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The Great Irish Famine and Factors that contributed to its Intensity

Hausarbeit (Hauptseminar) 2010 26 Seiten

Anglistik - Kultur und Landeskunde


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2 Chronological Overview

3 Influencing Factors
3.1 Demographic Factor
3.2 The use of the Potato.
3.3 The Poverty Relief System.

4. Government Action
4.1 Government Action under Prime Minister Robert Peel
4.1.1 Immediate Measures
4.1.2 The Repeal of the Corn Laws
4.1.3 The Relief Commission and the Board of Works.
4.1.4 Public Works
4.2 Government Action under Prime Minister John Russell
4.2.1 The Blight Returns
4.2.2 Public Works
4.2.3 Soup Kitchens
4.2.4 Workhouses

5 Conclusion

6.. Bibliography

1. Introduction

In history there are several examples of famines that demanded more lives as the Great Irish Famine.[1] The famine in human history which cost most lives was probab­ly the Great Chinese Famine during Mao's “Great Leap Forward”, killing about 20 to 40 million people.

Also in Ireland itself, other great famines occurred.[2] It is possible that a famine in 1740-1741 killed a bigger part of the population than the Great Famine of the 1840s.[3] The Great Famine has found more attention than these earlier famines.[4] Ó Gráda gives reasons for this: The Famine is popular as a case study in the field of demo­graphics.[5] It is seen here as a result of a quick population growth.[6] Another reason is the fact that the Famine became central in the nationalistically biased variation of Irish history.[7] It is often emphasized that the British government did not provide adequate help.[8] We must bear in mind that Ireland was part of the most industrialised and maybe richest nation of its time, Great Britain.[9] A third reason is seen in the lateness of the Great Famine.[10] By 1600 famines had disappeared in England and by 1700 also in most parts of Scotland.[11]

The Great Irish Famine was by far the most important reason for the massive Irish emigration in the years from 1845 to 1855. More than 2.1 million people emigrated from Ireland of which almost 1.5 million immigrated to the United States.[12] The aim of this paper is to find out which factors contributed most to the intensity of the Famine and to evaluate the measures of the two governments that had to deal with the Great Famine.

Firstly, a chronological overview is given. After this, several influencing factors like the pre-Famine situation in Ireland or government measures will be reviewed and evaluated.

2. Chronological Overview

The fungus phythophtera infestans reached Ireland in the last quarter of 1845.[13] Approximately one third of the potato crop was destroyed that year.[14] Prime Minister Robert Peel reacted quickly and in November 1845 foodstuffs worth 100,000 £ were ordered.[15] Peels decision and Ireland's ability to endure one years shortage were the reasons that only a few people died because of that years crop failure.[16] In 1846 the potato cultivation was still very high.[17] While the plots still looked “like flower gar­dens” in early summer, the plants soon started to look and smell bad.[18] Usually, a potato field of a size of one acre would give up to seven tons of crops.[19] A police report from that time speaks of an average per acre production of not even half a ton.[20] The harvest of 1846 was a mere 20 percent of the level prior to the Famine.[21] As a result, the prices for all varieties of potatoes exploded.[22] The variety Lumper for instance was traded for 6 shillings per 50 kilos in the fall of 1846 while its price in 1845 was only 1 shilling 4 pence.[23] The average daily wage in the agricultural sector was now not enough to pay for even one man's food, not to speak of his family.[24] John Russell, the new Prime Minister, did not take immediate action,[25] but rather followed a policy that Ó Gráda describes as “one of wait and see”.[26] In the winter of 1846 and the following spring the dearth was worst,[27] the death toll was mounting.[28] Food riots and protests were happening in the beginning but they abated when anger and hope turned into desperation.[29] Crime rates were now three times higher than be­fore the Great Famine.[30] The character of crime changed: There where now far more cases of sheep and cattle stealing as well as robberies and burglaries.[31]

Policy initiatives started and included for example public works and soup kitchens.[32] In chapter 4 the initiatives and their effects are described and discussed.

In 1847 the potato blight waned but people had lost confidence in the plant and had therefore planted only very few potatoes.[33] This is why that years harvest was only about a tenth of the amount that was reaped in the year before the Famine.[34] Millions of meals were given out by soup kitchens in the summer of 1847.[35] In June 1847 the Irish Poor Law Extension Act was enacted which meant that the costs of the famine relief now had to be paid for by Irish taxpayers.[36] Households which held more than about a tenth of a hectare were not eligible for public relief.[37] The last of the govern­ment run soup kitchens closed by the end of September 1847.[38] The relative absence of the blight in 1847 helped to bring the faith in potatoes back to life again.[39] In 1848 the acreage on which potatoes where planted was about three times higher than in 1847.[40] Potatoes were sown to an extend that other crops were excluded.[41] Unfortunately, the potato blight returned with all its strength in the Au­gust of 1848 and caused a crop failure that came close to that of 1846.[42] The yields per acre were only about half as good as those in 1847 and the production of potatoes about the same as 1846.[43] The potato harvests of 1849 and the early 1850s were all less than half the level of 1844.[44] Until 1850 or even 1851 the consecutive bad harvests caused the loss of additional lives.[45]

3. Influencing Factors

The potato blight, caused by the fungus phythophtera infestans, could not have been avoided.[46] However, several factors can be made responsible for the magnitude of the Great Famine. The first of this factors which will be examined is the situation in Ireland before 1845.

3.1 Demographic Factor

One of the most often stressed points in examining the pre-Famine context is the strong population growth in the decades before the Great Famine.[47] When the population growth rates of several European countries are compared, it becomes clear why.[48] In the years from 1700 to 1845 Ireland had one of the highest growth rates in Europe.[49] Only England, Hungary and Finland came close to Ireland's growth.[50] In 1750 about 2 million people were living in Ireland.[51] The total number of inhabitants had reached about 5 million in 1800, kept growing and reached a high point in 1845 with about 8.5 million people.[52]

While an annual growth rate of more than 1 percent can be considered rapid for pre­industrial societies, Ireland showed one of 1.5 percent or even more during the years from 1753 to 1791 and one of 1.4 to 1.6 percent for the period from 1791 to 1821.[53] The numbers are even more astonishing when we bear in mind that about 1.5 million people left Ireland for North America or Britain in the years from 1815 to 1845.[54]

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Estimates ofthe Population oflreland, 1712-1951. Source: Kennedy (2004),p.565.

This outflow also contributed to the lowered growth rate of 0.6 percent from 1830 to 1845.[55] The reasons for the strong population growth are seen primarily in an in­creased fertility and not so much in a decrease in mortality.[56] In his classic work, The Pop-ulation of Ireland, 1750-1845, Connell claims that before the Famine, Irish married at a much younger age than contemporary Europeans.[57] Connell's account however is flawed.[58] The census of 1841 shows that the mean age at marriage in Ireland was comparable to other European countries.[59] In the later part of the 18th century the average age at marriage was presumably lower and had just climbed in the decades prior to the Great Famine.[60] Also, almost all the Irish eventually got married:[61] In 1841 only 12 percent of older women and 10 percent of older men were not married.[62] Kennedy supposes that these numbers also reflect the situation of earlier decades.[63]

One major reason for the higher fertility was the increased use of the potato. Details of its use are given in the next chapter.

3.2 The use of the Potato

The plant, which came to Ireland around 1590,[64] was first used as supplementary food.[65] It is often emphasized that in the first hundred years of its cultivation in Ireland the potato helped to reduce the likeliness of famines.[66] In a country relying mainly on grain, an additional food helped to spread the risk of crop failures.[67] The potato “[...] was at least twice as economical in its use of land as other food sources such as oats or wheat [...]’’ in terms of the production of a certain amount of calories.[68] At around 1750, the potato had become the main food for six to nine months of the year for the poorer people.[69] The higher use of potatoes made a higher
population density possible.[70] Cullen however argue-d that the increased potato cultivation was not the driving engine for population growth but a delayed response to the growing population.[71]

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Allocation of the potato crop,c. 1845.Source: Ó Gráda (1995),p.18.

Potatoes could be grown on poorer soils and consequently they were also cultivated on mountainsides and marshland.[72] People settled on former unused land, a process described by Kennedy as an “[...] internal colonization of the countryside”.[73] Great care was taken in farming the potato ground.[74] Manure and lime were added generously,[75] and additionally sea-sand was brought in even if it had to be transported for longer distances.[76] As a result, the yields were high.[77] As mentioned above, the potato helped to reduce the likeliness of famines in the beginning.[78] Over time, this changed and the potato became the main element in the diet of poorer people. Around 1845 these people were almost exclusively dependent on the potato.[79] Prior to the beginning of the Great Famine, about 3 or even 4 million people mainly lived on potatoes and the area under potato cultivation had reached probably more than 2 million acres or, in other words, a third of all cultivated land.[80] Even though about half of the yearly potato crop was fed to animals and could be used as buffer in times of shortages,[81] the strong dependence on the potato meant that millions of people were at risk.

The risk of crop failures could have been reduced by cultivating a wider range of varieties.[82] However, prior to the Famine only about three or four varieties were planted.[83] By 1845 the Lumper was the most often cultivated variety;[84] it produced a good crop on poor soil.[85] Even though it did well before the Great Famine,[86] it proved to be highly vulnerable to potato blight in 1845.[87] To it's defence Ó Gráda points out that all of the cultivated late varieties were affected by the blight and that the Lumper performed well in experiments concerning its reliability.[88]

3.3 The Poverty Relief System

About five decades before the famine the landless poor became more impoverished.[89] In the 1830s a commission stated that every year about 2,500,000 people were in a condition of semi-starvation, no matter the potato harvest failed or not.[90] But even though poverty was such a common thing in Ireland a poor law system was not established before 1838.[91] This system divided the island into numerous poor law un­ions.[92] In every union a board of guardians was to be elected and a workhouse to be build.[93]

It is interesting to note that prior to the introduction of the workhouse system in Ireland, commissioners of the Irish Poor Inquiry argued against this solution and suggested investment as well as public involvement instead.[94] The British govern­ment rejected these ideas and sent off George Nicholls to Ireland, who was known to be in favour of introducing the workhouse system.[95] The government did so on behalf ofhis report.[96]

By 1843 the workhouses were operating basically everywhere in Ireland,[97] the last one of the 130 that had been planned was finished in 1845.[98] The poor law that was introduced was in total accord with the economic theory of the time." It was a rigid system that in no case allowed that assistance was given to anyone who was not an inmate of a workhouse.[99] [100] The residence in a workhouse was supposed to be made "[...] as disagreeable as was consistent with health [...]".[101] The fundamental principle was "less eligibility".[102] This harsh doctrine was set up to keep anyone from desiring to be dependent on public assistance.[103] This principle was imposed by work, discipline, isolation from one's family and dull, sparingly given food.[104] Life in the workhouses was hardly tolerable for the inmates.[105] The system was inflexible and unable to deal with a serious crisis.[106] The workhouses in Ireland were designed to hold a maximum of about 100,000 people and that was also the maximum number that would be supported under the established system.[107]

4. Government Action

The measures of the two British governments that had to deal with the Famine need to be looked at. We have to bear in mind that almost all politicians and high officials who were in charge of Ireland fanatically believed in non-interference of the Government.[108] They were highly suspicious of any action that could possibly be considered as an intervention of the administration.[109] Knowing this mindset helps to understand the measures taken by authorities.[110]

4.1 Government Action under Prime Minister Robert Peel

Sir Robert Peel was Prime Minister in the years from 1841 to 1846. For six years Peel had been Chief Secretary and had gained significant experience with Ireland.[111] Even though Peel was as a man who did not like the Irish people much he was not to let his feelings influence his obligation to Ireland.[112]


[1] Ó Gráda (1995), p.1.

[2] Ó Gráda (1995), p.1.

[3] Ó Gráda (1995), p.1.

[4] Ó Gráda (1995), p.1.

[5] Ó Gráda (1995), p.1.

[6] Ó Gráda (1995), p.1.

[7] Ó Gráda (1995), p.1.

[8] Ó Gráda (1995), p.1.

[9] Ó Gráda (1993), p.98.

[10] Ó Gráda (1995), p.2.

[11] Ó Gráda (1995), p.2.

[12] Miller (1985), p.291.

[13] Ó Gráda (2007), p.43.

[14] Ó Gráda (2007), p.43.

[15] Ó Gráda (1995), p.33.

[16] Ó Gráda(1995), p.33-34.

[17] Ó Gráda(1995), p.34.

[18] Ó Gráda 1995), p.34.

[19] Ó Gráda(1995), p.34.

[20] Ó Gráda (1995), p.34.

[21] Miller (1985), p.282.

[22] Ó Gráda (1995), p.34.

[23] Ó Gráda (1995), p.34.

[24] Ó Gráda (1995), p.34.

[25] Ó Gráda (1995), p.34.

[26] Ó Gráda (1995), p.34.

[27] Ó Gráda (2007), p.47.

[28] Ó Gráda (1995), p.37.

[29] Ó Gráda (2007), p.46.

[30] Ó Gráda (2007), p.46.

[31] Ó Gráda (2007), p.46.

[32] Ó Gráda (1995), p.37.

[33] Miller (1985), p.282.

[34] Miller (1985), p.282.

[35] Ó Gráda (1995), p.38.

[36] Ó Gráda (1995), p.38.

[37] Ó Gráda (2007), p.46.

[38] Ó Gráda (1995), p.38.

[39] Miller (1985), p.282.

[40] Donelly (2001), p.58.

[41] Miller (1985), p.282.

[42] Miller (1985), p.282.

[43] Donelly (2001),p.58.

[44] Ó Gráda (2007), p.47.

[45] Ó Gráda (2007), p.47.

[46] Miller (1985), p.286.

[47] Ó Gráda (1995), p.5.

[48] Ó Gráda (1995), p.5.

[49] Ó Gráda (1995), p.5.

[50] Ó Gráda (1995), p.5.

[51] Kennedy (2004),p.572.

[52] Kennedy (2004), p.572.

[53] Kennedy (2004), p.572.

[54] Kennedy (2004), p.572.

[55] Kennedy (2004), p.572.

[56] Kennedy (2004), p.572.

[57] Guinnane (2004), p.241.

[58] Guinnane (2004), p.241.

[59] Ó Gráda (1995), p.7; Kennedy (2004), p.567.

[60] Kennedy (2004), p.567.

[61] Kennedy (2004),p.567.

[62] Kennedy (2004), p.567.

[63] Kennedy (2004), p.567.

[64] Ó Gráda (1995), p.5.

[65] Lynch (2004), p.574.

[66] Ó Gráda (1995), p.16; Lynch (2004), p.574.

[67] Ó Gráda (1995), p.16.

[68] Kennedy (2004), p.572.

[69] Lynch (2004), p.574; Ó Gráda (1995), p.16.

[70] Kennedy (2004), p.572.

[71] Ó Gráda (1995), p.16.

[72] Ó Gráda (1995), p.5.

[73] Kennedy (2004), p.572.

[74] Ó Gráda (1995), p.17.

[75] Ó Gráda (1995), p.17.

[76] Ó Gráda (1995), p.17.

[77] Ó Gráda (1995), p.17.

[78] Ó Gráda (1995), p.16.

[79] Ó Gráda (2007), p.43.

[80] Ó Gráda (1995), p.17; Kennedy (2004), p.567.

[81] Ó Gráda (2007), p.43.

[82] Ó Gráda (1995), p.16.

[83] Ó Gráda (1995), p.16.

[84] Lynch (2004), p.574.

[85] Ó Gráda (1995), p.16.

[86] Ó Gráda (1995), p.16.

[87] Lynch (2004), p.574.

[88] Ó Gráda (1995), p.17.

[89] Ó Gráda (2007), p.45.

[90] Woodham-Smith(1991), p.61-62.

[91] O'Neill (1994),p.209.

[92] O'Neill (1994),p.209.

[93] O'Neill (1994),p.209.

[94] Ó Gráda (1995), p.23.

[95] Ó Gráda (1995), p.23.

[96] Ó Gráda (1995), p.23.

[97] O'Neill (1994),p.209.

[98] Ó Gráda (1995), p.24.

[99] O'Neill (1994), p.209.

[100] O' Neill (1994), p.209.

[101] O' Neill (1994), p.209.

[102] Ó Gráda (1995), p.24.

[103] O' Neill (1994), p.209.

[104] Ó Gráda (1995), p.24.

[105] Ó Gráda (1995), p.24.

[106] O' Neill (1994), p.209.

[107] O' Neill (1994), p.209.

[108] Woodham-Smith (1991), p.54.

[109] Woodham-Smith (1991), p.54.

[110] Woodham-Smith (1991), p.54.

[111] Woodham-Smith (1991), p.42.

[112] Woodham-Smith (1991), p.42.


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great irish famine factors intensity



Titel: The Great Irish Famine and Factors that contributed to its Intensity