The Great Famine. Curse or Blessing?

Seminar Paper, 2016

19 Pages, Grade: 1,0





1 Ireland Before the Famine
1.1 Population Growth
1.2 Dependence on the Potato Crop

2 The Beginning of the Great Famine

3 The Famine Years and Relief Approaches
3.1 Political Reforms
3.2 Workhouses and Soup Kitchens
3.3 Private Charity

4 Consequences
4.1 Diseases and Mortality
4.2 Evictions
4.3 Emigration





Internet Sources


Figure 1: Distributing food in a Soup Kitchen,

'The Irish Potato Famine', DoChara Irelandfrom the Inside, <> [accessed 29 October 2016].

Figure 2: Irish population 1700 to 2000,

'Prelude to Famine 4: Demographics', The Great Famine,

<> [accessed 25 October 2016].

Figure 3: The Dunbrody Famine Ship in Wexford,

'Dunbrody Famine Ship', Active Me < 2/dunbrody-famine-ship-the-quay-new-ross-co-wexford-ireland/> [accessed 25 October 2016].

Figure 4: Famine Memorial in Dublin,

'No plans for Famine exhibition', < famine-exhibition-because-there-arent-enough-artifacts-left-351340-Feb2012/> [accessed 24 October 2016].


Anyone who is interested in the history of the Western World will more than once meet the Great Famine in their research. But even today in the media, 166 years after the famine this disaster has still not been forgotten. It is obvious that every famine costs human lives and among the first victims are the poorest and weakest of society: Children, the old and the sick. In other famines in the past, for example the one in Ethiopia in winter 1984/1985, about one million people perished because of a poor crop.1 During another hunger period in the Sahel zone from 1972 to 1974 about 100000 people lost their lives.2 In the most recent one in Darfur in 2003 where 100 000 died.3

A famine has many different effects on a country. This is what I want to show in the following chapters. I want to explain how Ireland changed due to hunger, discussing the negative and positive, short- and long-term consequences of the famine. The actions to end the hunger by politicians and individual persons will also be discussed. But first I want to give you an impression of the land before the dearth and point out reasons why the famine happened. At the end of this work I will form my own opinion and try to answer the question as to whether the Great Famine in Ireland was a curse or a blessing.

1 Ireland Before the Famine

1.1 Population Growth

If you look at the demographic data in Ireland today, you would never think that one of the European countries with the lowest population density today was formerly extremely overpopulated. How could this happen? One reason was the bad living conditions in the years before the Famine, so sex was an acceptable distraction for the deprived peasantry. Because of the poorness of the population at this time the people married younger and got children earlier. At this time Ireland was the land with the lowest marriage age in Europe.4

The living conditions in the years before the Famine improved. Healthcare and food supply gained stability. Fewer people died and the people reached a higher age than the people of the generation before. In 1791 4.75 million people lived in Ireland. Within 50 years the number had doubled to8.17 million in 1841.5

1.2 Dependence on the Potato Crop

With the Union Act in 1542 under Henry VIII Ireland became part of Great Britain in the form of a colony. From this point on Britain used Ireland to make as much profit as possible with their colony. For English landlords owning land it was easy to suppress the peasants because they were the strong neighbour state which would have the military force to fight Ireland if they turned against Britain. Forced to give more and more tributes in form of harvest and seeds to the lords, the farmers had no other chance than planting the potato. In Ireland the father traditionally divided the land among his sons. Due to the increasing birth rates the pieces of land the sons inherited got smaller and without any changes in cultivation it would not be possible to nourish a whole family from those little acres. Also the rents for land increased fast and that is the reason why the poor population could not afford any new pieces of land. The potato crop was the perfect solution for these problems.

The plant, introduced in the late 15th century by Sir Walter Raleigh, quickly enjoyed great popularity. Potatoes could be planted up to nine months a year and were high in yield. It grew in soil conditions where only few crops flourish. The damp climate in Ireland was also perfectly suitable for the plant.6 Still today the potato has the status of former 'poor-man's food' because it is very nourishing and easy to prepare. High in carbohydrates and vitamin C it was part of the diet of Irish peasants and gave them enough calories, protein and minerals for the strenuous field work. It was estimated that the daily consumption of a men amounted up to 2.3 kg of potatoes.7 Even animals, for example pigs, were fed with the crop remains. If stored in dark and dry conditions the potato could be edible for one season but not any longer. So the last few months before the harvest in autumn had always been dangerous for the peasants since the potatoes could run out. The plant was the agricultural change the farmers needed to ensure their survival.

Like in any other process in the modern world money also played a role. On the basis of the British Corn Laws of 1815 the potatoes were cheaper to buy than grain. Since the Napoleanic Wars corn had been imported to Ireland from foreign countries. This caused problems for the working class people in the cities. Unable to grow any food on their own, they had no choice but to buy the corn. The traders increased corn prices because they recognized that these people depended on the corn.8 Over time the prices reached a point where most of the working-class people were sruggling to afford the corn on their income. So the Corn Laws were enacted by the government to protect the local market of grain imports by making traders pay high import customs on imported corn.9 This is another reason why the potato crop became an irreplaceable plant for the Irish population: 'By the mid 19 th century approximately a third of the population depended on the potato for subsistence.'10 And no one asked himself what would happen if a potato harvest was destroyed.

2 The Beginning of the Great Famine

The last months before the potato harvest was always a risky time for the peasants because they were afraid their stock could run out as had already happened several times in the past. The until then unknown fungal potato disease 'Phytophtora Infestans' occurred for the first time in America in 1842. Shipped over the Atlantic to Europe, the first cases of the Blight were documented in France, Holland and England. When the Blight spread to Ireland it destroyed nearly the complete potato harvest in the years 1845 and 1846. Due to the monoculture cultivation of the potato crop many local diseases had occurred in the past. That is the reason why the British Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel did not expect a nationwide crop failure though the conditions were dangerous. The wet and cold summer 1845 favored the spread of the disease and when the potatoes were dug out of the ground during the harvest in the autumn, Peel received messages from all over Ireland that the Blight had infested the potatoes. From the start of harvesting it took two weeks until the potatoes had rotted completely. 'All too soon the Scientific Commissioners were estimating that half the potato crop of Ireland has either been already destroyed or would shortly perish'11 and the population tried to stop their harvest rotting away in many different ways but without any great success. This marked the beginning of a long and terrible struggle for survival, which many people lost.

3 The Famine Years and ReliefApproaches

At the beginning of the famine the government followed their 'laissez-faire' attitude, which meant that the politicians interfered in the economy of the land as little as possible. But 'Ireland was on the verge of starvation, her population rapidly increasing, three-quarters of her laborers unemployed, housing conditions appalling and the standard ofliving unbelievably low.'12 The food prices rose so fast that a normal worker was not able to pay his daily food with his income. As the population had hardly any reserves the government was forced to take urgent action.

3.1 Political Reforms

The first step the Irish government took was to cut the nutrition of the 12000 government horses by half to give their corn to the people who were suffering the most.13 But this little corn was not enough to feed the fast-growing number of starving people. Although different suggestions were proposed no agreements were reached by the government. Sir Robert Peel, the British Prime Minister from 1812to 1818 and member of the Tory party, was the only one who acted. He tried to help the Irish population by repealing the Corn Laws. He hoped that the regulation of supply and demand on the free market would bring the economy back to balance but this failed completely. The consequence was that Whigs replaced Peel in parliament. With the new Prime minister Charles Edward Trevelyan the situation in Ireland became worse. He and his party held Ireland itself accountable for the famine. They believed that the potato failure was the fault of the Irish people. This is the reason for their cold blooded reaction and the reason why they turned the Irish adrift. The Whigs insisted on their 'laissez-faire' attitude and refrused their help. But in the November before Peel left office, Peel arranged to purchase £100000 of Indian corn to keep it in reserve and distribute it when food prices were increasing.14 But this amount of corn could not replace a total harvest loss worth £3.5 million.15 Peel never expected the situation in the population would be so bad that his Indian corn would be the only food left in Ireland.

Another problem emerged: Due to poor infrastructure there were not enough mills to process the corn and no roads to distribute the corn to the countryside where the people lived, which needed it the most. Also corn was no perfect replacement for potatoes because it was not as nourishing and the people did not have the knowledge of how to process the corn in the right way to make bread or other food. Another approach was made by the so called Relief Comission consisting of Peel's successor as leader of the Whigs Russell and others. They developed a plan to create new jobs.16 The Labour Rate Act which consisted of four bills and whose goals was to increase employment by building new roads and repairing the old ones and setting up harbours, was not successful.


1 Eva Krafczyk, 'Hungerskatastrophe in Äthiopien', (2009) <> [accessed 21 May 2016].

2 Dominik Collet, Thore Lassen, Ansgar Schanbacher: Handeln In Hungerkrisen: Neue Perspektiven auf Soziale undKlimatische Vulnerabilität /Göttingen: Universitätsverlag Göttingen, 2012), p. 174.

3 Tim Pat Coogan, The Famine Plot - England's Role in Ireland's Greatest Tragedy (NewYork: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), p. 10.

4 Coogan, p.2.

5 RuanO'Donnell, AShort Historyoflreland'sFamine (Dublin: TheO'BrienPressLtd.,2013),p. 10.

6 O'Donnell, p. 13.

7 Cormac O Grada, Black '47 and Beyond: The Great Irish Famine in History, Economy and Memory (Chicester: PrincetonUniversityPress, 1999), p. 17.

8 The Editors ofEncyclopaedia Britannica, 'Corn Law ', EncyclopaediaBritannica (2016) <> [accessed 27 May 2016].

9 The Editors ofEncyclopaedia Britannica, 'Corn Law ', EncyclopaediaBritannica (2016) <> [accessed 27 May 2016].

10 O'Donnell, p. 16.

11 Cecil Woodham Smith, The Great Hunger (London: Old Penguin Group, 1991), p. 45.

12 Woodham Smith, p. 36.

13 Woodham Smith, p. 48.

14 O'Donnell, p. 41.

15 Coogan,p.56.

16 Woodham Smith, p. 61.

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The Great Famine. Curse or Blessing?
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