Irish History Overview

The Great Famine & its Sequelae

The poorest Irish peasants, who were mostly but not exclusively Catholic, lived mainly on potatoes, since land was scarce and potatoes were an intensive crop. The amount of land needed to grow them could feed more people than the same amount of land used to grow a grain crop like wheat. The first potato famine occurred in 1836. When the crop was destroyed by blight the result was devastating, as the people’s only source of food was gone.

There were 8,175,000 people registered in the 1841 census of Ireland, two-thirds of them dependent on subsistence agriculture. The almost complete failure of the potato crop during the years of the Great Famine, 1845 – 1851, led to mass rural starvation, despite the continued export of agricultural foodstuffs to England and abroad. Those who didn’t starve to death often got fever and dysentery caused from eating putrid diseased potatoes. In their weakened state, others would suffer “relapse fever” or cholera and typhus. There were reports of entire families found dead with their mouths stained green from eating grass.

The  view that the Great Famine was in reality a British campaign of Genocide does not hold water, despite views published at the height of the  crisis by Charles Trevelyan, widely regarded as the founder of the modern British civil service, who as assistant secretary to HM Treasury from 1840-1859, was responsible for administering famine relief . He saw the Famine as a “mechanism for reducing surplus population” and described it as “The judgement of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson, that calamity must not be too much mitigated. …The real evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the Famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people“. These views appeared to be mitigated in another letter when Trevelyan wrote: “Our measures must proceed with as little disturbance as possible of the ordinary course of private trade, which must ever be the chief resource for the subistence of the people, but, coûte que coûte, the people must not, under any circumstances, be allowed to starve.”

While Britain provided much relief for Ireland’s starving populace, many felt that the government could have done much more to prevent or alleviate the suffering. It seemed that the famine was less important than preserving the laissez faire economic policies of the day, based on the principle of non-interference with market forces. 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. The famine had assumed the proportion of a crisis before government relief schemes were implemented on a large scale.

These relief schemes were frequently hastily thought up, and parts of Ireland still contain roads built during be famine that lead to nowhere in particular, known as boithre na mine (meal roads) in Irish because a day’s work was paid for with imported Indian meal. Other relief schemes were organized by proselytising Protestants who  manned soup kitchens where they handed out food accompanied by religious tracts. Some Catholics did convert to the Protestant faith and were promptly labelled ‘soupers’ as a mark of contempt by their stauncher fellow Catholic neighbours. The small but prosperous Quaker community was distinguished by its selfless altruism and generosity in aiding the poor, as were several individual clergymen of both Catholic and other Protestant denominations. Some Anglo-Irish landlords sponsored private relief schemes, and “famine follies” are still to be found on the grounds of old estates.

The landlords, including many “absentees” who rarely set foot on their properties or even visited Ireland, presented anything but a united front. Some did everything in their power to alleviate distress. Others behaved with extraordinary inhumanity. Hundreds of thousands of peasants were evicted for non-payment of rent; many crowded into disease-infested workhouses, or simply died by the roadsides. Other landlords paid for their tenants to emigrate.

At least a million people went to Britain and North America. Hundreds of Irish died on the trans-Atlantic ships, which were so overcrowded that they became known as ‘coffin ships’. To some extent, “lifeboat ethics” were being practiced, whereby a child might not be fed so that the little food available could sustain his working teenaged brother. Hundreds of thousands of Irish men and women who survived the harrowing voyage to the USA took with them a deep animosity towards England, which has persisted down to the present day.

By 1851, the population had fallen to 6,000,000 and the Diaspora continued until around 1900, by which time only 4,500,000 people remained in Ireland, a figure that remained virtually static well into the second half of the 20th century. The depopulation of the countryside was accelerated by large-scale immigration to the slums of Dublin (by now the “Second City of the British Empire”) and other urban centres, which had been relatively unscathed by the crop failure. Even today, derelict farmland, abandoned rural homesteads and entire deserted villages can be seen in the West of Ireland.

The Famine and its sequelae all but killed the Irish language, the everyday speech in the areas worst ravaged. State-run schools discouraged use of Irish, and many Irish-speaking parents encouraged their children to speak English as the only way to “get on in life”. By 1850, less than a quarter of the Irish population could speak the country’s native language, and this dwindled to less than a tenth by the end of the century. It was also mainly at this time that many ancient Irish surnames became Anglicised to a greater or lesser extent.

The Young Ireland movement was a romantic nationalist organization centred on a group of young idealists associated with the Nation newspaper from 1844. They believed in the need to use violence as “the only language the British will understand”. Their slogan was “Erin go bragh”  (‘Ireland for ever’). In 1848, “the year of revolution” all over Europe, they organized a disastrous uprising in Ballingarry, Co. Tipperary, mocked as the “cabbage patch rebellion” by the press. Most of the leaders fled abroad or were transported to the penal colonies. Several went on to have dramatic careers, such as Charles Gavan Duffy, who was knighted for his services as Prime Minister of New South Wales, and Thomas Francis Meaghrer, who escaped from Van Diemen’s Land [Tasmania] to the USA and eventually became first acting Governor of Montana, only to die in suspicious circumstances that were never satisfactorily clarified.

Drunkenness became a major social problem. A charismatic Capuchin, Father Theobald Mathew (1790-1856) founded the Pioneer Total Abstinence League, which held huge mass rallies across the country at which thousands “took the pledge” to refrain from alcohol.


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