Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Great Hunger

In the early 1840s, the population of Ireland was something over 8 million people.

Then came famine, starvation, and the attendant mass emigration. That population figure has never been equaled since. Today, after 170 years, the Irish population has recovered to about 6.2 million (4.5 million in the republic and something under 1.8 million in Northern Ireland.)

This subject is very interesting to me because the exodus of the Irish to many parts of the world, including my own country, had such a dramatic affect on our history.

This story will take more than one post. The main source for most of my facts is the collected newspaper stories, recorded oral histories, and official documents of the time which have been collected by the National Library of Ireland, Dublin, in a rather startling book called The Irish Famine: A Documentary History. To read this book and look at the reproductions of the old documents and read the first-person accounts is to almost hear voices speaking from a century long past.

I will keep this first post confined to the introduction of the circumstances that led to the Great Potato Famine in Ireland.

"The Irish famine of 1845-52 was the greatest catastrophe in recorded Irish history. It was caused by the repeated failure of the potato crop, the main food source of the poorer classes. The failure resulted in hunger, starvation, and ultimately death or emigration for a quarter of the population. One million died and over a million emigrated. The emigrants formed the main basis for the Irish diaspora, in Britain, the United States, Canada and Australia." [From the above mentioned book, The Irish Famine.] (Diaspora means the dispersion of large numbers of people from their homeland.)

Irish society in the early 1840s was mostly rural and agricultural, with 7 of the 8 million inhabitants living in rural areas, largely sharecroppers on tiny plots, growing their own sustenance, living on the very edge.

In rural Ireland were three classes or categories of people. First were the landlords who owned the often hereditary estates; second were the tenet farmers who grew the crops and paid a share to the landlords; third, the farm laborers. This last were most often living at a bare subsistence level. Their main staple food was the potato. They were given a plot of land on the main farm to grow their potatoes. Potatoes were the mainstay of their diet and often the ONLY item on their diet for some time until they could slaughter a pig or the like. Potatoes were mostly stored in lofts over the main room of their small house. Potatoes would last until June, having been harvested in the previous September. So there were a couple months when they subsisted on mostly Indian Corn (maize) and what other vegetables or meat they could obtain. Summer was a time of hunger for the "peasant" farm laborers. There was nothing held in reserve. They lived from hand to mouth from one crop to the next. If the potato crop were ever to fail, the result would be catastrophic on this class.

In 1845, the potato crop failed.


  1. I must see if I can get hold of a copy of the book you mention. I can remember my father reading "The Great Hunger" by Cecil Woodham-Smith but I no longer have it. I'd like to read that too.

  2. It's worth clarifying that "indian corn", or maize, was not a food grown in Ireland, or even known in Ireland.
    Whilst farms did grow wheat and barley and oats, these were crops planted by the landowners for export purposes, and the Irish peasants seemed to have no interest in planting grain for their subsistence when potatoes were easy to grow, cheap, and nourishing, and generally grew well in irish soil. However, on several previous occasions, the crop had failed and the irish suffered as a result of their monoculture. Up to the great potato famine, however, crop failures had been regional, and supplies could be brought in from other areas.
    The potato blight, like the indian corn, came from north america.
    When maize was distributed in ireland, it was almost useless, as a country used to growing potatoes had few mills that could grind the hard grains, and when boiled up, the maize meal was less nutricious than potatoes.

    Any research of the causes of the potato famine would be wise to include reading of the works of Charles "Turnip" Townsend, Thomas Coke of Holkham, Jethro Tull, and
    Robert Bakewell, Perhaps if Ireland had taken notice of these men, who between them created the agrarian revolution, there would have been no potato famine.

    Whilst the aftermath of the potato blight was badly handled, its cause was simple. Monoculture. Reliance on one crop, grown year after year in the same soil. Little if any variation in the potato cultivars, planting of diseased potatoes as the seed crop for the following year.

    And no back-up plan whatsoever.
    In short, ignorance.

    Easy, with hindsight to say that, but the warnings were there and were not acted upon.



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