Ireland's Great Famine
The proximate cause of the Great Irish Famine (1846-52) was the fungus phythophtera infestans (or potato blight), which reached Ireland in the fall of 1845. The fungus destroyed about one-third of that year's crop, and nearly all that of 1846. After a season's remission, it also ruined most of the 1848 harvest. These repeated attacks made the Irish famine more protracted than most. Partial failures of the potato crop were nothing new in Ireland before 1845, but damage on the scale wrought by the ecological shock of potato blight was utterly unprecedented. However, the famine would not have been so lethal had dependence on the potato been less. Poverty had reduced the bottom one-third or so of the population to almost exclusive dependence on the potato for sustenance. For those in this category, the daily intake was enormous: 4 to 5 kilos (9 to 11 pounds) daily per adult male equivalent for most of the year. That, coupled with an inadequate policy response from the authorities, made the consequences of repeated failures devastating.
Ireland was a poor country in 1845, income per head being about half that in the rest of the United Kingdom. The half-century or so before the famine was a period of increasing impoverishment for the landless poor and with impoverishment came rising inequality. Increasing population pressure was only partly relieved by an increase in the emigration rate and a fall in the birth rate. Moreover, demographic adjustment was weakest in the western and southern areas most at risk. The nutritional content of the potato and widespread access to heating fuel in the form of turf eased somewhat the poverty of Ireland's three million 'potato people.' They were healthier and lived longer than the poor in other parts of Europe at the time. However, their poverty meant that when the potato failed, there was no trading down to a cheap alternative food. Nowhere else in Europe had the potato, like tobacco a gift from the New World, made such inroads into the diet of the poor. It bears noting that the potato also failed throughout Europe in the 1840s. This brought hardship in many places, and excess mortality in the Low Countries and in parts of Germany. Yet nowhere was Ireland's cataclysm repeated.
The first attack of potato blight inflicted considerable hardship on rural Ireland, though no significant excess mortality. The catastrophe of the Great Famine really dates from the fall of 1846, when the first deaths from starvation were recorded. At first, there were food riots and protests, but they subsided as hope and anger gave way to despair. During the winter and spring of 1846-7 the carnage reached its peak, but the famine continued for another three years. Like all major famines, the Irish potato famine produced many instances of roadside deaths, of neglect of the very young and the elderly, of heroism and of anti-social behavior, of evictions, and of a rise in crimes against property. It was widely reported in the contemporary press at first, both in Ireland and abroad. It elicited a massive response in terms of private donations for a time, especially through the Catholic Church worldwide and the Society of Friends. Philanthropists in Britain were also moved by Irish suffering. That was before compassion fatigue set in. For narrative accounts of the tragedy see Edwards and Williams, Woodham-Smith, Ó Gráda, and Donnelly.
The debate about relief measures for Ireland in the press and in parliament in the 1840s has quite a modern resonance. At first the government opted for reliance on the provision of employment through public works schemes, the cost of which was to be split between local taxpayers and the central government. At their height in the spring of 1847 the works employed seven hundred thousand people or one-in-twelve of the entire population. The works did not contain the famine, partly because they did not target the neediest, partly because the average wage paid was too low, and partly because they entailed exposing malnourished and poorly clothed people (mostly men) to the elements during the worst months of the year.
The publicly-financed soup kitchens which replaced the public works reached three million people daily at their peak in early 1847. Mortality seemed to fall while they operated, though doubts remain about the effectiveness of a diet of thin meal-based gruel on weakened stomachs. The drop in food prices during the summer of 1847 prompted the authorities to treat the famine henceforth as a manageable, local problem. The main burden of relieving the poor henceforth was placed on the workhouses established under the Irish Poor Law of 1838. In principal those requiring relief were supposed to pass 'the workhouse test,' i.e. refusal to enter the workhouse was deemed evidence of being able to support one's self. In practice, most of the workhouses were ill-equipped to meet the demands placed upon them, and in the event about one-quarter of all excess famine mortality occurred within their walls. Local histories highlight mismanagement and the impossible burden placed on local taxpayers; and the high overall proportion of workhouse deaths due to contagious diseases is an indictment of this form of relief. The very high mortality in some workhouses in 1850 and 1851 is evidence of the long-lasting character of the famine in some western area.
Traditional accounts of the famine pit the more humane policies of Sir Robert Peel's Tories against the dogmatic stance of Sir John Russell's Whig administration, which succeeded them. Peel was forced out of office in July 1846 when his party split on the issue of the Corn Laws. The contrast between Peel and Russell oversimplifies. Though Peel was more familiar with Ireland's problems of economic backwardness than Whig ideologues such as Charles Wood, the crisis confronting him in 1845-6 was mild compared to what was to follow. Moreover, Peel broadly supported the Whig line in opposition, and it was left to his former Tory colleagues to mount a parliamentary challenge against Russell and Wood. Assessment of the public policy response cannot ignore the apocalyptic character of the crisis that it faced. Nonetheless, the government's obsession with parsimony and its determination to make the Irish pay for 'their' crisis cannot but have increased the death rate. The same goes for the insistence on linking relief with structural reform (e.g. by making the surrender of all landholdings over a quarter of an acre in size a strict condition for relief). At the height of the crisis the policy stance adopted by the Whigs was influenced by Malthusian providentialism, i.e. the conviction that the potato blight was a divinely ordained remedy for Irish overpopulation. Compassion on the part of the British elite was in short supply. The fear that too much kindness would entail a Malthusian lesson not learnt also conditioned both the nature and extent of intervention.
The Irish famine killed about one million people, or one-eighth of the entire population. This made it a major famine, relatively speaking, by world-historical standards. In pre-1845 Ireland famines were by no means unknown -- that caused by arctic weather conditions in 1740-41 killed a higher share of a much smaller population -- but those that struck during the half-century or so before the Great Famine were mini-famines by comparison. The excess death toll of one million is an informed guess, since in the absence of civil registration excess mortality cannot be calculated directly. The record of deaths in the workhouses and other public institutions is nearly complete, but the recording of other deaths depended on the memory of survivors in households where deaths had taken place. In many homes, of course, death and emigration meant that there were no survivors. The estimate does not include averted births, nor does it allow for famine-related deaths in Britain and further afield.
Mortality was regionally very uneven. No part of Ireland escaped entirely, but the toll ranged from one-quarter of the population of some western counties to negligible fractions in counties Down and Wexford on the east coast. The timing of mortality varied too, even in some of the worst hit areas. In west Cork, a notorious problem area, the worst was over by late 1847, but the deadly effects of the famine ranged in county Clare until 1850 or even 1851. Infectious diseases -- especially typhoid fever, typhus and dysentery/diarrhea -- rather than literal starvation were responsible for the bulk of mortality. While Karl Marx was almost right to claim that the Irish famine killed 'poor devils only,' many who were not abjectly poor and starving died of famine-related diseases. Medical progress, by shielding the rich from infection, has made subsequent famines even more class-specific. By and large, the higher the death toll, the higher the proportion of starvation deaths. As in most famines, the elderly and the young were most likely to succumb, but women proved marginally more resilient than men.
The famine also resulted in migration on a massive scale. Again precise estimates are impossible. Though these migrants were also victims of the famine, their departure improved not only their own survival chances, but also those of the majority who remained in Ireland. True, the Atlantic crossing produced its own carnage, particularly in Quebec's Grosse-Isle, but most of those who fled made it safely to the other side. There thus is a sense in which migration was a crude form of disaster relief, and that more spending on subsidized emigration would have reduced the aggregate famine death toll. Most of those who emigrated relied on their own resources; some landlords helped through direct subsidies or by relieving those who left of their unpaid rent bills. The landless poor simply could not afford to leave.
A Hierarchy of Suffering
Like all famines, the Irish famine produced its hierarchy of suffering. The rural poor, landless or near-landless, were most likely to perish, and the earliest victims were in that category. Farmers found their effective land endowment reduced, since their holdings could no longer yield the same quantity of potatoes as before. They also faced increased labor costs, forcing them to reduce their concentration on tillage. Landlords' rental income plummeted by as much a third. Many clergymen, medical practitioners, and poor law officials died of infectious diseases. Pawnbrokers found their pledges being unredeemed as the crisis worsened. Least affected were those businesses and their work forces who relied on foreign markets for their raw materials and their sales. The relative impact of the famine on different occupational groups may be inferred from the 1841 and 1851 censuses. The overall decline in the labor force was 19.1 percent. There were 14.4 percent fewer farmers, and 24.2 percent fewer farm laborers. Not surprisingly, given their vulnerability, the number of physicians and surgeons dropped by 25.3 percent. The small number of coffin makers (eight in 1841, twenty-two in 1851) is a reminder that during the famine most coffins were not made by specialist coffin makers. It is difficult to identify any significant class of 'winners' in the 1840s, though the census indicates increases in the numbers of millers and bakers, of barristers and attorneys, and of bailiffs and rate collectors. The huge fall in the numbers of spinners and weavers was partly a consequence of the famine, partly due to other causes.
The Great Irish Famine was not just a watershed in Irish history, but also a major event in global history, with far-reaching and enduring economic and political consequences. Individual memories of the famine, coupled with 'collective memory' of the event in later years, influenced the political culture of both Ireland and Irish-America -- and probably still do. The famine brought the era of famines in Ireland to a brutal end. Serious failures of the potato in the early 1860s and late 1870s, also due to potato blight, brought privation in the west of the country, but no significant excess mortality. The famine also resulted in higher living standards for survivors. The bargaining power of labor was greater. Any negative impact on landlords' income from a declining population was more than compensated for by the relative increase in the prices of land-intensive output and the prompter payment of rents due. Higher emigration was another by-product of the famine, as the huge outflow of the crisis years generated its own 'friends and neighbors' dynamic. Only in a few remote and tiny pockets in the west did population fill the vacuum left by the 'Great Hunger,' and then only very briefly.
Whether or not the famine led to the decline of certain native industries by reducing the domestic market remains a moot point, worthy of further research. The long-run impact of the famine on the health of affected survivors is another un-researched topic. Finally, though the introduction of new potato varieties offered some respite against phythophtera infestans thereafter, no reliable defense would be found against it until the 1890s.
This essay builds on my entry on the Great Irish Famine in Paul Demeny and Geoffrey McNicoll, editors, Encyclopedia of Population (New York: Macmillan, 2003).
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