Great Famine (Ireland)

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Great Famine
an Gorta Mór
Skibbereen 1847 by Cork artist James Mahony (1810–1879), commissioned by Illustrated London News, 1847
Skibbereen 1847 by Cork artist James Mahony (1810–1879), commissioned by Illustrated London News, 1847
CountryUnited Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland
Total deaths1 million
ObservationsPolicy failure, potato blight, Corn Laws, British Anti-Popery
Reliefsee below
Impact on demographicsPopulation fell by 20–25% due to mortality and emigration
ConsequencesPermanent change in the country's demographic, political and cultural landscape
WebsiteList of memorials to the Great Famine
Preceded byIrish Famine (1740–1741)
Succeeded byIrish Famine, 1879 (An Gorta Beag)
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"Great Irish Famine" redirects here. For the 1740–1741 famine, see Irish Famine (1740–1741).
Great Famine
an Gorta Mór
Skibbereen 1847 by Cork artist James Mahony (1810–1879), commissioned by Illustrated London News, 1847
Skibbereen 1847 by Cork artist James Mahony (1810–1879), commissioned by Illustrated London News, 1847
CountryUnited Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland
Total deaths1 million
ObservationsPolicy failure, potato blight, Corn Laws, British Anti-Popery
Reliefsee below
Impact on demographicsPopulation fell by 20–25% due to mortality and emigration
ConsequencesPermanent change in the country's demographic, political and cultural landscape
WebsiteList of memorials to the Great Famine
Preceded byIrish Famine (1740–1741)
Succeeded byIrish Famine, 1879 (An Gorta Beag)

The Great Famine (Irish: an Gorta Mór) was a period of mass starvation, disease and emigration in Ireland between 1845 and 1852.[1] It is sometimes referred to, mostly outside Ireland, as the Irish Potato Famine because one-third of the population was then solely reliant on this cheap crop for a number of historical reasons.[2][3] During the famine approximately 1 million people died and a million more emigrated from Ireland,[4] causing the island's population to fall by between 20% and 25%.[5] The proximate cause of famine was a potato disease commonly known as potato blight.[6]

Although the potato crop failed, the country was still producing and exporting more than enough grain crops to feed the population. Records show during the period Ireland was exporting approximately thirty to fifty shiploads per day of food produce. As a consequence of these exports and a number of other factors such as land acquisition, absentee landlords and the effect of the 1690 penal laws, the Great Famine today is viewed by a number of historical academics as a form of either direct or indirect genocide.[7]

The famine was a watershed in the history of Ireland.[8] Its effects permanently changed the island's demographic, political and cultural landscape. For both the native Irish and those in the resulting diaspora, the famine entered folk memory[fn 1] and became a rallying point for various Home rule and United Ireland movements, as the whole island was then part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.

The massive famine soured the already strained relations between many of the Irish people and the British Crown, heightening Irish republicanism, which eventually led to Irish independence in the next century. Modern historians regard it as a dividing line in the Irish historical narrative, referring to the preceding period of Irish history as "pre-Famine".

Causes and contributing factors

Starting in 1801, Ireland had been directly governed, under the Act of Union, as part of the United Kingdom. Executive power lay in the hands of the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and Chief Secretary for Ireland, both of whom were appointed by the British government. Ireland sent 105 members of parliament to the House of Commons of the United Kingdom, and Irish representative peers elected 28 of their own number to sit for life in the House of Lords. Between 1832 and 1859, 70% of Irish representatives were landowners or the sons of landowners.[10]

In the 40 years that followed the union, successive British governments grappled with the problems of governing a country which had, as Benjamin Disraeli put it in 1844, "a starving population, an absentee aristocracy, and an alien Church, and in addition the weakest executive in the world."[11] One historian calculated that between 1801 and 1845, there had been 114 commissions and 61 special committees enquiring into the state of Ireland and that "without exception their findings prophesied disaster; Ireland was on the verge of starvation, her population rapidly increasing, three-quarters of her labourers unemployed, housing conditions appalling and the standard of living unbelievably low."[12]

Laws that restricted the rights of Irish Catholics

In the 17th and 18th centuries, Irish Catholics had been prohibited by the penal laws from purchasing or leasing land; from voting, from holding political office; from living in a corporate town or within 5 mi (8.0 km) of a corporate town, from obtaining education, from entering a profession, and from doing many other things necessary for a person to succeed and prosper in Irish society at the time. The laws had largely been reformed by 1793, and in 1829, Irish Catholics could again sit in parliament following the Act of Emancipation.[13]

Landlords and tenants

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 any responsibility; the tenants however were subject to exploitation by the middlemen.[14]

Catholics made up 80% of the population, the bulk of whom lived in conditions of poverty and insecurity despite Catholic emancipation in 1829. At the top of the "social pyramid" was the "ascendancy class", the English and Anglo-Irish families who owned most of the land, and who had more or less limitless power over their tenants. Some of their estates were vast: the Earl of Lucan owned over 60,000 acres (240 km2). Many of these landlords lived in England and were called "absentee landlords". The rent revenue was sent to England,[15] collected from "impoverished tenants" who were paid minimal wages to raise crops and livestock for export.[16]

In 1843, the British Government considered that the land question in Ireland was the root cause of disaffection in the country. They set up a Royal Commission, chaired by the Earl of Devon, to enquire into the laws regarding the occupation of land. Daniel O'Connell described this commission as "perfectly one-sided", being made up of landlords and no tenants.[17] Devon reported in February 1845 that "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."[18] The Commissioners concluded that 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."[18]

The Commission stated that bad relations between landlord and tenant were principally responsible. There was no hereditary loyalty, feudal tie or paternalism as existed in England. Ireland was a conquered country. The Earl of Clare said of the landlords, "confiscation is their common title."[19] According to the historian Cecil Woodham-Smith, the landlords regarded the land as a source of income from which to extract as much money as possible. With the Irish "brooding over their discontent in sullen indignation" according to the Earl of Clare, Ireland was seen as a hostile place in which to live, and as a consequence absentee landlords were common, with some visiting their property once or twice in a lifetime, or never.[19] The rents from Ireland were then spent elsewhere; an estimated £6,000,000 was remitted out of Ireland in 1842.[19]

According to Woodham-Smith, the ability of the middlemen was measured by the amount of money they could contrive to extract.[20] 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".[20]

The middlemen leased large tracts of land from the landlords on long leases with fixed rents, which they then sublet as they saw fit. They split the holding into smaller and smaller parcels 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 if the landlord decided to raise sheep instead of grain crops. The cottier paid his rent by working for the landlord.[21] Any improvements made on the holdings by the tenants became the property of the landlords when the lease expired or was terminated, which acted as a disincentive to improvements. The tenants had no security of tenure on the land; being tenants "at will" they could be turned out whenever the landlord chose. This class of tenant made up the majority of tenant farmers in Ireland, the exception being in Ulster where, under a practice known as "tenant right", tenants were compensated for any improvements made to their holdings. The commission according to Woodham-Smith stated that "the superior prosperity and tranquility of Ulster, compared with the rest of Ireland, were due to tenant right."[20]

Landlords in Ireland often used their powers without remorse, and the people lived in dread of them. In these circumstances, Woodham-Smith writes "industry and enterprise were extinguished and a peasantry created which was one of the most destitute in Europe."[18]

Tenants, subdivisions, and bankruptcy

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, nor could ranching be a possibility due to the limited land. The British government reported, shortly before the famine, that poverty was so widespread that one-third of all Irish small holdings could not support their families, after paying their rent, except by earnings of seasonal migrant labour in England and Scotland.[22] Following the famine, reforms were implemented making it illegal to further divide land holdings.[23]

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 monoculture since only the potato could be grown in sufficient quantity. The rights to a plot of land in Ireland could mean the difference between life and death in the early 19th century.[16]

Potato dependency

The potato was introduced to Ireland as a garden crop of the gentry. By the late 17th century, it had become widespread as a supplementary rather than a principal food because the main diet still revolved around butter, milk, and grain products. In the first two decades of the 18th century, however, it became a base food of the poor, especially in winter.[24] Furthermore, a disproportionate share of the potatoes grown in Ireland were of a single variety, the Irish Lumper.[25] The expansion of the economy between 1760 and 1815 saw the potato make inroads into the diet of the people and become a staple food year round for farmers.[26] Over the course of one day, men could eat 60 potatoes, women 40, and children 25. The large dependency on this single crop, and the lack of genetic variability among the potato plants in Ireland, were two of the reasons why the emergence of Phytophthora infestans had such devastating effects in Ireland and less severe effects elsewhere in Europe.[27]

The potato's spread was essential to the development of the cottier system, supporting an extremely cheap workforce, but at the cost of lower living standards. For the labourer, it was essentially a potato wage that shaped the expanding agrarian economy.[26]

The expansion of tillage led to an inevitable expansion of the potato acreage and an expansion 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.[26]

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.[28]

Potato production during the Great Famine.[29] Note: years 1844, 1845, 1846, and 1848 are extrapolated.

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 short tons (4,500,000 t), was normally used in this way.[30]

Blight in Ireland

Prior to the arrival in Ireland of the disease Phytophthora infestans, commonly known as blight, there were only two main potato plant diseases.[31] One was called "dry rot" or "taint" and the other was a virus, known popularly as "curl".[31][32] Phytophthora infestans is an oomycete (not a fungus).[33]

An 1849 depiction of Bridget O'Donnell and her two children during the famine.

In 1851, the Census of Ireland Commissioners recorded 24 failures of the potato crop going back to 1728, of varying severity. General crop failures, through disease or frost, were recorded in 1739, 1740, 1770, 1800, and 1807. In 1821 and 1822, the potato crop failed in Munster and Connaught. In 1830 and 1831, Mayo, Donegal, and Galway suffered likewise. In 1832, 1833, 1834 and 1836, dry rot and curl caused serious losses, and in 1835, the potato failed in Ulster. Widespread failures throughout Ireland occurred in 1836, 1837, 1839, 1841 and 1844. According to Woodham-Smith, "the unreliability of the potato was an accepted fact in Ireland."[34]

How and when the blight Phytophthora infestans arrived in Europe is still uncertain; according to P.M.A Bourke,[35] however, it almost certainly was not present prior to 1842, and probably arrived in 1844. The origin of the pathogen has been traced to Toluca Valley of Mexico,[36] whence it spread first within North America and then to Europe.[35] The 1845-6 blight was caused by the HERB-1 strain of the blight. [1]

In 1844, Irish newspapers carried reports concerning a disease which for two years had attacked the potato crops in America.[32] According to James Donnelly, a likely source was the eastern United States, where in 1843 and 1844 blight largely destroyed the potato crops. He suggests that ships from Baltimore, Philadelphia, or New York City could have brought diseased potatoes to European ports.[37] WC Paddock suggests that it was transported on potatoes being carried to feed passengers on clipper ships sailing from America to Ireland.[33]

Once it was introduced, it spread rapidly. By mid-August 1845, it had spread throughout the much of northern and central Europe; Belgium, Holland, northern France and southern England had all been stricken.[38]

On 16 August 1845, the Gardeners' Chronicle and Horticultural Gazette reported "a blight of unusual character" in the Isle of Wight. A week later, on 23 August, it reported that "A fearful malady has broken out among the potato crop ... In Belgium the fields are said to be completely desolated. There is hardly a sound sample in Covent Garden market ... As for cure for this distemper, there is none."[39] These reports were extensively covered in Irish newspapers.[40] On 13 September[fn 2] the Gardeners' Chronicle announced: "We stop the Press with very great regret to announce that the potato Murrain has unequivocally declared itself in Ireland."[39] Nevertheless, the British government remained optimistic over the next few weeks, as it received conflicting reports. Only when the crop was lifted in October did the scale of destruction become apparent.[42] Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel wrote to Sir James Graham in mid-October that he found the reports "very alarming", but reminded him that there was, according to Woodham-Smith, "always a tendency to exaggeration in Irish news".[43]

Crop loss in 1845 has been estimated at anywhere from one third[6] to as high as one half of cultivated acreage.[41] The Mansion House Committee in Dublin, to which hundreds of letters were directed from all over Ireland, claimed on 19 November 1845 to have ascertained beyond the shadow of doubt that "considerably more than one-third of the entire of the potato crop... has been already destroyed".[38]

In 1846, three-quarters of the harvest was lost to blight.[44] By December, a third of a million destitute people were employed in public works.[45] According to Cormac Ó Gráda the first attack of potato blight caused considerable hardship in rural Ireland, from the autumn of 1846, when the first deaths from starvation were recorded.[46] Seed potatoes were scarce in 1847. Little had been sown, so despite average yields, hunger continued. 1848 yields would be only two-thirds of normal. Since over three million Irish people were totally dependent on potatoes for food, hunger and famine were inevitable.[44]

Reaction in Ireland

The Corporation of Dublin sent a memorial to the Queen, "praying her" to call Parliament together early (Parliament was at this time prorogued), and to recommend the requisition of some public money for public works, especially railways in Ireland. The Town Council of Belfast met and made similar suggestions, but neither body asked for charity, according to Mitchel. "They demanded that, if Ireland was indeed an Integral part of the realm, the common exchequer of both islands should be used—not to give alms, but to provide employment on public works of general utility." It was Mitchel's opinion that "if Yorkshire and Lancashire had sustained a like calamity in England, there is no doubt such measures as these would have been taken, promptly and liberally."[47]

In early November 1845, a deputation from the citizens of Dublin, including the Duke of Leinster, Lord Cloncurry, Daniel O'Connell, and the Lord Mayor, went to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Lord Heytesbury, to offer suggestions, such as opening the ports to foreign corn, stopping distillation from grain, prohibiting the export of foodstuffs, and providing employment through public works.[48] Lord Heytesbury told them not to be alarmed, that they "were premature", that scientists were enquiring into all those matters,[fn 3] and that the Inspectors of Constabulary and Stipendiary Magistrates were charged with making constant reports from their districts; and there was no "immediate pressure on the market".[47]

On 8 December 1845, Daniel O'Connell, in the Repeal Association, proposed the following remedies to the pending disaster. One of the first things he suggested was the introduction of "Tenant-Right" as practised in Ulster, giving the landlord a fair rent for his land, but giving the tenant compensation for any money he might have laid out on the land in permanent improvements.[50]

O'Connell then pointed out the means used by the Belgian legislature during the same season: shutting their ports against the export of provisions, but opening them to imports. He suggested that if Ireland had a domestic Parliament the ports would be thrown open and the abundant crops raised in Ireland would be kept for the people of Ireland. O'Connell maintained that only an Irish parliament would provide for the people both food and employment, saying that a repeal of the Act of Union was a necessity and Ireland's only hope.[50]

John Mitchel, one of the leading political writers of Young Ireland, as early as 1844, in The Nation raised the issue of the "Potato Disease" in Ireland, noting how powerful an agent hunger had been in certain revolutions.[51] On 14 February 1846, he put forward his views on "the wretched way in which the famine was being trifled with", and asked, had not the Government even yet any conception that there might be soon "millions of human beings in Ireland having nothing to eat."[52]

On 28 February, writing on the Coercion Bill which was then going through the House of Lords, he noted that this was the only kind of legislation that was sure to meet with no obstruction in the British House of Commons. His view was that however the government may differ about feeding the Irish people, "they agree most cordially in the policy of taxing, prosecuting and ruining them."[53] (As it happened, the bill was subsequently defeated, and Peel's government fell.)

In an article on "English Rule" on 7 March, Mitchel wrote that the Irish People were "expecting famine day by day" and they attributed it collectively, not to "the rule of heaven as to the greedy and cruel policy of England." He continued in the same article to write that the people "believe that the season as they roll are but ministers of England's rapacity; that their starving children cannot sit down to their scanty meal but they see the harpy claw of England in their dish." The people, Mitchel wrote, watched as their "food melting in rottenness off the face of the earth," all the while watching "heavy-laden ships, freighted with the yellow corn their own hands have sown and reaped, spreading all sail for England."[53]

Mitchel later wrote one of the first widely circulated tracts on the famine, The Last Conquest of Ireland (Perhaps) in 1861. It established the widespread view that the treatment of the famine by the British was a deliberate murder of the Irish and contained the famous phrase:

The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the Famine."[54]

Mitchel was charged with sedition because of his writings, but this charge was dropped and he was convicted by a packed jury under the newly enacted Treason Felony Act and sentenced to 14 years transportation to Bermuda.[55]

The Nation according to Charles Gavan Duffy, insisted that the one remedy was that which the rest of Europe had adopted, which even the parliaments of the Pale had adopted in periods of distress, which was to retain in the country the food raised by her people till the people were fed.[56]

Ireland at this time was, according to the Act of Union of 1801, an integral part of the British imperial homeland, "the richest empire on the globe," and was "the most fertile portion of that empire," in addition; Ireland was sheltered by both "... Habeas corpus and trial by jury ...".[57] And yet Ireland's elected representatives seemed powerless to act on the country's behalf as Members of the British Parliament. Commenting on this at the time John Mitchel wrote: "That an island which is said to be an integral part of the richest empire on the globe ... should in five years lose two and a half millions of its people (more than one fourth) by hunger, and fever the consequence of hunger, and flight beyond sea to escape from hunger ..."[57] The period of the potato blight in Ireland from 1845 to 1851 was full of political confrontation.[10] A more radical Young Ireland group seceded from the Repeal movement and attempted an armed rebellion in the Young Irelander Rebellion of 1848. It was unsuccessful.

Government response

F. S. L. Lyons characterised the initial response of the British government to the early less severe phase of the famine as "prompt and relatively successful".[58] Confronted by widespread crop failure in November 1845, Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel purchased £100,000 worth of maize and cornmeal secretly from America.[59] Baring Brothers initially acted as agents for the Prime Minister. The government hoped that they would not "stifle private enterprise" and that their actions would not act as a disincentive to local relief efforts. Due to weather conditions, the first shipment did not arrive in Ireland until the beginning of February 1846.[60] The initial shipments were of unground dried kernels and the few Irish mills in operation were not equipped for milling maize. A long and complicated milling process had to be adopted before the meal could be distributed.[61] In addition, before the cornmeal could be consumed, it had to be 'very much' cooked again, or eating it could result in severe bowel complaints.[60] Because of its yellow colour, and initial unpopularity, it became known as 'Peel's brimstone'.[62]

In October 1845, Peel moved to repeal the Corn Laws, tariffs on grain which kept the price of bread artificially high, but the issue split his party and he had insufficient support from his own colleagues to push the measure through. He resigned the premiership in December, but the opposition was unable to form a government and he was re-appointed.[63] In March, Peel set up a programme of public works in Ireland[64] but the famine situation worsened during 1846 and the repeal of the Corn Laws in that year did little to help the starving Irish; the measure split the Conservative Party, leading to the fall of Peel's ministry.[65] On 25 June, the second reading of the government's Irish Coercion Bill was defeated by 73 votes in the House of Commons by a combination of Whigs, Radicals, Irish Repealers and protectionist Conservatives. Peel was forced to resign as prime minister on 29 June, and the Whig leader, Lord John Russell, assumed the seals of office.[66]

The measures undertaken by Peel's successor, Russell, proved comparatively "inadequate" as the crisis deepened. Russell's ministry introduced public works projects, which by December 1846 employed some half million Irish and proved impossible to administer.[67] Charles Trevelyan, who was in charge of the administration of government relief, limited the Government's programme because of a firm belief in laissez-faire.[68] He thought "the judgement of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson". For his policy, he was commemorated in the song "The Fields of Athenry". The Public Works were "strictly ordered" to be unproductive—that is, they would create no fund to repay their own expenses. Many hundreds of thousands of "feeble and starving men" according to John Mitchel, were kept digging holes, and breaking up roads, which was doing no service.[69]

A memorial to the victims of the Doolough Tragedy (30 March 1849). To continue receiving relief, hundreds were instructed to travel many miles in bad weather. A large number died on the journey.

The new Whig administration, influenced by the doctrine of laissez-faire,[70] believed that the market would provide the food needed but at the same time ignored the food exports to England, then halted government food and relief works, leaving many hundreds of thousands of people without any work, money or food.[71] In January, the government abandoned this policy and turned to a mixture of "indoor" and "outdoor" direct relief; the former administered in workhouses through the Poor Law, the latter through soup kitchens. The costs of the Poor Law fell primarily on the local landlords, who in turn attempted to reduce their liability by evicting their tenants.[67] This was then facilitated through the "Cheap Ejectment Acts".[69] The poor law amendment act was passed in June 1847. According to James Donnelly in Fearful Realities: New Perspectives on the Famine,[72] it embodied the principle popular in Britain that Irish property must support Irish poverty. The landed proprietors in Ireland were held in Britain to have created the conditions that led to the famine. It was asserted however, that the British parliament since the Act of Union of 1800 was partly to blame.[72] This point was raised in The Illustrated London News on 13 February 1847, "There was no law it would not pass at their request, and no abuse it would not defend for them." On 24 March The Times reported that Britain had permitted in Ireland "a mass of poverty, disaffection, and degradation without a parallel in the world. It allowed proprietors to suck the very life-blood of that wretched race."[72]

The "Gregory clause" of the Poor Law prohibited anyone who held at least ¼ of an acre from receiving relief.[67] This in practice meant that if a farmer, having sold all his produce to pay rent, duties, rates and taxes, should be reduced, as many thousands of them were, to applying for public outdoor relief, he would not get it until he had first delivered up all his land to the landlord. Of this Law Mitchel was to write: "it is the able-bodied idler only who is to be fed—if he attempted to till but one rood of ground, he dies." This simple method of ejectment was called "passing paupers through the workhouse"—a man went in, a pauper came out.[69] These factors combined to drive thousands of people off the land: 90,000 in 1849, and 104,000 in 1850.[67]

Irish food exports during Famine

Records show Irish lands exported food even during the worst years of the Famine. When Ireland had experienced a famine in 1782–83, ports were closed to keep Irish-grown food in Ireland to feed the Irish. Local food prices promptly dropped. Merchants lobbied against the export ban, but government in the 1780s overrode their protests.[73] No such export ban happened in the 1840s.[74]

Throughout the entire period of the Famine, Ireland was exporting enormous quantities of food to England. In Ireland before and after the famine, Cormac O'Grada points out, "Although the potato crop failed, the country was still producing and exporting more than enough grain crops to feed the population. But that was a 'money crop' and not a 'food crop' and could not be interfered with."[75] Up to 75 percent of Irish soil was devoted to wheat, oats, barley and other crops that were grown for export and shipped abroad while the people starved.

In History Ireland magazine (1997, issue 5, pp. 32–36), Christine Kinealy, a Great Hunger scholar, lecturer, and Drew University professor, relates her findings: Almost 4,000 vessels carried food from Ireland to the ports of Bristol, Glasgow, Liverpool and London during 1847, when 400,000 Irish men, women and children died of starvation and related diseases. She also writes that Irish exports of calves, livestock (except pigs), bacon and ham actually increased during the Famine. This food was shipped under British military guard from the most famine-stricken parts of Ireland; Ballina, Ballyshannon, Bantry, Dingle, Killala, Kilrush, Limerick, Sligo, Tralee and Westport. A wide variety of commodities left Ireland during 1847, including peas, beans, onions, rabbits, salmon, oysters, herring, lard, honey, tongues, animal skins, rags, shoes, soap, glue and seed. The most shocking export figures concern butter. Butter was shipped in firkins, each one holding 9 gallons. In the first nine months of 1847, 56,557 firkins were exported from Ireland to Bristol, and 34,852 firkins were shipped to Liverpool which correlates to 822,681 gallons of butter exported to England from Ireland during nine months of the worst year of the Famine.[76] The poor did not have sufficient money to obtain the food produced and the British government facilitated its exportation [77]

Cecil Woodham-Smith, an authority on the Irish Famine, wrote in The Great Hunger: Ireland 1845-1849 that no issue has provoked so much anger and embittered relations between England and Ireland "as the indisputable fact that huge quantities of food were exported from Ireland to England throughout the period when the people of Ireland were dying of starvation."[78] John Ranelagh claims Ireland remained a net exporter of food throughout most of the five-year famine.[79] However, Woodham-Smith claims that in addition to the maize imports, four times as much wheat was imported into Ireland at the height of the famine as exported.[80]

The following poem written by Miss Jane Francesca Elgee (later Lady Wilde), a well known and popular author, was carried in The Nation:[81]

Weary men, what reap ye? Golden corn for the stranger.

What sow ye? Human corpses that wait for the avenger.
Fainting forms, hunger-stricken, what see you in the offing
Stately ships to bear our food away, amid the stranger's scoffing.
There's a proud array of soldiers—what do they round your door?
They guard our master's granaries from the thin hands of the poor.
Pale mothers, wherefore weeping? 'Would to God that we were dead—
Our children swoon before us, and we cannot give them bread.[82]
Speranza[fn 4]


Further information: Souperism

William Smith O'Brien, speaking on the subject of charity in a speech to the Repeal Association, February 1845, applauded the fact that the universal sentiment on the subject of charity was that they would accept no English charity. He expressed the view that the resources of this country were still abundantly adequate to maintain the population and that until those resources had been utterly exhausted, he hoped that there was no one in "Ireland who will so degrade himself as to ask the aid of a subscription from England".[47]

Mitchel wrote in his The Last Conquest of Ireland (Perhaps), on the same subject, that no one from Ireland ever asked for charity during this period, and that it was England who sought charity on Ireland's behalf, and, having received it, was also responsible for administering it. He suggested that it has been carefully inculcated by the British Press, "that the moment Ireland fell into distress, she became an abject beggar at England's gate, and that she even craved alms from all mankind." He affirmed that in Ireland no one ever asked alms or favours of any kind from England or any other nation, but that it was England herself that begged for Ireland. He suggested that it was England that "sent 'round the hat over all the globe, asking a penny for the love of God to relieve the poor Irish," and constituting herself the agent of all that charity, took all the profit of it.[50]

Large sums of money were donated by charities; Calcutta is credited with making the first donation of £14,000. The money was raised by Irish soldiers serving there and Irish people employed by the East India Company. Pope Pius IX sent funds and Queen Victoria donated £2,000.

In addition to the religious, non-religious organisations came to the assistance of famine victims. The British Relief Association was one such group. Founded in 1847, the Association raised money throughout England, America and Australia; their funding drive benefited by a "Queen's Letter", a letter from Queen Victoria appealing for money to relieve the distress in Ireland.[84] With this initial letter the Association raised £171,533. A second, somewhat less successful "Queen's Letter" was issued in late 1847. In total, the British Relief Association raised approximately £200,000 (c. US$1,000,000 at the time).

Private initiatives such as The Central Relief Committee of the Society of Friends (Quakers) attempted to fill the gap caused by the end of government relief and eventually the government reinstated the relief works, although bureaucracy slowed the release of food supplies.[85]

Ottoman aid

According to legend,[86][87] in 1845, Ottoman Sultan Abdülmecid declared his intention to send £10,000 to Irish farmers, but Queen Victoria requested that the Sultan send only £1,000, because she herself had sent only £2,000. The Sultan is supposed to have sent the £1,000 along with three ships full of food. According to Abdullah Aymaz in an article in The Fountain magazine, the British administration tried to block the ships, but the food arrived secretly at Drogheda harbour and was left there by Ottoman sailors.[88][89] Shipping records relating to the port appear not to have survived. Newspaper reports suggest that ships from Thessaloniki in the Ottoman Empire sailed up the River Boyne in May 1847,[90] although it has also been claimed that the river was dry at the time. A letter in the Ottoman archives of Turkey, written by Irish notables explicitly thanks the Sultan for his help.[91]

From Native Americans

In 1847, midway through the famine, a group of Native American Choctaws collected $710 (although many articles say the original amount was $170 after a misprint in Angie Debo's The Rise and Fall of the Choctaw Republic) and sent it to help starving Irish men, women and children. "It had been just 16 years since the Choctaw people had experienced the Trail of Tears, and they had faced starvation ... It was an amazing gesture", according to Judy Allen, editor of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma's newspaper, Biskinik. To mark the 150th anniversary, eight Irish people retraced the Trail of Tears,[92] and the donation was publicly commemorated by President Mary Robinson.


Landlords were responsible for paying the rates of every tenant who paid less than £4 in yearly rent. Landlords whose land was crowded with poorer tenants were now faced with large bills. They began clearing the poor tenants from their small plots, and letting the land in larger plots for over £4 which then reduced their debts. In 1846, there had been some clearances, but the great mass of evictions came in 1847.[93] According to James S. Donnelly Jr, it is impossible to be sure how many people were evicted during the years of the famine and its immediate aftermath. It was only in 1849 that the police began to keep a count, and they recorded a total of almost 250,000 persons as officially evicted between 1849 and 1854.[94]

Donnelly considered this to be an underestimate, and if the figures were to include the number pressured into "voluntary" surrenders during the whole period (1846–1854) the figure would almost certainly exceed half a million persons.[95] While Helen Litton says there were also thousands of "voluntary" surrenders, she notes also that there was "precious little voluntary about them." In some cases, tenants were persuaded to accept a small sum of money to leave their homes, "cheated into believing the workhouse would take them in."[93]

West Clare was one of the worst areas for evictions, where landlords turned thousands of families out and demolished their derisory cabins. Captain Kennedy in April 1848 estimated that 1,000 houses, with an average of six people to each, had been levelled since November.[96] The Mahon family, Strokestown House alone in 1847 evicted 3,000 people, and according to John Gibney were still able to dine on lobster soup.[97]

After Clare, the worst area for evictions was County Mayo, accounting for 10% of all evictions between 1849 and 1854. The Earl of Lucan, who owned over 60,000 acres (240 km2) was among the worst evicting landlords. He was quoted as saying 'he would not breed paupers to pay priests'. Having turned out in the parish of Ballinrobe over 2,000 tenants alone, the cleared land he then used as grazing farms.[98] In 1848, the Marquis of Sligo owed £1,650 to Westport Union; he was also an evicting landlord, though he claimed to be selective, saying he was only getting rid of the idle and dishonest. Altogether, he cleared about 25% of his tenants.[99]

According to Litton, evictions might have taken place earlier but for fear of the secret societies. However they were now greatly weakened by the Famine. Revenge still occasionally took place, with seven landlords being shot, six fatally, during the autumn and winter of 1847. Ten other occupiers of land, though without tenants, were also murdered, she says.[100]

Lord Clarendon, alarmed that this might mean rebellion, asked for special powers. Lord John Russell was not sympathetic to this appeal. Lord Clarendon believed that the landlords themselves were mostly responsible for the tragedy in the first place, saying "It is quite true that landlords in England would not like to be shot like hares and partridges...but neither does any landlord in England turn out fifty persons at once and burn their houses over their heads, giving them no provision for the future." The Crime and Outrage Act was passed in December 1847 as a compromise and additional troops were sent to Ireland.[101]

Under the notorious Gregory clause, described by Donnelly as a "vicious amendment to the Irish poor law, named after William H. Gregory, M.P.[fn 5] and commonly known as the quarter-acre clause, provided that no tenant holding more than a quarter-acre of land would be eligible for public assistance either in or outside the workhouse. This clause had been a successful Tory amendment to the Whig poor-relief bill which became law in early June 1847, where its potential as an estate-clearing device was widely recognised in parliament, though not in advance.[102] At first the poor law commissioners and inspectors viewed the clause as a valuable instrument for a more cost-effective administration of public relief, but the drawbacks soon became apparent, even from an administrative perspective. They would soon view them as little more than murderous from a humanitarian perspective. According to Donnelly it became obvious that the quarter-acre clause was "indirectly a death-dealing instrument."[103]


Emigrants Leave Ireland, engraving by Henry Doyle (1827–1893), from Mary Frances Cusack's Illustrated History of Ireland, 1868.

While the famine was responsible for a significant increase in emigration from Ireland, of anywhere from 45% to nearly 85% depending on the year and the county, it was not the sole cause. Nor was it even the era when mass emigration from Ireland commenced. That can be traced to the middle of the 18th century, when some 250,000 people left Ireland to settle in the New World alone, over a period of some 50 years. From the defeat of Napoleon to the beginning of the famine, a period of 30 years, "at least 1,000,000 and possibly 1,500,000 emigrated".[104] However, during the worst of the famine, emigration reached somewhere around 250,000 in one year alone, with far more emigrants leaving from western Ireland than any other part.[105]

Families did not migrate en masse but younger members of families did. So much so that emigration almost became a rite of passage, as evidenced by the data that show that, unlike similar emigration throughout world history, women emigrated just as often, just as early, and in the same numbers as men. The emigrant started a new life in a new land, sent remittances "[reaching] £1,404,000 by 1851"[106] back to his/her family in Ireland which, in turn, allowed another member of the family to emigrate.

Emigration during the famine years of 1845–1850 was to England, Scotland, the US, Canada, and Australia.[107] Many of those fleeing to the Americas used the well-established McCorkell Line.[108]

Of the 100,000 Irish that sailed to Canada in 1847, an estimated one out of five died from disease and malnutrition, including over 5,000 at Grosse Isle, Quebec, an island in the Saint Lawrence River used to quarantine ships near Quebec City.[109] Mortality rates of 30% aboard the coffin ships were common.[110][111]

By 1854, between 1.5 and 2 million Irish left their country due to evictions, starvation, and harsh living conditions. In America, most Irish became city-dwellers: with little money, many had to settle in the cities that the ships they came on landed in. By 1850, the Irish made up a quarter of the population in Boston, New York City, Philadelphia and Baltimore. In addition, Irish populations became prevalent in some American mining communities.

A graph of the populations of Ireland [left axis] and Europe [right axis] indexed against date.

The 1851 census reported that more than half the inhabitants of Toronto, Ontario were Irish, and in 1847 alone, 38,000 famine Irish flooded a city with fewer than 20,000 citizens. Other Canadian cities such as Saint John, New Brunswick; Quebec City and Montreal, Quebec; Ottawa, Kingston and Hamilton, Ontario also received large numbers of Famine Irish since Canada, as part of the British Empire, could not close its ports to Irish ships (unlike the US), and they could get passage cheaply (or free in the case of tenant evictions) in returning empty lumber holds. However fearing nationalist insurgencies the British government placed harsh restrictions on Irish immigration to Canada after 1847 resulting in larger influxes to the US. In 1851, about a quarter of Liverpool[which?]'s population was Irish-born.

The famine marked the beginning of the steep depopulation of Ireland in the 19th century. Population had increased by 13–14% in the first three decades of the 19th century. Between 1831 and 1841, population grew by 5%. Application of Thomas Malthus's idea of population expanding geometrically while resources increase arithmetically was popular during the famines of 1817 and 1822. However by the 1830s, a decade before the famine, they were seen as overly simplistic and Ireland's problems were seen "less as an excess of population than as a lack of capital investment."[112] The population of Ireland was increasing no faster than that of England, which suffered no equivalent catastrophe.

1848 rebellion

In 1847, William Smith O'Brien, the leader of the Young Ireland party, became one of the founding members of the Irish Confederation[113] to campaign for a Repeal of the Act of Union, and called for the export of grain to be stopped and the ports closed.[114] The following year he organised the resistance of landless farmers in County Tipperary against the landowners and their agents.

Death toll

It is not known exactly how many people died during the period of the Famine, although it is believed more died from diseases than from starvation.[115] State registration of births, marriages or deaths had not yet begun, and records kept by the Roman Catholic Church are incomplete.[fn 6] Eyewitness accounts have helped medical historians identify both the ailments and effects of famine, and have been used to evaluate and explain in greater detail features of the famine. In Mayo, English Quaker William Bennett wrote of

three children huddled together, lying there because they were too weak to rise, pale and ghastly, their little limbs ... perfectly emaciated, eyes sunk, voice gone, and evidently in the last stages of actual starvation.[fn 7][118]

Revd Dr. Traill Hall, a Church of Ireland rector in Schull, described

the aged, who, with the young—are almost without exception swollen and ripening for the grave.[119]

Marasmic children also left a permanent image on Quaker Joseph Crosfield who in 1846 witnessed a[120]

heart-rending scene [of] poor wretches in the last stages of famine imploring to be received into the [work]house...Some of the children were worn to skeletons, their features sharpened with hunger, and their limbs wasted almost to the bone...

William Forster wrote in Carrick-on-Shannon that

the children exhibit the effects of famine in a remarkable degree, their faces looking wan and haggard with hunger, and seeming like old men and women.[121]

One possible estimate has been reached by comparing the expected population with the eventual numbers in the 1850s -see Irish population analysis. Earlier predictions expected that by 1851 Ireland would have a population of 8–9 million. A census taken in 1841 revealed a population of slightly over 8 million.[122] A census immediately after the famine in 1851 counted 6,552,385, a drop of almost 1.5 million in 10 years.[123] Modern historian R.F. Foster estimates that "at least 775,000 died, mostly through disease, including cholera in the latter stages of the holocaust". He further notes that "a recent sophisticated computation estimates excess deaths from 1846 to 1851 as between 1,000,000 and 1,500,000...; after a careful critique of this, other statisticians arrive at a figure of 1,000,000."[fn 8][fn 9] In addition, in excess of 1 million Irish immigrated to Great Britain, US, Canada, Australia, and elsewhere, while millions emigrated over following decades.

Decline in population 1841–51 (%)
Table from Joe Lee, The Modernisation of Irish Society (Gill History of Ireland Series No.10) p. 2
Detailed statistics of the population of Ireland since 1841 are available at Irish population analysis.

Perhaps the best-known estimates of deaths at a county level are those by Joel Mokyr.[126] The range of Mokyr's mortality figures goes from 1.1 million to 1.5 million Famine deaths in Ireland between 1846 and 1851. Mokyr produced two sets of data which contained an upper-bound and lower-bound estimate, which showed not much difference in regional patterns.[127] Because of such anomalies, Cormac Ó Gráda revisited the work of S. H. Cousens.[128] Cousens'[129] estimates of mortality relied heavily on retrospective information contained in the 1851 census. The death tables, contained in the 1851 census[130] have been rightly criticised, as underestimating the true extent of mortality, Cousens' mortality of 800,000 is now regarded as much too low.[126] There were a number of reasons for this, because the information was gathered from the surviving householders and others and having to look back over the previous 10 years, it underestimates the true extent of disease and mortality. Death and emigration had also cleared away entire families, leaving few or no survivors to answer the questions on the census.

Another area of uncertainty lies in the descriptions of disease given by tenants as to the cause of their relatives' deaths.[126] Though Wilde's work has been rightly criticised as underestimating the true extent of mortality, it does provide a framework for the medical history of the Great Famine.[119][131] The diseases that badly affected the population fell into two categories,[131] famine-induced diseases and diseases of nutritional deficiency. Of the nutritional deficiency diseases the most commonly experienced were starvation and marasmus, as well as condition called at the time dropsy. Dropsy (Edema) was a popular name given for the symptoms of several diseases, one of which, kwashiorkor, is associated with starvation.[131] The greatest mortality, however, was not from nutritional deficiency diseases, but from famine-induced ailments.[131][132] The malnourished are very vulnerable to infections; therefore, these were more severe when they occurred. Measles, diarrhoeal diseases, tuberculosis, most respiratory infections, whooping cough, many intestinal parasites and cholera were all strongly conditioned by nutritional status. Potentially lethal diseases, such as smallpox and influenza, were so virulent that their spread was independent of nutrition.[132]

A significant cause spreading disease during the Famine was "social dislocation". The best example of this phenomenon was fever, which exacted the greatest toll of death. In the popular mind, as well as among much medical opinion, fever and famine are closely related.[133][134] This view was not wholly mistaken, but the most critical connection was the congregating of the hungry at soup kitchens, food depots, overcrowded work houses where conditions were ideal for spreading infectious diseases such as typhus, typhoid and relapsing fever.[132][131] As to the diarrhoeal diseases, their presence was the result of poor hygiene, bad sanitation and dietary changes. The concluding attack on a population incapacitated by famine was delivered by Asiatic cholera. Cholera had visited Ireland, briefly in the 1830s. But in the following decade it spread uncontrollably across Asia, through Europe, and into Britain and finally reached Ireland in 1849.[131]

Population change in Ireland 1841–1851

On the 1851 census, both Cormac Ó Gráda and Joel Mokyr would also describe it as a famous but flawed source. They would contend that the combination of institutional and individuals figures gives "an incomplete and biased count" of fatalities during the famine.[135] Ó Gráda referencing the work of W. A. MacArthur,[136] writes, specialists have long known the Irish death tables left a lot to be desired in terms of accuracy.[137] As a result, Ó Gráda says that to take the Tables of Death at face value would be a grave mistake, as they seriously undercount the number of deaths both before and during the famine.[138]

In 1851, the census commissioners collected information on the number who died in each family since 1841, the cause, season and year of death. Its disputed findings were as follows: 21,770 total deaths from starvation in the previous decade, and 400,720 deaths from disease. Listed diseases were fever, dysentery, cholera, smallpox and influenza; the first two being the main killers (222,021 and 93,232). The commissioners acknowledged that their figures were incomplete and that the true number of deaths was probably higher: "The greater the amount of destitution of mortality...the less will be the amount of recorded deaths derived through any household form; – for not only were whole families swept away by disease...but whole villages were effaced from off the land." A later historian has this to say: "In 1851, the Census Commissioners attempted to produce a table of mortality for each year since 1841... The statistics provided were flawed and probably under-estimated the level of mortality..."[139][140]

Other, perhaps less reliable and likely underestimates are that the event led to the deaths of approximately 1 million people through starvation and disease; a further million are thought to have emigrated as a result of the famine.[4] Some scholars estimate that the population of Ireland was reduced by 20–25%.[141] All of this occurred while taxes, rents, and food exports were being collected and sent to British landlords, in an amount surpassing £6 million.[142]


The potato remained Ireland's staple crop after the famine; at the end of the 19th century, the Irish per capita consumption of four pounds a day was the highest in the world.[143] Later famines made only minimal effect and are generally forgotten, except by historians. By the 1911 census, the island of Ireland's population had fallen to 4.4 million, about the same as the population in 1800 and 2000 and only a half of its peak population.[122]

On the other hand, the population of England and Wales doubled from 16 million in 1841 to 32.5 million in 1901.[144]

The Famine gave considerable impetus to the shift from Irish to English as the language of the majority. Those most gravely affected by the Famine were mostly in Irish-speaking districts, and those districts also supplied most of the emigrants. Awareness of the cultural loss provided a spur to the work of Irish language activists in Ireland, Britain, America and Australia, resulting in the foundation of such organisations as the Gaelic League.

Analysis of the government's role


Contemporary opinion was sharply critical of the Russell government's response to and management of the crisis. From the start, there were accusations that the government failed to grasp the magnitude of the disaster. Sir James Graham, who had served as Home Secretary in Sir Robert Peel's late government, wrote to Peel that, in his opinion, "the real extent and magnitude of the Irish difficulty are underestimated by the Government, and cannot be met by measures within the strict rule of economical science."[145]

This criticism was not confined to outside critics. The Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Lord Clarendon, wrote a letter to Russell on 26 April 1849, urging that the government propose additional relief measures: "I do not think there is another legislature in Europe that would disregard such suffering as now exists in the west of Ireland, or coldly persist in a policy of extermination."[146] Also in 1849 the Chief Poor Law Commissioner, Edward Twisleton, resigned in protest over the Rate-in-Aid Act, which provided additional funds for the Poor Law through a 6p in the pound levy on all rateable properties in Ireland.[147] Twisleton testified that "comparatively trifling sums were required for Britain to spare itself the deep disgrace of permitting its miserable fellow subjects to die of starvation." According to Peter Gray, in his book The Irish Famine, the government spent £7,000,000 for relief in Ireland between 1845 and 1850, "representing less than half of one percent of the British gross national product over five years. Contemporaries noted the sharp contrast with the 20 million pounds compensation given to West Indian slave-owners in the 1830s."[112]

Other critics maintained that even after the government recognised the scope of the crisis, it failed to take sufficient steps to address it. John Mitchel, one of the leaders of the Young Ireland Movement, wrote the following in 1860: "I have called it an artificial famine: that is to say, it was a famine which desolated a rich and fertile island that produced every year abundance and superabundance to sustain all her people and many more. The English, indeed, call the famine a 'dispensation of Providence;' and ascribe it entirely to the blight on potatoes. But potatoes failed in like manner all over Europe; yet there was no famine save in Ireland. The British account of the matter, then, is first, a fraud; second, a blasphemy. The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the famine."[148]

Still other critics saw reflected in the government's response the government's attitude to the so-called "Irish Question". Nassau Senior, an economics professor at Oxford University, wrote that the Famine "would not kill more than one million people, and that would scarcely be enough to do any good."[148] In 1848, Denis Shine Lawlor suggested that Russell was a student of the Elizabethan poet Edmund Spenser, who had calculated "how far English colonisation and English policy might be most effectively carried out by Irish starvation."[149] Charles Trevelyan, the civil servant with most direct responsibility for the government's handling of the famine, described it in 1848 as "a direct stroke of an all-wise and all-merciful Providence", which laid bare "the deep and inveterate root of social evil"; the Famine, he affirmed, was "the sharp but effectual remedy by which the cure is likely to be effected. God grant that the generation to which this opportunity has been offered may rightly perform its part..."[150]


Christine Kinealy expresses the consensus of historians when she states that "the major tragedy of the Irish Famine of 1845–52 marked a watershed in modern Irish history. Its occurrence, however, was neither inevitable nor unavoidable."[151] The underlying factors which combined to cause the famine were aggravated by an inadequate government response. As Kinealy notes,

"...[T]he government had to do something to help alleviate the suffering, the particular nature of the actual response, especially following 1846, suggests a more covert agenda and motivation. As the Famine progressed, it became apparent that the government was using its information not merely to help it formulate its relief policies, but also as an opportunity to facilitate various long-desired changes within Ireland. These included population control and the consolidation of property through various means, including emigration... Despite the overwhelming evidence of prolonged distress caused by successive years of potato blight, the underlying philosophy of the relief efforts was that they should be kept to a minimalist level; in fact they actually decreased as the Famine progressed."[152]

Several writers single out the decision of the government to permit the continued export of food from Ireland as suggestive of the policy-makers' attitudes. Leon Uris suggested that "there was ample food within Ireland", while all the Irish-bred cattle were being shipped off to England.[153] The following exchange appeared in Act IV of George Bernard Shaw's play Man and Superman:

MALONE. He will get over it all right enough. Men thrive better on disappointments in love than on disappointments in money. I daresay you think that sordid; but I know what I'm talking about. My father died of starvation in Ireland in the black 47, Maybe you've heard of it.
VIOLET. The Famine?
MALONE. [with smouldering passion] No, the starvation. When a country is full of food, and exporting it, there can be no famine. My father was starved dead; and I was starved out to America in my mother's arms. English rule drove me and mine out of Ireland. Well, you can keep Ireland. I and my like are coming back to buy England; and we'll buy the best of it. I want no middle class properties and no middle class women for Hector. That's straightforward isn't it, like yourself?[154]

Some also pointed to the structure of the British Empire as a contributing factor. James Anthony Froude wrote that "England governed Ireland for what she deemed her own interest, making her calculations on the gross balance of her trade ledgers, and leaving moral obligations aside, as if right and wrong had been blotted out of the statute book of the Universe."[13] Dennis Clark, an Irish-American historian and critic of empire, claimed that the famine was "the culmination of generations of neglect, misrule and repression. It was an epic of English colonial cruelty and inadequacy. For the landless cabin dwellers it meant emigration or extinction..."[155]

An Gorta Mór Genocide question

Ireland's Holocaust mural on the Ballymurphy Road, Belfast. "An Gorta Mór, Britain's genocide by starvation, Ireland's holocaust 1845–1849."

The famine is still a controversial event in Irish history. Debate and discussion on the British government's response to the failure of the potato crop in Ireland, the exportation of food crops and livestock, the subsequent large-scale starvation, and whether or not this constituted genocide, remains a historically and politically charged issue.

In 1996, Francis A. Boyle, a law professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, wrote a report commissioned by the New York-based Irish Famine/Genocide Committee, which concluded that the British government deliberately pursued a race and ethnicity-based policy aimed at destroying the group commonly known as the Irish people and that the policy of mass starvation amounted to genocide per the Hague convention of 1948.[fn 10] On the strength of Boyle's report, the US state of New Jersey included the famine in the "Holocaust and Genocide Curriculum" at the secondary tier.[fn 11]

Historian Peter Duffy writes that "The government's crime, which deserves to blacken its name forever ..." was rooted "in the effort to regenerate Ireland" through "landlord-engineered replacement of tillage plots with grazing lands" that "took precedence over the obligation to provide food ... for its starving citizens. It is little wonder that the policy looked to many people like genocide."[158]

Several commentators have argued that the searing effect of the famine has on Irish cultural memory creates effects similar to that of genocide, while maintaining that one did not occur. Robert Kee suggests that the Famine is seen as "comparable" in its force on "popular national consciousness to that of the 'final solution' on the Jews," and that it is not "infrequently" thought that the Famine was something very like "a form of genocide engineered by the English against the Irish people." This point was echoed by James Donnelly, a historian at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, who wrote in his work Landlord and Tenant in Nineteenth-century Ireland, "I would draw the following broad conclusion: at a fairly early stage of the Great Famine the government's abject failure to stop or even slow down the clearances (evictions) contributed in a major way to enshrining the idea of English state-sponsored genocide in Irish popular mind. Or perhaps one should say in the Irish mind, for this was a notion that appealed to many educated and discriminating men and women, and not only to the revolutionary minority...And it is also my contention that while genocide was not in fact committed, what happened during and as a result of the clearances had the look of genocide to a great many Irish..."[159]

Historian Cormac Ó Gráda disagreed that the famine was genocide: first, that "genocide includes murderous intent and it must be said that not even the most bigoted and racist commentators of the day sought the extermination of the Irish"; second, that most people in Whitehall "hoped for better times in Ireland" and third, that the claim of genocide overlooks "the enormous challenges facing relief efforts, both central, local, public and private". Ó Gráda thinks that a case of neglect is easier to sustain than that of genocide.[160]

Famine Memorial in Dublin

Edward Lengel claims that views of the Irish as racially inferior, and for this reason significantly responsible for their circumstances, gained purchase in Great Britain during and immediately after the famine, especially through influential publications such as The Medical Times and The Times.[161]

Comparisons between An Gorta Mór and other major man-made "famines" are frequent, such as that engineered by Stalin in 1932 in one of the most fertile regions on earth, often regarded as the bread basket of Europe, the Ukraine.[162][163][164] An event known as the Holodomor which translates to, Hunger plague, as it similarly used the control of food as a means of bringing about the governments ideals, in this case collectivism, and indeed the Holodomor was regarded as a genocide by Raphael Lemkin who coined the term, although no Soviet government order was issued explicitly stating 'an order to kill with famine a certain number of Ukrainians or other peasants'. Thus, in legal terms it could not be seen as proven that the famine of 1932–33 was indeed thoroughly planned. New research, however, has established that the intentionality of this was sufficiently expressed by many legal acts aimed specifically at the Ukrainian citizenship.[163] An Gorta Mór, like the Holodomor, has been the subject of similar controversy and debate over being classified as a genocide.


The Great Famine is memorialised in many locations throughout Ireland, especially in those regions that suffered the greatest losses, and also in cities overseas with large populations descended from Irish immigrants. These include, at Custom House Quays, Dublin, the thin sculptural figures, by artist Rowan Gillespie, who are portrayed as if walking towards the emigration ships on the Dublin Quayside. There is also a large memorial at the Murrisk Millennium Peace Park at the foot of Croagh Patrick in County Mayo.[165] Among the memorials in the US is the Irish Hunger Memorial near a section of the Manhattan waterfront in New York City, where many fleeing Irish arrived. An annual Great Famine walk, the brainchild of the Irish author/humanitarian, Don Mullan, from Doolough to Louisburgh, Co. Mayo, was inaugurated in 1988 and has been led by such notable personalities as Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa and the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. The walk, organised by AFrI (Action From Ireland), takes place on the first or second Saturday of May and links the memory of the Great Hunger with a contemporary Human Rights issue. Commemorating the Doolough Tragedy, the walk was covered by the three major US television networks: ABC, NBC and CBS, during its first three years.

See also


  1. ^ The Famine that affected Ireland from 1845 to 1852 has become an integral part of folk legend.[9]
  2. ^ Kinealy put the date at the 16th.[41]
  3. ^ Lyon Playfair and John Lindley were sent from England to investigate with the local assistance of Robert Kane.[49]
  4. ^ Lady Wilde who wrote under the pen name Speranza, was the mother of Oscar Wilde and the wife of Sir William Wilde, author of The Death Tables.[83]
  5. ^ William H. Gregory became the husband of Lady Gregory. He was heir to a substantial Galway estate in 1847, which he dissipated by gambling debts on the turf in the late 1840s and early 1850s.[102]
  6. ^ Civil registration of births and deaths in Ireland was not established by law until 1863.[116]
  7. ^ William Bennett, Narrative of a Recent Journey of Six Weeks in Ireland (London, 1847)[117]
  8. ^ "Based on hitherto unpublished work by C. Ó Gráda and Phelim Hughes, 'Fertility trends, excess mortality and the Great Irish Famine' ... Also see C.Ó Gráda and Joel Mokyr, 'New developments in Irish Population History 1700–1850', Economic History Review, vol. xxxvii, no.4 (November 1984), pp. 473–488."[124]
  9. ^ "Lee says 'at least 800,000."[125]
  10. ^ "Clearly, during the years 1845 to 1850, the British government pursued a policy of mass starvation in Ireland with intent to destroy in substantial part the national, ethnic and racial group commonly known as the Irish People...Therefore, during the years 1845 to 1850 the British government knowingly pursued a policy of mass starvation in Ireland that constituted acts of genocide against the Irish people within the meaning of Article II (c) of the 1948 [Hague] Genocide Convention."[156]
  11. ^ Approved by the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education on 10 September 1996, for inclusion in the Holocaust and Genocide Curriculum at the secondary level. Revision submitted 11/26/98.[157]


  1. ^ Kinealy 1995, pp. xvi–ii.
  2. ^ Kinealy 1994, pp. xvi–ii, 2–3.
  3. ^ O'Neill 2009, p. 1.
  4. ^ a b Ross 2002, p. 226.
  5. ^ Kinealy 1994, p. 357.
  6. ^ a b Ó Gráda 2002, p. 7.
  7. ^ A Death-Dealing Famine: The Great Hunger in Ireland by Christine Kinealy 1997; Famine Ghost: Genocide of the Irish By Jack O'Keefe; Confronting Genocide edited by René Provost, Payam Akhavan; Baltimore Iconoclast By William C. Hughes, William Hughes
  8. ^ Kinealy 1995, p. xvii.
  9. ^ Kinealy 1995, p. 342.
  10. ^ a b Póirtéir 1995.
  11. ^ Blake 1969, p. 179.
  12. ^ Woodham-Smith 1991, p. 36.
  13. ^ a b MacManus 1979, pp. 458–459.
  14. ^ Woodham-Smith, p. 22.
  15. ^ Litton 1994.
  16. ^ a b Laxton 1997.
  17. ^ Woodham-Smith 1991, pp. 20–1.
  18. ^ a b c Woodham-Smith 1991, p. 24.
  19. ^ a b c Woodham-Smith 1991, p. 21.
  20. ^ a b c Woodham-Smith 1991, p. 22.
  21. ^ Litton 2006, pp. 9–10.
  22. ^ Kee 1993, p. 15.
  23. ^ Uris & Uris 2003, p. 15.
  24. ^ Póirtéir 1995, p. 19–20.
  25. ^ "Great Famine potato makes a comeback after 170 years". IrishCentral. Retrieved 5 March 2013. 
  26. ^ a b c Póirtéir 1995, p. 20.
  27. ^ Other European countries also hit by Phytophthora infestans
  28. ^ Rifkin 1993, pp. 56–57.
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Further reading

External links