Ireland - The Great Famine

Updated: Sep 9, 2020

Figure 1: Famine funeral by John Coll.

The nineteenth century was a turbulent time in Ireland’s history. Land was the means of basic sustenance for the Irish family; however the 1841 census reveals the precarious situation of Ireland’s population as only 7% of holdings were over thirty acres in size and 45% were under five.[1] In addition, the manufacturing industry in Ireland was faltering due to the efficiency of the pioneers of the industrial revolution, Great Britain. Unable to compete with British industry, many Irish woollen manufactures closed and imports of woollen products more than doubled in the years between 1825 and 1835.[2] Benjamin Disraeli of the Conservative Party, summed up the Irish Question during John Russell’s 1844 motion, Ireland is occupied not governed, ‘a starving population, an absentee aristocracy, and an alien church, and, in addition, the weakest executive in the world’.[3]

Figure 2: The Finishing Touch by James Brenan
Figure 2: The Finishing Touch by James Brenan

Ireland’s population of over eight million souls depended on the fruits of the potato harvest. In 1842, blight ravaged the crop in the United States and Canada. Three years later, the disease appeared in the south-east of Ireland and spread rapidly through the country. First reported in the Waterford Freeman in September 1845, ‘the blight of the potatoe [sic] crop, so much, complained of in Belgium and several English counties, has affected the crop … in our own immediate locality and the surrounding districts.’[4] The famine of 1845 defined the century with death, emigration and bankruptcy.

Figure 3: Irish Examiner, 10 September 1845

Emigration and death meant the population of Ireland decreased by 1,622,739 between 1841 and 1851. According to the Emigration Commissioners 1,240,737 people left Ireland during 30 June 1841 and 31 March 1851. Destinations were United States (76.7%), ‘British North America’, that is Canada (19.7%) and Australia (3.6%).[5] This assumption by the commissioners meant that 951,645 Irish citizens left for America, yet consulting the American historical statistics, 780,719 arrived between 1841 and 1850. [6] Did the British authorities overstate the emigration statistics? They certainly underestimated the death statistics.

Figure 4: Ireland's population decline 1841 - 1911

Civil registration had not been enacted in Ireland so births and deaths were estimated for this period. The statistics were based on ‘the Average Number of Births and Deaths in England and Wales ; being at the rate of 1 Birth to 31, and 1 Death to 45 of the population.’[7] Also, consider the fact that the comparative statistics for the population of England and Wales for the same years was an increase in population of 2,033,557; 15,929,492 to 17,982,849.[8] Furthermore based on a large sample of Irish baptismal registers, ‘Joel Mokyr put the drop in the birth rate at the height of the crisis at one-third. This was the product of reduced fecundity, reduced libido, and a lower marriage rate.’[9]

Irrespective of demographic statistics, the fabric of Ireland was irreversibly changed. In the ten years between 1841 and 1851, ‘the overall decline in the labor force was 19.1 per cent. There were 14.4 per cent fewer farmers, and 24.2 per cent fewer farm laborers.’[10] Even prior to the famine there had been large scale emigration, and this movement of people provided a lifeline to many families in the dark years of the middle part of the nineteenth century. It is estimated that previous Irish emigrants remitted some $19 million between 1845 and 1854, much in the form of prepaid tickets. This trend continued and ‘historian Arnold Schrier calculated that during the latter part of the nineteenth century the Irish in America sent over $260 million back to Ireland.’ [11] One possible reason for this phenomenon arises from chain migration through the family and relatives effect. Past immigrants sent letters home emphasizing that America was a country for young people, who were capable of long years of hard work. Some letters offered advice to intending voyagers and many enclosed remittances to help pay for the cost of passage.[12]

Figure 5: Rags to riches?

Nevertheless, the Great Famine had a significant psychological effect on those who remained in Ireland and also on those who left her shores. For those who embarked on a journey to America, most could, ‘as their American letters insisted, eat more meat in their new homeland in a week than they had in Ireland in a year. In many cases they could save enough to ensure that their children's lives would be easier and more financially secure than theirs. Even if they arrived impoverished, most did not remain in that state for very long - and they were by no means doomed or even likely to become permanent members of a resourceless proletariat.’[13] ‘Those who survived the disaster, appalled at apparent British indifference to the plight, were converted en masse to the separatist cause. God, so the story goes, may have sent the potato blight but the English caused the famine.’[14]

The Great Famine was one of a number of events which occurred during the nineteenth century, ensuring that Ireland ‘an agricultural district of England, marked off by a wide channel from the country to which it yields corn, wool, cattle, industrial and military recruits’ gradually developed anti-colonial sentiment. [15] A cohort of Irishmen and women no longer identified with the ways of the old generation and coupled with a vast Irish Diaspora, the Empire of Discontent across the seas’, national identity and norms evolved.[16] This is evidenced surely by the fact that many of the 1916 leaders were part of the diaspora at different times in their lives – some having been born abroad and others having lived overseas.[17] The pain and suffering of previous generations which was engrained in the collective memory, ensured a new alternative consciousness seeped its way into the hearts and minds of a new generation, a generation who had the belief and bravery that Ireland could achieve independence.


[1] E.R.R. Green, ‘The Great Famine: 1845-1850’ in T.W. Moody and F.X. Martin (eds.), The course of Irish history (Cork, 1967), p. 232. [2] Eoin O’Malley, ‘The decline of Irish industry in the nineteenth century’ in The Economic and Social Review, vol. 13, no. 1, October, 19981, p. 32. [3] William Flavell Moneypenny, The life of Benjamin Disraeli, Earl of Beaconsfield (6 vols, New York, 1912), ii, 192. [4] Irish Examiner, 10 September 1845. [5] Census of Ireland 1851: Part I., Area, Population, and Number of Houses, by Townlands and Electoral Divisions; Part VI., General Report, p. 55. [6] Homeland Security Agency, Yearbook of Immigration Statistics 1996 to 1999 (tables) (accessed 21 April 2019). [7] Census of Ireland 1851: Part VI., General Report, p. 16. [8] Patrick Cahalane, ‘An Economic Study of the Great Famine’, in Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, Vol. 6, No. 21 (Mar., 1917), p. 112. [9] Cormac Ó Gráda, Ireland’s Great Famine: An Overview (Dublin, 2004), p. 14. [] [10] Ó Gráda, Ireland’s Great Famine: An Overview, p. 17. [11] Tim Pat Coogan, Wherever green is worn : the story of the Irish diaspora (London, 2000), p.285. [12] Arnold Schrier, Ireland and the American Emigration, 1850–1900 (Chester Springs, 1997), p. 21. [13] Tyler Anbinder , ‘Moving beyond "Rags to Riches": New York's Irish Famine Immigrants and Their Surprising Savings Accounts’ in The Journal of American History, Vol. 99, No. 3 (December 2012), p. 770. [14] Michael J. Winstanley, Ireland and the Land question 1800-1922 (London 1984), p. 4. [15] Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, On Ireland (London, 1971), p. 105. [16] According to the TG4 documentary, Cogadh Faoi Cheilt, this phrase was coined by William Gladstone, Prime Minister of Great Britain. [] [17]


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