Sunday, 13 November 2011

An Irish Potato Famine Summary

The Irish Famine 1845

The Irish history of the Great Irish Famine 1845 is a tragic one and the many graveyards located all over Ireland today, are a constant reminder of the true horrors of famine.  Known in Irish as An Gorta Mor, the famine of 1845-1849 was by far the worst ever to hit Ireland.  Many people believe that it was the failure of the potato crop that caused the Great Famine, but in fact it was the underlying pitiful poverty of almost half the population that was the real cause.

Such was the poverty that many thousands of peasant people relied almost entirely on the potato for their daily food.  The potato along with the addition of some milk provided the entire diet of a typical Irish peasant. This reliance on the potato was exclusive to Ireland and would not be found in the rest of Europe.

Understanding The Dependence of the Potato Crop

A typical male labourer in Ireland would typically consume around 12 pounds of potatoes every single day. The vast majority of families lived in mud cabins, the large proportion having either one or two rooms.  At this time the population of Ireland was close to 9 million and almost half the population lived in abject misery and poverty.

In the 100 years leading up to the famine the population had risen rapidly from just under 3 million to just under 9 million.  The exact reason for this population explosion has been often discussed but the reasons vary as to how it came about.  The general opinion is that as the peasant started to reclaim and work waste and bog lands, where little or no rent was charged, and then families were able to settle and grow.

The potato came to Ireland in the 16th Century and grew in popularity as it was a bountiful crop and also ideally suited to the climate in Ireland.  However a fungal blight (phytophhora infestans) first appeared in 1845 and affected over half of the crop.

This blight had also happened across Northern Europe though did not have the same impact as happened in Ireland.  The blight displayed itself as a fungus and could be transmitted by both wind and rain, both plentiful in Ireland.  In 1846 there was a total crop failure, and for those who depended completely on this crop, it was a catastrophic disaster.

Irish Work Houses and Soup Kitchens

The workhouses already packed to capacity could not cope with the many people who turned up to be fed, and soup kitchens were set up by local relief teams from various religious organisations, like The Quakers. Some of these however were known to have demanded that Catholics change their religion to Protestant before they could receive any aid.  The government of the day, who lacked any charitable thoughts, set up public work’s schemes where those in need of aid could earn money working on the roads and other public improvements.

The majority of landlords, mostly absentees, cared little about the plight of these starving people and merely wanted their rent paid.  The population at that time in Ireland had reached nine million.  Farmers who were deeply impoverished had naturally been drawn to the campaigns against tithe taxes, the Act of Union and Catholic Emancipation.  Daniel O’Connell had enjoyed some success but in truth it was too little to late.

By 1847 over three million people a day took advantage of the soup kitchens and in the same year 100,000 left for Canada and close to one million people were in workhouses.  By the time 1900 came around the population had dropped to five million as four million people had either left the country or died of disease or starvation.

Irish Emigration

Large numbers of Irish set up in the United States of America, Canada, Liverpool and Glasgow.  The coffin ships as they became known were usually overcrowded, barely seaworthy, and the passengers treated more like cargo than human beings.  For those ships that did arrive like The Looshtauk, they delivered a bunch of people who were disease ridden, half starved or dead.

In 1848, the Young Irelanders attempted yet another uprising but they tried to engage a people still devestated from the famine, and that along with the usual informer problem, meant it was easily defeated.  Leaders such as William Smith O’Brien were transported to Tasmania (Van Diemen’s Land) and others were sent to jail.

I would now recommend that you read about the Easter Rising 1916