Ireland's Great Famine of 1845 is seen by some historians as a turning point in Ireland’s history. Famine had been common in Nineteenth Century Ireland and almost an occupational hazard of rural life in Ireland. But the Great Famine of 1845 eclipsed all others.
Ireland’s rural population had rapidly grown in the Nineteenth Century. This was because a large family was an insurance of continued sustenance in later life – children would take care of their parents. However, this also meant that large families needed large amounts of food and the land situation in Ireland was not geared to support families in this respect.
Potatoes were the staple diet of the rural population of Ireland. However, this crop was very vulnerable to disease and no cure existed in Ireland for the dreaded ‘potato blight’. Even if a cure had existed, the people on the land would not have been able to afford it.
In 1844, a new form of potato blight was identified in America. It basically turned a potato into a mushy mess that was completely inedible. The American blight was first identified in France and the Isle of Wight in 1845. The summer of 1845 was mild but very wet in Britain. It was almost the perfect weather conditions for the blight to spread. The blight is still with us and is called ‘Phytophthora Infestans’ – an air carried fungus.
The people of Ireland expected a good potato crop in 1845. The weather had appeared to be favourable and in many senses, the farming community of Ireland expected a bumper harvest. However, when it came to digging up the potatoes, all they got was a black gooey mess. In fact, the expected bumper crop turned out to be a disaster. There was a 50% loss of potatoes in this year. The rural community had no way of countering this. Each family grew what they needed for that year and few had any to keep for times of trouble. In fact, the problem got worse. The crop of 1846 was all but a total failure and there was a very poor harvest in 1847. Three disastrous years in succession presented Ireland with huge problems.
The advice given to those affected by the potato blight bordered on the absurd. One scientist advised people to get hold of chloric acid and manganese dioxide. This mixture should have been been added to salt and applied to the diseased area of the potato. Even if the farmers had the opportunity to obtain such chemicals, they would have produced chlorine gas used to poison troops in World War One!
The government in London initially decided to do nothing. The logic behind such a decision was that Ireland had suffered from potato famines before and would have the necessary knowledge on how best to get by in this case. However, by 1846 it was plain that this was no ‘ordinary’ famine. Sir Robert Peel, despite opposition from the Treasury, imported £100,000 worth of corn from India. By 1846, £3,500,000 worth of potatoes had been lost - therefore, the government's initial aid was well below what was needed.
Peel believed that if this corn from India was released onto the Irish market in stages, it would keep down the price of other foods. This actually worked reasonably well but it also showed the lack of knowledge that existed in London with regards to Ireland. While Peel was at least doing something to help, he also had little knowledge of the country he was trying to help. The corn was welcomed as better than nothing. However, there were very few mills of any sort in Ireland, so simply grinding it down into flour was very difficult. Many people in Ireland became seriously ill by attempting to eat the corn without it having been ground down. As a result of this, the corn sent to Ireland by Peel became nicknamed "Peel’s Brimstone".
The government also tried to help by establishing public work schemes and road building projects in an effort to create employment so that some families got some money. The government also established emergency fever hospitals in Ireland to care for those who could not afford any medical treatment.
However, two issues hampered any work done by the government:
1) The general view in Westminster of the Irish was simply that they were not worth the effort and that anything that happened there was their fault.
2) The government also was driven by free trade. There were those who argued that if the Irish could not survive on the way they lived, then they should fall by the wayside. Free Trade meant the survival of the fittest.
The whole issue was not helped by the majority of landlords in Ireland who showed no sympathy for those who worked their land. Those who could not pay their rent were evicted despite the government’s effort to establish some form of employment in rural Ireland. Also during the time of the famine, £1million of corn and barley were exported from Ireland to mainland Britain, along with quantities of dairy produce. This fitted in with the free trade approach of the time. Those who produced these vital products simply got a better price for them than in Ireland. Driven on by free trade, foodstuffs left Ireland - despite the fact that it was desperately needed in Ireland itself. Any initiatives in London were also hindered or simply blocked by the chief civil servant to the Treasury – Trevelyan. He was symptomatic of those who worked for the government in Westminster. A supporter of free trade, Trevelyan was also less than sympathetic to the Irish or their problems.
There were some good landlords. Vaughan in County Mayo is recognised as one, but he was simply overwhelmed by the extent of the poverty. Tenants on neighbouring estates came to his land for help but Vaughn was swamped by the sheer numbers involved. Ironically, those landlords who can be classed as compassionate suffered as a result of those who did nothing.
Some landlords resorted to forced emigration of their tenants in an effort to ‘solve’ the problem in Ireland. In October 1847, the ship ‘Lord Ashburton’ carried 477 Irish emigrants to North America. 177 of these people came from one estate owned by an absentee landlord. They were so poor that they were all but naked for the journey and 87 had to be clothed by charity groups in America before they could leave the ship. On this particular voyage, 107 people died of dysentery and fever. The ‘Quebec Gazette’ described the ‘Lord Ashburton’ and all that it represented as "a disgrace to the Home Authorities." The absentee landlord who had forced 177 of his tenants onto the ship was Lord Palmerston, the British Foreign Secretary at this time, and one of the most famous of Britain's politicians in the Nineteenth Century.
What was the result of the famine?
Between 1846 and 1850, the population of Ireland dropped by 2 million which represented 25% of the total population.
This figure of 2 million can by effectively split in two. One million died of starvation or the diseases associated with the famine and one million emigrated to North America or parts of England, such as Liverpool, and Scotland, such as Glasgow. Many found that the areas where they settled in Britain were not welcoming as the Irish were seen as people who undercut wages. Therefore, employers in mainland factories were willing to employ the Irish at the expense of the English/Scots. However, many of the Irish who settled in industrial cities were completely unprepared for work in factories having spent their time working in a rural environment.
Ireland continued to suffer de-population after the famine ended. Many young Irish families saw their futures in America and not Ireland. This affected Ireland as those who were most active and who could contribute the most to Ireland, left the country.
Ironically, the famine did not help those who stayed on the land. With far fewer people to work the land, it might be thought that landlords would be less harsh on their tenants as they had a vested interest in having their land worked. This did not happen. Landlords used the opportunity to ‘rationalise’ their estates and there were more evictions even after the famine had ended.
Irish culture was severely hit by the famine. The sharp decline in the speaking of Gaelic has been specifically linked to the late 1840’s. There was little use speaking Gaelic in England, Scotland or America. The areas where Gaelic was at its strongest – in the west of Ireland – were the areas hit the hardest by the famine, both in terms of deaths and emigration.
The political impact of the famine in Ireland was very great. There were those who believed that the government in London had done as little as it could to help the Irish. Therefore, they believed that the only people who could help the Irish were the Irish themselves. Some of the leaders of the Easter Rebellion of 1916 had families affected by the Great Famine. Finance for a number of Irish republican movements in the late Nineteenth and Twentieth centuries, came from the east coast of America, primarily Boston and New York. James Connolly, one of the 1916 leaders, spent time in America where he lived among families who had originally come to America as a result of the famine. The mother of Patrick Pearse, Margaret, had come from a family directly affected by the famine.