Between 1845 and 1850, more than a million Irish people starved to death while massive quantities of food were being exported from their country. The agricultural system just before the outbreak of the Famine had a major impact in what would happen. The land was then owned by British landlords (many absentee) who rented out plots to the native farmers. Most of the land was employed to produce crops for export, while the farmers, in order to provide food for their families, used tiny plots. The potato was the crop of choice because it could be grown in poor soil and because it produced a large yield even in a small area. The result was such that the native people of Ireland were, by 1845, dependent – for their food and to enable them to pay the rent for their living quarters – on the reliability of the potato crop.
There were, however, problems brewing on the horizon – a disease called ‘blight’ (caused by the fungus ‘Phytophthora infestans’) had already wiped out the potato crops in America (1843) and all across continental Europe (1845). It was only a matter of time before it reached Ireland, the spores of the fungus carried by the wind, rain and insects from England and mainland Europe. While the US and Europe had other foods on which to rely, the native population of Ireland was not so lucky.
By the summer of 1845, the first signs of the blight were apparent (brown patches and white mould on the leaves and in the tubers), and by autumn the entire crop across Ireland had failed. The Irish found that they could no longer pay the rent to their landlords and over the coming years many were evicted from their properties. A widespread crisis was imminent.
Six months after the failure of the potato crop people were beginning to starve. Meanwhile, in England, the Liberals were suggesting that the Famine was a sign from God – they saw it as an opportunity for the Irish to ‘better themselves’, that it was a ‘lesson’, that Ireland was a country with huge economic potential (plentiful fish, good land and terrific harbors) and that with the ‘right instruction’ (from the British government of course), Ireland could ‘get itself out of this disaster’. The object now was to bring Ireland totally under English law.
The Penal Laws (passed initially in 1695) were now strictly enforced, making it illegal for Catholics (most of the Irish) to own land, illegal for them to have an education, illegal for the Irish language (Gaelic) to be spoken or taught, illegal to enter the professions, hold office, vote, deal in trade, join the army, or practice their religion.
Lewis Perry Curtis Jr., an historian, believes the English treated Ireland in a superior, arrogant way, and that this attitude influenced policy at the time and made the disaster much worse than it needed to be. Famine relief for the starving and homeless in Ireland was slow in coming. Eventually, the then British Prime Minister, Robert Peel, ordered 100,000 pounds to be spent on American corn and shipped to Ireland. The amount was pitifully inadequate.
Other ministers in the British government took an even harder line – they believed the Irish should be ‘left alone’ to deal with the problems themselves. They also sent more military personnel to Ireland to ensure the exports of grain out of Ireland would not be tampered with. The irony is that at the height of the Famine, Ireland was producing food, but the vast majority of it was exported, landlords seeking a better market price, and the native Irish were too poor to buy the food they themselves were farming. Money was clearly more important to the British government than human lives.
The following year (1846) there was a second potato failure, the Irish were pawning everything they had to buy food and the winter of 1846-’47 was very severe. Soup kitchens, workhouses, jails and run-down hospitals were overcrowded, disease-ridden and people were beginning to die in their thousands. At the height of the Famine exported goods worth $25-30 million annually left Irish shores bound for England and the Continent. Many of the Irish were emigrating – to the US, Australia and Britain, believing the land to be cursed. Unfortunately, they took the diseases with them and, on overcrowded, ancient ships (referred to as ‘coffin ships’) many more died. They were not even guaranteed passage to the destination country when the ships finally arrived – many were turned away.
By 1847 too, English opinion was changing, fueled by the tabloids of the day. The English public had stopped donating to Famine relief, many questioned why they had to feed the Irish, there were stories abounding that the Irish were buying guns with the relief money and the new English Prime Minister, John Russell, cut off all aid. Racism abounded; Irish emigrants to Britain were faced with fear and violence. By 1850 many racist books and literature began to appear depicting the Irish as ‘biologically inferior’.
The failure of Britain to substantially help the Irish during the Famine while at the same time systematically profiting from her crops, has been perceived by many to be evidence of Genocide; and recently the Irish government demanded an apology from the English government.
The facts remain however that the Potato Famine in Ireland had devastating and wide-reaching effects; many died from starvation and diseases (including typhus, fevers, dysentery, dropsy, scurvy etc.), the population dropped from 8 million (before the famine) to 5 million (after), resentments against the English grew eventually leading to outright rebellion and the formation of the IRA, and, widespread emigration shaped the cultural and societal makeup of many other countries (including the US). The structure of Ireland was also changed forever – agriculturally, politically, educationally and more.
Despite the massive devastation of the famine, the Irish have proven to be survivors – shunned by many they carried on, worked hard and eventually became assimilated into other countries. Ireland was brought to its knees during the Great Famine, but the resilience and spirit of the Irish people ensured that they never gave up. Today, Ireland is a strong country in Europe – economically, artistically, musically – but as a nation they will always remember the Black days. We would all do well not to forget.