The Great Famine. Cataclysm for the Transformation of Ireland

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2010

11 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Index Page

1. Introduction

2. Ireland Before and Throughout the Famine
2.1 Ireland Before the Famine
2.2 The Famine Years

3. Consequences of the Famine
3.1 Demography of Post-Famine Ireland
3.2 Social Life and Religious Changes After the Famine
3.3 Industrial Development and Agricultural Shifts
3.4 Political Changes Imposed by the Famine

4. Conclusion

The Great Famine - Just a Cataclysm for the Transformation of Ireland

1. Introduction

Historical research moved away from dramatic Irish politics towards a rather social and cultural focus. Studies in the field of history to my opinion are studies about humanity and emotions and not just about elected data and research. It is evident that the Great Famine and its data are an important issue within Irish history. Although this experience was a touchstone for Irish people, as Murphy also stated: "Irish economic history in the nineteenth century was about food and land. Clearly the most important event of the century as far as people's lives were concerned was the cataclysm of the Famine in the 1840s" [Murphy 2003; 9], it was just one and not the only reason for the changes of and within Ireland. This essay aims to outline and describe in what ways and to which extent the Famine initiated the Irish transformation.

2. Ireland Before and Throughout the Famine

Since the Famine has been a watershed in Irish history and a cataclysm that fastened the social and political changes in the country that have already been in progress before, it is of crucial importance to explain about the conditions of those times. After that, it will be more clear why the Famine in this essay is just thought of as a booster of history and not as a real turning point, or a point from which Irish history newly started.

2.1 Ireland Before the Famine

Ireland in the decades before the striking of the Great Famine has seen a vast population growth. Starting in 1740, its population increased across the continent which was obviously due to an improvement in farming and medicine. From about four million people in the end of the eighteenth century, the number nearly doubled within less than half a century to a number of 8.2 million people in 1837 - eight years before the Famine as a significant event would devastate the country and its population.[1] Before the Famine, people in Ireland were mainly fed by the highly nutritious potato. The crop enabled them to exist with just a tiny piece of land. They were healthier and had a more stable built body than most of their Western neighbours. In addition, the French Revolutionary wars in 1793-1815 made the Brits being redundant on the Irish supply which in turn led to a boom of Irelands agriculture. Cottiers were in high demand and could easily sustain and feed their families. A rather ancient system of sub-division of land-holdings existed, which meant that tenancies became small and smaller by each tenant. And as a family just needed a piece of land to be able to care for a whole family, the potato diet also supported early marriages and a high fertility rate.

Then followed the post-war economic crisis: the demand o agricultural products collapsed and prices decreased very fast. This hit Ireland very hard. Slowly, the farmers changed their strategy from farming back to live-stock and cottiers were thus not longer an ample demand as grasing usually is much less labour intense. Rural Ireland was kept in some kind of 'disorder' as now many more poor people were forced into subsistence as about one third of the population had been totally dependent on the potato crop. Then came the Famine, which is also referred to as 'the Great Hunger' or 'the Bad Life', which was a period of mass starvation, disease and emigration in Ireland between 1845 and 1852 and a watershed in Ireland's history. The Famine was a "natural ecological disaster" [Killeen 2003; 44], however the government's responses to the Famine turned the disaster into a catastrophe.

2.2 The Famine Years

Before 1845, Ireland had been challenged by wars and other social problems as well as by some smaller famines, however it remained rather untouched by serious food scarcities before and none of the former challenges was as scathing as was the Great Famine. Until today, the Famine years remain as a source of pain, guilt, confusion and anger in the minds of Irish and British people. The root of the failure of the potato crop was a fungus that had first been discovered in 1843 in America and was introduced to Ireland by Belgium in 1945. The fungus, called Phytophtora Infestans, which causes the plant to rot, attacked the potato plants throughout the whole of Ireland and about half of the crop was destroyed. As the potato by mid-1840s was the main food for the labouring poor, the disturbance in supply jeopardized therefore the welfare of those cottiers who represented the majority of Ireland's population, the more as a year later the fungus destroyed the whole crop of Ireland.


[1] I retrieved this data during personal communication with the Central Statistics Office in Dublin.

Excerpt out of 11 pages


The Great Famine. Cataclysm for the Transformation of Ireland
National University of Ireland, Maynooth  (History Dept.)
Irish History
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Diese Arbeit wurde im Rahmen eines Auslandssemesters erstellt. Heimatuniversität war die Universität Bremen.
great, famine, just, cataclysm, transformation, ireland
Quote paper
BA Englisch (teacher's degree) Sonja Wendel (Author), 2010, The Great Famine. Cataclysm for the Transformation of Ireland, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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