Apr 18, 2021

The Great Irish Potato Famine

The Great Famine, also known as the Irish Holocaust, was the worst famine to hit 19th century Europe. It occurred in Ireland from 1845 to 1849. The event left a permanent mark on English-Irish relations for years to come, and by the time the Irish gained Independence in 1921, the population was merely half of what it had been in the 1840s. In this article, we shall take a look at the causes of the famine and British inaction during the period. 

The Blight

The primary reason for the famine was the spreading of the late blight in the potato crop, a plant disease caused by the water mold Phytophthora infestans. Although it is unclear how the disease appeared in Ireland, it is suspected that a strain might have arrived from North America that went to ravage the Irish countryside. To fully understand why it was so hard to battle the blight we must look at the other factors that contributed to the problem. 

A glaring reason was the dependency on the potato. After the British took over Ireland, agricultural land was converted into pasture for the grazing of cattle to supply beef to the British elite. 

Since most of the fertile land was turned into pasture, the Irish turned to potatoes which could grow in large quantities even in the most unfavorable soils and contained enough starches and nutrients to sustain the average worker. Most Irish people grew only one kind of potato though, and that was the Irish lumper. The lack of genetic variability across the island meant that if any disease hit, everyone’s crops would suffer as it would just hop from patch to patch, not even needing to adapt to the new kinds of crops it encountered. 

The Government Response

The British government stayed positive over the situation for the next few weeks since the potato crop being unpredictable wasn't anything new. By October though, the destruction was obvious, with a third of the crop destroyed. The reports were alarming, but the officials still didn't believe in the full scale of the destruction. In their eyes, the Irish always exaggerated the news. The Irish members of the Parliament tried passing laws to soften the blow of the upcoming famine for the people; despite their efforts, British leaders didn’t deem those measures as necessary.

By the time the British Government intervened, it was too late, with half of the crops destroyed and millions suffering from starvation. In 1847, the Parliament voted to spend £8 million in relief efforts and organized soup kitchens for the poor. However, while the Irish received poor quality rations, they continued to export what was left of the potato, and high-quality grain and beef to Britain. The apathy of the British, towards the Irish, intensified the nationalistic sentiments gaining ground in different parts of the country. John Mitchel, an Irish nationalist, activist, and political journalist was one of the first ones who raised the issue of the blight as early as 1844. He pointed out how hunger and famine could play key roles in spurring people to revolution but unfortunately, the upcoming famine would leave the people too weak to try anything of this sort. One of his quotes resonated with the population, “While God sent the Blight to Ireland, it is the English who made the famine.” The fact is, throughout the famine, the Irish still exported food to Britain, which was taking tons of food from starving people who simply didn’t have enough to get by. 


Consequently, the population dropped from almost 8.4 million to 6.6 million by 1851 with a million dying from typhus and other famine-related illnesses. 

Emigration increased exponentially as 2 million moved out of the country. The young would move and send money back for their parents to leave as well. Most emigration spots were simply anywhere the ships could take them. Most popular of those were Scotland, Wales, Australia, and the port cities in the United States. The famine left a permanent mark on British Irish relations. A mark that could never be erased. Later during the Easter Rebellion and Irish nationalist movements, the famine was a reminder of how the British government could leave them stranded. It reminded them that they hadn't been treated as equals and were forced to starve at the expense of the British.

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