Since the Acts of Union in January 1801, Ireland had been part of the United Kingdom with executive power lying in the hands of the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and Chief Secretary for Ireland, appointed by the British government. Ireland sent 105 members of parliament to the House of Commons of the United Kingdom, and Irish representative peers elected 28 of their own number to sit for life in the House of Lords. Between 1832 and 1859, 70% of Irish representatives were landowners or the sons of landowners.
In the 40 years that followed the union, successive British governments grappled with the problems of governing a country which had, as Benjamin Disraeli put it in 1844, "a starving population, an absentee aristocracy, and an alien Church, and in addition the weakest executive in the world." One historian calculated that, between 1801 and 1845, there had been 114 commissions and 61 special committees enquiring into the state of Ireland, and that "without exception their findings prophesied disaster; Ireland was on the verge of starvation, her population rapidly increasing, three-quarters of her labourers unemployed, housing conditions appalling and the standard of living unbelievably low."
In the 17th and 18th centuries, Irish Catholics had been prohibited by the Penal Laws from purchasing or leasing land, from voting, from holding political office, from living in or within 5 miles (8 km) of a corporate town, from obtaining education, from entering a profession, and from doing many other things necessary for a person to succeed and prosper in society. The laws had largely been reformed by 1793, and the Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829 allowed Irish Catholics to again sit in parliament.
During the 18th century, the "middleman system" for managing landed property was introduced. Rent collection was left in the hands of the landlords' agents, or middlemen. This assured the landlord of a regular income, and relieved them of direct responsibility, while leaving tenants open to exploitation by the middlemen.
Catholics, the bulk of whom lived in conditions of poverty and insecurity despite Catholic emancipation in 1829, made up 80% of the population. At the top of the "social pyramid" was the "ascendancy class", the English and Anglo-Irish families who owned most of the land, and held more or less unchecked power over their tenants. Some of their estates were vast; for example, the Earl of Lucan owned over 60,000 acres (240 km2). Many of these landlords lived in England and were known as absentee landlords. The rent revenue—collected from "impoverished tenants" who were paid minimal wages to raise crops and livestock for export—was mostly sent to England.
In 1843, the British Government considered that the land question in Ireland was the root cause of disaffection in the country. They established a Royal Commission, chaired by the Earl of Devon, to enquire into the laws regarding the occupation of land. Daniel O'Connell described this commission as "perfectly one-sided", being composed of landlords, with no tenant representation. In February 1845, Devon reported:
It would be impossible adequately to describe the privations which they [the Irish labourer and his family] habitually and silently endure ... in many districts their only food is the potato, their only beverage water ... their cabins are seldom a protection against the weather ... a bed or a blanket is a rare luxury ... and nearly in all their pig and a manure heap constitute their only property.
The Commissioners concluded they could not "forbear expressing our strong sense of the patient endurance which the labouring classes have exhibited under sufferings greater, we believe, than the people of any other country in Europe have to sustain." The Commission stated that bad relations between landlord and tenant were principally responsible. There was no hereditary loyalty, feudal tie, or mitigating tradition of paternalism as existed in England (Ireland was a conquered country). The Earl of Clare observed of landlords that "confiscation is their common title". According to the historian Cecil Woodham-Smith, landlords regarded the land as simply a source of income, from which as much as possible was to be extracted. With the Irish "brooding over their discontent in sullen indignation" (in the words of the Earl of Clare), the countryside was largely viewed by landlords as a hostile place in which to live, and absentee ownership was common; some landlords visited their property only once or twice in a lifetime, if ever. The rents from Ireland were generally spent elsewhere; an estimated £6,000,000 was remitted out of Ireland in 1842.
The ability of middlemen was measured by the rent income they could contrive to extract from tenants. They were described in evidence before the Commission as "land sharks", "bloodsuckers", and "the most oppressive species of tyrant that ever lent assistance to the destruction of a country". The middlemen leased large tracts of land from the landlords on long leases with fixed rents, which they then sublet as they saw fit. They would split a holding into smaller and smaller parcels so as to increase the amount of rent they could obtain. Tenants could be evicted for reasons such as non-payment of rents (which were high), or a landlord's decision to raise sheep instead of grain crops. A cottier paid his rent by working for the landlord.
As any improvement made on a holding by a tenant became the property of the landlord when the lease expired or was terminated, the incentive to make improvements was limited. Most tenants had no security of tenure on the land; as tenants "at will", they could be turned out whenever the landlord chose. The only exception to this arrangement was in Ulster where, under a practice known as "tenant right", a tenant was compensated for any improvement they made to their holding. According to Woodham-Smith, the commission stated that "the superior prosperity and tranquility of Ulster, compared with the rest of Ireland, were due to tenant right."
Landlords in Ireland often used their powers without compunction, and tenants lived in dread of them. Woodham-Smith writes that, in these circumstances, "industry and enterprise were extinguished and a peasantry created which was one of the most destitute in Europe."
In 1845, 24% of all Irish tenant farms were of 0.4–2 hectares (1–5 acres) in size, while 40% were of 2–6 hectares (5–15 acres). Holdings were so small that no crop other than potatoes would suffice to feed a family. Shortly before the famine the British government reported that poverty was so widespread that one-third of all Irish small holdings could not support their families after paying their rent, except by earnings of seasonal migrant labour in England and Scotland. Following the famine, reforms were implemented making it illegal to further divide land holdings.
The 1841 census showed a population of just over eight million. Two-thirds of those depended on agriculture for their survival, but they rarely received a working wage. They had to work for their landlords in return for the patch of land they needed to grow enough food for their own families. This was the system which forced Ireland and its peasantry into monoculture, since only the potato could be grown in sufficient quantity. The rights to a plot of land in Ireland could mean the difference between life and death in the early 19th century.
The potato was introduced to Ireland as a garden crop of the gentry. By the late 17th century, it had become widespread as a supplementary rather than a principal food because the main diet still revolved around butter, milk, and grain products. However, in the first two decades of the 18th century, it became a base food of the poor, especially in winter. Furthermore, a disproportionate share of the potatoes grown in Ireland were of a single variety, the Irish Lumper. The expansion of the economy between 1760 and 1815 saw the potato make inroads into the diet of the people and become a staple food year round for farmers. The large dependency on this single crop, and the lack of genetic variability among the potato plants in Ireland, were two of the reasons why the emergence of Phytophthora infestans had such devastating effects in Ireland and less severe effects elsewhere in Europe.
The potato's spread was essential to the development of the cottier system, supporting an extremely cheap workforce, but at the cost of lower living standards. For the labourer, it was essentially a potato wage that shaped the expanding agrarian economy.
The expansion of tillage led to an inevitable expansion of the potato acreage and an expansion of peasant farmers. By 1841, there were over half a million peasant farmers, with 1.75 million dependants. The principal beneficiary of this system was the English consumer.
The Celtic grazing lands of... Ireland had been used to pasture cows for centuries. The British colonised... the Irish, transforming much of their countryside into an extended grazing land to raise cattle for a hungry consumer market at home... The British taste for beef had a devastating impact on the impoverished and disenfranchised people of... Ireland... pushed off the best pasture land and forced to farm smaller plots of marginal land, the Irish turned to the potato, a crop that could be grown abundantly in less favorable soil. Eventually, cows took over much of Ireland, leaving the native population virtually dependent on the potato for survival.
The potato was also used extensively as a fodder crop for livestock immediately prior to the famine. Approximately 33% of production, amounting to 5,000,000 short tons (4,500,000 t), was normally used in this way.
Prior to the arrival in Ireland of the disease Phytophthora infestans, commonly known as blight, there were only two main potato plant diseases. One was called "dry rot" or "taint", and the other was a virus known popularly as "curl". Phytophthora infestans is an oomycete (a variety of parasitic, non-photosynthetic algae, and not a fungus).
In 1851, the Census of Ireland Commissioners recorded 24 failures of the potato crop going back to 1728, of varying severity. General crop failures, through disease or frost, were recorded in 1739, 1740, 1770, 1800, and 1807. In 1821 and 1822, the potato crop failed in Munster and Connaught. In 1830 and 1831, Mayo, Donegal, and Galway suffered likewise. In 1832, 1833, 1834, and 1836, dry rot and curl caused serious losses, and in 1835 the potato failed in Ulster. Widespread failures throughout Ireland occurred in 1836, 1837, 1839, 1841, and 1844. According to Woodham-Smith, "the unreliability of the potato was an accepted fact in Ireland."
How and when the blight Phytophthora infestans arrived in Europe is still uncertain; however, it almost certainly was not present prior to 1842, and probably arrived in 1844. The origin of the pathogen has been traced to Toluca Valley of Mexico, whence it spread first within North America and then to Europe. The 1845–46 blight was caused by the HERB-1 strain of the blight.
In 1844, Irish newspapers carried reports concerning a disease which for two years had attacked the potato crops in America. A likely source was the eastern United States, where in 1843 and 1844 blight largely destroyed the potato crops. Ships from Baltimore, Philadelphia, or New York City could have brought diseased potatoes to European ports. W. C. Paddock suggests that it was transported on potatoes being carried to feed passengers on clipper ships sailing from America to Ireland.
Once introduced, it spread rapidly. By mid-August 1845, it had reached much of northern and central Europe; Belgium, The Netherlands, northern France, and southern England had all been stricken.
On 16 August 1845, The Gardeners' Chronicle and Horticultural Gazette reported "a blight of unusual character" in the Isle of Wight. A week later, on 23 August, it reported that "A fearful malady has broken out among the potato crop ... In Belgium the fields are said to be completely desolated. There is hardly a sound sample in Covent Garden market ... As for cure for this distemper, there is none." These reports were extensively covered in Irish newspapers. On 11 September, the Freeman's Journal reported on "the appearance of what is called 'cholera' in potatoes in Ireland, especially in the north." On 13 September, The Gardeners' Chronicle announced: "We stop the Press with very great regret to announce that the potato Murrain has unequivocally declared itself in Ireland." Nevertheless, the British government remained optimistic over the next few weeks, as it received conflicting reports. Only when the crop was lifted in October did the scale of destruction become apparent. Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel wrote to Sir James Graham in mid-October that he found the reports "very alarming", but reminded him that there was, according to Woodham-Smith, "always a tendency to exaggeration in Irish news".
Crop loss in 1845 has been estimated at anywhere from one third to as high as one half of cultivated acreage. The Mansion House Committee in Dublin, to which hundreds of letters were directed from all over Ireland, claimed on 19 November 1845 to have ascertained beyond the shadow of doubt that "considerably more than one-third of the entire of the potato crop... has been already destroyed".
In 1846, three-quarters of the harvest was lost to blight. By December, a third of a million destitute people were employed in public works. According to Cormac Ó Gráda, the first attack of potato blight caused considerable hardship in rural Ireland, from the autumn of 1846, when the first deaths from starvation were recorded. Seed potatoes were scarce in 1847. Little had been sown, so, despite average yields, hunger continued. 1848 yields would be only two-thirds of normal. Since over three million Irish people were totally dependent on potatoes for food, hunger and famine were inevitable.
The Corporation of Dublin sent a memorial to the Queen, "praying her" to call Parliament together early (Parliament was at this time prorogued), and to recommend the requisition of some public money for public works, especially railways in Ireland. The Town Council of Belfast met and made similar suggestions, but neither body asked for charity, according to John Mitchel, one of the leading Repealers. "They demanded that, if Ireland was indeed an Integral part of the realm, the common exchequer of both islands should be used—not to give alms, but to provide employment on public works of general utility." It was Mitchel's opinion that "if Yorkshire and Lancashire had sustained a like calamity in England, there is no doubt such measures as these would have been taken, promptly and liberally."
In early November 1845, a deputation from the citizens of Dublin, including the Duke of Leinster, Lord Cloncurry, Daniel O'Connell, and the Lord Mayor, went to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Lord Heytesbury, to offer suggestions, such as opening the ports to foreign corn, stopping distillation from grain, prohibiting the export of foodstuffs, and providing employment through public works. Lord Heytesbury told them not to be alarmed, that they "were premature", that scientists were enquiring into all those matters, and that the Inspectors of Constabulary and Stipendiary Magistrates were charged with making constant reports from their districts; and there was no "immediate pressure on the market".
On 8 December 1845, Daniel O'Connell, in the Repeal Association, proposed several remedies to the pending disaster. One of the first things he suggested was the introduction of "Tenant-Right" as practised in Ulster, giving the landlord a fair rent for his land, but giving the tenant compensation for any money he might have laid out on the land in permanent improvements. O'Connell then pointed out the means used by the Belgian legislature during the same season: shutting their ports against the export of provisions, but opening them to imports. He suggested that, if Ireland had a domestic Parliament, the ports would be thrown open and the abundant crops raised in Ireland would be kept for the people of Ireland. O'Connell maintained that only an Irish parliament would provide for the people both food and employment, saying that a repeal of the Act of Union was a necessity and Ireland's only hope.
Mitchel raised the issue of the "Potato Disease" in Ireland as early as 1844 in The Nation, noting how powerful an agent hunger had been in certain revolutions. On 14 February 1846, he put forward his views on "the wretched way in which the famine was being trifled with", and asked whether the Government still did not have any conception that there might be soon "millions of human beings in Ireland having nothing to eat."
On 28 February, writing on the Coercion Bill which was then going through the House of Lords, he noted that this was the only kind of legislation that was sure to meet with no obstruction in the British House of Commons. His view was that, however the government may differ about feeding the Irish people, "they agree most cordially in the policy of taxing, prosecuting and ruining them" (as it happened, the bill was subsequently defeated, and Peel's government fell).
In an article on "English Rule" on 7 March, Mitchel wrote that the Irish People were "expecting famine day by day", and that they attributed it collectively not to "the rule of heaven as to the greedy and cruel policy of England." He continued in the same article that the people "believe that the season as they roll are but ministers of England's rapacity; that their starving children cannot sit down to their scanty meal but they see the harpy claw of England in their dish." He wrote that the people watched as their "food melting in rottenness off the face of the earth", all the while watching "heavy-laden ships, freighted with the yellow corn their own hands have sown and reaped, spreading all sail for England."
Mitchel later wrote one of the first widely circulated tracts on the famine, The Last Conquest of Ireland (Perhaps), in 1861. It established the widespread view that the treatment of the famine by the British was a deliberate murder of the Irish, and it contained the famous phrase: "The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the Famine."
Mitchel was charged with sedition because of his writings, but this charge was dropped and he was convicted by a packed jury under the newly enacted Treason Felony Act and sentenced to 14 years transportation to Bermuda.
According to Charles Gavan Duffy, The Nation insisted that the one remedy was that which the rest of Europe had adopted, which even the parliaments of the Pale had adopted in periods of distress, which was to retain in the country the food raised by her people till the people were fed.
Ireland at this time was, according to the Act of Union of 1801, an integral part of the British imperial homeland, "the richest empire on the globe", and was "the most fertile portion of that empire", in addition; Ireland was sheltered by both "Habeas corpus and trial by jury". Despite this, Ireland's elected representatives seemed powerless to act on the country's behalf as Members of the British Parliament. Commenting on this at the time, Mitchel wrote: "That an island which is said to be an integral part of the richest empire on the globe ... should in five years lose two and a half millions of its people (more than one fourth) by hunger, and fever the consequence of hunger, and flight beyond sea to escape from hunger ..." The period of the potato blight in Ireland from 1845 to 1851 was full of political confrontation. A more radical Young Ireland group seceded from the Repeal movement in July 1846, and attempted an armed rebellion in 1848. It was unsuccessful.
In 1847, William Smith O'Brien, the leader of the Young Ireland party, became one of the founding members of the Irish Confederation to campaign for a Repeal of the Act of Union, and called for the export of grain to be stopped and the ports closed. The following year, he organised the resistance of landless farmers in County Tipperary against the landowners and their agents.
Historian F. S. L. Lyons characterised the initial response of the British government to the early less severe phase of the famine as "prompt and relatively successful". Confronted by widespread crop failure in November 1845, Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel purchased £100,000 worth of maize and cornmeal secretly from America with Baring Brothers initially acting as his agents. The government hoped that they would not "stifle private enterprise" and that their actions would not act as a disincentive to local relief efforts. Due to poor weather conditions, the first shipment did not arrive in Ireland until the beginning of February 1846. The initial shipments were of unground dried kernels, but the few Irish mills in operation were not equipped for milling maize and a long and complicated milling process had to be adopted before the meal could be distributed. In addition, before the cornmeal could be consumed, it had to be "very much" cooked again, or eating it could result in severe bowel complaints. Because of its yellow colour, and initial unpopularity, it became known as "Peel's brimstone".
In October 1845, Peel moved to repeal the Corn Laws—tariffs on grain which kept the price of bread artificially high—but the issue split his party and he had insufficient support from his own colleagues to push the measure through. He resigned the premiership in December, but the opposition was unable to form a government and he was re-appointed. In March, Peel set up a programme of public works in Ireland, but the famine situation worsened during 1846, and the repeal of the Corn Laws in that year did little to help the starving Irish; the measure split the Conservative Party, leading to the fall of Peel's ministry. On 25 June, the second reading of the government's Irish Coercion Bill was defeated by 73 votes in the House of Commons by a combination of Whigs, Radicals, Irish Repealers, and protectionist Conservatives. Peel was forced to resign as prime minister on 29 June, and the Whig leader, Lord John Russell, assumed the seals of office.
The measures undertaken by Peel's successor, Russell, proved comparatively inadequate as the crisis deepened. The new Whig administration, influenced by the doctrine of laissez-faire, believed that the market would provide the food needed, and they refused to intervene against food exports to England, then halted the previous government's food and relief works, leaving many hundreds of thousands of people without any work, money, or food. Russell's ministry introduced a new programme of public works that by the end of December 1846 employed some half million Irish and proved impossible to administer. Charles Trevelyan, who was in charge of the administration of government relief, limited the Government's food aid programme because of a firm belief in laissez-faire. He thought that "the judgement of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson". The Public Works were "strictly ordered" to be unproductive—that is, they would create no fund to repay their own expenses. Many hundreds of thousands of "feeble and starving men", according to Mitchel, were kept digging holes and breaking up roads, which was doing no service.
In January 1847, the government abandoned this policy, realising that it had failed, and turned to a mixture of "indoor" and "outdoor" direct relief; the former administered in workhouses through the Irish Poor Laws, the latter through soup kitchens. The costs of the Poor Law fell primarily on the local landlords, who in turn attempted to reduce their liability by evicting their tenants, a practice that was facilitated by the "Cheap Ejectment Acts". In June 1847 The Poor Law Amendment Act was passed which embodied the principle, popular in Britain, that Irish property must support Irish poverty. The landed proprietors in Ireland were held in Britain to have created the conditions that led to the famine. However, it was asserted that the British parliament since the Act of Union of 1800 was partly to blame. This point was raised in The Illustrated London News on 13 February 1847: "There was no law it would not pass at their request, and no abuse it would not defend for them." On 24 March, The Times reported that Britain had permitted in Ireland "a mass of poverty, disaffection, and degradation without a parallel in the world. It allowed proprietors to suck the very life-blood of that wretched race."
The "Gregory clause" of the Poor Law, named after William H. Gregory, M.P., prohibited anyone who held at least 1⁄4 of an acre from receiving relief. In practice, this meant that, if a farmer, having sold all his produce to pay rent and taxes, should be reduced, as many thousands of them were, to applying for public outdoor relief, he would not get it until he had first delivered up all his land to the landlord. Of this Law, Mitchel wrote that "it is the able-bodied idler only who is to be fed—if he attempted to till but one rood of ground, he dies." This simple method of ejectment was called "passing paupers through the workhouse"—a man went in, a pauper came out. These factors combined to drive thousands of people off the land: 90,000 in 1849, and 104,000 in 1850.
Records show that Irish lands exported food even during the worst years of the Famine. When Ireland had experienced a famine in 1782–83, ports were closed to keep Irish-grown food in Ireland to feed the Irish. Local food prices promptly dropped. Merchants lobbied against the export ban, but government in the 1780s overrode their protests. No such export ban happened in the 1840s.
Throughout the entire period of the Famine, Ireland was exporting enormous quantities of food. In the magazine History Ireland (1997, issue 5, pp. 32–36), Christine Kinealy, a Great Hunger scholar, lecturer, and Drew University professor, relates her findings: Almost 4,000 vessels carried food from Ireland to the ports of Bristol, Glasgow, Liverpool, and London during 1847, when 400,000 Irish men, women, and children died of starvation and related diseases. She also writes that Irish exports of calves, livestock (except pigs), bacon, and ham actually increased during the Famine. This food was shipped under British military guard from the most famine-stricken parts of Ireland; Ballina, Ballyshannon, Bantry, Dingle, Killala, Kilrush, Limerick, Sligo, Tralee, and Westport. A wide variety of commodities left Ireland during 1847, including peas, beans, onions, rabbits, salmon, oysters, herring, lard, honey, tongues, animal skins, rags, shoes, soap, glue, and seed. The most shocking export figures concern butter. Butter was shipped in firkins, each one holding 9 imperial gallons; 41 litres. In the first nine months of 1847, 56,557 firkins (509,010 imperial gallons; 2,314,000 litres) were exported from Ireland to Bristol, and 34,852 firkins (313,670 imperial gallons; 1,426,000 litres) were shipped to Liverpool, which correlates with 822,681 imperial gallons (3,739,980 litres) of butter exported to England from Ireland during nine months of the worst year of the Famine. The problem in Ireland was not lack of food, which was plentiful, but the price of it, which was beyond the reach of the poor.
The historian Cecil Woodham-Smith wrote in The Great Hunger: Ireland 1845–1849 that no issue has provoked so much anger and embittered relations between England and Ireland "as the indisputable fact that huge quantities of food were exported from Ireland to England throughout the period when the people of Ireland were dying of starvation." John Ranelagh writes that Ireland remained a net exporter of food throughout most of the five-year famine. However, both Woodham-Smith and Cormac Ó Gráda write that, in addition to the maize imports, four times as much wheat was imported into Ireland at the height of the famine as exported.
William Smith O'Brien—speaking on the subject of charity in a speech to the Repeal Association in February 1845—applauded the fact that the universal sentiment on the subject of charity was that they would accept no English charity. He expressed the view that the resources of Ireland were still abundantly adequate to maintain the population, and that, until those resources had been utterly exhausted, he hoped that there was no one in "Ireland who will so degrade himself as to ask the aid of a subscription from England".
Mitchel wrote in his The Last Conquest of Ireland (Perhaps), on the same subject, that no one from Ireland ever asked for charity during this period, and that it was England who sought charity on Ireland's behalf, and, having received it, was also responsible for administering it. He suggested that it has been carefully inculcated by the British Press "that the moment Ireland fell into distress, she became an abject beggar at England's gate, and that she even craved alms from all mankind." He affirmed that in Ireland no one ever asked alms or favours of any kind from England or any other nation, but that it was England herself that begged for Ireland. He suggested that it was England that "sent 'round the hat over all the globe, asking a penny for the love of God to relieve the poor Irish", and, constituting herself the agent of all that charity, took all the profit of it.
Large sums of money were donated by charities; Calcutta is credited with making the first donation of £14,000. The money was raised by Irish soldiers serving there and Irish people employed by the East India Company. Pope Pius IX and Russian Tsar Alexander II sent funds and Queen Victoria donated £2,000. According to legend, Sultan Abdülmecid I offered to send £10,000 but was asked either by British diplomats or his own ministers to reduce it to £1,000 to avoid donating more than the Queen. U.S. President James K. Polk donated $50 and Congressman Abraham Lincoln donated $10.
In addition to the religious, non-religious organisations came to the assistance of famine victims. The British Relief Association was one such group. Founded on 1 January 1847 by Lionel de Rothschild, Abel Smith, and other prominent bankers and aristocrats, the Association raised money throughout England, America, and Australia; their funding drive was benefited by a "Queen's Letter", a letter from Queen Victoria appealing for money to relieve the distress in Ireland. With this initial letter, the Association raised £171,533. A second, somewhat less successful "Queen's Letter" was issued in late 1847. In total, the Association raised approximately £390,000 for Irish relief.
Private initiatives such as the Central Relief Committee of the Society of Friends (Quakers) attempted to fill the gap caused by the end of government relief, and eventually the government reinstated the relief works, although bureaucracy slowed the release of food supplies. Thousands of dollars were raised in the United States, including $170 collected from a group of Native American Choctaws in 1847. Judy Allen, editor of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma's newspaper Biskinik, wrote that "It had been just 16 years since the Choctaw people had experienced the Trail of Tears, and they had faced starvation ... It was an amazing gesture". To mark the 150th anniversary, eight Irish people retraced the Trail of Tears, and the donation was publicly commemorated by President Mary Robinson.
Landlords were responsible for paying the rates of every tenant whose yearly rent was £4 or less. Landlords whose land was crowded with poorer tenants were now faced with large bills. They began clearing the poor tenants from their small plots, and letting the land in larger plots for over £4 which then reduced their debts. In 1846, there had been some clearances, but the great mass of evictions came in 1847. According to James S. Donnelly, Jr., it is impossible to be sure how many people were evicted during the years of the famine and its immediate aftermath. It was only in 1849 that the police began to keep a count, and they recorded a total of almost 250,000 persons as officially evicted between 1849 and 1854.
Donnelly considered this to be an underestimate, and if the figures were to include the number pressured into "voluntary" surrenders during the whole period (1846–1854), the figure would almost certainly exceed half a million persons. While Helen Litton says there were also thousands of "voluntary" surrenders, she notes also that there was "precious little voluntary about them". In some cases, tenants were persuaded to accept a small sum of money to leave their homes, "cheated into believing the workhouse would take them in."
West Clare was one of the worst areas for evictions, where landlords turned thousands of families out and demolished their derisory cabins. Captain Kennedy in April 1848 estimated that 1,000 houses, with an average of six people to each, had been levelled since November. The Mahon family of Strokestown House evicted 3,000 people in 1847, and were still able to dine on lobster soup.
After Clare, the worst area for evictions was County Mayo, accounting for 10% of all evictions between 1849 and 1854. The Earl of Lucan, who owned over 60,000 acres (240 km2), was among the worst evicting landlords. He was quoted as saying that "he would not breed paupers to pay priests". Having turned out in the parish of Ballinrobe over 2,000 tenants alone, he then used the cleared land as grazing farms. In 1848, the Marquis of Sligo owed £1,650 to Westport Union; he was also an evicting landlord, though he claimed to be selective, saying that he was only getting rid of the idle and dishonest. Altogether, he cleared about 25% of his tenants.
In 1847, Bishop of Meath, Thomas Nulty, described his personal recollection of the evictions in a pastoral letter to his clergy:
Seven hundred human beings were driven from their homes in one day and set adrift on the world, to gratify the caprice of one who, before God and man, probably deserved less consideration than the last and least of them... The horrid scenes I then witnessed, I must remember all my life long. The wailing of women – the screams, the terror, the consternation of children – the speechless agony of honest industrious men – wrung tears of grief from all who saw them. I saw officers and men of a large police force, who were obliged to attend on the occasion, cry like children at beholding the cruel sufferings of the very people whom they would be obliged to butcher had they offered the least resistance. The landed proprietors in a circle all around – and for many miles in every direction – warned their tenantry, with threats of their direct vengeance, against the humanity of extending to any of them the hospitality of a single night's shelter... and in little more than three years, nearly a fourth of them lay quietly in their graves.
According to Litton, evictions might have taken place earlier but for fear of the secret societies. However, they were now greatly weakened by the Famine. Revenge still occasionally took place, with seven landlords being shot, six fatally, during the autumn and winter of 1847. Ten other occupiers of land, though without tenants, were also murdered, she says.
Lord Clarendon, alarmed that this might mean rebellion, asked for special powers. Lord John Russell was not sympathetic to this appeal. Lord Clarendon believed that the landlords themselves were mostly responsible for the tragedy in the first place, saying that "It is quite true that landlords in England would not like to be shot like hares and partridges...but neither does any landlord in England turn out fifty persons at once and burn their houses over their heads, giving them no provision for the future." The Crime and Outrage Act was passed in December 1847 as a compromise, and additional troops were sent to Ireland.
The notorious "Gregory clause", described by Donnelly as a "vicious amendment to the Irish poor law", had been a successful Tory amendment to the Whig poor-relief bill which became law in early June 1847, where its potential as an estate-clearing device was widely recognised in parliament, though not in advance. At first, the poor law commissioners and inspectors viewed the clause as a valuable instrument for a more cost-effective administration of public relief, but the drawbacks soon became apparent, even from an administrative perspective. They would soon view them as little more than murderous from a humanitarian perspective. According to Donnelly, it became obvious that the quarter-acre clause was "indirectly a death-dealing instrument".
While the famine was responsible for a significant increase in emigration from Ireland, of anywhere from 45% to nearly 85% depending on the year and the county, it was not the sole cause. The beginning of mass emigration from Ireland can be traced to the middle of the 18th century, when some 250,000 people left Ireland over a period of 50 years to settle in the New World. From the defeat of Napoleon to the beginning of the famine, a period of 30 years, "at least 1,000,000 and possibly 1,500,000 emigrated". However, during the worst of the famine, emigration reached somewhere around 250,000 in one year alone, with far more emigrants leaving from western Ireland than any other part.
Families did not migrate en masse, but younger members of families did, so much so that emigration almost became a rite of passage, as evidenced by the data that show that, unlike similar emigration throughout world history, women emigrated just as often, just as early, and in the same numbers as men. The emigrant started a new life in a new land, sent remittances "[reaching] £1,404,000 by 1851" back to his/her family in Ireland which, in turn, allowed another member of the family to emigrate.
Emigration during the famine years of 1845–1850 was to England, Scotland, South Wales, North America, and Australia. By 1851, about a quarter of Liverpool's population was Irish-born. Many of those fleeing to the Americas used the well-established McCorkell Line.
Of the more than 100,000 Irish that sailed to Canada in 1847, an estimated one out of five died from disease and malnutrition, including over 5,000 at Grosse Isle, Quebec, an island in the Saint Lawrence River used to quarantine ships near Quebec City. Overcrowded, poorly maintained, and badly provisioned vessels, known as coffin ships, sailed from small, unregulated harbours in the West of Ireland in contravention of British safety requirements, and mortality rates were high. The 1851 census reported that more than half the inhabitants of Toronto were Irish, and, in 1847 alone, 38,000 famine Irish flooded a city with fewer than 20,000 citizens. Other Canadian cities such as Saint John, Quebec City, Montreal, Ottawa, Kingston, and Hamilton also received large numbers since Canada, as part of the British Empire, could not close its ports to Irish ships (unlike the US), and the emigrants could get passage cheaply (or free in the case of tenant evictions) in returning empty lumber holds. However, fearing nationalist insurgencies, the British government placed harsh restrictions on Irish immigration to Canada after 1847, resulting in larger influxes to the US.
In America, most Irish became city-dwellers; with little money, many had to settle in the cities that the ships they came on landed in. By 1850, the Irish made up a quarter of the population in Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. In addition, Irish populations became prevalent in some American mining communities.
The famine marked the beginning of the depopulation of Ireland in the 19th century. Population had increased by 13–14% in the first three decades of the 19th century; between 1831 and 1841, population grew by 5%. Application of Thomas Malthus's idea of population expanding geometrically while resources increase arithmetically was popular during the famines of 1817 and 1822. By the 1830s, they were seen as overly simplistic, and Ireland's problems were seen "less as an excess of population than as a lack of capital investment." The population of Ireland was increasing no faster than that of England, which suffered no equivalent catastrophe. By 1854, between 1.5 and 2 million Irish left their country due to evictions, starvation, and harsh living conditions.
It is not known exactly how many people died during the period of the famine, although it is believed that more died from diseases than from starvation. State registration of births, marriages, or deaths had not yet begun, and records kept by the Roman Catholic Church are incomplete. One possible estimate has been reached by comparing the expected population with the eventual numbers in the 1850s. A census taken in 1841 recorded a population of 8,175,124. A census immediately after the famine in 1851 counted 6,552,385, a drop of over 1.5 million in 10 years. The census commissioners estimated that at the normal rate of increase the population in 1851 should have been just over 9 million.
In 1851, the census commissioners collected information on the number who died in each family since 1841, and the cause, season, and year of death. They recorded 21,770 total deaths from starvation in the previous decade, and 400,720 deaths from disease. Listed diseases were fever, dysentery, cholera, smallpox, and influenza, with the first two being the main killers (222,021 and 93,232). The commissioners acknowledged that their figures were incomplete and that the true number of deaths was probably higher:
The greater the amount of destitution of mortality ... the less will be the amount of recorded deaths derived through any household form; – for not only were whole families swept away by disease ... but whole villages were effaced from off the land.
Later historians agree that the 1851 death tables "were flawed and probably under-estimated the level of mortality". The combination of institutional and figures provided by individuals gives "an incomplete and biased count" of fatalities during the famine. Cormac Ó Gráda, referencing the work of W. A. MacArthur, writes that specialists have long known that the Irish death tables were inaccurate. As a result, Ó Gráda says that the tables undercount the number of deaths, because information was gathered from surviving householders having to look back over the previous 10 years, and death and emigration had cleared away entire families, leaving few or no survivors to answer the census questions.
S. H. Cousens' estimate of 800,000 deaths relied heavily on retrospective information contained in the 1851 census and elsewhere, and is now regarded as too low. Modern historian Joseph Lee says "at least 800,000", and R. F. Foster estimates that "at least 775,000 died, mostly through disease, including cholera in the latter stages of the holocaust". He further notes that "a recent sophisticated computation estimates excess deaths from 1846 to 1851 as between 1,000,000 and 1,500,000 ... after a careful critique of this, other statisticians arrive at a figure of 1,000,000."
Joel Mokyr's estimates at an aggregated county level range from 1.1 million to 1.5 million deaths between 1846 and 1851. Mokyr produced two sets of data which contained an upper-bound and lower-bound estimate, which showed not much difference in regional patterns. The true figure is likely to lie between the two extremes of half and one and a half million, and the most widely accepted estimate is one million.
Detailed statistics of the population of Ireland since 1841 are available at Irish population analysis.
At least a million people are thought to have emigrated as a result of the famine. There were about 1 million long-distance emigrants between 1846 and 1851, mainly to North America. The total given in the 1851 census is 967,908. Short-distance emigrants, mainly to Britain, may have numbered 200,000 or more.
Another area of uncertainty lies in the descriptions of disease given by tenants as to the cause of their relatives' deaths. Though the 1851 census has been rightly criticised as underestimating the true extent of mortality, it does provide a framework for the medical history of the Great Famine. The diseases that badly affected the population fell into two categories: famine-induced diseases and diseases of nutritional deficiency. Of the nutritional deficiency diseases, the most commonly experienced were starvation and marasmus, as well as a condition at the time called dropsy. Dropsy (oedema) was a popular name given for the symptoms of several diseases, one of which, kwashiorkor, is associated with starvation. However, the greatest mortality was not from nutritional deficiency diseases, but from famine-induced ailments. The malnourished are very vulnerable to infections; therefore, these were more severe when they occurred. Measles, diarrhoea, tuberculosis, most respiratory infections, whooping cough, many intestinal parasites, and cholera were all strongly conditioned by nutritional status. Potentially lethal diseases, such as smallpox and influenza, were so virulent that their spread was independent of nutrition.
The best example of this phenomenon was fever, which exacted the greatest death toll. In the popular mind, as well as medical opinion, fever and famine were closely related. Social dislocation—the congregation of the hungry at soup kitchens, food depots, and overcrowded work houses—created conditions that were ideal for spreading infectious diseases such as typhus, typhoid, and relapsing fever. Diarrhoeal diseases were the result of poor hygiene, bad sanitation, and dietary changes. The concluding attack on a population incapacitated by famine was delivered by Asiatic cholera, which had visited Ireland briefly in the 1830s. In the following decade, it spread uncontrollably across Asia, through Europe, and into Britain, finally reaching Ireland in 1849.
Some scholars estimate that the population of Ireland was reduced by 20–25%. All of this occurred while taxes, rents, and food exports were being collected and sent to British landlords, in an amount surpassing £6 million.
The potato remained Ireland's staple crop after the famine; at the end of the 19th century, the Irish per capita consumption of four pounds a day was the highest in the world. Later famines had minimal effect and are generally forgotten, except by historians. By the 1911 census, the island of Ireland's population had fallen to 4.4 million, which was about the same as the population in 1800 and 2000, and only a half of its peak population. On the other hand, the population of England and Wales doubled from 16 million in 1841 to 32.5 million in 1901.
The Famine gave considerable impetus to the shift from Irish to English as the language of the majority. Those most gravely affected by the Famine were mostly in Irish-speaking districts, and those districts also supplied most of the emigrants. Awareness of the cultural loss provided a spur for Irish language activists in Ireland, Britain, America, and Australia, resulting in the foundation of such organisations as the Gaelic League.
Ireland's mean age of marriage in 1830 was 23.8 for women and 27.47 for men, where they had once been 21 for women and 25 for men, and those who never married numbered about 10% of the population; in 1840, they had respectively risen to 24.4 and 27.7; in the decades after the Famine, the age of marriage had risen to 28–29 for women and 33 for men, and as many as a third of Irishmen and a quarter of Irishwomen never married, due to low wages and chronic economic problems that discouraged early and universal marriage.
According to the linguist, Erick Falc'her-Poyroux, surprisingly, for a country renowned for its rich musical heritage, only a small number of folk songs can be traced back to the demographic and cultural catastrophe brought about by the Great Famine, and he infers from this that the subject was generally avoided for decades among poorer people as it brought back too many sorrowful memories. Also, large areas of the country became uninhabited and the folk song collectors of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries did not collect the songs they heard in the Irish language, as the language of the peasantry was often regarded as dead, or "not delicate enough for educated ears". Of the songs that have survived probably the best known is Skibbereen. However, emigration has been an important sources of inspiration for songs of the Irish during the 20th century. Since the 1970s a number of songs about the famine have been written and recorded, such as "The Fields of Athenry" by Pete St. John, "Famine" by Sinead O'Connor and "Thousands are Sailing" by the Pogues.
Contemporary opinion was sharply critical of the Russell government's response to and management of the crisis. From the start, there were accusations that the government failed to grasp the magnitude of the disaster. Sir James Graham, who had served as Home Secretary in Sir Robert Peel's late government, wrote to Peel that, in his opinion, "the real extent and magnitude of the Irish difficulty are underestimated by the Government, and cannot be met by measures within the strict rule of economical science."
This criticism was not confined to outside critics. The Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Lord Clarendon, wrote a letter to Russell on 26 April 1849, urging that the government propose additional relief measures: "I don't think there is another legislature in Europe that would disregard such suffering as now exists in the west of Ireland, or coldly persist in a policy of extermination." Also in 1849, the Chief Poor Law Commissioner, Edward Twisleton, resigned in protest over the Rate-in-Aid Act, which provided additional funds for the Poor Law through a 6p in the pound levy on all rateable properties in Ireland. Twisleton testified that "comparatively trifling sums were required for Britain to spare itself the deep disgrace of permitting its miserable fellow subjects to die of starvation." According to Peter Gray in his book The Irish Famine, the government spent £7 million for relief in Ireland between 1845 and 1850, "representing less than half of one percent of the British gross national product over five years. Contemporaries noted the sharp contrast with the £20 million compensation given to West Indian slave-owners in the 1830s."
Other critics maintained that, even after the government recognised the scope of the crisis, it failed to take sufficient steps to address it. John Mitchel, one of the leaders of the Young Ireland Movement, wrote in 1860:
I have called it an artificial famine: that is to say, it was a famine which desolated a rich and fertile island that produced every year abundance and superabundance to sustain all her people and many more. The English, indeed, call the famine a "dispensation of Providence;" and ascribe it entirely to the blight on potatoes. But potatoes failed in like manner all over Europe; yet there was no famine save in Ireland. The British account of the matter, then, is first, a fraud; second, a blasphemy. The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the famine.
Still other critics saw reflected in the government's response its attitude to the so-called "Irish Question". Nassau Senior, an economics professor at Oxford University, wrote that the Famine "would not kill more than one million people, and that would scarcely be enough to do any good." In 1848, Denis Shine Lawlor suggested that Russell was a student of the Elizabethan poet Edmund Spenser, who had calculated "how far English colonisation and English policy might be most effectively carried out by Irish starvation." Charles Trevelyan, the civil servant with most direct responsibility for the government's handling of the famine, described it in 1848 as "a direct stroke of an all-wise and all-merciful Providence", which laid bare "the deep and inveterate root of social evil"; he affirmed that the Famine was "the sharp but effectual remedy by which the cure is likely to be effected. God grant that the generation to which this opportunity has been offered may rightly perform its part..."
Christine Kinealy expresses the consensus of historians when she states that "the major tragedy of the Irish Famine of 1845–52 marked a watershed in modern Irish history. Its occurrence, however, was neither inevitable nor unavoidable." The underlying factors which combined to cause the famine were aggravated by an inadequate government response. As Kinealy notes:
[T]he government had to do something to help alleviate the suffering, the particular nature of the actual response, especially following 1846, suggests a more covert agenda and motivation. As the Famine progressed, it became apparent that the government was using its information not merely to help it formulate its relief policies, but also as an opportunity to facilitate various long-desired changes within Ireland. These included population control and the consolidation of property through various means, including emigration... Despite the overwhelming evidence of prolonged distress caused by successive years of potato blight, the underlying philosophy of the relief efforts was that they should be kept to a minimalist level; in fact they actually decreased as the Famine progressed.
Several writers single out the decision of the government to permit the continued export of food from Ireland as suggestive of the policy-makers' attitudes. Leon Uris suggested that "there was ample food within Ireland", while all the Irish-bred cattle were being shipped off to England. The following exchange appeared in Act IV of George Bernard Shaw's play Man and Superman:
MALONE. He will get over it all right enough. Men thrive better on disappointments in love than on disappointments in money. I daresay you think that sordid; but I know what I'm talking about. My father died of starvation in Ireland in the black 47, Maybe you've heard of it.
VIOLET. The Famine?
MALONE. [with smouldering passion] No, the starvation. When a country is full of food, and exporting it, there can be no famine. My father was starved dead; and I was starved out to America in my mother's arms. English rule drove me and mine out of Ireland. Well, you can keep Ireland. I and my like are coming back to buy England; and we'll buy the best of it. I want no middle class properties and no middle class women for Hector. That's straightforward isn't it, like yourself?
Some also pointed to the structure of the British Empire as a contributing factor. James Anthony Froude wrote that "England governed Ireland for what she deemed her own interest, making her calculations on the gross balance of her trade ledgers, and leaving moral obligations aside, as if right and wrong had been blotted out of the statute book of the Universe." Dennis Clark, an Irish-American historian and critic of empire, claimed that the famine was "the culmination of generations of neglect, misrule and repression. It was an epic of English colonial cruelty and inadequacy. For the landless cabin dwellers it meant emigration or extinction..."
The famine remains a controversial event in Irish history. Debate and discussion on the British government's response to the failure of the potato crop in Ireland, the exportation of food crops and livestock, the subsequent large-scale starvation, and whether or not this constituted genocide, remains a historically and politically charged issue.
In 1996, Francis A. Boyle, a law professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, wrote a report commissioned by the New York-based Irish Famine/Genocide Committee, which concluded that the British government deliberately pursued a race- and ethnicity-based policy aimed at destroying the group commonly known as the Irish people and that the policy of mass starvation amounted to genocide per the Hague convention of 1948. The US state of New Jersey in 1996 included the famine in the "Holocaust and Genocide Curriculum" at the secondary tier.
Journalist Peter Duffy writes that "The government's crime, which deserves to blacken its name forever", was rooted "in the effort to regenerate Ireland" through "landlord-engineered replacement of tillage plots with grazing lands" that "took precedence over the obligation to provide food ... for its starving citizens. It is little wonder that the policy looked to many people like genocide."
Several commentators have argued that the searing effect the famine has on Irish cultural memory creates effects similar to that of genocide, while maintaining that one did not occur. Robert Kee suggests that the Famine is seen as "comparable" in its force on "popular national consciousness to that of the 'final solution' on the Jews", and that it is not "infrequently" thought that the Famine was something very like "a form of genocide engineered by the English against the Irish people." This point was echoed by James S. Donnelly, Jr., a historian at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, who wrote in his work Landlord and Tenant in Nineteenth-century Ireland:
I would draw the following broad conclusion: at a fairly early stage of the Great Famine the government's abject failure to stop or even slow down the clearances (evictions) contributed in a major way to enshrining the idea of English state-sponsored genocide in Irish popular mind. Or perhaps one should say in the Irish mind, for this was a notion that appealed to many educated and discriminating men and women, and not only to the revolutionary minority...And it is also my contention that while genocide was not in fact committed, what happened during and as a result of the clearances had the look of genocide to a great many Irish...
Cormac Ó Gráda disagreed that the famine was genocide. He argues that "genocide includes murderous intent, and it must be said that not even the most bigoted and racist commentators of the day sought the extermination of the Irish", and also that most people in Whitehall "hoped for better times for Ireland". Additionally, he states that the claim of genocide overlooks "the enormous challenge facing relief agencies, both central and local, public and private". Ó Gráda thinks that a case of neglect is easier to sustain than that of genocide. Edward Lengel claims that views of the Irish as racially inferior, and for this reason significantly responsible for their circumstances, gained purchase in Great Britain during and immediately after the famine, especially through influential publications such as The Medical Times and The Times.
The Great Famine in Ireland has been compared to the Holodomor ("hunger plague") that took place in the Ukraine under Stalin in 1932, which has been the subject of similar controversy and debate.
The Great Famine is memorialised in many locations throughout Ireland, especially in those regions that suffered the greatest losses, and also in cities overseas with large populations descended from Irish immigrants. These include, at Custom House Quays, Dublin, the thin sculptural figures, by artist Rowan Gillespie, who are portrayed as if walking towards the emigration ships on the Dublin Quayside. There is also a large memorial at the Murrisk Millennium Peace Park at the foot of Croagh Patrick in County Mayo. Among the memorials in the US is the Irish Hunger Memorial near a section of the Manhattan waterfront in New York City, where many fleeing Irish arrived. An annual Great Famine walk from Doolough to Louisburgh, Co. Mayo—the brainchild of the Irish author/humanitarian Don Mullan—was inaugurated in 1988 and has been led by such notable personalities as Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa and the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. The walk, organised by Afri (Action From Ireland), takes place on the first or second Saturday of May, and links the memory of the Great Hunger with a contemporary Human Rights issue. Commemorating the Doolough Tragedy, the walk was covered by the three major US television networks (ABC, NBC and CBS) during its first three years.