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The Great Famine in Ireland (1845-1849)

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Before the “Great Famine”

As a result of the English colonization of the XII — XVIII centuries and repressive anti-Catholic laws of the indigenous Irish to the beginning of the XIX century, the Irish almost completely lost land possessions.

A new ruling stratum was formed in the country, consisting of Protestants, mainly immigrants from England and Scotland.

By the beginning of the XIX century, Ireland had become a source of raw materials for the development of industry in England and one of the sources of capital accumulation for the British commercial aristocracy.

The vast land in Ireland belonged to landlords (landowners), as a rule, who lived in Britain and leased the land to Irish shareholding farmers, who for a long time were not legally entitled to own, buy or sell land.

The rental rates were such that most Catholic farmers, or Cotters (approximately 6/7 of the Irish population), lived in extreme poverty.

Potatoes came to Ireland around 1590. Here the potato won considerable popularity as a food and as a fodder crop, because in the humid and mild climate of the island it gave good yields even on poor soil.

Most importantly, this crop produced a stable and sufficient crop for subsistence on a relatively small plot of land.

In such conditions, by the middle of the XIX century, almost one third of all the arable land of the island was occupied by potato plantings, and at least two thirds of the grown potatoes were used as food on the island’s domestic market.

For the majority of poor Irishmen, it is often the potato in various forms that formed the basis of their daily diet.

Agrarian coup and crop failures

Since the mid 40s. 19th century Ireland experienced an agrarian coup.

The fall in the price of bread (after the abolition of the “ grain laws ” in 1846 in England) prompted the landowners to begin an intensive transition from the system of small-scale peasant leases to large-scale pasture farming.

The process of expelling small tenants from the land (the so-called cleaning of estates) intensified.

The great famine

Crop failures were not something new for Ireland, and when they did happen, the government took certain measures to help the victims.

If the harvest was good the next year, then long-term problems, as a rule, did not arise.

So when, in 1845, the country suffered another potato crop failure, the British authorities did not cause any particular anxiety at first.

The cause of crop failure in 1845 was the spread of blight, or brown blight rot – a disease caused by parasitic fungi-like microorganisms (oomycetes).

In this disease, the infection is transmitted from plant to plant with water currents and upon contact of healthy parts of plants with affected ones.

Infected tubers begin to rot right in the ground or in storage.

In addition, after harvesting, the spores of the pathogen are preserved and with a current of water are transferred in the soil.

Since all the fields in the country were planted with one variety of potatoes, almost the entire crop was harmed.

The next season of 1846, the plant had to take infected tubers or low-quality seed potatoes for planting – everything that was saved.

But this only resulted in new crop failures. Many peasants were left without work. Landowners simply had nothing to pay them.

The government began to provide some assistance to the needy – for example, hired the most hardy ones to work, mainly for the construction of roads, so that they could somehow feed their families.

Many had no choice but to go to workhouses — an institution that recruited the poor. For their hard work they received food and shelter there.

Moreover, housing was often very poor, cool and damp, and food was often rotten. Not everyone was able to survive.

Apart from Ireland, the potato disease has spread to other European countries, but nowhere else has such disastrous effects.

But the worst was yet to come. The winter of 1846-1847 was unusually cold, so almost all outdoor activities were discontinued.

Various government agencies engaged in charity.

But the funds allocated from the state treasury to help the poor were exhausted in two years, and they were sorely lacking to help the ever-growing number of people exhausted from hunger.

To top it off, another disaster struck Ireland.

Landlords, many of whom themselves had debts, began to charge a large rent for their land plots in Ireland.

Few tenants could pay them, and as a result, thousands lost their land plots.

Some were evicted, others simply abandoned their lands and went to the cities in search of a better life.

But cities experienced their difficulties. The number of those for whom the only way out remained was to emigrate.

Emigration and new evils

Since the beginning of the XVIII century, the influx of Irish immigrants to the UK and America did not stop.

After the hungry winter of 1845, the number of emigrants increased tenfold. By the middle of the 19th century, a quarter of the population of the cities on the east coast of the United States was Irish.

In six years of hunger, five thousand ships crossed the Atlantic, overcoming a dangerous journey of five thousand kilometers.

Many of those ships had long since served their time. Some of them used to transport slaves.

If it were not for the critical situation, they would not go to sea on these ships.

Practically no comfort was provided for the passengers: people were forced to huddle in terrible crowded conditions, for half a year they were left hungry for years in unsanitary conditions.

Thousands of people, already weakened by hunger, fell ill during their journey. Many were dying.

In 1847, ships heading for the shores of Canada began to be called “floating coffins.” Of the 100,000 of their passengers, about 16,000 died on the way or shortly after arriving at their destination.

Although immigrants wrote to their relatives and friends who remained in Ireland about all the way and life in developing America, the flow of immigrants did not decrease.

Some landlords supported those who once rented land from them.

One, for example, provided his former tenants with three ships and helped a thousand people leave the country.

But these were episodes and most of the emigrants had to get money for the road themselves.

Often only one or two people could leave the whole family. Thousands never saw their relatives.

After two lean years and mass evictions of people from their lands, epidemics broke out. Irish mowed typhus, dysentery and scurvy.

In 1848, inspired by the good harvest of the previous season, farmers tripled the area of ​​potato fields.

But trouble struck: the summer was very rainy and the potato was again struck by late blight.

The crop died for the third time in four years.

Government agencies and charities were no longer able to rectify the situation.

But the troubles are not over. The cholera epidemic that erupted in 1849 claimed about 36 thousand lives.


Epidemic was the last in a series of misfortunes.

The following year, potato yields were healthy, and life began to improve.

The government passed new laws that annulled hunger debts. The population of the country began to grow again.

Although in the following years, late blight struck potato plantings several times, never again a country of similar magnitude fell upon the country.

In those few years of famine, Ireland lost 20–25% of its population.

Now in the United States alone, over 40 million people of Irish descent live.

US President John F. Kennedy and car magnate Henry Ford were direct descendants of immigrants who arrived from Ireland on one of the “floating coffins” during the “Great Famine.”

As a result of the famine, from 500 thousand to 1.5 million people died.

Emigration increased significantly (from 1846 to 1851 1.5 million people left). As a result, for the years 1841-1851.

Irish population declined by 30%.

And in the future, Ireland was rapidly losing its population: if in 1841 the population was 8 million 178 thousand people, then in 1901 it was only 4 million 459 thousand.


Mitchel J. 1869. The Limerik to the Present Time
Fitzgerald G. 1973. Towards a New Ireland


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