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The Irish Potato Famine and Its Impact on European History

The blight had devastating consequences on the island and beyond.

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  • 'An Irish Peasant Family Discovering the Blight of their Store' by Daniel MacDonald, c. 1847.Photo Credit: Wikipedia

The Great Famine is a dark spot in Ireland’s history. Over a period of four years, about one million people died of starvation and disease, and at least a million more fled the country due to repeated failure of the potato crop. It had an enormous impact on Irish culture and national identity, and was a contributing factor to the Irish diaspora. It also created conditions for a short-lived rebellion. In the years since, its causes and effects have often been reexamined. 

Ireland had been in dire straits since long before the famine. First invaded by England in 1169, it had undergone nearly 700 years of subjugation before the potato blight arrived. It wasn’t only the king who had dominion over Ireland. Much of its arable land was owned by English landlords, most of whom had never even seen their Irish holdings. They saw this land as no more than a means of profit, dividing and subdividing it into tiny parcels for rent. Their poorest tenants lived in single-room shacks with no floors, windows, or furniture, sometimes even sharing living space with livestock. 

The only crop that could be grown in sufficient quantities on such small plots was the potato, and the potato was vulnerable to failure. Between 1728 and 1844, the crop failed 24 times in Ireland, ravaged by disease or frost. The reliance on a single variety of potato, the Irish Lumper, meant that disease spread quickly.

Understandably, the cry for Irish independence had already been raised. Politician Daniel O'Connell made repeal of the 1800 Acts of Union, which formally joined Ireland to Great Britain, his chief cause. He traveled the country, holding enormous rallies with attendance numbers reaching the hundreds of thousands. 

The blight that caused the famine was the result of a microorganism called Phytophthora infestans. It likely originated in Mexico’s Toluca Valley, then spread north by wind to the United States’ east coast, then overseas in infected produce. Its early signs, dark spots on affected stems and leaves, are easily overlooked. Sometimes it was only after harvested potatoes shrunk, then grew corky on the inside, that they were deemed unsuitable. 

By September of 1845, it was clear Ireland had a problem. Somewhere between a third and a half of its agricultural product was inedible. There was an initial wave of skepticism among the English ruling class. When Daniel O’Connell brought his concerns to Lord Heytesbury, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Heytesbury declared it too early to take action. Robert Peel, the Tory Prime Minister, believed the extent of the blight had been exaggerated. 

Doubts aside, Peel took action. As outlined in O’Connell’s plan, Peel established a system to organize and fund public works projects, giving subsistence farmers paying jobs so they could buy food. There was, however, an obstacle. Established in 1815, the Corn Laws kept the price of English grain high by banning imports. The Tories were staunch supporters of the Corn Laws, and their rival party, the Whigs, wanted them repealed. 

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  • 'The Emigrants' Farewell' by Henry Doyle.

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Peel knew his party would never allow him to purchase and import American maize. He bought £100,000 worth of American maize in secret, but poor weather and a lack of docking facilities in Ireland delayed shipments. By the time the corn finally arrived, nobody knew what to do with it. Irish mills couldn’t grind the dense grains, and few understood how to cook it into edible sustenance. Owing to its yellow color, they nicknamed it “Peel’s brimstone.” Peel eventually moved to repeal the Corn Laws, but this split the Whig party. After a vote of no confidence, Peel was forced to resign in 1846.

That year, the famine grew even worse, with three quarters of the harvest inedible. Still, there was reason for optimism in Ireland. Peel’s replacement, Lord John Russell, was a Whig. Unlike Tories, Whigs believed in religious liberty, so they seemed less likely to discriminate against Irish Catholics. At times they had even allied with O’Connell’s Repeal Association in taking steps toward Irish sovereignty. 

But the Whigs also believed in the economic doctrine of laissez-faire, which held that the the market worked best without government interference. In an effort to reduce what he saw as Irish dependence on Britain, treasurer Charles Trevelyan slashed relief programs, canceling public works and the distribution of free food. A series of revolts erupted throughout Ireland, with one group of workers in Limerick tearing up the road they had been hired to build. Trevelyan reestablished public works, but with a catch. Britain would no longer fund these projects; they would have to be paid for by local subscription.

Relief often came with consequences. Some charitable Protestants established schools offering free meals – at the cost of conversion. In 1847, when it became apparent that their original policy had failed, the Whigs established a new relief program. Workhouses and soup kitchens offered accommodation, food, and paying work. However, landowners were ineligible, so many were forced to sell their meager holdings in order to eat. 

While some had the opportunity to sell their land, others were given no choice. Tenancy was at-will, meaning a landlord could evict tenants at any time, for any reason, without any compensation. Eviction was common in the early years of the famine, but it worsened when Whig policy required landlords to dip into their own pockets. By law, a landlord would have to fund a tenant’s relief if their yearly rent was under £4. Some property owners found a loophole: redivide the land into larger, more expensive plots, and evict those caught on the wrong side of the property line. 

Starving, destitute, and homeless, many sought greener pastures elsewhere. During the famine years, at least a million people emigrated from Ireland. Most understandably skipped over England and sailed for America. Without the means for further travel, Irish immigrants often settled in the very cities where their ships docked: usually New York, Boston, or Philadelphia. To this day, those cities have large populations of Irish Americans. 

Others chose to stay and fight. Daniel O’Connell’s health was failing. During a meeting at Dublin’s Conciliation Hall in July of 1846, O’Connell suggested a renewed alliance with the Whigs, while cautioning against the use of force. A group of Repealers walked out, forming their own group: Young Ireland. 

Young Irelanders were students of the 1848 European revolutions. Although Ireland’s near-total reliance on the potato meant it suffered the worst, the blight had spread throughout Europe. Much of Europe saw a decline in quality of life that led to revolution: Hungary, Denmark, Italy, Germany, and France were among many European nations that saw uprisings in 1848. 

Young Ireland’s leaders traveled to France to congratulate the rebels, returning with a tricolor flag inspired by French revolutionary banners: the now familiar green, white, and orange. The Young Irelanders demanded full independence from England, and though they didn’t openly call for revolt, they didn’t stand against it. On July 22, 1848, the English government suspended habeas corpus—suspected rebels could be arrested on suspicion alone. 

Young Ireland took this as a call to war. They marched from County Wexford to County Tipperary, where leader William Smith O’Brien barricaded himself in The Commons and awaited the opposition. Police soon came from Callan, and decided not to engage. But the rebels gave chase. The police eventually came upon a farmhouse, which they commandeered, taking the children inside hostage. The house’s owner, Margaret McCormack, asked O’Brien to help. He began negotiations, offering to let the police go if they put their guns down. But a constable shot at O’Brien, sparking a gun battle that would last several hours and kill two Young Irelanders. When police were sighted approaching from Cashel, the rebels fled, effectively ending the rebellion.

The famine is generally considered to have ended in 1852, although not by direct intervention. The potato slowly recovered, and, due to death and emigration, there were fewer mouths to feed. The blight returned to Ireland in 1879, but this time, the people were prepared. There was a strong tenants’ union—the Land League—that organized boycotts of cruel landlords and provided aid. The resulting Land War led to the establishment of the Irish Land Acts, which saw the percentage of Irish farmers that owned their land jump from 3% to 97.4% over the following 50 years. 

The famine had taken its toll. In addition to the one million who lost their lives in Ireland, tens of thousands died in Belgium, Prussia, and France. Birth rates fell across Europe. The famine also contributed to the decline of the Irish language, as many native speakers were concentrated in rural areas, which experienced the most devastation. There was more suffering to come in the Irish diaspora; Irish immigrants faced continued poverty and discrimination even after escaping starvation. Still, Irish culture survived and spread. The famine and its victims are remembered today by people the world over, with memorials across Ireland, as well as in those American, English, and Canadian cities where so many Irish immigrants settled.