Posted by: irishhungercomm | January 28, 2012


Provided by Jim Gallagher.  All are encouraged to use this to give similar talks in their own area – it will educate and inform.


Q1 – Why did the 1845-1850 potato blight in Ireland result in what historians called “—the greatest social catastrophe in 19th century European history” ?


By definition, the “Irish Famine” was not a Famine.  The dictionary

definition of “Famine” is that “ there is no food available”.  There was food available , and it was being exported by the British Government  (see 4th page of the Handout).  The term “Famine” was a deliberate propaganda term.  We prefer to use the term “Irish Hunger” or “Starvation” instead, which indeed it was.  Recently, many refer to the catastrophe as “Genocide”.

Q2 –  Why were the Irish peasants totally dependent on the potato for survival, particularly those in the west of Ireland?  This is really the basis for my talk.

Just to put the impact of the Irish Hunger in perspective, consider the approximately 3.5 million people lost over a five year period, through disease, starvation and emigration.  This is about the same as eradicating the entire Connecticut population in five years.  Think what this would be like.


In large part, the Irish Hunger of 1845-50 resulted from a series of events during the preceding, at least, 500 years.

As a sign of things to come  –  and, to set the tone – consider:

  • 1215 British Magna Carta.  That Bible for human Rights did not apply to the Gaelic Irish.  Reportedly, and ironically, it was said to be based on the ancient Celtic Brehon Laws
  • 1366 – Statutes of Kilkenny.  These British laws were an early milestone in Britain’s long-term pogrom of Ethnic Cleansing in Ireland.  It was limited to the Pale (the area around Dublin).  It’s restrictions included: no Gaelic names, language, customs or traditions and no intermarriages with British or Normans. The usual penalties were land forfeiture.
  • 1540 – Reformation and King Henry VIII.  Add religion to the cultural and political discrimination issues.
  • 16th Century Plantations – under Henry’s children and successors to the throne.  The British crown implanted thousands of English and Scots on Irish land., displacing the resident Irish, who became tenants on their own land.  The implanted settlers were required to uphold British law and to protect and extend the Protestant religion.  There were 3 major plantations: (1) under Queen Mary (1553-8) Leix (Kings) and Offaly (Queens) counties; (2) under Queen Elizabeth (1558-1603) Munster (Cork and Kerry counties); and (3) under King James I (1603-10) Ulster (Antrim, Derry, Down & Tyrone counties).

However, suffice to say that the basic reasons for the Irish Hunger peasants plight during the extended potato blight would mushroom in the mid 1600’s.

  • 1645-1649 – Oliver Cromwell and his army inflicted widespread annihilation of Irish Catholics.  During the Cromwellian clearances, the slogan used was “To Hell or to Connaught”, meaning that remaining Catholics were to be driven to west of the Shannon, to the worst agricultural land, largely rocky and mountainous.
  • 1690’s – Irish rebelled against Cromwell’s army, were defeated and, after the Treaty of Limerick, thousands of the Irish militia were required to leave for the Continent, never to return to Ireland. These were “The Wild Geese”.  The Agreement stated that after the men left, Irish Catholics would be free to openly practice their religion in Ireland.  However, immediately after the “Irish soldiers” left, the British and Irish Parliaments reneged on this promise in the Treaty and imposed even harsher laws.
  • 1695-1780’s – Penal Laws

Gaelic/Catholic Irish were considered to be  not a part of society (non-entities).  British Parliament stated that “there is no such thing as an Irish Catholic peasant”.  The Penal Laws contained pages of “cannot” type restrictions. (See handout).  In essence, Catholics could not be educated, employed, own property, etc.  They were dehumanized.

Mid 1700’s – mid 1800’s – Irish Catholics, mostly women and children, were forced abroad as slaves to provide free labor on British owned plantations in the Caribbean and in Virginia.

1700    Only 1/7 of the land of Ireland was owned by the Gaelic-Catholic Irish.

In general, throughout these 500 plus years of British occupation of Ireland (~1200-1700), British legislation, trade, employment and social restrictions created economic deprivation and subjugation for the Gaelic catholic Irish, always favoring British merchants, farmers and royalty.  It generated widespread peasant resistance and violence, particularly after 1760.  The restrictions led to more revolutionary nationalism in the 18th century – and included dissident Protestants.  This resistance was directed more at rights and self-governing in an Irish Parliament rather than at independence and the throne.  It was so bad that Catholics merely sought tolerance rather than equality.  Every act of resistance was met with more brutal and restrictive responses by the British Government.  Finally, the Irish were defeated after the Uprising of 1798, which, by the way, was inspired by the American and French revolutions.

So, entering the 19th century, Irish Catholic peasants were confined to the poorest land, most could not own land, nor be employed  nor educated, were living in dire poverty  and were disconnected from the ruling minority.


The Act of Union of 1800 again brought direct rule from London to Ireland.  This implies that the government would be responsible for all of its citizens.  But, Ireland wasn’t considered an equal partner in the U.K. – unless as  fodder in English wars was needed or wood to build ships for the English navy.  As usual, security control of society, not socio-economic corrections continued to dominate British policy in Ireland.

1800-1810      Land policies saw a dominance of absentee British landlords and their agents, which controlled Irish tenancy.  They imposed exorbitant rents, short or no leases, evictions were common.  Also, Irish Catholics resented paying tithes to the Protestant Church of Ireland.  All this led to growing agrarian discontent and violence.  Seven years transportation for petty crimes became another form of providing free labor to Britain’s other colonies, particularly Australia.

1810-1820 – Napoleonic Wars.  In Ireland, large farms were needed to feed the British army and navy and urban populations during the industrial revolution in England.  Cattle vs. People policies led to evictions to create larger pastures and grain fields.  Hundreds of thousands of Irish were impressed into the British military.  Then, the Post-Napoleonic war period brought recession, and generated even more evictions.

1820-1830 – Daniel O’Connell successfully led a Catholic Emancipation campaign.  The Irish could now practice their religion  but there were  no  socio-economic gains for Irish peasants.

1830-1845 – Period of advent of the Irish Hunger.

Peasants lived in shared land communes, called Cloghans, they had no currency and practiced a bartering system.  They were on a strict potato only diet and were subject to exorbitant rents, no or short leases and quick evictions.  This situation resulted in the Irish peasant always on the verge of starvation.  Luckily, they learned to cultivate the potato as a crop.  The potato was not native to Ireland.  It was brought from America by Sir Walter Raleigh.  It was the only crop that would grow on poor land and in sufficient abundance to feed a family for most of the year.  They were grown in postage stamp size plots in the cloghans.  The average adult ate from 5 to 15 pounds of potatoes a day.  The family pig, cow or chickens, if they had any, were used to pay the rent.  So, meat was not a food staple.  And, the summer months were called “meal months”, when the stored potatoes had been fully consumed and months to go before the new crop was ready to harvest.  Annually, families had to barter for meal or other food substitutes  and were subjected to near starvation during these months.  In fact, there were 14 potato blights between the years 1816 and 1842, but all were either of short duration or very local in area.

1838 – Parliament established “Poor Laws” to build workhouses, etc.  The object of this policy was not humanitarian, rather, it was intended to restrict indigent Irish from emigrating en masse to England.  And, peasants had to pay “Poor Rates”, a tax to fund the Poor Law system.

The population trend in Ireland increased from about 2 million in 1700 to a number ranging from 8 million to 10 million in 1841.  Note this discrepancy for 1841 (Explain briefly).

1845 – A fungus hit the potato crops of most western European countries.  It was shown to have come from America, most probably on a ship.  Most countries closed their ports to food exports to protect their people from possible starvation, and, most were not as singularly dependent on the potato as were the Irish peasants.  However, Britain kept open her ports to export crops and livestock, largely to feed city dwellers in England and to support merchants.  Ireland was a prime agricultural source for England.  In 1845 40% of the potato crop in Ireland was ruined.

British politicians’ attitudes toward the Irish were prejudice, conceit, arrogance and ignorance.  PM Peel chastised them saying, in essence, that “if Britain allowed for education, religious tolerance and economic opportunity it would reduce nationalist fervor and resistance and permit Irish integration into the U.K., as did the Scots and Welsh”  The attitudes didn’t change.

1846 – The blight returned.  The winter of 1846-47 was one of the worst on record. Contributing to many deaths.  Without food the peoples’ resistance to cold and disease was lowered, and they soon became too weak to obtain wood, peat, to work or farm and were forced to eat their seed potatoes for the next year.

1847 – Ironically, no blight occurred in 1847.  But, there few to no seed potatoes to plant.  Starvation and diseases continued, as did evictions.  Landlords would not allow hunting or fishing on their lands and, salt water fishermen could not barter for salt and became too weak to mend nets, row or to fish.  Irish peasants sensed that to survive they had to emigrate. Unscrupulous sea captains modified cargo sailing vessels to house desperate peasants in steerage, for passage to Canada.  The trip took on the order of 4 to 6 weeks.  There was little or tainted food and/or water on board and sanitary conditions were almost non-existent.  Approximately ¼ to 1/3 of the passengers died at sea or in quarantine stations.  Thus, these vessels were known as “Coffin ships”, and the year became known as “Black 47”.

In Ireland, workhouses became overcrowded, diseases were rampant, families were separated (wife from husband and children from parents).  Unmarked mass graves, containing unidentified bodies wrapped in cloth, were widespread.  Wooden coffins were scarce, so “Sliding Coffins” were used over and over to transport bodies to the mass graves, again unidentified.  In Cork, a doctor reported seeing one coffin used somewhere between 200 and 300 times.

Since no blight occurred in 1847 the British Government declared that the “Famine” was over.  The soup kitchens that they provided only operated from June to September , before the government closed them down.  Proselytizing Protestant Ministers ran their own soup kitchens, but offered soup only to those who would convert from Catholicism to their form of Protestantism.  Those who took the soup and converted were referred to as “soupers”.  Also, the government terminated its financial support, which was already inadequate, and required landlords to finance any assistance.  Many landlords went bankrupt.  The Quakers organized effective assistance networks throughout Europe, the U.S. and Canada, including well meaning soup kitchens.

Just to give an example of the attitudes of British Government high officials toward the Irish at the time, a few quotes:

Secretary of Treasury (Exchequer) Trevelyan said, “The Irish Famine was divine treachery” because Irish peasants were Catholic and not Church of England or Ireland. Also, “I’m pleased that the famine was reducing the Irish population, but disappointed that only one million are dying”.

1848 – The Blight returned, wiping out what potato crop existed.  Many died of disease before they could starve to death.  Still, evictions continued.  By law, shelter could  not be provided by neighbors, and, cottages were destroyed by landlords and public servants.  Many died along the roadside.  People sought refuge in ditches or wherever they could construct a makeshift hovel.  Those who ate nettles, for something to eat, usually died eventually, and were called “green mouths.  To quote John Mitchell, a strong nationalist of the time, “God created the blight but the British created the famine”.  Steven Douglas, an observer visiting from America, said that he had never seen such poverty in America.

Emigration shifted to America, when immigration laws were slightly relaxed.  By then, the problem of Coffin ships had been largely corrected. However, there were no immigration processing facilities  upon arrival and the destitute, uneducated, poor, largely Irish speaking  and often disease ridden were preyed upon at the docks., i.e., South Street Seaport in New York City.  Read Terry Coleman’s book “Going To America”

1849 – The blight again returned to further obliterate whatever potato crop remained.  Unlike previous potato blights this recurring blight returned in 4 out of 5 years, to deny the irish peasantry the only food that they depended on.

During all of this, the British policy continued to be “Pasture over people”, to create larger farms to produce more agricultural export to England.  This food was often transported overland to the docks, by horse and cart, and guarded by British soldiers  past the eyes of the starving irish – many of whom produced the crops while toiling for the landlords.

1850 – There was no blight.  This year started the post-blight period.  Mass emigration continued, and did so for many years afterward. In the northeast of Ireland, the government support of the industrial revolution attracted many starving families, from all over Ireland, looking for work.  This situation created severe competition for jobs.  Differences between industrial and agricultural communities increased  bigotry against the rural farmer, mostly against Irish Catholics. But, in the north , Protestant and Catholic farmers alike suffered from the potato blight.  Later, this heightened discrimination carried over to “Home Rule” and the partition of the country, and underlay the “Troubles” of the last 40 (really 90) years.

Examples of the immediate impact of the potato blight in Ireland:

  • Approximately 25% of the population was lost.
  • Cloghans disappeared (> 300 cottages); see Ordinance maps.
  • Mass graves were left unmarked, and still are, with bodies still unidentified.
  • Social customs changed – open door practices stopped, late marriages, music and dance almost disappeared.
  • Irish language was almost eradicated, as most who died or emigrated came from the Irish speaking west of Ireland.  Many Irish peasants bought Trevelyan’s propaganda about Divine Treachery and attributed their suffering to the fact that they spoke Irish.  They quickly adopted English as their first language.  One British quote:  “The Famine accomplished what we have failed to achieve – elimination of the Irish Gaelic language”. In the late 19th century Gaelic revival, a key slogan used was –  Gan teanga, gan tir.

1851 Census – 6.5 million

8-10 million (1841 census)  less 6.5 million resulted in either 1.5 or 3.5 million lost. The 10 million figure is now generally accepted.

1850-1870 – Period of Land reform

* Peasant uprisings

*Irish-American publicity and pressure – influenced world opinion and forc     forced Britain to amend its policies toward Ireland.

* Absentee landlord problem was reduced

* Land reform – longer leases, home and land improvements now valued.

* Eventually (1887) Peasants could purchase land.  Land League committees in the US were formed to raise funds for this purpose.

* Emigration – 1849 to 1911 – approximately 5 million people emigrated.

The Irish Hunger immigration in America essentially created Irish America.

The Famine Irish immigration in America was the first large wave of European immigration and, as such, they bore the brunt of established American discrimination. Irish peasants found bigotry similar to what they left in Ireland. It was not until the Irish demonstrated their patriotism and valor during the US Civil War that they began to become assimilated into American society – and, the process was very slow, and not without incidents. (See the portion of the Handout that addresses the US Commemorative stamp).

Having studied Irish history, I continue to marvel at the resiliency of the Irish, in that they still have an identity and a culture.


SHOW CURRICULUM GUIDE – who knows about its existence or whether it has ever been used.





  1. The events of 1845-48 are without doubt the most tragic years in Irelands long and varied history. Millions died of starvation throughout the country in every county from lack of food, except there was no natural shortage of food. One crop failed and everyother food group was gathered up and moved under armed guard to the major ports of Ireland for export. Those who ordered the food to be removed, those who moved the food and those who helped move the food out of Ireland are responsible for the deaths of over a million Irish who died in Ireland, on the Atlantic ocean and on the eastern seaboards of the USA and Canada. Those Irish who died did so in a most inhumane way and there is not one iota of justification for one death, never mind the million + who perished. Those who allowed this event to take place are gone and cannot be brought to justice. All that is left is for everyone, everywhere to show dignity to those that died by never accepting a Famine or a natural shortage of food occurred in Ireland. It is not about directing blame. It is about the truth, the undeniable truth of 1845-48.

  2. From a native Irishman a clarification:
    Stat. of Kilkenny were applicable(albeit ineffective) throughout Ireland
    Diarmait MacMurchada invited Normans to Ireland
    Penal Laws also applicable to non C of I (Dissenting” Presbyterians etc)
    Papal donation of Constantine to English king re Ireland
    Ulster Plantation also included Armagh
    Poor rates were levied on landlords not tenants
    Most historians ascribe the hunger to free market capitalism per Adam
    Smith not conscious genocide
    Potato output was at its lowest during Black “47

    The hunger should never be forgotten nor should the Kulaks, Armenians, Jews, Native Americans etc

    Le gach dea-ghui

    Eoin O Leannain

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