Last-modified: 7 Oct 99
Part six of ten.
Frequently Asked Questions on soc.culture.irish with answers.
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1) Why is it important?
2) Why is it controversial?
3) What happened?
4) Why did so many people die?
5) Was the Famine genocide?
6) Any references?
7) Where can I find other points of view?
Subject: 1) Why is it important?
More Irish died in the Famine of 1845 to 1849 than in any war
before or since. The best estimates (based on census data
from 1841 and 1851, as well as other figures) are that around
one million people died, or one out of every nine inhabitants.
About one and a half million emigrated in the decade after 1845
(the peak was in 1851, when a quarter of a million people left
the island). The population continued to decline in Ireland
through emigration until well into the second half of this century
(it nearly halved between 1840 and 1910). Many say that the
west of the country never recovered.
The Famine hit one of the richest kingdoms of western Europe in
a time of peace. There have been food shortages since and even
starvation, but western Europe has not seen a large scale famine
Subject: 2) Why is it controversial?
Most of the controversy is over the question of blame. Those who
look for a simple answer usually settle on one of two targets:
the British government of the time or the Irish themselves.
The government is accused of genocide and even of instigating an
"Irish holocaust". The Irish are accused of marrying too early
and having too many children, making a Malthusian catastrophe
However the Famine is too complicated to allow a simple
apportionment of blame. There were a number of social and
political forces at work, not to mention the seed of the calamity,
the potato blight that robbed people of their food.
Subject: 3) What happened?
The potato crop failed two years in a row, 1845 and 1846.
There was a partial harvest in 1847 but there were failures again
in 1848 and 1849. The cause of the failures was potato blight
(phytophthora infestans) a fungus that attacked potatoes, making
them rotten and inedible.
There was hardship after the blight struck in 1845 but the true
famine did not come until the following year. More potatoes
than ever were planted that spring because people did not expect
the blight to strike again. It did. During the winter of 1846
the worst started to happen. People died of starvation in their
houses (or what passed for houses), in the fields, on the roads.
Dysentery and typhus became epidemic. Each took their toll,
especially among the very young and the old. Cholera hit in
1849 and killed many of the survivors. More people died of
disease than of starvation.
The hardest hit were the landless labourers who rented small plots
of land to feed themselves and their families. When their own
crops failed, they had to buy food with money they did not have.
The price of a hundredweight (112 lb or 50 kg) of potatoes in
Dublin more than doubled in eight months (from around 16d in
September 1845 to 3 shillings in April 1846, rising to more than
6 shillings by October). Wages did not keep pace. Some landlords
treated their tenants well, but most did not. Evictions were not
uncommon and tenants who were evicted were left without means to
The poor did not just accept their fate. There were food riots
and an upsurge in activity among secret societies. These were
dealt with as a threat to law and order by the usual method,
repression with violence if necessary. There was an epidemic
in crime as people stole to survive.
The prime minister, Peel, had £100 000 worth of Indian corn
imported from America for food relief in November 1845. This
was food not unfamiliar to the Irish, but it was unpopular.
A programme of public works was started in March 1846 to
employ the neediest. The works were to be paid for locally.
The harbour at Dun Laoghaire (then Kingstown) is a good example
of the type of scheme that was approved: it did not benefit any
particular private interest but was supposed to be of social
value. Unfortunately most of the schemes were of little value to
anyone and, although three quarters of a million were employed
on them by March 1847, they were paid a wage (about 12d a day)
too low to feed a family.
A traditional policy of Peel's party, the Tories, was support for
the Corn Laws, which restricted imports of grain. The failure
of the potato crop in Ireland helped convince Peel that this
protectionist policy was wrong. He moved to have them repealed.
In this he was successful. The Laws were repealed in June 1846
but Peel lost power immediately afterwards, having alienated
a large portion of his own party. The next prime minister was
Russell, leading a Whig minority government.
In March 1847 the government abandoned public works and started
a new scheme. Soup kitchens were opened, paid for by charity,
local rates and government aid. By July three million people were
being fed a day. It was probably the most successful (in terms
of lives saved) that was tried, but it was abandoned in September.
Instead, the Irish Poor Law System was supposed to cater for
the destitute. This System had been established in 1838 as an
extension of the English system in Ireland. The harsh conditions
in Poor Law houses were supposed to encourage self-reliance,
thrift and hard work. 200 000 were housed in July 1849 and
"outdoor relief" was given to a further 800 000. The system had
been built to house 100 000 and before the famine it rarely
housed more than 40 000. As a solution to the plight of the
famine-stricken, it was not only woefully inadequate; it was
horrific. The infamous "Gregory clause" denied even this much
relief to anyone who owned more than a quarter of an acre of land.
The blight struck again in 1850, but not to the same extent.
Hundreds of thousands of smallholdings had disappeared with the
people who lived on them. Many of the marginal plots that had
been in use were never cultivated again.
Subject: 4) Why did so many people die?
Ireland was uniquely vulnerable to a failure of the potato crop
in the 1840s. Potatoes had been imported to Ireland in the late
sixteenth century (they were brought to Europe from the Spanish
empire in America). By the nineteenth century, varieties adapted
to the Irish climate were developed and they became a staple,
particularly for the poor, who often lived off little else.
An adult male would eat 12 to 14 pounds (5 to 6 kg) a day.
If the amount seems large, it must be remembered that growing
potatoes was back-breaking work. Fields were dug with a spade;
planting and fertilisation were done by hand. An acre (about
0.4 hectare) could support four people, about twice as many
as the equivalent area of grain. With a supplement of milk or
buttermilk a diet like this did not lack any essential nutrients.
The population of Ireland was growing at around 1.6% a year in the
early nineteenth century (a rate that would cause it to double
every 44 years). This was one of the highest rates in Europe.
The rate fell drastically in the fifteen years before the Famine
to something like 0.6%. Population growth was highest in the
West, where small plots of intensively cultivated potatoes were
the most common. The population of Ireland reached its peak
just before the Famine.
Although the Irish poor may have been relatively healthy (there
was a notable lack of scurvy), they were still appallingly
poor. It was common for labourers to hunger in the late summer
before harvest. In 1841 there were more than a million of them.
Housing and clothing were poor: mud huts and rags were the norm
for the majority. Men lived to an average around 37 years of age,
(actually not a short lifespan by European standards of the time).
But most importantly, the Irish economy was ailing since the
end of the Napoleonic wars and the poor were getting poorer.
The Industrial Revolution never reached Ireland in the nineteenth
century (with the exception of eastern parts of Ulster).
Irish cottage industries could not compete against the new
mills of England. There was little opportunity for employment
outside of agriculture and agriculture did not pay well.
The potato blight was misunderstood or not understood at all.
People could see that it thrived in damp weather, but the
scientific committee of inquiry set up by Peel considered it a
type of wet rot. A fungicide for blight was not discovered until
1882, when it was found that spraying a solution of "bluestone"
(copper sulphate) prevented the disease from taking hold. At
the time of the famine there was nothing a farmer could do.
Medical science could do no better. There was no cure for
the common relapsing fevers, never mind typhus and cholera,
especially when these struck people already weak from hunger.
It would have taken massive government intervention to feed
everyone during the famine, probably more than any government
of the time was capable of. As it happened, the efforts of
the government were wholly inadequate, even by the standards
of the time. The Treasury spent £8 million, mostly in the form
of loans that were never repaid. This amounts to around two to
three percent of government spending during the period, or 0.3%
of GNP. It was easy for critics at the time to find more money
spent on other things, including £20 million to "compensate"
slave owners in the West Indies when their slaves were freed.
Subject: 5) Was the Famine genocide?
No. "Genocide" is defined in the Shorter Oxford as " the
(attempted) deliberate and systematic extermination of an ethnic
or national group".
British policy was anything but deliberate and systematic.
The government did not prevent extra food from being imported
(indeed the repeal of the Corn Laws had the opposite effect).
The government did not force exports to continue: Irish farmers
chose to export their produce. Of course, armed guards were
used to protect such private property.
Imports to Ireland rose and exports fell dramatically as a
result of a famine (see the table below, from Ó Gráda's book).
Grain exports and imports 1844-48 (in thousands of tons)
Exports Imports Net Export
------- ------- ----------
1844 424 30 +394
1845 513 28 +485
1846 284 197 +87
1847 146 889 -743
1848 314 439 -125
Quakers and other charitable societies were not prevented
from feeding the poor. On the contrary, private charities
were expected to provide most of the relief, as they had in
1822 and 1831, when subsistence crises had threatened to turn
into famine. One of the charities, the "British Association",
raised over £450 000 in Britain, including £2000 from Queen
Victoria, not the five pounds of legend. (Around one sixth
of the money raised was used to relieve famine in Scotland.)
(There is real doubt whether enough food was produced in
Ireland during the Famine to feed everyone [even assuming
perfect distribution]. A rough calculation shows that three
million extra acres of grain would have been needed to make
up the shortfall of potatoes. Theoretically, there was enough
acreage of grain to feed everyone if shared equally, but this
assumes, for example, that none of the grain would be needed
to feed the animals that would transport it.)
However, there is no doubt that the governments of the day
bear much of the blame for the number of deaths. There were
ideological reasons for refusing to intervene, but these had
little to do with anti-Irish animus (though that certainly
existed, as a look at some of the Punch cartoons at the time
proves) and much to with laissez-faire carried to its logical
The Whigs were strong believers in free trade and small
government. Adam Smith, the greatest economist of the last
century had written "the free exercise [of trade] is not only
the best palliative of the inconveniences of a dearth, but the
best preventative of that calamity". In a mixture of fatalism
and complacency, they trusted the free market to supply food to
the needy, or at least the most efficient distribution of what
food was available. Notoriously, Trevelyan, Assistant Secretary
to the Treasury and most responsible for British relief policy,
believed that the Famine was ordained by God as a Malthusian
measure to control population growth.
Russell's government can be justly accused of callousness,
miserliness, negligence, ignorance, slowness, fickleness,
complacency and fatalism. Unlike genocide, this does not amount
Subject: 6) Any references?
This part of the FAQ is mostly based on two books. The
first is a slim volume, a fairly impartial summary of recent
work on the subject. It's very strong on the economics but
does not neglect the social and political aspects.
Title: The Great Irish Famine
Author: Cormac Ó Gráda
The second is Roy Foster's book Modern Ireland (see part 6 of
the FAQ for publishing details) which contains a chapter on
Another book (recommended by Patrick Denny <denny@GFZ-Potsdam.DE>
in this newsgroup) with a more contemporary slant is
Title: The Great Irish Famine
Author: Canon John O'Rourke
Publisher: (Abridged reprint) Veritas Publications
ISBN: 1 85390 130 X (Hardback 1 85390 049 4)
Cecil Woodham-Smith's book remains one of the most comprehensive
accounts available, though later research casts doubt on some
of her conclusions.
Title: The Great Hunger
Author: Cecil Woodham-Smith
ISBN: 0 14 014515 X
Subject: 7) Where can I find other points of view?
There are various pages on the web which contend that the Famine was
Chris Fogarty has a comprehensive web site at
Whitewolf has some material from Chris Fogarty on his site at
Nancy Monaghan has a web site with a similar theme at
An organisation called the Irish Famine/Genocide Committee
has a web site at http://www.ifgc.org/ .
Gareth Davis has written a paper about the causes of the Famine and the
lessons that can be drawn from it. A draft is available at
Richard Lough has some statistical research and commentary at
Various links (including some primary sources) relating to the Famine can
be found at
End of Irish FAQ part 6