About the Great Hunger

IRELAND: A BRIEF OVERVIEW

Ireland possessed its own distinctive culture, language, religion and people prior to England’s repeated invasions. During the 16th and 17th centuries, England not only conquered Ireland by military force, but under Oliver Cromwell (1649–53) and his forces killed tens of thousands of Irish, and drove hundreds of thousands more off their land in Northeastern Ireland (Ulster). These Irish Catholics were then forcibly relocated to rocky, desolate areas in the West of Ireland (Connaught), where the land was suitable only for the potato crop. The land taken from the Irish Catholics in Ulster was offered to Protestants from Scotland and England … Continue reading


THE POTATO BLIGHT

Phytophthora infestans, the fungus that invades the potato plant and causes its rapid decay, struck for the first time in the eastern United States in the summer of 1843. The invisible fungus spores were transported to Belgium in a cargo of apparently healthy potatoes, and in the summer of 1845 the fungus revived and reproduced, devastating the potato crop in Flanders, Normandy, Holland and southern England. By August of 1845 the blight was recorded at the Dublin Botanical Gardens, and a week later, a total failure of the crop was reported in County Fermanagh. By October, there was panic in … Continue reading


THE BRITISH RESPONSE

The Famine was a disaster of major proportions, even allowing for statistical uncertainty as to its estimated effect on mortality. Yet the Famine occurred in a country that, despite concurrent economic problems, was at the center of a still-growing empire and an integral part of the acknowledged workshop of the world. There can be no doubt that despite a short-term cyclical depression, the resources of the United Kingdom could have either completely or largely mitigated the consequences of consecutive years of potato blight in Ireland. Within Ireland itself there were substantial resources of food that, had the political will existed, … Continue reading


EXPORTS IN FAMINE TIMES

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.” 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. Cecil Woodham-Smith, noted scholar and author, wrote … Continue reading


PRIVATE RELIEF EFFORTS

The Great Hunger was one of the first national disasters to elicit an international fund-raising effort. Donations came from distant and unexpected sources. The first collections, made following the appearance of blight in 1845, took place in Calcutta in India and Boston in the United States. Most fund-raising, however, took place in the wake of the second, more devastating appearance of the potato blight in 1846. Calcutta sent approximately £16,500 in 1847, while Bombay sent £3,000. The Society of Friends, or Quakers, first became involved with the Irish Famine in November 1846. The Quakers collected mostly American food, flour, rice, … Continue reading


LETTERS TO THE CORK EXAMINER

“Each day brings with it its own horrors. The mind recoils from the contemplation of the scenes we are compelled to witness every hour. Ten inquests in Bantry—there should have been at least 200 inquests. Each day—each hour produces its own victims—Holocausts offered at the shrine of political economy. Famine and pestilence are sweeping away hundreds—but they have now no terrors for the poor people. Their only regret seems to be that they are not relieved from their suffering and misery, by some process more speedy and less painful. As to holding any more inquests, it is mere nonsense. The … Continue reading


EMIGRATION AND “COFFIN SHIPS”

Between 1845 and 1855, nearly 2 million people emigrated from Ireland to America and Australia, and another 750,000 to Britain. The Poor Law Extension Act, which made landlords responsible for the maintenance of their own poor, induced some to clear their estates by paying for emigration of the poorer tenants. Although some landlords did so out of humanitarian motives, there were undoubtedly benefits to them, especially those who wanted to consolidate their land holdings or change from the cultivation of land to beef and dairy farming. Emigration soared from 75,000 in 1845 to 250,000 in 1851. This chaotic, panic-stricken and … Continue reading


POPULATION AND EXPENDITURES

POPULATION According to the Irish census of 1841, the population of Ireland exceeded 8 million. By 1851, the population, which should have been about 9 million, had dropped to 6 million. Thus, close to 3 million people were lost to The Great Hunger: more than 1 million to death by starvation and related diseases, and more than 2 million to emigration, which continued at high rates through 1921. By then, 4.5 million people had left Ireland. EXPENDITURES During the period 1845-50, Britain’s total expenditure in Ireland was £7 million, or 0.01 percent of its gross national product during the period. Irish expenditures … Continue reading


TWO PRIME MINISTERS

Lord John Russell, Britain’s prime minister during most of The Great Hunger years, wrote in 1847: “It must be thoroughly understood that we cannot feed the people…. We can at best keep down prices where there is no regular market and prevent established dealers from raising prices much beyond the fair price with ordinary profits.” Tony Blair, former British prime minister, in June of 1997 was the first British prime minister to acknowledge the role played by Britain during The Great Hunger: “Those who governed in London at the time failed their people through standing by while a crop failure turned into … Continue reading


IRISH-AMERICAN DIASPORA

As a result of The Great Hunger, the Irish became a large and important part of American society. Those who came to the United States during and following The Great Hunger played a major role in the development of this country, and today more than 40 million Americans, or roughly 15 percent of the population in the United States, claim Irish ancestry. Irish immigrants were substantially involved in the early labor union movement in the United States, and the history of 20th-century urban American politics is inextricably linked to the development of Irish-American politics. The Catholic Church was relatively small … Continue reading