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In September 1845 a strange disease struck the potatoes as they grew in fields across

Ireland. Many of the potatoes were found to have gone black and rotten and their leaves
had withered. In the harvest of 1845, between one-third and half of the potato crop was
destroyed by the strange disease, which became known as 'potato blight'. It was not
possible to eat the blighted potatoes, and the rest of 1845 was a period of hardship,
although not starvation, for those who depended on it. The price of potatoes more than
doubled over the winter: a hundredweight [50kg] of potatoes rose in price from 16p to
36p. It is now known that the same potato blight struck in the USA in 1843 and 1844 and
in Canada in 1844. It is thought that the disease travelled to Europe on trade ships and
spread to England and finally to Ireland, striking the south-east first.

The picture on the left shows what a blighted potato

looks like. They have a soggy consistency and smell
badly. Note that this picture was taken recently,
showing that potato blight still attacks sometimes

The following spring, people planted even more

potatoes. The farmers thought that the blight was a
one-off and that they would not have to suffer the
same hardship in the next winter. However, by the time harvest had come in Autumn
(Fall) 1846, almost the entire crop had been wiped out. A Priest in Galway wrote "As to
the potatoes they are all gone - clean gone. If travelling by night, you would know when a
potato field was near by the smell. The fields present a space of withered black stalks."
The Prime-Minister, Sir Robert Peel, set up a commission of enquiry to try to find out
what was causing the potato failures and to suggest ways of preserving good potatoes.
The commission was headed by two English scientists, John Lindley and Lyon Playfair.
The farmers had already found that blight thrived in damp weather, and the commission
concluded that it was being caused by a form of wet rot. The scientists were unable,
however, to find anything with which to stop the spread of the blight. It was in 1846 that
the first starvations started to happen.

In 1847, the harvest improved somewhat and the potato crop was partially successful.
However, there was a relapse in 1848 and 1849 causing a second period of famine. In this
period, disease was spreading which, in the end, killed more people than starvation did.
The worst period of disease was 1849 when Cholera struck. Those worst affected were
the very young and very old. In 1850 the harvest was better and after that the blight never
struck on the same scale again.

The precise number of people who died is perhaps the most keenly studied aspect of the
famine: unfortunately, this is often for political rather than historical reasons. The only
hard data that has survived is the 1841 and 1851 censuses, but the accuracy of these has
been questioned. The reason for this is that the censuses recorded deaths by asking how
many family members died in the past 10 years, but after the famine whole families had
often left Ireland thus leaving many deaths unreported. It was argued by Edwards et al.
that the precise number of deaths is of secondary concern to simple fact that a very many
people died. Suffice it to say that estimates of deaths in the famine years range from
290,000 to 1,500,000 with the true figure probably lying somewhere around 1,000,000, or
12% of the population. We shall probably never know exactly how many lost their lives.
It was undoubtedly the greatest period of death in Irish history, but its long term effects
were to involve even more people than this.

In the years after the famine, scientists discovered that the blight was, in fact, caused by a
fungus, and they managed to isolate it. They named it Phytophthora Infestans. However
it was not until 1882, almost 40 years after the famine, that scientists discovered a cure
for Phytophthora Infestans: a solution of copper sulphate sprayed before the fungus had
gained root. At the time of the famine there was nothing that farmers could do to save
their crop.

The famine did not affect all of Ireland in the same way. Suffering was most pronounced
in western Ireland, particularly Connaught, and in the west of Munster. Leinster and
especially Ulster escaped more lightly. The following map shows the severity of the
famine across Ireland in 1847; the height of the Famine.
There are a number of reasons for this pattern:

• As discussed in Prelude to Famine 1: Irish Agriculture, there were several distinct

kinds of agriculture present in Ireland at the time of the famine. The farmers in the
east depended upon cereal crops, while those in Ulster grew flax. Only in the
small farms of west of Ireland, and in parts of Munster, was the potato in a
monopolistic position. It is estimated that at the eve of the famine 30% of Irish
people were largely or wholly dependant on potatoes for their food. Thus, when
the Blight struck it was these people who had nothing to fall back on. In
Connaught some have estimated that as many as 25% of the population died.
• Those who lived nearer to large cities had more access to imported goods.
Although food was exported as usual from Leinster in 1844 and 1845, there was a
net import of almost a million tons of grain by 1847. However, these imports
naturally reached those nearer to the cities and these are in the east and south.
Dublin, Belfast and Derry escaped with almost no effects at all, while Cork and
Wexford were relatively better off than their rural environs. It was the inland and
especially the western areas that could benefit least from the food of the cities.
Given the fact that potatoes are notoriously hard to transport in any case, it would
be difficult to get potatoes to Connaught even in a non-famine situation.
• More people were killed by malnutrition-related diseases (such as dysentry and
scurvy) as well as cholera that swept through the famine-ravaged countryside,
than by actual starvation. While already prevalent in the west, many of these
diseases spreads most effectively in damp conditions where people live closely
together. Dysentry is not caused by hunger, and its incidence was not significantly
higher during the famine as before. However, recovery from Dysentry depends
upon good nutrition and in many cases this was unavailable. The Cholera
epidemic was coindicental to the famine, but was responsible for a large number
of deaths. It was the closely packed west that suffered most from these effects.

In United Kingdom politics at the time of the famine, there were two main political
parties. The Tories were liberals who supported the Monarchy, and enjoyed the support of
most Irish landlords. The Whigs were strong believers in free trade and had a policy
known as laissez-faire, which stated that government should interfere as little as possible
in affairs of trade and that the free market would deal with any crises. The UK
government at the start of the famine was a Tory government led by Sir Robert Peel.

A third of the potato crop was wiped out in 1845. Crop failures
were relatively common in Ireland (there had been famines in
1741, 1745, 1755, 1766, 1783, 1800, 1816, 1822 and 1830,
although only that of 1741 was comparable to the Great Famine
[1]). Because of this, it took some time before the government
realised that this failure was more serious than usual. In mid
September 1845, a week after the fungus first appeared, a
government inquiry concluded that, although there had been
failures, the crop was also unusually heavy and that the extra
crop would compensate for the loss. [2] A month later another
government inquiry revealed that the crop losses were more
serious in 17 of the 32 counties. The image on the left shows a
family searching for unblighted potatoes in a blighted field. The
government responded to this second inquiry by setting up a commission to seek cures
for the blight. (This has already been discussed in The Famine 1: Potato Blight.) The
Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel, offered to give away free any chemical that would cure
the blight, but the commission failed to find one.

The government soon realised that more food was needed from somewhere to make up
the shortfall. Peel had two options. The first was to stop exports. The landlords of
Leinster, many of whom cultivated grain, often sold to the large markets in Britain. In
1844 there was a net export of grain of 294,000 tons and 485,000 in 1845. Private
individuals in Ireland met the Lord Lieutentant of Ireland in Dublin to push for this
The other solution was to import more food. There were two problems with this. Firstly,
many other European countries were also fearing famines and had banned exports of
food, reducing the markets from which to buy. Secondly, there was a law called the 'Corn
Law' which sought to protect local farmers by banning cheap foreign imports of food.
The Corn Law was a key Tory policy, so by considering removing it Peel was going to
invite the wrath of his party.

Sir Robert Peel, after much deliberation decided that merely preventing grain exports was
not enough. Ó Gráda [1] comments that "...about three million extra acres of grain would
have been needed annually to meet the food shortfall caused by the blight. This was out
of the question". Peel instead decided to push for an import of food from America to
make up the shortfall. Nevertheless, some [1] have argued that Peel would have been
better to both ban exports and import food.

In Westminster, the seat of government, Peel's opponents accused him of using the blight
as a ploy to get rid of the Corn Law. Some even accused him of making up the blight or
at least of exaggerating its likely effects. The repeal of the Corn Law was to cost him and
the Tory party the next election, in July 1846. In November 1845, £105,000 worth of
Maize was imported from the USA and £46,000 from Britain. This was enough food to
feed a million people for a month, although there were few people actually starving in
1845. A law from 1838 meant that aid could only be given out in Workhouses organised
by local boards called Poor Law Unions. However, Peel felt that the workhouses did not
have sufficient capacity to do this effectively, so he set up a temporary Relief
Commission to organise relief. The Commission organised the distribution of food at cost
price (although some people still had to pawn clothes and furniture to buy it). At first,
many Irish people disliked accepting this charity, but in the end many accepted. He also
set up (locally funded) work schemes which, at their peak, employed around 140,000
people [2]. These measures sustained 700,000 people and, although the salaries they paid
were very low, were the main reason that there were very few deaths in 1845. The
measures stayed in this form until the unseating of the Tory government in July 1846.

In the Spring of 1846, the people had planted even more potatoes than ever before to ensure that there
was no repeat of the 1845 failure. However, in July the Relief Commission sent a report to England
stating "I am sorry to state that... the prospect of the potato crop this year is even more distressing
than last year- that the disease has appeared earlier and its ravages are more extensive" [2]. As it
was to turn out, the crop of Autumn [Fall] 1846 had failed completely across the island.

As stated previously, the Whigs who gained power in July 1846 believed that government should
interfere as little as possible in matters of trade. This laissez-faire policy stated that capitalism would
take care of any shortcomings. Lord John Russell, the new Prime Minister, had previously accused
Peel of an over-reaction when few had died after dire predictions of widespread death in Ireland.
Russell thought that enough of the crop must have been unaffected that any shortcoming would not
be evident until late in the year. So he simply instructed his Commission to monitor the situation and
to review the relief efforts of 1845 with a mind to implementing a new scheme later in the year.

In mid August, Russell put forward his plan to Parliament of what relief measures should be put in
place. The Whigs believed that the import of food could be left up to local merchants ("the supply of
the home market may safely be left to the foresight of private merchants" [2 p223]), while
government would be responsible for providing employment to give people the money to buy this
food. This was at least in part due to threats from merchants who objected to the 1845 food imports.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer said "It was not the intention at all to import food for the use of the
people of Ireland. In fact many merchants had declared that they would not import food at all if it
were the intention of the government to do so, and unless the government would give such an
assurance" [2 p223]. Only in west Cork, Kerry and Donegal, where merchants were few, did the
government relent and agree to allow the Relief Commisioners to give out food; again imported

But the government's efforts were concentrated primarily into creating employment. They continued
Peel's work schemes (the Board of Works) although with the restriction that the cost had to be
entirely met through local rates. The pay was low: 8 to 10 pence per day, which was not nearly
enough to support a family, and the payment was often delayed. Despite these failings, three quarters
of a million people had signed up to the work schemes by March of 1847. The workhouses, set up in
the previous decade for those who could no longer afford to live, were strongly disliked by the
people. Nevertheless, many had no other option and by the end of 1846 they had been filled to their
design capacity of 100,000 people, and numbers continued to rise. Conditions worsened and 'famine
fever' began to take lives.

Meanwhile, the government's confidence that merchants would provide

food was not borne out. By December 1846, lack of food and money
meant that people were starving to death in the rural potato-growing areas
of Ireland. A harrowing report from Cork at this time said: "The famine
grew more horrible towards the end of 1846, many were buried with
neither inquest nor coffin. An inquest was held by Dr Sweetman on three
bodies. The first was that of two very young children whose mother had
already died of starvation. His death became known only when the two
children toddled into the village of Schull. They were crying of hunger
and complaining that their father would not speak to them for four days;
they told how he was 'as cold as a flag'. The other bodies on which an
inquest was held were those of a mother and child who had both died of
starvation. The remains had been knawed by rats." Despite this, the
government refused to allow the Relief Commissioners to extend the food
scheme out of western Munster and Donegal, insisting that their policy would work in time. The
picture on the left is from the Illustrated London News in 1847. This newspaper, which sent
illustrators to Ireland and began publishing pictures of famine victims in 1847, was largely
responsible for raising awareness of the unfolding catastrophe in Britain.
Many people travelled to the towns in the hope of getting help [3]. At first the townsfolk were
generous, but then the famine-fever began to strike and the hospitality gave way to fear. Father
Matthew of Cork observed: "These poor creatures, the country poor, are now homeless and without
lodgings; no one will take them in; they sleep out at night. The citizens are determined to get rid of
them. They take up stray beggars and vagrants and confine them at night in the market place, and
the next morning send them out in a cart five miles from the town and there they are left
and a great part of them perish for they have no home to go to." Others attacked places
where food was stored, such was their desperation. The levels of property crime doubled
between 1846 and 1847.

Private charity was responsible for keeping hundreds of thousands

of people alive in the winter of 1846 to 1847. Catholic Priests
organised food for local people. The Society of Friends raised
money in America and Britain, and gave it to local areas to allow
them to buy food boilers. In London, a group of businessmen
collected money (including £2,000 from Queen Victoria) and
bought and shipped maize to western Ireland. They also supplied
clothes: many of the local people had pawned their winter clothes
to buy food. This left them dangerously exposed in the winter
months. One observer wrote "Among the thousands I meet, I have
seen no one who had clothing corresponding to the bitter cold which is experienced; on the contrary
what is beheld is emaciated, pale, shivering, worn-out farming people, wrapt in the most wretched
rags, standing or crawling in the snow, bare-footed" [3]. Landlords were split into varying extremes.
Some refused to help, taking the opportunity to evict small cottiers from their estates. Some did not
even live in Ireland. Others landlords bankrupted themselves trying to help their tenants. The picture
shows Captain Kennedy, a Poor Law Inspector, and his daughter giving clothes to famine victims in
Kilrush, county Clare. He said "I was so maddened by the sights of hunger and misery... that I
[wanted] to take the gun from behind my door and shoot the first landlord I met". In the end, as we
shall see, the famine was the catalyst that destroyed landlordism in Ireland [5].

Over the winter of 1846 to 1847, many tens of thousands of people died. There is an endless list of
contemporary reports of people starving or dying of disease. By the spring of 1847, the government
finally accepted that its policy had failed disastrously. In a report to the government, it was stated
"The tide of distress has for some time past been steadily rising and appears now to have completely
overflowed the barriers we endeavoured to oppose it... The question I have to ask you therefore is
whether the time has not arrived for having recourse in a direct and effectual manner to what we
have been aiming to arrive at by indirect means, namely, the outdoor relief of every distitute person"
[2 p235].

For many people, it was all too much. On average, 50,000 people emigrated per year before the
famine. In 1845, this was unchanged; the crop failure did not strike until the Autumn [Fall]. However,
in 1846, 100,000 people emigrated to America alone. 250,000 people were to leave during the year
1847: by far the largest exodus. Unlike the pre-famine exodus, which was mainly the better-off
peasants, these were mostly the poorer people in Ireland. Only about 3% or 4% had their passages
paid by the government or by their landlord, although charities paid for more passages.

So many people had been employed by the Board of Works that no seed potatoes were being sowed
for the next year's harvest. The work projects concentrated more on employement than doing any co-
ordinated work, so most of the work undertaken made little sense [1], for example building roads that
led nowhere. (Although not all were pointless; the length of railways increased tenfold during the
decade.) By Spring 1847, the Board of Works had spent £5,000,000 on relief measures, with little
hope that the local taxpayers would ever be able to repay it. The map on the left [4] shows the Poor
Law Unions (subdivisions for the relief of poverty that predate the famine) that were in such a level
of distress that they got special treatment in 1847-48. The scheme which had employed three-quarters
of a million people over the winter was finally scrapped in March 1847 to be replaced by a version of
Peel's original scheme of food distribution.

At first, the government was reluctant to sell cooked food to the

poor; they thought that this would make the poor too reliant. They
wanted to give away ingredients and get the poor to cook their
own food. But the Relief Commission pushed for it. In a report to
the government, the leader, Sir Randolph Routh, said "The soup
system promises to be a great resource and I am endeavouring to
turn the views of the Committees to it. It will have a double effect
of feeding the people at a lower price and economising our meal."

The government knew that once the 1847 harvest came in, their Relief Programme would
be completed. So they devised a twofold plan. Firstly, they would pass a temporary act to
establish soup kitchens. These would feed the people until the harvest that Autumn [Fall].
Originally, Peel had set up the Relief Commission as an organisation over and above the
workhouses and Poor Law Unions. So the government's second plan, for later in the year,
was to amalgamate the relief with the Poor Law system in a new commission.

The first of these policies was passed into law in March 1847 in the Destitute Poor
(Ireland) Act. Within a few months, the Public Works schemes were disbanded. Soup
kitchens were set up in all but three of Ireland's 130 Poor Law Unions and the rations
were being given to 780,000 people by May. By the start of June, this number had
increased to 2,700,000. At their peak, in mid August, over three million people were
being fed daily by the scheme. Much of this food was imported to Ireland by the
government. Food exports from Ireland reached their lowest level in 1847, and net grain
imports reached three-quarters of a million tons in the same year. The graph on the left
shows wheat imports. Large quantities of American maize were also imported.

The food was not of particularly good nurtitional quality; and there was not much of it. A
recommended adult ration was a pound of meal, with half that for a child. But the
decisions on exact numbers of rations and quantity of food were delegated to the local
committees. In some areas, people were turned away simply because they "looked"
healthy, and some did not even get their full ration. Cruelly, some people ended up in
court to fight for the right to rations. In other areas, the committees and/or local landlords
increased the ration size. Some committee members even gave two ration cards to the
most needy. It is reported that in some areas, the number of rations given out exceeded
the total population [2].

It does seem clear that, despite the imports, the government did not spend nearly enough
money on the soup kitchens. One distributor of relief at Belmullet, county Mayo, said in
May 1847: "Between today and yesterday, I saw the corpses of a girl, a man and an old
woman who died of hunger. This day I saw a woman sinking into a faint, while I was
giving out relief at Pullathomas to some peculiarly wretched families." But he insisted
that they were doing everything they could with very limited resources: "Placed in the
midst of a starving and mendicant population, whom... they [the Relief workers] are
unable to supply with enough even to support nature, they are liable to continual charges
of unfairness, partiality, indifference or want of judgement. It should be remembered that
those who thus labour for the poor do so at a great sacrifice of time and trouble, and are
in continual danger of being attacked by the pestilence which rages around them." [2

As this writer has observed, disease was an increasing problem. In the summer of 1847,
the number of deaths from starvation decreased, but the number of deaths from disease
increased. It was common for doctors and the relief workers themselves to die from
disease. This disease was to spread and, in the end, disease killed far more people during
the Famine than direct starvation did. As was stated previously, a quarter of a million
people emigrated from Ireland in 1840. However, they brought their diseases with them
and, on average, 40% of people who boarded the 'coffin ships' would die either en-route
or immediately after arrival .

The map below shows the distribution of people who were taking up rations in Ireland in

The harvest of 1847 was a success. Tragically, however, so many people had been on the
Public Works schemes and not on their farms, that too few potatoes had been planted that
Spring. So it turned out that the relief measures were going to have to be extended into
the winter of 1847-48 to make up the food deficit.

The government had felt that, with the anticipated harvest due in Autumn [Fall] 1847, the
worst was now over. They decided that the workhouses, which operated as part of the
pre-famine Poor Law system, should be made primarily responsible for relief, with soup
kitchens only provided if absolutely necessary. Recall that the workhouses had been built
with a capacity of 100,000. At the end of January 1847, they were housing 108,000.
However, this was not evenly distributed: one of the worst examples was Kanturk
workhouse in county Cork which, with a capacity of 800, was housing 1,653 people at
one point. The government embarked on a scheme of expansion of the workhouses. They
encouraged the local Poor Law Unions to build extra shelters and rent buildings for use
as 'temporary' workhouses. They also built extensions to the workhouses. By March
1847, design capacity had increased to 114,000. In July 1849, 200,000 people were living
in workhouses, with 800,000 getting relief outside. The design capacity reached 309,000
in 1851.

Throughout the rest of the famine period, which is generally regarded as ending in 1849,
the workhouses never managed to keep up with demand, so overcrowding was always
present. A charity worker who visited one workhouse wrote "In the bedrooms we entered
there was not a mattress of any kind to be seen; the floors were strewed with a little dirty
straw, and the poor creatures were thus littered down as close together as might be, in
order to get the largest possible under one miserable rug - in some cases six children, for
blankets we did not see" [2 p245]. An inspector to Lurgan workhouse, in county Armagh,
in February 1847 wrote: "the supply of clothes was quite inadequate, and it had hence
become necessary to use the linen of some of those who had died of fever and dysentery,
without time having been afforded to have it washed and dried; and that, from the same
cause, damp beds had in many instances been made use of" [2 p246]. Clearly,
workhouses were terrible places to end up.

The new relief measures were passed under the Irish Poor Law Extension Act in June
1847. They were to derive all their money from local funds, in the form of accumulating
debt. (In the end, most of this money was never repayed.) One provision of the Act, the
so-called Gregory Clause (named after William Gregory, an MP for Dublin who
suggested it) exempted from relief anybody who owned more than a quarter of an acre of
land. This clause was widely misinterpreted, and some who should have qualified for
relief were refused. Many unscrupulous landlords used the Gregory Clause as an excuse
to evict thousands of unwanted cottiers from their estates. Those made homeless by these
evictions were forced to join the workhouses or to built woefully inadequate shelters on
other people's land. The picture below shows a village at Erris, county Mayo, after the
landlord had evicted the residents.

To the anguish of the people, the Potato Blight struck the harvest of 1848, wiping out
most of the crop. With the continued improvements to the workhouses, deaths from
starvation were not as great in 1848 as they had been in 1847. Nevertheless, the winter of
1848 to 1849 was a hard one and disease helped to wipe out tens of thousands more
people. Even doctors themselves were infected. The Dublin Quarterly Journal of
Medical Science wrote "From several districts of Ireland, where the late epidemic
committed fearful ravages, no reports have been received. In many cases we regret to say
that this has been caused by the lamentable mortality amongst our professional brethren"
[2 p310].

The diseases, mainly fever and dysentry, finally began to wane after the winter. In
Dublin, it was declared over in February 1848, but in most areas it lingered for another
one or two years. Many of these people died merely because they had been weakened by
hunger. If they had not been suffering from malnutrition, many may well have survived.
The government began a campaign to try to get farmers to grow green vegetables and
other root crops other than potatoes and, while they met success in some areas, most
farmers could not be persuaded to give up their traditional methods. The Society of
Friends purchased and operated a 'model farm' to teach farmers new methods of

The Potato Blight struck yet again in the harvest of Autumn [Fall] 1849, but not at the
same intensity that it had in 1848. Things were complicated when an epidemic of Cholera
broke out in the winter of 1848 to 1849. It reached its peak in May and died away by the
summer. The disease was coincidental to the famine, and struck in Britain as well. It did
not differentiate between rich and poor. At the time it was not known how Cholera
spread, and there were fierce arguments about whether or not victims should be
segregated from those who were not ill. (We now know that Cholera spreads through
contaminated water, not by contact.) The epidemic was heaviest in the towns, with the
worst effects being Drogheda, Galway, Belfast, Limerick, Waterford, Kilkenny and Cork.
We have no reliable way of knowing how many died in the epidemic, but it acted as the
final insult of the Famine period.

The workhouses continued to manage the relief effort, and herein lies the difficulty in
determining when exactly the 'end' of the famine was. Many of the destitute had ended up
with nothing, and therefore found it very difficult to get out of the workhouses again. The
famine ended gradually, with recovery spreading from east to west, as the capacity of the
workhouses increased and the number of inmates decreased. By 1849-1850 the
workhouses had enough capacity to take appropriate care of all the destitute. Emigration
also continued, although not quite at the levels of 1847. Approximately 200,000 per year
left between 1848 and 1852 inclusive. Most of these travelled to America.

The Extension Act of 1847 indicated that the government believed that the famine was
over, and this view was not reversed in the light of the crop failure of 1848. This
premature decision no doubt contributed to the deaths that continued to occur in both the
winters of 1847-48 and 1848-49. During the famine, total relief expenditure was £8
million by the government, £7 million from Irish taxes and well over £1 million from
landlords [1]. This still only amounted to 2 to 3% of the total government expenditure
during those years, and academics argue over whether, given the UK's poor financial state
at the time, any more could have been spent. Nevertheless, this value of 2-3% does seem
anomalous given that the government found £100 million to spend on a war with Turkey.

As mentioned in the previous section, the "Gregory Clause" of the Poor Law Extension
Act (June 1847) denied aid to anybody owning over a quarter of an acre of land. Another
clause, the £4 clause, made the landlord responsible for the all landholding tax on any
holding valued at under £4. This latter clause covered most landholdings in Connaught.
These two clauses effectively defined smallholders as parasites. For many Landlords it
was a ticket to clear their estates. While many cleared the tenants so as to avoid paying
these duties, many were nearly bankrupt anyway, due to the effects of the famine. It is
estimated that during the entire famine period 500,000 people were evicted.
It was the small farmers, such as cottiers, that virtually vanished
in the years after the famine. As the graph shows, farms under 5
acres accounted for 45% of all farms in 1841, but only 15% a
decade later. Many of those who had been evicted emigrated or
became paid labourers for other farmers. Many other farms were
purchased by large-scale farmers. In general, living conditions
seem to have improved, (although it should be stated that some
researchers disagree). Before the famine, a third of people lived
in fourth-class (the worst) housing. By 1851, it was 10%.
Literacy and personal savings also increased.

At the opposite end of the social scale, the famine ultimately sounded the deathknell of
the Landlord. Many landlords had seen their incomes fall during the famine and, having
removed many of their tenants, many more went bankrupt due to lack of rentals. Over the
next half century, most of these estates were sold, their owners encouraged by agrarian
laws. The Encumbered Estates Act of 1949 was one law which encouraged farmers to
buy land from Landlords. By 1914, two-thirds of Irish tenants owned their own land.
Some Landlords survived by diversifying away from potato-growing tenancies and rented
out land to graziers. By the end of the 19th century, large parts of Connemara had become
grazing areas. As the population continued to fall, agriculture could become less and less
intensive, until previously high-yield areas needed only to yield low crops. The potato
yields per acre before the famine were never again achieved.

The strong farmer became the ultimate beneficiary of the famine. With both a weakened
cottier class and a weakened Landlord class, they were able to acquire lands and add
them to their holdings. The number of farms over 15 acres increased from 19% in 1841 to
51% of all holdings a decade later. In retrospect, this can be regarded as a non-violent
Peasant revolution, spurred by the famine, and resulting in most farmers changing from
being tenants to being landowners.

The very nature of the agricultural divisions in Ireland, as existed before the famine,
became meaningless in the years afterwards. The pastoral (grazing) sector overtook the
arable sector in this period. Between 1851 and 1911, arable land in Ireland halved from
1.8 million hectares to 0.9 million. Simultaneously, grazing increased dramatically. Many
railways had been built in the famine period, as part of work schemes, and these allowed
live cattle exports to Britain to increase. From 50,000 animals in the 1820s, exports
reached 200,000 during the 1840s. This rose to 400,000 by the 1860s and 800,000 by the
1900s.Whelan says: "By 1908, the hen and the duck were more important in the agrarian
economy than wheat and oats together." [1]

In the littoral regions of the west coast, the government set up schemes to help those
living in high-population, low-quality areas. The Congested Districts Board was set up to
do this. Initially they pioneered new farming methods and improved land, but later they
bought up and redistributed land. They had strong powers to purchase inland estates and
redistribute the land in the form of dispersed farms to those from the congested areas.
Upon its dissolution in 1923, the CDB had purchased and redistributed 1000 estates into
60,000 holdings, built 6000 new houses and renovated 4000 more. Together, the famine
and the CDB totally changed the structure of the western landscape. After less than two
centuries of intensive human influence, large parts of Connaught returned to the wild.
The farms on the hillsides were slowly reclaimed by nature, leaving only the odd ruined
cottage and the tell-tale vertical lines of former lazy-beds. Many of these lazy beds can
still be seen in deserted areas today; haunting signs of the once-dense human population.

One of the most obvious effects of the famine was emigration. Although the famine itself probably
resulted in about 1 million deaths, the resultant emigration caused the population to drop by a further
3 million. About 1 million of these are estimated to have emigrated in the immediate famine period,
with the depression that followed continuing the decline until the second half of the 20th century.
These migrants largely ended up in North America, with some in Australia and in Britain.

Between 1845 and 1855, 1.5 million people left for good. In 1845, emigration was at the pre-famine
rate of 50,000 per year. In 1846 100,000 left. It peaked in 1847, when 250,000 left. Over the next 5
years it averaged 200,000 per year, before the numbers fell off. By 1855, the rate was down to 70,000
per year [6].

Note: This graph does not include those who emigrated to England, Scotland and Wales. See below.

In the period over the famine decade 1841-1850, 1.3 million people emigrated overseas [1]. Of these,
70% went to the USA, 28% to Canada and 2% to Australia. Most people paid their own fares to make
the trip, although perhaps 3% had their fares paid by their Landlords [6]. The cheapest fares were to
Canada, around 55 shillings, while a fare to the USA cost between 70 shillings and £5 (100
shillings)[3]. There were two ways one could travel; either in a standard class or steerage. Standard
passengers had berths and could walk on the deck. Steerage passengers were crowded together below
decks and often could not use the deck. For many emigrants, steerage was the most they could afford.
The picture below shows emigrants waiting on a quayside looking for passage to America. The signs
are advertising services to Boston, New York and Quebec. Some were cheated out of the little money
they had brought, to pay their fares, by "fast-talking rogues". In many cases, getting passage on a ship
seems to have been a matter of waiting for an opportunity rather than booking tickets in advance.

With many of the emigrants suffering from fever, coupled with the cramped and insanitary conditions
on board what became known as the "coffin ships", disease was rampant. It is estimated that perhaps
as many as 40% of steerage passengers died either en-route or immediately after arrival. Although
they were regulated, many of the ships were privately owned, and some captains grossly
overcrowded them in order to get more fares. Only the slave ships of the previous century would
have had worse conditions. One witness commented on a voyage "This vessel left with 476
passengers, of whom 158 died before arrival, including the Master, mate and nine of the crew... Three
days after her arrival there remained of the ship's company only the second mate, one seaman and a
boy, able to do duty; all others were dead or ill in hospital [4]".

The picture below shows the conditions in the steerage area of a "coffin ship".
Another witness, Stephen de Vere, sailed to America in steerage in 1847;
the year that saw the greatest emigrations of the immediate famine period.
He wrote afterwards: "Hundreds of poor people, men, women and children
of all ages huddled together without light, without air, wallowing in filth
and breathing a fetid atmosphere, sick in body, dispirited in heart; the
fevered patients lying beside the sound, by their agonised ravings
disturbing those around. The food is generally ill-selected and seldom
sufficiently cooked in consequences of the insufficiency and bad
construction of the cooking places. The supply of water, hardly enough for
cooking and drinking, does not allow for washing. No moral restraint is
attempted; the voice of prayer is never heard; drunkenness, with all its
consequent train of ruffianly debasement, is not discouraged because it is
found profitable by the captain who traffics in grog [watered-down Rum]

The authorities in America soon realised how disease-ridden the emigrants

were, so they set up quarantine centres which held the emigrants until they
were deemed fit to continue. Some settled the new territories of the west
which were being colonised at the time, but most stayed in the cities of the
east coast where they took some of the poorest jobs. Only over a matter of
years did some manage to rise up to prominence. Emigration continued to
the USA for almost a century. However, after the First World War, America was much more closed
and so overseas emigrants increasingly went to Canada or Australia. Many of the American emigrants
brought with them a deep hatred of the government back in the UK, which they blamed for the
famine and for their suffering.

Of course, Irish emigrants did not all go overseas. Although not as many as went to America,
hundreds of thousands of Irish emigrated to Britain. Some went on from Britain to America, but
many settled there. Because Ireland and Britain were then part of the same country, no migration
figures were recorded on Irish Sea traffic. However, the 1851 census in Britain shows around
400,000 Irish-born living in Britain [5]. The map shows where these emigrants were concentrated. As
you can see, most settled in the port regions around Liverpool, Glasgow and London. Even today,
people in Liverpool and Glasgow have a higher-than-average interest in Irish affairs.

At first local officials did what they could to help the mass of fever-ridden and hungry Irish who were
disembarking. Soon, however, the famine fever spread to the local residents of the English and
Scottish ports and the authorities began to panic. Eventualy, the government passed a law saying that
any emigrants who arrived without means for support would be returned to the authorities in Ireland.
Nevertheless, as the map shows, many stayed and even today a large proportion of the population of
Britain has some connection to Ireland.

The emigration which continued for the next century or more had a profound effect on Ireland's
demography. The next section looks at the effects of emigration on the land that was left behind.
The country left behind by the emigrants was transformed by the famine. The map [1]
shows the drop in population islandwide between 1841 and 1851. Only three areas (the
metropolitan areas of Belfast, Dublin and Cork) managed to increase their population.
This was partly due to an influx of famine victims from rural areas and the fact that the
famine had comparatively little effect in urban areas. Elsewhere, the coastal counties of
Ulster and Munster suffered the smallest falls, with the inland, southern and western areas
suffering the greatest falls.

It must be pointed out that the map does not show the 'final' state of the famine years; the
decline it depicts continued until after the mid 20th century. The table below shows the
population of selected counties (and the two present states) since 1841. In the case of
Dublin, the population is ever-increasing. In other cases, eg Waterford, the population fell
and recently began to rise. In others, eg Leitrim, the decline has not yet stopped. In the
Republic of Ireland, it was only after 1960 that the natural population increase exceeded
emigration, and the population has been rising slowly since then. In Northern Ireland, the
population decline was reversed around 1900 and has been increasing since then.
Rep of Northern
Year Mayo Louth Dublin Tipperary Waterford Leitrim
Ireland Ireland
1841 389 128 373 436 196 155 6529 1649
1861 255 91 410 249 134 112 4402 1396
1881 245 78 419 200 113 90 3870 1305
1901 199 66 448 160 87 69 3222 1237
1926 173 63 506 141 79 56 2972 1257
1946 148 66 636 136 76 45 2955 *1338
1961 123 67 718 124 71 33 2818 1425
1981 115 89 1003 135 89 28 3443 1536
1991 110 91 1025 133 92 25 3526 1578
Population of selected Irish counties, in thousands. Figures for Northern Ireland and Republic of
Ireland before 1921 are of the counties that later constituted those areas. *estimate.

The Irish language was another thing to decline in the post-famine years. It must be
pointed out that the Irish language was already in decline at the start of the famine, but
the famine must surely have accelerated the process. In the early part of the 1800s,
around 40% of the population spoke Irish, compared to around 30% in 1845, the eve of
the famine [2]. 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 1861, the number of Irish speakers had fallen to 24%. This
decline continued for some years, reaching a low of 18% (figure for Republic of Ireland only)
around 1926, when it was revived by the new Irish government. Ó Gráda comments
"Neither O'Connellite nor Fenian brands of nationalism did anything to foster Irish, and
by the time a more advanced nationalist ideology adopted the old tongue it was too late

Thanks to a concerted educational policy in the Republic of Ireland, Irish language

proficiency is increasing again. From the low of 18%, the number of Irish speakers in the
Republic stood at 33% in 1991 [3]. In Northern Ireland, where Irish has not been
compulsory in schools, proficiency is less. In 1991, 88% of the population of Northern
Ireland claimed to have no knowledge of Irish. Note, however, that these census figures
refer to any knowledge of Irish. The number of fluent Irish speakers in the Ireland today
probably stands at around 3%. And it has been reported that in Northern Ireland today,
more people speak fluent Chinese than speak fluent Irish!

The famine seems to have helped the church expand in Ireland. Before the famine, there
is evidence that a large proportion of the population did not take any interest in the
church. In fact, in rural Ireland, attendance figures show that only around half the
population attended Mass regularly [2]. After the famine, the population became much
more dedicated to the Catholic church, and this remains the case today (although there
has been a limited fall-off in recent years). There was a boom in church-building after the
famine, but it is not clear whether the rise in devotion to Catholicism was due to this
increased church building or vice-versa.

Before the famine, it was fairly common for farmers to sub-divide their lands between
their sons. The birth rate was reasonably high (around 33/1000 according to the 1841
census), so there were often several sons to divide the farm between. In some areas, this
policy was carried to rediculous extremes, with thousands of tiny fields often dividing an
area of land. Many historians believed at the time, and still do today, that these
subdivisions exacerbated the famine by leaving families very dependant on very small
fields. In the post famine period farmers had learned the lesson, and this system of
"impartible land inheritance" largely disappeared. In general, parents passed the farm,
intact, to a single son while giving educational or financial assistance to siblings,
sometimes to settle elsewhere or to emigrate. It also increased the occurrence of
"arranged" marriages with dowries, and these marriages occurred later than they would
have before the famine. While this did reduce the number of extended families living
together, it did increase the opportunities available to children.

In conclusion, therefore, the famine marked a watershed in Irish history, not only for
politics but for culture, religion, demographics, agriculture and industry. It is a testament
to these effects that the famine is still studied in depth over 150 years after it took place.