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The Great Famine on Irelands Society Essay

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Kinnealy (1995, p167) commented that “The number of people who died during the famine years (1845-51) is not known”. There have been many arguments on how many people actually perished during the Irish famine, the answer is we do not actually know. What is certain is that the Great Famine had a tremendous impact on Ireland; socially, economically and politically. Socially the famine changed Ireland with smaller families and people marrying later in life. Whilst some social impacts were devastating such as culture collapse, one positive impact was the fact that standards of living improved, with less people in poverty as there was a decrease in people living off the land.

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Although it should be noted that emigration was not exactly a new phenomenon in Ireland in the years before the famine, it could be argued that the famine acted as a catalyst for the increased numbers emigrating.

Ireland’s politics were altered greatly after the famine with widespread bitterness felt by the survivors, who distrusted the British government and landlords for standing idly by whilst they starved. In order to understand how Ireland politically was impacted it is of interest to look at Britan and the middle class in Ireland’s attitude to the Irish poor and how their involvement (or lack of) left many people angry and bitter. Some Irish people viewed landlords as their enemy and maintained ownership of land was vital if another famine was to be prevented. Others believed that there was only solution to ensure that a famine would never happen again In Ireland and that was for Ireland to rule itself.

One of the Social impacts of the famine was that people had smaller families. This was largely due to perceptions at the time that more people meant an extra person to feed. People were reluctant to have large families and in some areas a culture emerged that refrained from having sex as a means of controlling the size of their family- this was because of poverty – the famine proved that a big family was a burden at a time when resources were stretched.

After the famine Ireland experienced a culture collapse – less people were speaking the Irish language as their first language, as many of the people who spoke it died as a result of hunger and disease. Statistics from Wesley Johnston (2008) show that 30% of people in Ireland spoke the Irish language but by 1961 this had decreased to 24%. It should be noted that the famine was not fully responsible for the culture collapse – the process was already underway by the time the famine hit Ireland, as people learned the English language as a means of bettering themselves. The Famine however did accelerate the collapse of the language as those who died or emigrated in the famine were disproportionately Irish speakers, mainly because the famine hit rural areas hardest and that is where Irish had survived the longest.

In the years before and during the famine, Irish people relied heavily on the potato crop as a means of life. The fact that the potato blight was so easily spread, made Ireland an ideal location for the blight to prosper, given the climate and weather, as Mary E, Daly depicts in ‘The Famine in Ireland’ (1986, p53) ‘The blight itself was caused by phythopthera infestans, a fungus which multiplies in hot damp weather and can be quickly disseminated by wind or mist’ For many people the potato was a staple part of their diet and a blight was unthinkable as they depended on it so heavily for survival – making the consequences when the blight hit, disastrous.

As a result of the famine the people vowed never to go hungry again – thus another consequence was that there was now a range of vegetables being grown on the land, as opposed to primarily the potato during the famine. Livestock was also introduced to the land as another dietary option as people quickly realised that depending on the potato for survival was very risky, which was proved when many paid for this dearly as around 1 million perished.

In the aftermath of the famine the ownership of land became prominent – it became important to own your own land if you were an inhabitant of Ireland. The reasoning behind this was – owning your own land meant that you could not be evicted from it. It was not uncommon for a tenant to be evicted from the homes from a landowner during the famine, as people struggled to make their rent. The reason why people struggled to pay their rent was because they did not actually receive pay/wages. After the famine what became known as ‘Strong Farmers’ emerged. This group of farmers were those who owned 15 or more acres of land, thus meaning they did not have to worry as much about survival, whereas farmers with less than 15 acres of land struggled.

Before the famine labourers worked for free as a means of affording the rent on their property. Land subdivision, although not primarily the cause of the famine, was a contributor to the plight. The vast majority of the land in Ireland during the famine was not owned by the Irish people themselves. It was owned by wealthy landlords, who in turn rented the property to farmers (known at the time as middle-men) – the lease would have been lengthy and the plot of land large. The farmer would then have rented the land out again, except on a shorter lease and smaller plot. The tenant of this land would have divided the land again into smaller plots and rented them out on short leases.

The tenants at the bottom of the land pyramid in Ireland were peasants (also known as cottiers). The practice of renting land numerous times was known as subdivision, as land was gradually divided into smaller plots at each stage as it was leased. The fact that the Irish people (due to subdivision) did not own their own land, earned no pay or wages were factors which forced the peasants/cottiers to live off the potato crop, which when failed, contributed to the impact of the famine. After understanding subdivision, it is easy to see why, in the years after the famine, the Irish vowed to own their own land.

One impact of the Great Famine that is often overlooked is the fact that the standard of living improved. There were bigger plots of land on the island (due to land becoming vacant due to emigration and death), less people living off the land (more livestock introduced) and there was a decreased population (caused by emigration, deaths). The fact that cottiers decreased dramatically after the famine also supports the higher standard of living argument. Cottiers were a majority before the famine as R.F. Foster (Modern Ireland 1600-1972) points out – ‘By the famine the number of smallholders and cottiers outnumbered the farmers two to one, a balance that would change dramatically.’

The Economical impact of the famine as catastrophic – there was a sharp population decline as people with emigrated or died. Cecil Woodham-Smith (the Great Hunger 1991) states ‘In 1841 the population of Ireland was given as 8,175,124 in 1851, after the famine, it had dropped to 6,552,385 and the census commissioners calculated that, at the normal rate of increase, the total should have been 9,018,799. It is unclear how many died, emigrated or even the exact population of Ireland during this time as Woodham-Smith (1991) goes on to explain that the figures available ‘must be regarded as giving only a rough indication; vital statistics are unobtainable, no record was kept of deaths, and very many persons must have died and been buried unknown’.

Given the lack of censuses and the vast amount of people unaccounted, it is impossible to obtain an exact figure for the population decline, however it is widely agreed that the population in Ireland decreased from 8 to 5 million during the famine as an estimated 2 million people (some assisted by landlords) emigrated in search of a better life and 1 million died as a result of hunger/disease. As with culture decline, although there was emigration prior to the famine, it was not on the same scale as at the height of the famine when emigration increased. This theory is recognised by Foster (1988) who states emigration ‘cannot simply be seen as part of the disruptions attendant upon the famine; a large scaled exodus began long before it, and continued long afterward’.

Aside from the blight in the potato crop, other reasons why so many died and emigrated was the inadequate relief measures provided by the British government of the time. In response to the blight, the government decided to set up work houses, however in order to gain entry into these house, one had to give up their land. When soup kitchens opened they feed, however after the potato crop appeared to recover, soup kitchens were closed prematurely, assuming the land and crop had recovered, only for it to return the following summer (1848). The British government felt its relief measures were adequate and was of the belief that wealthy landlords were expected to dig into their own pockets to alleviate public distress – this of course was not a feasible option because in order for landlords to be able to relieve distress they had to receive rent from their tenants, and in many cases they were receiving little or no rent.

Seen as a country of drunks and lazy by the British, Irelands plight was overlooked as the British thought the Irish had a tendency to exaggerate, thus they did not take the famine as serious as they could have. This led to many Political impacts – the most prominent being a hatred of the English. Woodham-Smith (1991) observes ‘The famine left hatred behind. Between Ireland and England the memory of what was done and endured had lain like a sword’. The Irish people felt they had been left to die by a country that stereotyped them as a nation of drunks who were also lazy. Inadequate relief measures did not help to ease suffering and the British had an attitude of Laissez-Faire, meaning they viewed the famine as Irelands problem, and Irelands upper class should provide help and relief.

They held a belief that the Irish had a habit of exaggerating thus what they said had to be kept in context. Sir Robert Peel declared “that all reports, including those about famine, from his executive in Dublin needed critical scrutiny because ‘a haze of exaggeration covered Dublin castle like a fog'” (Boyce, 1990, p111). What left Irish people livid after the famine was the notion that they were spongers as Boyce (1990 p115) quotes Trevelyan in a letter to Stephen Spring Rice in 1848 as stating ‘The Poorest and most ignorant Irish peasant must, I think, by this time, have become sensible of the advantage of belonging to a powerful community like the United Kingdom, the establishments and pecuniary resources of which are times ready to be employed for his benefit’.

Throughout Europe in 1848 a wave of revolutions broke out. The change in social and economic conditions as a result of industrialisation and urbanisation meant countries like France and Germany saw revolutions. Only in Britain did this not occur. Yet in Ireland (the only part of Britain to rebel) the social and economic changes and the revolutionised political feeling created by the famine resulted in the use of violence against the state. Although The Young Irelander’s rebellion of 1848 failed to achieve any significant change, it did show that the Anti-British feelings were intensifying and the Irish were ready to use more radical methods. Later groups like the Fenians, who believed in physical force to achieve their aims and the home rule party (led by Charles Steward Parnell) who were largely democratic, became popular in Ireland, with Britain’s perceived mishandling of the Great Famine helping these movements to emerge.

Many see the famine as a watershed in Irish history – a turning point that had a severe impact on Ireland, Socially, Politically and Economically. The British Laissez-faire attitude angered people, adding to the distrust now felt by many. Having seen at first hand the hunger and sheer desperation of their people, there was those who wanted to govern Ireland on their own, they believed home rule was the way forward.

The young Irelander’s of 1848 had attempted a revolution during the famine and were unsuccessful but there would be other movements (post-famine) who opposed British Rule and who pointed to the famine as proof that Ireland needed to rule itself. Whilst some pointed the finger at Britain (especially in Nationalist areas) there were those who believed the landlords were to blame as some (though not all) sought to gain wealth at the expense of their own people. Indeed in Nationalist areas murals still exist to keep the memory of the famine and the perceived injustice inflicted by Britain alive. There could be an argument that both parties should share a portion of responsibility, but the fact was Irish people, in the aftermath of the famine were determined not to let history repeat itself – as a result the face of Ireland was changed forever.


Kinnealy, Christine, This Great Calamity; The Irish Famine 1845-52, Roberts Rinhart Publishers, Boulder Colorado, 1995

Daly, Mary E., The Famine In Ireland, Dublin Historical Association 1986

Woodham-Smith, Cecil, The Great Hunger; Ireland 1845-49 Penguin Books, London, England, 1991 First printing 1962

Boyce, D George, Nineteenth century Ireland; The Search for Stability Colourbooks Ltd, Dublin 1990

Foster, R.F., Modern Ireland; 1600-1972, Penguin books, 1988

Wesley Johnston (2008) available at http://www.wesleyjohnston.com/users/ireland/past/famine/index.htm

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