Irish Potato Famine Causes and Consequences

Categories: DisasterHistory

The Irish Potato Famine was a taxing event in Irish history that claimed millions of casualties. Often referred to as the “Greatest Disaster” to have struck Ireland, the direct cause of the famine was due to the Potato Blight that ruined many harvests and driving the Irish population into hunger and starvation. As a result, many Irish immigrated in large numbers into the mainland of Great Britain, Canada, and the United States. The famine can be attributed as a reason for creating the early foundations of the Irish communities in America (Allan 5).

However, the effects of the famine could have been extenuated had the English approached the problem differently. The English dislike for the Irish and establishment of land laws drove the Irish into a financial crisis which led the Irish into being solely dependent on the potato. This continued dependency worsened the impact of the famine (Connell 281). To properly understand why the famine ravaged the Irish population so much, one must first understand the historical relationship between the Irish and the English and how the potato fits into the picture.

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From the very beginning, the Irish and the English conflicted with each other. King Henry II of England in 1171 took advantage of fighting in Ireland to annex the island within the kingdom. However, unlike the Scottish and Welch, Ireland never wanted to coexist under the English rule. Ireland was also geographically, linguistically, and culturally distanced from England which affected its ability to work with lawmakers to keep Irish interests (Allan 7).

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During the spread of the protestant reformation in the 16th century Europe, religious differences between the Roman Catholic Irish and the eventual Protestant England worsened the mutual perception of each other. This gap in the relationship also had serious international diplomatic consequences as the Catholic Irish favored other Catholic nations who were often England’s enemies in this religious war. Subduing the Catholic Ireland became a very important objective to the Protestant English Crown amidst these religious wars. The period of the Tudor Conquest was a very bloody one and victory to subdue Ireland had been achieved under Elizabeth I. However, enforcing Protestantism proved to be a difficult endeavor for the later regime (Pelling 2).

In lieu of using aggressive force like Elizabeth I, James I used more subtle tactics. Instead of forcibly converting the Irish Catholic into Protestants openly, he sent hordes of Protestants from England and Scotland to settle Ireland. Inevitably, this deeply hurt the English-Irish relationship and led to frequent bouts of violence throughout the 17th century. After the defeat of the Catholic James II of Boyne, a ruling Protestant class emerged out of Ireland and was supported by a collection of discriminatory laws passed, between 1620-1728, to repress Catholicism. These laws restricted Catholics from participating in politics, holding official positions, buying or inheriting land. The bishops were also subject to these laws often experiencing banishment or being forced to register and practice preaching in very limited regions. These laws were somewhat successful in converting the Catholics who wanted to escape persecution which reaffirmed the efficacy of James’ plan (Pelling 3). However, the rest of the Catholic population suffered in poverty due to the severity of these penal laws.

The penal laws made it nearly impossible for Catholics to own land. As a result, most rented land from Protestant land owners. The landowners generally preferred to live in their estates and left the management of the land to “agents”. These agents, interested in making a profit, would rent out smaller plots of land at higher prices to the tenants. At the bottom of this hierarchy was the Irish peasant who was burdened with growing enough food for subsistence and paying the highest rent per unit of land. The introduction of the potato allowed poor Irishmen to access nutrients necessary for development not only for themselves but also for their livestock (Wong).

The first Irish potatoes, grown by Sir Walter Raleigh in 1588, were introduced to the farming community. Eventually it made its way to Ireland where Irishmen quickly adopted the versatility of this crop. Before the potato, the Irish typically consumed grain and milk. The problem with these is that milk often becomes easily accessible if one has large plots of lands that allow livestock to easily graze. However, this was not the case for the sixteenth century Irish as land was constantly being captured and redistributed. The oats and grains in this case took longer to grow and poor people did not have the means to process these grains. The potato replaced grains and milk as an easy to store, easy to access alternative. Not only that, the potato could also be easily prepared by boiling it. Even in cases when Irish tenants faced confiscation during failure to pay rent, the potato could be easily hidden by burying it underground unlike the grain. Displaced people could re-grow potatoes faster than they could with grain. Despite their situation, as long as the climate and the soil favored the potato, they could grow it without much difficulty. The potato dependency of the Irish grew out of desperate need to keep oneself and the family alive (Connell 282-3).

The potato proved to be a very easily attainable crop whose nourishing effects will be seen on the Irish population over a period of time. For a very long time, the potato grew well enough in Ireland to increase the population. From 1750 to 1840, the population nearly tripled from 2.6 million to 8.5 million people. However, these increases were noticed in areas where Irish peasants grew potatoes because potatoes yielded more food per acre of land compared to any other crop. However, it would be these parts of the population that would be most affected by the potato blight (O’Neill 35-6).

The main culprit behind the potato famine was the Phytophthora infestans which is an oomycete. An oomycete is a fungus-like eukaryote. Not to be confused with fungus, oomycetes are responsible for some of the most devastating plant diseases-the Potato Blight being one of them (Sleigh 289). The Potato Blight spores favor warm and wet conditions. Rain and wind also play a part in helping the spores travel and infect plants over long distances. Even if the infection sets in, the early stages of blight can be easily missed as not all the plants are infected simultaneously. Signs of the blight can be seen as dark patches on the leaf of the plant. Whitish mold begins to form on the leaves and the infected tubers appear botched. Overall, the plant and its tubers begin to rot (Koepsell and Pscheidt 165). The Phytophthora infestans originated from the highlands to central Mexico. The first recorded incidence involving the blight was in the United States in 1843. The winds from the United States carried the spores toward Nova Scotia which traveled across the Atlantic Ocean with a shipment of seed potatoes in 1845 heading toward Europe (Reader).

Once the Blight was in Europe, it spread throughout many parts of Northern and Central Europe. By 1845 Belgium, Holland, northern France and southern England had all been stricken. (Donnelly 42). In 1845, the crops lost to the Blight have been estimated to be 50-60% (Kinealy 32). The Irish rural were hit the hardest in 1846 and that is when deaths were recorded due to starvation. This trend had a catastrophic impact for people who were completely dependent on the potato for food (Kennedy et. al 69). Not only did the Irish starve, they were faced with evictions as a result of failure to come up with proper rent payments. Poor response from the English government did not remedy the problem either.

Michel, a political journalist and national activist, wrote on the “English Rule” on March 7, 1846 that the Irish were “expecting famine day by day” and owed it not to “the rule of heaven as to the greedy and cruel policy of England.” In the same article, he continued to write that the people “believe that the season as they roll are but ministers of England’s rapacity; that their starving children cannot sit down to their scanty meal but they see the harpy claw of England in their dish.” Mitchel wrote that the Irish simply watched as their food rotted away at the same time “heavy-laden ships, freighted with the yellow corn their own hands have sown and reaped, spreading all sail for England” (Mitchel). In The Last Conquest of Ireland (Perhaps), written by Mitchel in 1861, it treated the British policies toward the famine as a method to deliberately wipe out the Irish and circulated the famous phrase, “The Almighty, indeed, send the potato blight, but the English created the Famine” (Mitchel). Records indicate that Ireland exported food even during the worst of the famine.

When Ireland experienced a famine in the early 1780s, the government responded by banning any exports which caused the food prices to drop quickly. However, in the case of this famine, no bans were seen in the 1840s (Kinealy 354). Cecil Woodham-Smith, author of The Great Hunger; Ireland 1845-1849, wrote that food exports in the face of the famine caused greater tensions between the Irish-English relationship. Nothing made the Irish angrier than “the indisputable fact that huge quantities of food were exported from Ireland to England throughout the period when the people of Ireland were dying of starvation.” Woodham-Smith notes that Ireland continued to be a net exporter of food throughout most of the famine (Ranelagh 115). Not only did the lack of an export ban hurt the Irish condition but the unwillingness of the English government to directly cull the problem made the effects of the famine worse.

Lyons describes the English response to the first phase of the famine to be “successful” (Lyons 30). In response to the crop failure of 1845, Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel bought hundred thousand British pounds worth of corn from America. However, the shipment was delayed by weather conditions and did not arrive until 1846. Once the shipment had arrived, the corn had not been ground into its edible form. In order to do this, it would be a long process and the Irish would not be able to carry it out locally due to the lack of means (Kinealy 38). Peel also motioned to repeal the tariffs on the grain to lower their prices. However, it did not remedy the problem. As the famine continued to grow worse in 1846, the conservative party split on the issue and Peel was forced to resign on June 29 (Ranelagh 115). Peel was succeeded by Lord John Russell who incompetently acted towards the famine and worsening the humanitarian crisis.

Russell and his ministry enacted a public works project with the goal of employing as many Irish as possible. However, the project proved to be difficult to handle (Kinealy 80). Under Russell’s ministry, Sir Charles Trevelyan served in charge of administering famine relief. His lack of action and prejudice toward the Irish was widely believed to worsen the famine (Lyons 30-4) . Trevelyan perceived the famine as “mechanism for reducing surplus population” and characterized the famine to be “The judgment 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 must contend is not the physical evil of the Famine but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people” (O’Riorden). The new Russell ministry then strictly followed the laissez-faire belief which led to a stop of the government based food and relief which left many people without work, food, or money (Woodham-Smith 408-11). After abandoning these projects, relief was primarily supplied through workhouses and soup kitchens. However, the cost of carrying these projects fell on local hands, primarily on the landlords who would in turn evict the tenants to avoid carrying out this responsibility (Lyons 33).

Landlords were responsible for paying on behalf of tenants who paid less than £ 4 in annual rent. Consequently, landlords who housed many poorer tenants caused them to be a liability. To solve this issue, landlords began evicting tenants from the smaller plots to clear any debt. According to James Donnelly Jr., almost 250,000 people were evicted between 1849 and 1854 (Poirteir 155). In West Clare alone, landlords evicted families by the thousands. After Clare, County Mayo evictions accounted for 10% of all evictions between this time. One of the worst evictors being Earl of Lucan who purportedly owned over 60,000 acres of land, evicted around 2,000 tenants and used the empty land for grazing (Litton 96). In response to this, violence occasionally broke out against the landlords. Lord Clarendon appealed to Russell out of fear of a revolt but was ignored because Russell held them mostly responsible. Russell was quoted saying “It is quite true that landlords in England would not like to be shot like hares and partridges…but neither does any landlord in England turn out fifty persons at once and burn their houses over their heads, giving them no provision for the future.”

Despite Russell’s disagreement over the issue, the Crime and Outrage Act was passed in the December of 1847 to cull any additional rebellions (Litton 98-99). Another example of unwise policy making under Russell ministry’s wing was the Gregory clause. Donnelly describes it to be a particularly “vicious amendment to the Irish Poor Law” which would prevent certain tenants who had more than quarter-acre of land from receiving any assistance. The Gregory clause was welcomed by the poor law commissioners who saw it as an easy way out of administering relief. However, many, including Donnelly, would agree that this clause was “indirectly a death-dealing instrument” (Donnelly 110). In the light of the circumstances created by the famine, many Irish families resorted to emigration which paved one of the early foundations of the Irish American communities.

During the famine, the Irish emigrated to England, Scotland, the United States, Canada, and Australia. Traveling such distances was not without a price. It is estimated that one out of five died from disease and malnutrition and mortality rates of 30% on the coffin ships were not unusual (The Shiplist). Due to starvation, evictions, and sub-human living conditions, about 2 million left Ireland by 1854. Most Irish immigrants in America made up a significant population in Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, and Baltimore by 1850s. The 1851 census report indicated large influx of the Irish in Toronto, Ontario making up over a half of their population. Canadian cities such as Saint John, Quebec city, Montreal, Ottawa, and Hamilton also experienced a sharp influx of Irish immigrants (Gray 97-9). Although some Irish managed to escape the famine, not everyone had the opportunity or the means to do so. Many, unfortunately, lost their lives to the famine.

It isn’t known how many exactly died during the Famine but it is believed that more died from diseases than from starvation. Official record keeping by the government had not yet started and the Roman Catholic Church records were not complete either (The General Register Office). However, many eye witness accounts suggested some characteristics of the famine and diseases that afflicted the Irish. English Quaker William Bennett in Mayo wrote about

three children huddled together, lying there because they were too weak to rise, pale and ghastly, their little limbs…perfectly emaciated, eyes sunk, voice gone, and evidently in the last stages of actual starvation.

Marasmic children, who suffered from a severe form of protein-energy malnutrition, greatly disturbed Quaker Joseph Crosfield who witnessed, in 1846, a heart-rending scene of poor wretches in the last stages of famine imploring to be received into the house. Some of the children were worn to skeletons, their features sharpened with hunger, and their limbs wasted almost to the bone.

It has been a difficult task for historians to predict a close number of lives lost to the famine due to poor record keeping. The disputed information gathered by the census commissioners for deaths occurred since 1841 found that there were 21,770 deaths that occurred from starvation and 400,720 deaths from disease. The diseases thought to have caused these deaths were fever, dysentery, cholera, smallpox, and influenza. The census commissioners remarked that “The greater the amount of destitution of mortality, the less will be the amount of recorded deaths derived from any household form;-for not only were whole families swept away by disease, but whole villages were effaced from off the land.” (Kennedy, 106) Historians also believe that it is a reasonable scenario for disease to be so rampant considering the living conditions of the Irish during the famine. The most important factor towards spreading diseases is enabling human contact under unsanitary conditions.

Mass gatherings at the soup kitchens and work houses served as ideal conditions for pathogens to spread from one person to another. Many diseases also afflicted the Irish due to malnutrition. Nutritional induced illnesses were starvation, marasmus (protein deficiency), and Dropsy (Edema). What made these diseases worse is that non-nutritional dependent diseases manifested severely in starved people than they would in otherwise normal individuals (Kennedy, et al. 104). Keeping all these conditions in mind, a likely estimate of deaths were approximated to one million from disease and starvation. Another million have been believed to have emigrated out of Ireland. As a result, some scholars estimate that the Irish population was reduced by 20 to 25 percent (H. Kennedy 43). Even after the famine had past, it still continued to affect the Irish political scene and still continues to be a controversial event in Irish history.

The poor British policies toward the famine stirred unforgivable and unforgettable anger within the Irish. Many Irish who emigrated to the United States quickly became part of associations that favored Ireland’s independence and repeal of the Act of Union. The famine and its causes became the main foundation of Irish emigrant anger. Most of them viewed it to be the reason for leaving Ireland in the first place. John Mitchel, journalist for the Nation, expressed the emigrants’ angry sentiments when he wrote:

“The Almighty indeed sent the potato blight but the English created the famine, a million and half men, women, children were carefully, prudently, and peacefully slain by the English government. They died of hunger in the midst of abundance which their own hands created.” (Mitchel, English Rule)

As a result, these sentiments ignited the desire for Ireland to secede from England’s grasp. After a failed 1848 rebellion (also known as the Famine rebellion) led by the Young Irelanders, some of the members fled to America. In the absence of British restrictions, the Young Irelanders encouraged anti-British sentiments and began another group referred to as the Fenian Brotherhood and its Irish counterpart being the Irish Republican Brotherhood devoted toward eradicating the British rule from Ireland. This Brotherhood also went so far as to recruit the Irish Americans who served in the Civil War to take part in an insurrection in Ireland. However, this plan would fail due to poor communications. However, this did not discourage the Irish from advancing the cause for independence. This time, the Irish Revolutionaries chose to pursue a movement that was grassroots although Irish American help would not be turned away (The History Place). The fight for independence would continue well into the 20th century still fueled by what the Irish, and some historians, believe to be a man-made famine.

Even in modern times, some historians suggest that the British inaction classifies the famine as an attempt to systematically wipe out the Irish. Francis A. Boyle, a law professor of University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, wrote in 1996 a report that the English government attempted to ethnically cleanse the Irish through enforcing policies aimed to hurt the Irish as a group (Ritschel). Historian Peter Duffy wrote that “The government’s crime, which deserves to blacken its name forever” was based “in the effort to regenerate Ireland by landlord-engineered replacement of tillage plots with grazing lands that took precedence over the obligation to provide food for its starving citizens. It is little wonder that the policy looked to many people like genocide.” (Duffy 297-8) However, historians such as Cormac O Grada assert that the Famine should not be considered a genocide because the sentiment to exterminate the Irish as a group of people was absent. O Grada, instead, claims that the Famine was an extreme case of neglect and poor decision making on the English government’s part (O Grada 10).

Updated: Aug 12, 2021
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Irish Potato Famine Causes and Consequences. (2019, Aug 19). Retrieved from

Irish Potato Famine Causes and Consequences essay
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