The Great Famine in Ireland

It is not directly relevant to my study, but I am reading today about the history of the Irish economy before Independence. It is estimated that even a few years before the Famine struck, Ireland’s diet of “potatoes and grain alone provided a substantial 2,500 calories per person for direct consumption.” Famine had occurred twice in the early 18th Century and there was a major famine in 1740-41, but the five years in the 1840’s are proportionately speaking, one of the most severe devastations ever wrought on a human society.

Famine Memorial, Dublin

But as ever, we must be very clear that theologically, the Famine wasn’t something that happened to the people on this island. It was done to them. And as ever, war and Empire sit in the background, too busy with its own carnage to pay heed of those starving in a fertile land.

After a wet summer, blight arrived in September 1845 and spread over almost half the country, especially the east. Famine was largely avoided at first, thanks largely to adequate government relief. But the potato crop failed completely in 1846 and by December about half a million people were working on relief works, at which stage they were ended. The winter was hard. By August 1847 an estimated three million people were being supported by soup kitchens, including almost three-quarters of the population of some western counties. The 1847 harvest was not severely harmed, but it was small because a lack of seed. The blight returned in 1848, and in 1849 over 900,000 people were in workhouses at some time or another. After 1847 the responsibility for supporting the poor had increasingly been shifted from the government to the local landowners who, by and large, did not have sufficient resources to cope. Noting that a few years later Britain spent £69 million on the (futile) Crimean War, Mokyr argues that for half this sum “there is no doubt that Britain could have saved Ireland”. It is also unlikely that an independent Ireland, with a GNP of £85 million, could have saved itself without outside support.

– Jonathan Haughton, “Historical Background” in The Economy of Ireland, 11th Edition (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 2011), 9.

Your Correspondent, They that die by famine die by inches.

5 Replies to “The Great Famine in Ireland”

  1. Other figures suggest that an added factor was that when those who experienced hunger on the land fled to the cities the insanitary conditions they found themselves in led to an increased level of death from disease rather than famine. The only positive that came out of this was the subsequent development of major sewage works in the wake of the famine

  2. Cormac O Grada rightly makes the point that looking at the numbers who died due to starvation alone is misleading. When you’re that malnourished almost anything can kill you before the hunger does. So as perhaps a minor suffix to David’s point, they may have otherwise survived insanitary conditions were it not for the undernourishment, and in that sense it was still the famine that killed them.

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