Great Irish Famine Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Successive potato crop failures caused nearly a decade-long famine that resulted in untold deaths, prompted mass emigration to North America, and helped to induce the emergence of independence movements and the birth of the Irish Republican Army.

Summary of Event

Irish peasants long depended upon the potato as their major source of subsistence. A high caloric crop, the potato provided a monotonous diet but was more nutritious than many diets of advanced countries of Europe. From 1750 to 1845, Ireland experienced a few famines but none as devastating as the Great Famine of 1845-1850. As early as 1728, the scarcity of food had led to a revolt in County Cork, and total crop failures in 1739 and 1740 had caused the death of some three hundred thousand people. However, Irish violence rarely took the form of food riots. Famines;Irish Ireland;potato famine Potatoes;and Irish immigration[Irish immigration] Agriculture;Irish potato famine [kw]Great Irish Famine (1845-1854) [kw]Irish Famine, Great (1845-1854) [kw]Famine, Great Irish (1845-1854) Famines;Irish Ireland;potato famine Potatoes;and Irish immigration[Irish immigration] Agriculture;Irish potato famine [g]Ireland;1845-1854: Great Irish Famine[2360] [c]Disasters;1845-1854: Great Irish Famine[2360] [c]Natural disasters;1845-1854: Great Irish Famine[2360] [c]Agriculture;1845-1854: Great Irish Famine[2360] [c]Immigration;1845-1854: Great Irish Famine[2360] [c]Environment and ecology;1845-1854: Great Irish Famine[2360] Peel, Sir Robert [p]Peel, Sir Robert[Peel, Robert];and Irish potato famine[Irish potato famine] Russell, John [p]Russell, John;and Irish potato famine[Irish potato famine] Trevelyan, Charles Edward O’Brien, William Smith O’Connell, Daniel

It has been estimated that only 47 percent of Irish potato crops were directly consumed by humans; the rest were exported or fed to animals. Earlier potato failures and famines at the beginning of the nineteenth century had led some people in Ireland to believe that the country’s political and economic fusion with Great Britain, under the Act of Union of 1801, Act of Union of 1801;and Ireland[Ireland] might prove advantageous, especially with the establishment of free trade between them. However, any hopes that the Irish had regarding free trade with Great Britain were soon dashed. The British simply used Ireland as a place to dump surplus goods.

In contrast to Britain, Ireland did not industrialize. Those out of work joined a growing agricultural labor force unable to find steady employment in the countryside. The major reason for unemployment, which by 1845 stood at three-fourths of the labor force, was Ireland’s soaring population. The average Irish country family spent two-thirds of its income on food. It is estimated that the population increase between 1779 and 1841 amounted to 172 percent, of which six-sevenths was rural in 1841. Given the decline of native industry, Irish workers who did not wish to emigrate had no choice but to return to the land and a declining agrarian economy.

As this 1880 cover of Harper’s Weekly shows, the problem insufficient food continued to afflict Ireland throughout the nineteenth century.

(Library of Congress)

The worse abuses in Irish life prevailed in the rural districts. The uncertainty of land tenure was a constant grievance of all classes of tenants, but even more aggravating were the absentee landlords, both Irish and British, some of whom never set foot in Ireland. Many of these landlords ran their estates through ruthless agents, who charged exorbitant rents and refused to compensate the peasants for improvements they made. Peasants who complained about these practices almost invariably found themselves evicted from their crofts—small farms that were often less than one acre in size—with little hope of legal redress.

Between 1842 and 1849, as many as 58,423 peasants were evicted from their crofts. Under the Irish land tenure system, born of centuries of successive conquests, rebellions, and confiscations, landlords, or their agents, often paid the peasants no wages. The peasants usually worked off the rents on their potato patches with their labor, to which the landlords assigned wage values. The rents were sufficiently low that the peasants seldom saw any coin of the realm; in fact, many of them did not even understand the proper use of money.

Most Irish peasants worked for potatoes, which for them were the real medium of exchange. On the other hand, more prosperous peasants paid their rents in money realized, in part, from the sale of pigs and potatoes. According to the Devon Commission, organized in 1843 to investigate rural conditions in Ireland, the principal cause of Irish misery was, not surprisingly, the bad relations between landlords and tenants. In fact, Roman Catholic peasants were allowed to hold their land leases for no more than thirty-one years.

However, the main source of distress for the Irish peasants was their appallingly low standard of living, increasing population, and their logistical and legal inability to improve their economic base. Most peasants lived in windowless, one-room, mud cabins, which they frequently shared with their pigs. Many of the unemployed installed makeshift roofs over ditches or eked out their existences in ill-drained bog holes. These ghastly conditions, which eventually inspired the moderate Irish nationalist leader Daniel O’Connell O’Connell, Daniel to work for the repeal of the Act of Union of 1801 Act of Union of 1801 , did not prevent the Irish masses from barely surviving as long as they could grow and consume their potatoes.

Initiated by the potato crop failure of late 1845, the Great Irish Famine lasted into 1848 because of successive crop failures. The failures of this period manifested themselves in the form of a blight, a condition hitherto unknown in Ireland. Previous crop failures had been caused by frost, dry rot, and curl. It is now known that the blights of the late 1840’s were caused by the fungus phytophtora infestans, a microscopic organism that was probably introduced by a ship from North America, where outbreaks of potato blight had occurred in 1842. Borne by the wind, the fungus spores invaded the potato plant, germinated, and reproduced rapidly, aided by the warm, humid weather that prevailed in Ireland in 1846. That year’s crop was planted with the slightly diseased seed potatoes of the year before. In the absence of modern chemical treatments, that situation resulted in the total loss of the 1846 crop.

Some landlords compounded the suffering by forcibly evicting tenants who could not pay their rents. Other landowners, seeking to recover their financial losses, converted their estates to grazing farms or planted other crops, particularly grain, for which they no longer needed potato peasants. Countless peasants who did not starve to death in the bitter winter of 1846-1847 succumbed during 1847-1849 to near-endemic conditions of dysentery, scurvy, and dropsy, caused by starvation diets and deplorable sanitation and hygiene. Typhus Typhus;in Ireland[Ireland] and relapsing fever reached epidemic proportions in 1847, and Ireland;cholera epidemic cholera Cholera;pandemics broke out in 1849. Of the seven hundred thousand or more deaths during that period, it has been estimated that most were the result of disease rather than starvation. The small relief that the generally good potato crop of 1847 brought to the country was canceled out by the widespread failure of the 1848 crop. Ireland needed substantial aid from outside.

Some help had come from Great Britain and other quarters since the end of 1845. In November of 1845, Sir Robert Peel Peel, Sir Robert [p]Peel, Sir Robert[Peel, Robert];and Irish potato famine[Irish potato famine] , the Conservative British prime minister, established the Relief Commission for Ireland and organized a program of relief in four phases. The first and most important step was the organization of local efforts in which Peel instructed the Relief Commission to form local committees of sympathetic landowners, or their agents, clergy, magistrates, and their leading residents. These committees were to raise money for the purchase of food, which was then to be resold or given to the needy. Landlords were to employ more workers on their estates.

The second phase of the plan called for the Irish Board of Works to create extra employment by building new roads, a traditional undertaking for the provision of famine relief. Third, in expectation of the outbreak of pestilence, or “fever” as it was called, arrangements were to be made for the care of the sick, either in special fever hospitals and private homes, or in separate buildings on the grounds of workhouses Great Britain;workhouses . Finally, Peel Peel, Sir Robert [p]Peel, Sir Robert[Peel, Robert];and Irish potato famine[Irish potato famine] , in November, 1845, placed an order in America for one million pounds of Indian corn. To facilitate subsequent importation of foreign grain, Peel worked for the repeal of Britain’s Corn Laws Corn Laws , which placed high tariffs on grain imports. His effort was crowned with success in early June, 1846, but the repeal issue contributed to his fall from power before the month ended.

In June of 1846, a Liberal ministry under Lord John Russell Russell, John [p]Russell, John;and Irish potato famine[Irish potato famine] brought substantial changes in the British government’s policy toward the problem of Irish relief. Virtually in control of Irish relief by that time was Charles Edward Trevelyan, Trevelyan, Charles Edward financial secretary to the Treasury and staunch proponent of laissez-faire, which was the living embodiment of classical English liberalism. Trevelyan believed that it was necessary to terminate future importation of grain by the government to feed the Irish people. Otherwise, in his view, they would become totally dependent upon the government for their needs, an idea abhorrent to mid-nineteenth century liberals. The government, moreover, should no longer lend its financial support to the maintenance of public work projects; ideally the projects should be largely suspended.

Trevelyan Trevelyan, Charles Edward thus rejected two essentials of Peel’s Peel, Sir Robert [p]Peel, Sir Robert[Peel, Robert];and Irish potato famine[Irish potato famine] relief program: foreign grain and public works. He was obliged, however, because of worsening conditions in Ireland, to place new orders for corn in the United States which that country found difficult to fill because of heavy buying by other European states. In the second part of his scheme, the elimination of public works, Trevelyan was eventually successful. The public works experiment had not gone well. Many Irish workers did not know how to handle money they received. Many more were too ill from hunger and disease to work properly, if at all, and the roads, piers, and canals they built rapidly fell apart. Indeed, the Board of Works that directed these projects was described as “wholesale destroyers of her Majesty’s highways.” Hence, early in 1847, Russell’s Russell, John [p]Russell, John;and Irish potato famine[Irish potato famine] cabinet phased out the public works program and in its place introduced government soup kitchens to supplement those already being run by the Roman Catholic Church, the Quakers, and others.

The government believed that distributing free soup, a popular philanthropic activity, would be cheaper to finance than other measures and would have the greatest effect in alleviating hunger. However, it was not long before the British government received complaints that the soup, because of its components, was having an adverse effect upon the sickly constitutions of its recipients. Also, some Irish, for religious reasons, resented being served soup on Fridays. In one incident, an Irish peasant walked thirteen miles to obtain his family’s ration of meal. When he arrived at the depot, the English were serving meat soup to the hungry. Since it was a Friday and he was a staunch Catholic, he refused to accept the soup and returned home with the family’s ration. By June of 1847, Parliament took steps to streamline the relief through the passage of the Irish Poor Law. Two months earlier, Parliament had enacted the Irish Fever Bill to provide care for thousands of people afflicted by disease.


The Great Famine greatly reduced the population of Ireland. Ireland;population Approximately 700,000 to 1,000,000 people died between 1846 and 1854, and nearly 1.75 million people emigrated. About three-quarters of the emigrants went to the United States, but thousands of them died there from disease, and countless others died while crossing the Atlantic in cramped, dirty ships fit only for livestock. An 1851 census placed Ireland’s population Ireland;population at slightly more than 6.5 million people, 1.5 million fewer than ten years earlier. Allowing for a normal rate of increase if the famine had not occurred, the net decline was about 2.5 million people.

Two other results of the famine are noteworthy. To help landlords financially ruined by the disaster, which had spelled death for the peasants, Parliament passed the Encumbered Estates Act of 1849 Encumbered Estates Act of 1849 that provided for the sale of estates of ruined owners. Under this law, many estates passed into the hands of new landlords, some of them English and Scottish. Many new landlords who wished to improve their holdings evicted their tenants or treated them even more harshly than their predecessors.

Politically, the famine gave prominence to the militant Young Ireland Party which, under the leadership of William Smith O’Brien O’Brien, William Smith and others, rejected O’Connell’s O’Connell, Daniel peaceful methods of securing home rule Ireland;home rule Home rule, Irish in place of the Act of Union of 1801. Act of Union of 1801 The Young Irelanders Young Irelanders were especially embittered over the fact that during the height of the famine, the British government was continuing to import large amounts of grain from Ireland. Inspired by the outbreak of the continental revolutions of 1848, O’Brien precipitated the Tipperary Insurrection in July of that year in the vain hope that the peasants would rise up to support him. The local constabulary put down the uprising, however, and captured O’Brien. O’Brien, William Smith When the leader was deported to Australia, the Young Ireland Party died.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Arensburg, Conrad. The Irish Countryman. New York: Natural History Press, 1968. A succinct but definitive anthropological study of traditional Irish peasant customs, beliefs, and way of life.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Connell, K. H. The Population of Ireland, 1700-1845. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1950. An analytical but interesting discussion of factors leading to changes of land use and domesticated farm animals, and the effects of emigration upon Ireland.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fitzpatrick, D. “Class, Family, and Rural Unrest in Nineteenth Century Ireland.” In Ireland: Land, Politics, and People, edited by P. J. Dury. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982. An essay dealing with individual instances of economic deprivation due to laws of inheritance.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mokyr, Joel. Why Ireland Starved: A Quantitative and Analytical History of the Irish Economy, 1800-1850. London: Allen & Unwin, 1985. A critical review of previous historical, economic, and agricultural hypotheses regarding the Irish potato famine and emigration.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ó’Gráda, Cormac. Ireland Before and After the Famine: Explorations in Economic History, 1800-1925. New York: Manchester University Press, 1988. A comprehensive comparative socioeconomic and demographic study of the counties of Ireland, explaining specific causes and effects of the Irish potato famine.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schrier, Arnold. Ireland and the American Immigration, 1850-1900. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1958. Basically a demographic and statistical appraisal, but one that explains the deep nostalgic ties the immigrants maintained with Ireland.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Woodham-Smith, Cecil B. The Great Hunger: Ireland, 1845-1849. New York: Harper & Row, 1962. A thorough and sensitive study of the deplorable sociopolitical conditions of the Irish peasant that were worsened by the severe winter of 1846-1847.

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