 and 1849, and the knock-on effects of poor harvests and lack of food began taking their toll on the population.

The potato ‘murrain’ or blight was phytophthora infestans, a microscopic fungus spread by the wind and the rain, particularly during mild and humid weather. This previously unknown disease, brought from America, rapidly turned the potato stocks black and reduced the tubers in the soil to a stinking pulp. As the crop was being lifted during the autumn of 1845 reports of failure came from across the island.  A Belfast newspaper, The Vindicator, predicted on October 22, “the failure of the potato crop in Ireland is now confirmed. A large portion of the crop turns out to be quite useless for purposes of food. A dearth is inevitable; and a famine is extremely probable. The Irish peasantry rely almost exclusively upon potatoes for their subsistence; and when the crop fields, they have nothing to fall back on the grass, nettles, and seaweed.”

Families were decimated by the famine, and in many cases entire generations perished. During the course of the famine Ireland suffered terribly. In the ten-year period in 1841 to 1851 the population had fallen from 8 million to 6 1/2 million. More than half this figure had died from hunger or associated disease. The remainder had fled the famine and emigrated. In 1841 the Irish census revealed that just over 8 million lived on the island; and, by 1845, when the potato blight struck, that figure was probably closer to 8.5 million. By 1851, when the famine had run its course, the census of that year showed that the Irish population had fallen by over 20%, with 1 million dead from starvation and disease and another million or so having fled to Britain or North America.[2]

The numbers who lost their life in the famine, or who chose to emigrate, represents a disaster of epic proportions. It changed Ireland forever, and had a profound effect on many other nations. Beneath the figures were thousands of personal and family tragedies, stories of charity and, in some cases, weak and misguided government decisions that exasperated an awful situation.

In 1847 the fungus that had struck the potato did not return. Despite this good news, 1847 was one of the worst years of the famine, and has earned the name Black 47. Although the fungus did not return to blight the potato crop in 1847, the loss of life and dislocation that had been caused in 1846 meant that few potatoes had actually been planted. As a result the crop in 1847 was small and inadequate to feed the population. In the winter of 1847, 400,000 people died in Ireland as a result of the famine.

When the potato blight struck for a second time in 1846, every part of Ireland was affected. Fr. Theobald Mathew, after travelling from Dublin to Cork, wrote to Charles Trevelyan, Head of the Treasury, on August 7th: “I beheld with sorrow one wide wasteland of putrefying vegetation. In many places the wretched people sat on the fences of their decaying gardens, wringing their hands and wailing bitterly on the destruction. The food of a whole nation has perished.”[3]

The soup kitchens that were established across Ireland in 1847 were invaluable in keeping countless people alive who would have otherwise starved. The effort, which was undertaken by government, local authorities, charities, and private individuals, was an amazing achievement in the context of the enormity of the crisis. There were, however, negative aspects to the endeavour. Stories circulated that Protestant organisations established soup kitchens, but would only feed those families who converted from Catholicism to Protestantism. The level of desperation meant that many undertook the change and were derided with the label ‘soupers’.

While the potato crop either failed or was small during these years, much Irish land was actually farmed commercially and was designed to produce crops for export out of Ireland. In 1847, while people were dying in great numbers, exports of food crops from Ireland were high. The British government believed in free trade, and for them the market was king. Ideologically they did not believe in government intervention. Rather than the food being kept in Ireland to feed people, it left the ports for its intended export market. In 1847 alone, it is estimated that 4000 ships left Irish ports laden with food grown in Irish soil, but destined for sale in foreign markets.

With only a small yield of food from the potato crop, people were dependent on charity. Otherwise they would die. The government had three main approaches to feeding people and these were: employing them on large-scale public works schemes in return for their wages, feeding them directly through soup kitchens or providing food and shelter for them in workhouses. By the end of 1847, believing the worst was over; the government scaled down the public works programme and closed the soup kitchens. The following year the potato fungus returned with renewed ferocity and people starved once more.

One of the biggest killers during the famine wasn’t the actual starvation; it was the diseases that the weakened bodies succumbed to. Contagious diseases were a common feature of mid-19th-century life, and epidemics of diseases such as cholera weren’t unusual. In addition, during the famine years the conditions in Ireland where unsanitary – even by 19th-century standards. People were in weakened states, and less resistant to the various diseases that affected the country. The most common diseases where are diarrhoea, typhus, cholera, dysentery, and scurvy. It was these illnesses which were devastating to the starving population.

Disposing of bodies was a huge problem. Given the faith of the Irish, the act of burial was an important one. But in an environment of numerous deaths such procedures could not always be followed. Bodies were found in cabins, in the fields, and by the roadside. Until they could be buried, rats and stray dogs were devouring the corpses. Such conditions only hastened the spread of disease and forced the authorities to act. At various times during the famine bodies had to be buried, without Coffins, in large trenches.

The cycle of starvation and disease was difficult to break. In the context of the famine, 1849 was one of the better years in terms of the potato crop, and a slight decline in the number of dead. However that year, a cholera epidemic hit Ireland and many of those who survived the famine succumbed to the disease. The absence of food in a society will always lead to hunger and starvation. The most virulent killer in such situations will always be those diseases associated with unsanitary conditions, problems with the water supply, and the difficulties of disposing of dead bodies.

When the potato crop failed, and people started dying in Ireland, British Prime Minister Robert Peel was forced to act. In November 1845 he set up a central relief commission, and, he bought £100,000 of maize then known as American Indian corn to feed people in Ireland, and also set up a scientific enquiry to investigate what caused the fungus to strike the potato. As the cargoes arrived from America in February 1846 Peel made more money available and ordered the army commissariat to set up the depots across the country to store 44 million pounds of corn. The plan was not to give up the corn free, but to sell it at cost price. The effect was to keep down the price of other foodstuffs. This “yellow means”, was at first condemned as ‘Peel’s brimstone’ but a government halfpenny pamphlet, telling people how to cook it, sold in tens of thousands. Peel also set up a scientific commission which issued completely useless advice on how to protect stored potatoes from infection. The experts of the day were quite unable to find a way of halting the blight.

The Prime Minister also put bills through Parliament in January 1846 to fund public works for the destitute so that they could earn money to buy food. Then, in June 1846, Peel committed an act of political suicide. With the aid of the Whig opposition, he brought about the repeal of the Corn Laws in an attempt to encourage the importation of cheap grain into Ireland. For the Tory grandees this was unforgivable treachery. The Duke of Wellington was outraged: “rotten potatoes have done it all,” he expostulated; “they put Peel in his dammed fright.” Peel had no choice but to resign. In July the opposition Whig leader, Lord John Russell, formed a government. Russell turned for advice to Charles Trevelyan, the civil servant at the head of the Treasury. Trevelyan recommended a drastic reduction in the distribution of subsidised food and a major extension of public works. Free-market forces must not be disrupted by government interference. The poor must work for their food. In his memorandum to the Cabinet on 1 August 1846 Trevelyan advised that “the supply of the home market may safely be left to the foresight of private merchants.”[4]

Trevelyan devised a new system of public works in August. To fit in with Trevelyan’s free-market philosophy, warmly shared by the Whig government, the works were not to compete with capitalist enterprise, and they were confined to building walls, roads, bridges, causeways and fences. The new relief works were to be financed entirely out of rates – Irish property was to pay for Irish poverty. It was not until October that this cumbersome bureaucracy (eventually numbering 12,000 officials) could issue tickets giving employment to those considered sufficiently destitute. There were also suggestions that the Irish ports should be closed to stop the further exports of corn. This proposal was firmly rejected by Trevelyan who said he did not want to encourage the idea of prohibiting exports, perfect free trade in his opinion was the right course.

Meanwhile the depots providing subsidised Indian corn, set up by Peel’s Tory government in the previous year, were being closed down. Too late in the day Trevelyan decided to attempt to buy corn abroad. The harvest across Europe in 1846 had been very poor, and there was no surplus for sale. The American maize harvest had already mostly been bought up. Even if corn could be purchased, it would not be ready for transportation until December, a month when American Rivers were mostly frozen over. And yet oats, wheat and barley, grown and harvested in Ireland, continued to be shipped out of the country across the Irish Sea.

The effects of the famine didn’t have the same impact on Ireland’s individual regions. While all areas were affected by lack of food and the spread of disease, the resulting number of deaths was not uniform. It was the poorest areas, those whose agricultural development was lowest, that were worse affected. In parts of the country where peasant farmers had large families, but small plots of land, the death toll was highest. Two groups suffered most: families that depended on their income from small holdings (subsistence farming on a small acreage to produce food for the family), and landless labourers (those who relied on employment working on the farms of others). If one was lucky enough to live in Ulster, where there was industrial employment, the effects of the famine where negligible. If one lived in the poor rural areas of the west and south-west, and were trying to survive on a small plot of potatoes, then one’s chances of dying were highest.

One of the many who recorded the devastation was the Rev Samuel Montgomery, rector of Ballinascreen, Co. Londonderry. He made this entry in the parish register: “On the three last days of July and for six days of August 1846 the potatoes were suddenly attacked, when in their full growth, with a sudden blight. The tops were first observed to wither and then, on looking to the roots, the tubers were found hastening to decomposition. The entire crop that in the month of July appeared so luxuriant, about 15 August manifested only black and blue withered stems. The whole atmosphere in the month of September was tainted with the odour of the decaying potatoes.”[5] The real worry was whether or not the potatoes successfully saved would escape the blight. Soon the worst fears were confirmed. News began to come in the potatoes were rotting in clamps and stores. The medical officer for Coleraine workhouse reported: “nothing else is heard of, nothing else is spoken of, and Famine must be looked forward to.”[6]


[1] Thomas Bartlett, Ireland A History, Cambridge University Press, 2010, p. 282

[2] Peter Gray, Famine, Land And Politics; British Government And Irish Society 1843–50 (Dublin, 1999);Cathal Poirteir (ed), The Great Irish Famine (Cork, 1995); James Donnelly Jr, The Great Irish Potato Famine (Stroud, Gloucs., 2001); Cormac O Grada, The Great Irish Famine (Dublin, 1989); Timothy Guinnane, The Vanishing Irish: Households, Migration, And the Rural Economy in Ireland, 1850 – 1914 (Princeton, 1997).

[3] Jonathan Bardon, A History of Ireland In 250 Episodes, Gill & Macmillan, (2009), p.375

[4]  Jonathan Bardon, A History of Ireland In 250 Episodes, Gill & Macmillan, (2009), p.374

[5] Jonathan Bardon, A History of Ireland In 250 Episodes, Gill & Macmillan, (2009), p.373

[6] Jonathan Bardon, A History of Ireland In 250 Episodes, Gill & Macmillan, (2009), p.373



About Gerard Hannan

Media Student at MIC/UL in Limerick, Ireland. Worked as a Broadcaster/Journalist in Limerick for over 25 Years and has also published four local interest books.

Posted on April 25, 2014, in Ireland History. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

Please Take A Moment To Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: