The Great Famine in Ireland
The Great Famine in Ireland (1845-9) was by no means the first famine in that country; Irish life had often been plagued by severe and widespread food shortages before this long and devastating event, and in fact famine was recorded thirty times in Ireland since the 14th century.
What marks the Great Famine as one of the most significant events in history is not only the direct effect of the cataclysm itself, but the long-term indirect consequences on the population.
Famine vs. Starvation
Famine is not simply a matter of starvation, but can be a chronic, long-term shortage of an adequate variety of foods that supply a population with basic nutritional necessities. A lack of fruit or vegetables for instance – no matter how much meat or grains might be available – can lead quite quickly to scurvy, and with malnutrition comes infection and disease that a well-fed population can fight off with healthy immune systems.
Famine in Ireland
The weather in Ireland is relatively cold and damp, which led to, or exacerbated around 30 periods of famine between 1300 and 1900. This, however does not mean that it was more prone than other European countries to famine, since such events were fairly common to many. The Great Famine, however, was on a scale not previously witnessed.
The Origins of the Great Famine
The potato was a significant part of the staple diet in Ireland, especially among the poor, by the beginning of the 19th century. It is a very nutritious crop, suited to Ireland's cold, wet climate and it could be grown in sufficient quantities to feed the population.
Signs of the 'Potato Blight' (Phytophthora infestans) – a fungus that attacked the crop – were first seen in Belgium in the late spring and early summer of 1845, and by September Ireland was also severely affected and a third of its potato crops were damaged and made useless as food that year.
Laissez Faire Government Policies and Lack of Relief
At that time, during the first year of the Great Famine (1945-6), Britain and Ireland were in an uneasy union, and the Conservative British government headed by Prime Minister Robert Peel believed in non-interference with market forces, an attitude that they extended even to famine relief – believing that to 'interfere' with the flow of goods and produce would bankrupt the landlord classes of Ireland and destroy the economy.
Three widely held beliefs on the political front seemed to hold back governmental relief aid:
- Laissez-faire ideology holds that interfering with the 'natural' course of an economy threatens to collapse it, and so the government were reticent to offer food and other famine relief and were more or less content to allow the disaster to follow its own course.
- An opportunity was spotted by some for the reorganisation of Irish agriculture when the potato crops began to fail. At the time, Ireland had a class of landlords, on whose estates were groups of tenant farmers with small-holdings. In this industrial age, when cottage industries were being wiped out by innovations in manufacturing, and populations were moving in the direction of urban areas, with factories dominating the cities, individuals and small family livelihoods like the small-holdings of tenant farmers were no longer seen as viable on a long-term basis, and consolidation of smaller agricultural enterprises into larger farms was held as the way forward. Large farms would be able to invest in machinery and supply amounts of food that small-holdings could not afford, and the destruction of small family agriculture, and even the deaths of what was, to the politicians a 'surplus' population, was seen by those in power as an opportunity, rather than a human tragedy.
- The government also wished to make the landlords responsible for their tenant farmers in times of crisis, just as they had previously enjoyed the profits of their labour.
Religion and Deep-Seated Belief
Actions – or non-action – of that time were also in part driven by a prevailing, widely held belief that all events were the 'will of God', and tragedy (both in general, and in the particular case of the Famine) was seen as God's retribution for the evils in man and society.
However, many religious and other groups did attempt to provide aid. The Society of Friends – known as the Quakers – were at the forefront of famine relief, and opened soup kitchens in many parishes, as well as offering other forms of charitable aid.
Souperism During The Great Famine
A darker side to the philanthropic work of some during the Famine was that they offered to provide food in exchange for religious conversion. For people of faith, on the brink of starvation, this was an impossibly cruel choice, and seemed as though they must choose between food and faith – and perhaps between an earthly life and whatever heaven or hell might await them in the next world, depending on whether they accepted the offer.
'Souperism' was a term given to the practice of offering food whilst pressing religion upon the recipient, and someone who accepted food under such terms came to be known as a 'souper'. The practice was famously not used by the Society of Friends – who gave out food without any religious implications at all, and in fact it was frowned upon by many Anglicans, whose most zealous members were guilty of using such tactics to try to convert the Catholic poor who were most in need.
The failure of one third of the potato crops in 1845 was followed in 1846 by a failure of three-quarters of the crops. Although the harvest of 1847 was relatively undamaged by the blight, it was greatly reduced by the fact that fewer seed potatoes were available to plant because of the 1845-6 crop failures.
The crisis was worsened in 1847 by economic recession in Britain, which slashed the funds available for relief in Ireland, and previous measures such as free meals for those in need came to an end and responsibility was given over to the workhouse system, which was inadequate for the huge task it faced.
Long-Term Consequences on Population Numbers
The mass emigration from Ireland did not end with the Famine. One historian, Diarmaid Ferriter writes in his history of 20th century Ireland that 'by 1911 one third of all people born in Ireland were living elsewhere' and that as more and more young people moved on from Irish shores, the marriage age rose and (again, by 1911) a quarter of all people aged 45-54 in Ireland had never been married.
The consequences for Ireland in terms of population numbers are huge. In 1841, the total estimated population was 8.2 million; by 1851 it had fallen to 6.5 million, and then to 4.4 million by 1911. With the Partition of Ireland in the 1920s, comparisons become more difficult, but the population of the Irish Free State in 1961 was 2.8 million, and in Northern Ireland in 1956 the population was measured at 1.25 million. The famine cannot be held directly responsible for the continued fall in population over time, but it dealt a cataclysmic blow to the nation, the ramifications of which echoed through many decades and can be traced back to that era.
Research and Theories on the Great Famine
The most recent research suggests that one million people died through malnutrition, disease and outright starvation as a result of the Great Famine, and although the failure of the potato crop, and the fungus which caused that failure was at the root of the crisis, historians and social scientists also point to other factors that exacerbated the disaster:
- the failure of the government to provide consistent and adequate ongoing relief measures;
- a declining economy in Ireland in tandem with, pre-famine, an expanding population - although note that others argue that the pre-famine Irish economy was in fact showing signs of budding expansion - into more industrial areas of large-scale production over home industry, and that the famine therefore has even broader consequences in that it could plausibly be said that the crisis held back the country's development during the Industrial Revolution;
- the reliance on a single crop – the potato – for much of the population's nutrition;
- the attitudes of the time, both by politicians and population, of Laissez faire policies and an acceptance that events were 'God's will'.
Books of Interest and Reference
Irish history is complex and fascinating, and full of hidden histories that shed a bright light on events and issues that can be otherwise difficult to comprehend. The following books are full of great reference material, commentary and intricate research that give both a human story and a more analytical approach to the many interwoven events in Ireland's past.
- Oxford Companion to Irish History, ed. S.J. Connolly, 2007.
- The Transformation of Ireland 1900-2000, Diarmaid Ferriter, 2005.
- Ireland 1798-1998, Alvin Jackson, 2010.