The Irish Famine


Cheryl A. Graybill

Email to Cheryl A. Graybill
Honors Paper

Hs 409: Summer, 1997
Professor D.W. Cashman

The Great Famine which occurred in Ireland between 1845-50 had a drastic and long lasting effect upon the people of Ireland. It is known today as the Great Famine to distinguish it from the previous famines which had plagued Ireland and also because it was the worse famine Ireland had ever experienced. In all, a million people died from starvation or disease and as many emigrated out of Ireland. What made matters worse was the political climate of the day in which the government, in Westminster, took a laissez faire approach in dealing with the economy and Ireland as a whole. According to this theory, the government should not interfere with the economy’s natural flow of supply and demand. In addition the government believed that the landlords, businessmen, and investors would protect their economic prosperity by not allowing their workers to starve. Unfortunately, the landlords, investors, and businessmen were cold and unsympathetic to the working poor and quickly evicted those who could not afford to pay their rent. The government's reluctance in dealing with this problem head on made the consequences much worse for the Irish people.

The government in Westminster was not the sole cause of the famine, however. It may have added fuel to the fire, but it did not light the match. The tragedy of the Great Famine that occurred in Ireland might have occurred in any agricultural society. The policies that the government issued, prior to and during the famine, may not have been the best actions to take, but to blame the English government is misleading and inaccurate.

Many people blamed the government for allowing the people to starve, while exporting food from Ireland. The economic climate was so severe that had the government not exported those goods, therefore bringing money back into the economy, more severe consequences would have occurred. Currently, in the United States, food is being exported when there are thousands of starving people living on the streets of America. This does not stop our government from exporting food from the United States. Policies have existed for centuries and will continue to do so. A government without revenue will collapse.

The Act of Union in 1801 is important legislation to understand because of the consequences it had for 19th century Ireland, and also because it explains why the English government controlled all of Ireland. The Prime Minister at that time was William Pitt the Younger who believed that uniting the parliaments of Britain and Ireland would raise the Irish standard of living through British investment in Ireland. At the same time, it would give the Protestants in Ireland (and England) a majority within the government. After the Act of Union, one hundred of the 658 members of the House of Commons representatived Irish constituencies. Before the Act of Union, the parliament in Ireland was subordinate to the government of England, much like the assemblies of the American colonies before the Revolutionary War.(1) Tensions had been brewing in Ireland between the Protestants and the Catholics for many years. By giving the Protestants the majority, where they previously were in the minority, Pitt believed would win support for an Act of Union. In 1800 the Act of Union was passed and Ireland became part of Great Britain.(2)

Various rebellions had broken out throughout Ireland, prior to the passage of the Act of Union, in which Theobald Wolfe Tone's rebellious United Irishmen fought for independence and Catholic emancipation. To make matters worse Napoleon had sent a few French forces to aid the rebels in Ireland. Ultimately they were defeated, but this outbreak of unrest made Pitt and other officials take notice that Ireland was a political problem that could no longer be ignored. Thus by joining Ireland and Britain each would come to the others aid in times of crisis and alleviate some of the economic and religious tension within Ireland.(3)

By 1798 (remembered in Ireland as "the year of the French"), political unrest flowed throughout the streets of France and Ireland. As instability increased throughout France for political reform (brought on by the War with England in the 1790) so too did the spread of discontent in Ireland. The United Irishmen, who were influenced by the political unrest in France, was a powerful enough organization for the English government to pay closer attention to Ireland.(4)

Irish Catholics had good reason for their anger and frustration with the Protestants in Ireland. Throughout the 18th century, "Penal Laws" had been passed which discriminated against the Catholic community, preventing them from holding government positions, becoming members of parliament, commissions in the army and navy, requiring them to make payments to the established Anglican Church, along with various other restrictions. By the end of the 18th century the British government knew some type of Catholic relief was in order, to prevent further rebellions. Between the American Revolution and the war with France, British officials realized they not only needed the extra manpower to fight the war, they also knew they could not afford yet another outbreak of Catholic unrest. They especially did not need the Catholics in France to ally themselves with the Irish Catholics, forming a powerful alliance against England. Although most of the Penal Laws were repealed by the end of the 18th century, the struggle for equality was not over. The 19th century's prejudicial attitude toward Catholics continues to this day in Northern Ireland.(5)

In the fall of 1845, alarming reports began to come in, throughout the country, about the failure of potato crop. Sir Robert Peel, the British Prime Minister, established a Scientific Commission to determine if any of the harvested potatoes could be salvaged. The commission estimated that half of all the potatoes harvested had been or would be destroyed, but oddly enough the problem was not universal. Where one farm may have harvested a bad crop the neighboring farm may have had a good crop. Peel made inquires about a possible inexpensive substitute for the potato, something that might carry the masses through the winter. He decided that Indian corn would be the cheapest substitute.(6)

By November a temporary Relief Commission was established, with Sir Randolph Routh as its chairman. To relieve the situation, Indian corn was brought in from the United States to be sold cheaply at Government depots. The problem was that there had not been a market for Indian corn previously and the corn was only distributed when given permission by the Westminster government (when general food prices rose too high). Once the corn did go on sale riots broke out. According to Routh, “…high price is the only criterion by which consumption can be economized."(7) Sir Robert Peel (pictured here), along with Irish representatives, wanted to repeal the Corn Laws, thus removing protective duties on grain imported from England and elsewhere to reduce the price of grain products.(8) The Corn Laws were not repealed until 1846 under Lord John Russell and the Whig government.

Charles Trevelyan, the permanent Head of Treasury, rejected Indian corn cargo believing it was unnecessary. Trevelyan, along with Lord John Russell who had became Prime Minister in 1846, were strong believers in the idea that the government should not involve itself with the natural flow of supply and demand.(9) In 1846, reports came in of an expected good harvest that fall so Trevelyan did not order more Indian corn for any of the already empty depots and closed depots that still had corn. The situation only got worse under Russell, because the second successive crop was blighted as well. This time the blight was brought over by American steamships that exported to Europe.(10) Once it became apparent that the 1846 harvest was bad as well. Trevelyan stated, in his explanation for closing the depots, that "The only way to prevent people from becoming habitually dependent on government is to bring operations to a close."(11)

As more devastating reports came in about the ‘46 harvest, Trevelyan realized he had to do something about the situation. Potatoes had been a main staple for the Irish, particularly for the lower classes who could not afford much else. By the 1840s land holdings were subdivided and sublet four to five times from the initial landlord, therefore making a families farm (and consequently their harvest and profits) even smaller. Many families could barely afford to buy potatoes as it was because they had to sell their crops to pay the rent. In Britain, the potato crop had been affected by the same disease, however, the lower classes were better off and could afford to buy a substitute for potatoes.(12)

Land had long been a problem in Ireland. The population had been increasing so rapidly that by the early 1800s, the land was not sufficient enough to feed everyone and make a living off it as well. Farmers had to sell nearly all of their crops just to pay the rent, leaving them with barely enough food to feed their families. As competition for land increased so too did the rent of the land. Conditions for the poor farmers got worse. As rent increased the acreage a family could farm shrank.(13) The Act of Union, intended to raise the Irish standard of living, made the situation worse for the lower class. The landlords' standard of living initially improved through increased rent rates. If the concern of the government was not to have its people dependent upon the government for handouts, more efforts should have been made to create a stronger, self-sufficient lower class.

By 1841, two-thirds of the population was dependent upon agriculture for its livelihood.(14) The government therefore believed the landlords would relieve the workers' distress in order to maintain their own high standard of living. While there were some landlords who did allow their tenants to consume the food they normally used for rent, most would evicted tenants who could not pay the rent.(15) The farming methods had not been modernized either, which might have alleviated some of the problems as well. But had the farmers improved their crop yields, the landlords would have increased the rent.(16)

Trevelyan finally made Indian corn available cheaply, but none of this came until after Christmas of 1846 and by then reports came in of deaths due to starvation. Once the Public Works did get under way its primary concern was for the construction of roads, lowering hills, and filling in hollows. Not only were these roads unnecessary, but also the wages paid to the exhausted and starving workers were low and some were not paid for two weeks.(17) The government, believing this would alleviate some of the problem by getting people back to work without the government directly handing out free food, only made matters worse. Most of the workers were so malnourished and weak that such strenuous work only made them weaker. Also having these new roads and nicely landscaped countryside only made it easier for people to travel from town to town in search of food, in the process spreading diseases throughout Ireland.

In 1846 Lord John Russell, head of the Whig party, won the election and became the new Prime Minister. Russell, along with the Whig party, was much in favor of the current laissez faire philosophy, so there was not too much hope of improvement for the starving people of Ireland. To make matters worse, there were those in England who believed the Irish were exaggerating the situation. In December of 1846 a Government Commissariat was sent to Skibbereen to investigate, and found 169 deaths due to starvation in a three-week period. (What happened at Skibbereen prompted the composition of a folk song, a lament, which is sung even today - more than a century later). Throughout Ireland the death toll had been rising so quickly that the dead lie in the streets in piles, having not enough coffins to have a proper burial.(18) Again this only helped to spread more diseases throughout the towns.

Thomas Campell Foster was appointed commissioner by The Times of London to investigate the claims of the famine. The people on the west coast in county Donegal, Foster reported, had only themselves to blame. The people divided and subdivided their land until there was not enough land for each family to make a living. Along the east coast, however, life was much more prosperous. "For the poverty and distress and misery which exist, the people have themselves to blame," according to Foster.(19) Perhaps it was only coincidental that those along the east coast were predominately Protestant and least dependent upon agriculture (especially the potato crop) for their survival.(20)

If death by starvation did not kill you, chances were that the fever or typhus would. By 1847, the fever spread throughout Ireland, passed on by people fleeing from one town to another. Eventually the fever and famine spread to the upper classes, priests and doctors particularly, who had come into direct contact with infected people.(21) The upper classes could at least afford a proper burial for their loved ones, however, while the bodies of masses laid in piles on the streets.

When Trevelyan did allow the depots to sell Indian corn, he sold them at five percent higher than the going price of the time. By March 1847, however, conditions worsened, congregations were reduced by half, and people were dying daily by the thousands. The government, acting under the assumption that the next harvest would be a good one, also knew they had to do something in the meantime. The Soup Kitchen Act which was passed by Parliament provided that free soup and other rations be distributed. Unfortunately, the food was slow to appear. In the county of Mayo, for example, in eighteen days only four days of rations were distributed.(22) Although the intention of the government may have been good, the result was increased tension among the Irish people themselves.

By July 1847, the Soup Kitchen Act had taken off and relief reached nearly half of the population in Ireland. The harvest that summer and fall was relatively good, according to those in England. The secretary to the Relief Commission wrote to Trevelyan suggesting the relief efforts were being abused by the lower classes, making them accustomed to handouts. Since the treasury department, thus including Trevelyan, had to answer to the rate payers in England, relief under the Soup Kitchen Act ended by September 1847.(23)

The government was continually contradicting itself in its policies for Ireland and the Irish, especially considering that under the Act of Union in 1801 the English government was to protect and enhance the standard of living in Ireland. For example, the Poor Law legislation was intended to give grants, with interest, to workhouses which would in turn employ those able to work. These employees would then be paid with food and a place to stay. The workhouses were also allowed to give relief to those living outside of the workhouses. All of this sounds like a good idea, but there was a condition added which stipulated that no one who owned more that a quarter of an acre of land was eligible for this program. This only added to the already large number of landlord evictions because those who were starving on a little over an acre of land now had to give up their land to live on or get food through the workhouses. Adding to those already evicted from their homes and land a few years earlier when the rent increased, those who gave up their land after the Poor Law legislation, were thousands more men, women, and children now in the streets and fields in search of food. And again the spread of fever and typhus was accelerated.(24)

In October 1847 the Cork Examiner predicted,

We foresee that the rural population- particularly along the coast will pour itself into the workhouses. The necessity will be stronger than last year. The houses can not contain them all. Nor can the ratepayer pay for them all. We should not wonder if these workhouses became the charnel houses of the whole rural population.(25)

The December 22, 1849 issue of the The Illustrated London News reported that "The system intended to relieve the poor, by making the landlord responsible for their welfare, has at once made it in the interest, and therefore the duty, of the landlords to get rid of them."(26) These predictions were soon fulfilled. Poor Law unions became bankrupt due to the overwhelming numbers of people flocking to them in hope of food and work.

Many local landlords, who had the heaviest financial burden as the ratepayers, soon became bankrupt which added to an already dire situation. As the situation grew worse those in Westminster believed they had done all they could to help the people of Ireland. Trevelyan described the situation of increased population and famine as "...the operation of natural causes." Believing there was nothing left to do, Trevelyan left for two weeks vacation to France.(27)

Thousands of people began to emigrate to other countries in hopes of a better life. In 1847 a quarter of a million people fled Ireland and as many, if not more, in the following years. The sheer number of who died during the famine and those who emigrated out of Ireland, permanently altered the social structure of Ireland. All classes tried to escape from Ireland into Canada or the United States, although many of the poorest people never went beyond the English port of Liverpool. Conditions on board the "coffin ships" were as bad as what they had fled in Ireland. Overcrowded decks with little water, few rations, and the threat of catching the fever took their toll and many people died at sea.(28)

Another impact the famine had upon Ireland was its Gaelic tradition and language. In the most Gaelic parts of the country, Mayo and Kerry for example, the population dropped by half. Along with the increased use of the English language among political leaders, like Daniel O’Connell and the Young Ireland Party, the purity and richness of the language had been lost.(29)

Many historians debate the causes of the famine and the number of those who died or emigrated out of Ireland. But what can not be disputed is the profound effect the Great Famine had upon its people, the culture, and traditions of Ireland. According to the census of 1851, between 1845-1850 over two million people either died or emigrated out of Ireland. Many of the emigrants died in transit, and more than five thousand of them remain buried in the mass graves of Grosse-Ile in the St. Lawrence river, northeast of Quebec City, commemorated there by a high Celtic cross ... like the ones they had left behind in Ireland. The famine also had a great impact on the other nations, like the United States, to which thousands of Irish fled. Regardless of the disputed beliefs as to the causes of the Great Famine, the lives that were touched by it will never be the same. People today still feel the impact that was left by the Great Famine and this will continue into future generations.

Appendix: Map of Modern Ireland



1. T.W. Moody and F.X. Martin. The Course of Irish History. (Roberts Rinehart Publishers, 1995), p 228.

2. Moody, The Course of Irish History, p 247.

3. Moody, The Course of Irish History, p. 246.

4. R.F. Foster. The Oxford History of Ireland. (Oxford University Press, 1989), pp. 151-152.

5. Moody, The Course of Irish History, p. 249.

6. The Dublin University Magazine (

7. Great Irish Famine Event-1846 - Timeline: see second October paragraph. (

8. Great Irish Famine Event-1845 - Timeline ( In 1839, the Anti-Corn League was founded, in which the industrial middle class mobilized against the landlords. Richard Cobden, the league’s leader, was able to influence Sir Robert Peel to ally himself with their movement. Once the failure of the potato crop became evident in November of 1845, Peel was in full support of repealing the Corn Laws.

9. Moody, The Course of Irish History, p. 269.

10. R.Dudley, Edwards. A New History of Ireland. (Gill and MacMillian Limited Publishing Co., 1972) pp. 172-173.

11. Robert Kee, A History of Ireland. (Little, Brown and Company, Boston 1982), p 86.

12. Kee, A History of Ireland, p. 78.

13. Moody, The Course of Irish History, p. 249.

14. Moody, The Course of Irish History, p. 267.

15. Kee, A History of Ireland, p 85.

16. Moody, The Course of Irish History, p.249.

17. Kee, A History of Ireland, p. 88.

18. Kee, A History of Ireland, p. 91.

19. The Famine- “The Times”- And Donegal (

20. Kee, A History of Ireland, p 88.

21. Kee, A History of Ireland, p. 94.

22. Kee, A History of Ireland, p. 95.

23. Kee, A History of Ireland, pp. 94-95.

24. Kee, A History of Ireland, p. 95.

25. Kee, A History of Ireland, p. 96.

26. The Illustrated London News (

27. Kee, A History of Ireland, p. 96.

28. Kee, A History of Ireland, pp. 100-101.

29. Edmund Curtis, A History of Ireland, (Muthuen and Co. LTD, 1978), p. 371.


Curtis, Edmund. A History of Ireland. Methuen and Co. L.T.D., 1978.

The Dublin University Magazine (

Edwards, Dudley, R. A New History of Ireland. Gill and MacMillan Limited Publishing Co., 1972.

The Famine-“The Times”- And Donegal (

Foster, R.F. The Oxford History of Ireland. Oxford University Press, 1989.

The Great Irish Famine Event -1846 (

The Illustrated London News (

Kee, Robert. A History of Ireland. Little, Brown, and Company, Boston, 1982.

Moody.T.W. and Martin, F.X. The Course of Irish History. Robert Rinehart Publishers, 1995.