POTATO FAMINES IN IRISH HISTORY [Print]  [Back]

By Donald D. Deignan

Ireland's "Great Famine" of 1845-1851, the main focus of A State of Hope, was remarkable for its longevity, severity and widespread impact throughout the entire country. Most severe in the poorest provinces of Connaught and Munster, in the west and south of the island, respectively, the Great Famine also visited the more prosperous eastern province of Leinster and even descended upon the rapidly industrializing northernmost Province of Ulster, in greater or lesser degrees. Periodic famine was no stranger to Ireland, and the catastrophe of the 1840s was not an isolated historical episode, although it was a particularly terrible one.

Sir Walter Raleigh is generally credited with having introduced potatoes into Ireland from South America in the late 1580s. He found that they grew well on the vast estates which he owned in County Cork. Potato cultivation slowly spread across Ireland and, eventually, to the continent of Europe, where, by the eighteenth century, the crop had become a staple element in the diet of many poor people. Nowhere else, however, was dependence on the potato for survival as marked and pervasive a feature of life as it became in Ireland.

Landless laborers and small tenant-farmers, alike, soon discovered that they could grow large quantities of potatoes on small patches of otherwise marginal ground with minimal effort. But partial or complete failures of the annual potato crop occurred fairly frequently, with seasonal hunger or death from outright starvation often being the consequence. During the famine of 1740-1741, "the year of slaughter," an estimated 400,000 people were said to have died of starvation in Ireland. And between 1814 and 1840 the potato harvest failed wholly or in part no less than twenty-two times.

When harvests were good, however, as they often were, Irish peasants found themselves with an abundant and nutritious food supply. The relative sense of economic and psychological security which a usually ample source of food gave them led to the increasingly uneconomical subdivision of land and to marriage at early ages among Ireland's, vast and impoverished underclass. As a result of the combination of these powerful economic and social factors, the population of Ireland doubled between 1700 and 1840. In 1841, just before the Great Famine, the Irish population was estimated to be between 8 million and 8.5 million people. Given Ireland's poverty and overpopulation, the Great Famine may be seen as a natural and social disaster waiting to happen. Its baneful effects were tragically and unnecessarily compounded by the incompetence, indifference, and laissez-faire economic policies of the "Liberal" British Government, which ruled the country during most of the Famine of 1845-1851, the worst of many such events in Irish history.

(Donald Deignan earned his M.A. and Ph.D., in History, from Brown University.)


This article was printed from the Rhode Island AOH State Board website.
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