Known as An Gorta Mór (the Great Hunger) in Ireland, the Great Famine ravaged Ireland between 1845 and 1852, changing the country irreversibly. It’s thought Ireland lost around one quarter of its population in these 7 years, either to starvation, disease or emigration, and many more left Ireland subsequently, finding little left at home to keep them there.
Over 150 years later, Ireland’s population is still much smaller than it was before 1845, and the disaster has cast long shadows in Irish memory: particularly in its relations with Britain. Here are 10 facts about the Famine and its impact on Ireland.
1. The famine was caused by potato blight
By the 19th century, potatoes were a hugely important crop in Ireland, and was a staple food for many of the poor. In particular, a variety named the Irish Lumper was grown almost everywhere. Most of the working classes had such small areas of tenant farms that the potato was the only crop that could provide enough nutrients and quantity when grown in such a small space.
In 1844, reports first emerged of a disease that was blighting potato crops on the east coast of America. The year later, the same blight appeared in Ireland, with devastating effects. The first year, between 1/3 and 1/2 of the crop was lost to the blight, rising up to 3/4 in 1846.
We now know the blight to be a pathogen called phytophthora infestans, and it affected crops across the whole of Europe in the 1840s and 1850s.
2. Despite the famine, Ireland continued to export food
Whilst the poor could not feed themselves, Ireland continued to export food. However, the issue of exactly how much was being exported has caused tensions between historians.
Some have said that Ireland was exporting enough to feed all of its citizens, whilst others claim it was exporting less than 10% of pre-famine quantities, and imports of grain greatly outnumbered exports. The precise facts remain unclear.
Either way, some served to profit from the famine: mainly the Anglo-Irish ascendency (aristocrats) and Catholic Irish landed gentry, who evicted tenants who couldn’t pay rents. It’s thought up to 500,000 people were evicted during the famine, leaving them essentially destitute.
3. Laissez-faire economics worsened the crisis
In the 19th century, Ireland was still under British rule, and therefore they appealed to the British government for help and relief. The Whig government believed in laissez-faire economics, arguing that the market would provide the necessary food.
Food and works programmes introduced by the previous Tory government were halted, food exports to England continued and the Corn Laws were kept in place. Unsurprisingly, the crisis in Ireland worsened. Hundreds of thousands of people were left without access to work, food or money
4. As did laws which penalised the poor
The idea of the state guaranteeing the welfare of its citizens barely existed in the 19th century. Poor Laws had been around for centuries, and this was largely the extent of state provision for the needy.
A clause – known as the Gregory Clause – in the 1847 Poor Law Amendment Act – meant that people were only eligible to receive help from the state if they had nothing, which included a new requirement to forfeit their land to before they could receive relief. About 100,000 people offered their land up to their landlords, normally the landed gentry, so that they could enter the workhouse.
5. It caused untold hardship and misery
The effects of the failure of the potato crop were felt quickly. Large numbers of the poor and working classes relied virtually exclusively on potatoes to feed them and their families through the winter. Without potatoes, hunger set in fast.
Whilst there were some efforts to provide relief in the form of soup kitchens, workhouses and grain imports, these were rarely sufficient and often required several miles of journeying to reach, excluded those who were already very weak. Disease was rife: typhus, dysentery and scurvy killed many of those already weak from starvation.
6. Emigration increased massively
Large numbers of people emigrated during the 1840s and 1850s: 95% went to America and Canada, and 70% settled in seven of the eastern states of America; New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, and Massachusetts.
The passage was difficult and still relatively dangerous, but for many there was no alternative: there was nothing left for them in Ireland. In some cases, landlords actually paid for passages for their tenants on so-called ‘coffin ships’. Disease was rife and food scarce: these ships had a mortality rate of about 30%.
7. The Irish diaspora has its roots in the famine
The Irish diaspora comprises over 80 million people, who are either themselves or who had Irish descendants, but now live outside the island of Ireland. The wave of mass emigration sparked by the Great Famine continued for several years after the famine was technically over as people realised there was little left for them in Ireland.
By the 1870s over 40% of Irish born people lived outside of Ireland and today, over 100 million people worldwide can trace their ancestry back to Ireland.
8. Money poured in to help from all over the world
Donations from across the world poured into Ireland in order to help provide relief for the worst affected by the famine. Tsar Alexander II, Queen Victoria, President James Polk and Pope Pius IX all made personal donations: Sultan Abdulmecid of the Ottoman Empire reportedly offered to send £10,000 but was asked to reduce his donation so as not to embarrass Queen Victoria, who only £2,000.
Religious organisations from across the world – particularly Catholic communities – raised tens of thousands of pounds to help. The United States sent relief ships laden with food and clothes, as well as contributing financially.
9. It’s thought the population of Ireland dropped by 25% during the famine
The famine caused upwards of one million deaths, and it’s thought up to a further 2 million emigrated between 1845 and 1855. Whilst it’s impossible to tell exact figures, historians estimate Ireland’s population fell between 20-25% during the famine, with the hardest hit towns losing up to 60% of their populations.
Ireland is still yet to reach pre-famine population levels. In April 2021, the Republic of Ireland had a population of over 5 million for the first time since the 1840s.
10. Tony Blair formally apologised for Britain’s role in exacerbating the famine
The way the British government handled the famine cast long shadows on Anglo-Irish relations during the 19th and 20th centuries. Many Irish people felt abandoned and betrayed by their overlords in London, and understandably aggrieved at their refusal to help in Ireland’s hour of need.
On the 150th anniversary of Black ’47, the worst year of the potato famine, British Prime Minister Tony Blair issued a formal apology for Britain’s role in turning a crop failure into a ‘massive human tragedy’. He received some criticism in Britain for his words, but many in Ireland, including the Taoiseach (equivalent of the Prime Minister) welcomed them as a paving a way forward in Anglo-Irish diplomatic relations.