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Updated on May 23, 2013


Ireland in the early 1800’s was a land whose appearances were very deceiving. The introduction of the potato the previous century had allowed the population to double from 4 to 8 million. Travelers invariably commented on the robust and countless children who smiled from behind gates or cottage doors. The nutritious spud, however, masked a decrepit and corrupt landholding system which had the populace always one step away from disaster. The vast majority of native Irish were landless laborers, who were given a small plot to grow potatoes for their families, in return for working the landlord’s acres. The landlord, who more often than not might be absentee living in England, was usually only interested in collecting rents from those lucky enough to lease a few acres, while not being overly concerned with improving his land.

Thus, agricultural productivity in Ireland got worse each decade, and the people grew ever more reliant on the potato, to the exclusion of other crops and vegetables. Famed economist Thomas Malthus offered a radical solution on how to get more out of the Emerald Isle’s lush landscape after visiting in 1817- “The land in Ireland is infinity more peopled than anywhere else; and to give full effect to the natural resources of the country, a great part of the population should be swept from the soil.” These words would come back to haunt the Irish people in a devastating way 30 years later. There were those who correctly recognized the real problem lay in the landholding system, and its reform would be the only means of securing a diverse and stable food supply. The will to institute such changes, however, did not exist, as the landlords’ political power was too strong. As long as the potato crop held…

There were diversions to distract the people from the abject poverty most lived in and the precariousness of their situation. The biggest was the great Catholic Emancipation drive led by the Liberator, Daniel O’Connell. The flamboyant Kerry man became a master of the mass meeting, his monster rallies to gain civil rights for Catholics drawing crowds of over 100,000. Subscription to the movement was made affordable to even the poorest in society, and united the people like never before. Success came in 1829, making O’Connell a national hero. Unfortunately, their newly granted rights did not change the lives of most Catholics dramatically, as the Protestant Ascendancy made sure they remained very much in control. Daniel O’Connell turned his attention to repealing the Union with Great Britain, believing an Irish Parliament, back in Dublin, might give Catholics a greater voice in their own affairs. Alas, before this campaign came to fruition, the house of straw which was Ireland’s economy came crashing down completely.

The fungus, which rotted the potatoes in the fields, and left a nauseating stench lying low over the land, first appeared in continental Europe during the summer of 1845. The crops in Flanders and Belgium were totally wiped out, while in France and Germany a partial destruction occurred. By late summer, the fungal plague had jumped to the Isle of Wight in the English Channel and then Britain. In early fall, the initial signs showed up in Ireland, quickly to spread. Irish authorities printed notices that there was nothing to worry about, the outbreak would be minimal. It is hard to find a more classic understatement in the annals of history.

The devastation wrought by the potato famine, primarily from 1845-50, is almost incomprehensible, way beyond biblical proportions. Out of 8 million people, 1.5 to 2 million died outright from starvation, or diseases associated with malnutrition. The exact number of dead is nearly impossible to calculate. Another 2 million fled for their lives, abandoning their homeland, the vast majority never to return. In less than a decade, Ireland lost half of its population. Among those who stayed, and lived, tens of thousands were thrown off their farms for failing to pay rent. Workhouses for the indigent rapidly became filled to overflowing. The survivors may have had cause to feel fortunate, though it is hard to see how.

The horrors of the Irish countryside could not be imagined in one’s worst nightmare. Bodies littering roadside ditches, the mouths stained green from a futile attempt to stay alive by eating grass. Walking skeletons with sunken, emaciated faces were everywhere, not possessing the strength to bury the dead. John Mitchel, Irish revolutionary, wrote the following after traveling through Galway during the famine’s worst year, Black 47- “We saw sights that will never wholly leave the eyes that beheld them.” In bleakest despair, parents watched as their children wasted away to nothing. “Would to God that we were dead, our children swoon before us, and we cannot give them bread.”- Jane Elgee, 1846.

The fate of many immigrants was no better. Packed like sardines into leaky, unseaworthy vessels, the mortality rate on these “coffin” ships was fearfully high. Relief at escaping the calamity in Ireland, and upon reaching their destination, was tinged by a deep sadness on leaving their homeland. The poignancy of their sorrow is captured in this piece on emigration: “He was a fine lad. He brought his hurley and ball with him on board, and he tapped the ball up to 21 times with the hurley; then, the next time as it came down, he doubled on it into the ocean, and threw the hurley after it.”

The British response to the Famine, or more appropriately, the lack of it, is a source of major controversy. Apologists point to the bureaucracy at the time not being developed enough to handle a catastrophe of such magnitude, and the too little, too late help provided. The stark reality is that upwards of 2 million people endured slow, agonizing deaths with plentiful food supplies easily accessible and taken from Ireland at gunpoint so the landlords would not lose their profits.

There’s a proud array of soldiers- what do they round your door?

They guard our master’s granaries from the hands of the poor

Oh! We know not what is smiling, and we know not what is dying

But we’re hungry, very hungry, and we cannot stop our crying

Accursed are we in our own land, yet toil we still and toil

But the stranger reaps our harvest- the alien owns the soil

- “The Famine Year”- Lady Wilde

The barbarity of British measures during the Great Hunger can be attributed to extreme callousness, indifference, and blatant bigotry toward the Irish people. Many civil servants saw it as a fulfillment of Malthus’ theory, in the form of divine or natural retribution to reduce Ireland’s population to a more manageable level. The overt prejudice is highlighted by this snippet from the 1848 London Times- “They are going! The Irish are going with a vengeance. Soon a Celt will be as rare in Ireland as a Red Indian on the shores of Manhattan.” That prediction turned out a bit premature, though it would take Ireland a long time to recover from the Famine, and it left a scar on the national psyche that has never healed.

Twilight people, why will you still be crying

Crying and calling to me out of the trees?

For under the quiet grass the wise are lying

And all the strong ones are gone over the seas

-“The Twilight People”- Seaumas O’Sullivan


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