Irish Famine: Tragedy 150 years in the making

01/06/2014

irish potato famineFew dispute that the Irish Potato Famine stacks up as one of modern history’s great calamities.

Beginning in 1845, potato blight destroyed a significant proportion of Ireland potato crop, ultimately leading to the deaths of more than 1 million individuals and the emigration of another 1-million plus.

Many today place blame for the tragedy on the British government of the 1840s, namely its adherence to a combination of laissez-faire relief efforts, trade laws that curtailed importation of grains that would have helped offset dwindling potato stocks and a general indifference to the fate of poor Catholic Irish by ruling Protestant British.

But, as Stephen Davies of the Foundation for Economic Education points out, the underpinnings of the Irish Potato Famine began at least 150 years before Phytophthora infestans first began attacking Irish potato crops.

Following the defeat of England’s last Catholic king, James II, by Protestant forces led by William of Orange in the Glorious Revolution in the late 17th century, a series of “penal laws” were passed by the Irish Parliament, which was dominated by the Protestant minority who had supported William.

The first law, passed in 1695, took away the right of Catholics to bear arms, while another forbade Catholics to leave the island for education and prohibited them from teaching or running schools within Ireland.

“The most important, however, was the Act to Prevent the Further Growth of Popery (1704),” according to Davies. “This prevented Catholics from buying land or inheriting it from Protestants, or from leasing land for more than 31 years. At about this time the potato was introduced as a major crop. The combination of the legislation and the new crop was ultimately disastrous.”

Taken together, the penal laws, together with other legislation, created a set of powerful and perverse incentives, Davies added.

“Because Catholic tenant farmers could not own land or hold it on anything but short-term leases, with little or no security of tenure, they had no incentive to improve their land or modernize agricultural practice,” he writes. “All the benefit would go to the hated alien class of Protestant landlords in higher rents or more expensive leases.”

On the other hand, the potato proved to be a miracle crop for poor Irish. It was a nutritious plant that made it possible to support a family on a very small plot of land.

Population change in Ireland between 1841 and 1851 as a result of the Great Potato Famine. Source: Encyclopædia Britannica.

Population change in Ireland between 1841 and 1851 as a result of the Great Potato Famine. Source: Encyclopedia Britannica.

However, with no ability to purchase land and no incentive to improve land, poor Irish grew increasingly dependent on the crop, repeatedly subdividing parcels and focusing almost exclusively on growing potatoes.

By 1841, 45 percent of all holdings in Ireland were less than five acres and 5.5 million out of a population of approximately 8 million were totally dependent on subsistence agriculture.

The lack of capital and the restraints on the Catholic majority meant that Irish commerce and manufacturing were non-existent. This lack of economic diversification would ultimately extract a heavy toll.

Another nail in the coffin for many of Ireland’s poor were the Corn Laws introduced by Parliament in 1815.

These were trade laws designed to protect cereal producers in the United Kingdom against competition from less-expensive foreign imports. This had the effect of preserving the flawed Irish farming system, according to Davies.

In the end, simple bad luck compounded the problem. In 1845 the Irish potato crop became infested with the blight, causing a partial failure of the crop that year.

Unusually wet weather resulted in a total harvest failure the following year, and again in 1847 and 1848.

Ultimately, British relief efforts teetered between inept and inane.

Recognizing Ireland’s widespread crop failure in the autumn of 1845, Prime Minister Robert Peel purchased £100,000 worth of maize and cornmeal secretly from America, However, weather kept the first shipment from arriving in Ireland until February 1846.

Later that year, Peel moved to repeal the Corn Laws, which ultimately split his party and led to the collapse of his ministry.

Peel’s successor, John Russell, proved utterly inadequate to the challenge as the Famine worsened. Russell’s ministry introduced public works projects, which by December 1846 employed some 500,000.

However, Charles Trevelyan, charged with administration of government relief to Famine victims, limited assistance because he thought “the judgment of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson.”

In addition, public works were “strictly ordered” to be unproductive – that is, they would create no fund to repay their own expenses. Many hundreds of thousands of “feeble and starving men” were kept digging holes, and breaking up roads, with no real goal in mind.

Also, to continue receiving relief, hundreds were instructed to travel many miles in bad weather, with a significant number perishing on the journey.

Russell’s Administration then halted government food and relief works, leaving many hundreds of thousands of people without any work, money or food.

In January 1847, with the Famine in full swing, the government turned to a mixture of “indoor” and “outdoor” direct relief; the former administered in workhouses through the Poor Law, the latter through soup kitchens.

The costs of the Poor Law fell primarily on the local landlords, who in turn attempted to reduce their liability by evicting their tenants.

One clause of the Poor Law prohibited anyone who held at least one-quarter of an acre from receiving relief.

This in practice meant that if a farmer, having sold all his produce to pay rent, duties, rates and taxes, should be reduced, as many thousands of them were, to applying for public outdoor relief, he could not receive it until he had first turned over all his land to his landlord.

Davies writes that more than 3 million Irish either died or emigrated during the Famine.

More than 160 years later Ireland’s population still hasn’t reached its pre-Famine levels: There are 6 million people in Ireland today, compared to 8 million in 1841.

Davies adds that a key point to realize from the Irish Potato Famine is that laws that affect economic choice can have far-reaching and frequently perverse results.

“In particular, actions and laws that create the wrong kind of economic incentives can be truly disastrous and produce effects that are hard to reverse,” he writes. “The laws passed by the vengeful Protestant minority after 1690 created a set of institutional incentives in Ireland that continued to work for over a hundred years until they culminated in a disaster that was by then probably unavoidable.”

Davies concludes with a cautionary note for contemporary policymakers.

“Many people today are foolish enough to advocate the deliberate support of traditional subsistence peasant farming in many parts of the world and resistance to measures such as free trade, which would lead to modern commercial farming,” he writes. “’Five acres and independence’ may seem an inspiring slogan. Ireland in the 1840s shows that it is a recipe for eventual catastrophe on a terrible scale.”

(HT: Coyote Blog)

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21 Responses to “Irish Famine: Tragedy 150 years in the making”

  1. janeybgood Says:

    Fantastic. A part of our history that should never be forgotten. Here is


  2. everything i learn about history is from you. I have never heard of this famine. My son of 18 years was actually surprised at me.


    • Thanks, Tom. My son is also 18 and he, too, is often surprised at me, though for different reasons.


      • HAHA i have no doubt. I am 42 and baffled at the range of topics you span. I don’t honestly think anybody else that reads me or who i read is nearly as informed as you are. You have my AWE sir.


      • Much obliged, but you’d be surprised at how varied the audience of someone with your talents might be.

        My wife tells me the story of one of her favorite law school professors, a man whom she considered an absolute genius. She told me, if I remember correctly, that the only show he watched on television was The Simpsons. Now that’s a professor I can respect.


      • That is awesome.

  3. janeybgood Says:

    My mind isn’t working properly today. I was going to say, here’s a ballad that had such a profound effect on me when I first heard it, it’s remained one of my favourites since. It’s about the sadness of emigration after the famine and it’s so moving http://youtu.be/QRHQAtKbRTk

  4. ksbeth Says:

    i always learn so much from you. i aways have a piece here and there, of much of history, but never the whole story. thanks for helping to fill in the blanks for me ) and i’m half irish, must be why i crave carbs the way i do.


    • Thank you for the kind words. History has, it seems, far more sad stories than happy ones, but it’s never boring. I, too, love the carbs, so much so that one would think I was all Irish.


  5. Quite agree on the dangers of subsistence farming; the problem with free trade is that so called free trade agreements turn out to be nothing like free – except for the large corporations.
    I’m looking at NAFTA here, which has – buy a combination of circumstances, pushed the Mexican economy into stagnation.

  6. metan Says:

    It is hard to imagine so many millions of people dying or fleeing their country, although I guess there are places in the world where hostilities or famine are causing similar conditions now. It is terrible that the English govt could have helped and chose to continue to line their own pockets rather than save lives.

    Without the potato famine I expect I wouldn’t be here today though, as some of those Irish who fled to Australia on the coffin ships are my ancestors!


    • History has an odd way of shaking out, doesn’t it? Many of us today are the beneficiaries of the sufferings of others who had to endure such calamities as famine and war.

      I once knew a guy who was working on a big project in our area here, though he was from Australia. We got to talking one day about World War II and he mentioned that his father had been a Soviet tank crewman who was badly wounded on the Eastern Front. He was captured and taken back to the German lines, where he eventually recovered. He ended up marrying one of the German nurses who helped him and they emigrated after the war, ending up in Australia.

      Don’t think this guy didn’t realize his good fortune, with all the different ways things could have ended up, both for his parents and himself.


  7. Excellent post, CBC. Despite the fact that it occurred over 150 years ago the effects of the Great Famine are still felt in Ireland today. There are some rural parishes who have never recovered from the loss in population they suffered, with the ruins of abandoned villages and once arable lands left to scrub still visible in some parts of the country. A number of genetically inherited illnesses that are known to be associated with malnutrition and famine-related diseases are still well above average in Ireland or in overseas Irish populations. There is also the cultural factors, the great “shame” or “guilt” felt by the surviving population the echoes of which can be seen in contemporary Irish society (c.f. the rarely discussed post-Holocaust cultural neuroses found in Israel). Ireland’s complex post-colonial psychosis is tightly bound to the seminal changes the Irish nation suffered in the 1800s.

    Most profound of all, of course, is virtual destruction of the last remnants of Gaelic civilization on the island of Ireland that the Great Famine brought about. There is an almost one-for-one equivalency between those areas with the highest number of Irish-speakers before the famine and the highest levels of depopulation after the famine. The majority of those who emigrated to the United States from 1840 to 1870 were monolingual Irish-speakers. For a time there were more speakers of Irish in North America than in Ireland, more Irish spoken in New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago than in Dublin, Belfast, Cork or Limerick.


    • It seems that only recently has there been any kind of an effort to study the long-term impact of the Great Famine, at least here in the States. Mostly, it seems to be accepted, as Treveylan put it so callously, as an act of God, one that couldn’t have been prevented, nor one that could be learned from.

      One other impact that can never be measured is the fact that often when a nation loses a significant amount of its population to emigration, it loses some of its “best and brightest,” to employ an overworked phrase.

      The US and Canada, among others, benefited from Ireland’s loss. Often, it those with at least some means, skills or simply pluck who are more willing to pull up stakes and move abroad. These are the sorts who would have been essential in effecting increased change in Ireland – provided, of course, they had survived the hard times.

  8. Bernadette Says:

    Great post!

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