Irish Famine (1846 - 1851)

Irish Famine (1846 - 1851)
Irish Famine (1846 - 1851)
The British called it the Great Famine, the Irish middle class called it the Great Hunger, and the peasantry called it the Great Starvation. Before the famine, Irish farmers grew barley and grain. They raised cattle and dined on beef, dairy products, and potatoes.

Population growth and subdivision of farmland through inheritance—as well as loss of land due to higher rents—slowly shrank the average farm. Fifteen acres was the minimum to produce a crop surplus. Two-thirds of the Irish had fewer than 15 acres.

Population pressures after 1815 produced ever smaller holdings and increased competition for land. By 1841 the population was at 8 million, with two-thirds working in agriculture. Eight million Irish were too many.

Half-acre plots became common. Only potatoes could feed a family with half an acre of land. The average consumption was between seven and 15 pounds of potatoes a day. Cattle gave way to pigs and plots of cultivated oats, which gave way to rented plots on which potatoes were grown.

The potato, introduced in the late 16th century, did well in Ireland’s damp climate. It provided the most food per acre, which became increasingly important as the population exploded in the late 18th century.

Because conacre, the division of land among all sons, reduced farm size drastically, those who lived on farms needed the most prolific potato, Aran Banner. However, Aran Banner was most susceptible to blight. Potato blight had struck Ireland before.

A famine in 1741 killed 250,000 people. In addition, between 1816 and 1842 Ireland suffered 14 famines, some partial and some total. Between 1845 and 1848 harvests were poor and summers were wet. The wetness aided the spread of blight. Already stretched thin, the Irish peasants were unable to withstand four successive failures.

The blight of 1845 led the people to plant more potatoes than ever to compensate. They did not expect a second failure, but the one in 1846 was worse; the one in 1847 worse yet. Ireland was preindustrial, and those who failed at agriculture had nowhere to go. The starving flooded towns and cities, bringing typhoid, cholera, and dysentery.

Disease killed more than starvation. Food prices inflated, and landless and penniless laborers rioted, formed secret societies, engaged in crime and lawlessness. The British government valued the right of the owners to collect rents and crops over the needs of the people for food and shelter.

The Coercion Act established martial law and a curfew, and troops and constables safeguarded shipments of food exports. The British imposed their poor laws and expected the Irish to pay for relief. The British established a scientific study of the causes of the failure. What they did not do was establish relief and public works—at least at first.

Eventually, private charities and government began providing soup kitchens; by 1847 half the population was eating at public expense. Those owning a quarter acre of land or more were ineligible. Critics accused the government of genocide.

At least 1 million Irish died of starvation or disease. Over 1 million people left Ireland for America and Liverpool. The famine decreased the Protestant share of the population and hastened the replacement of Gaelic, the language of the native poor, with English. By 1851 the Irish population was 6.5 million.