Irish Agriculture

In order to understand why the famine affected different parts of Ireland in so many different ways, it is necessary to understand the different types of agriculture that existed across the island. Ireland was certainly not homogeneous. In fact, five main agricultural regions can be identified in mid 19th century Ireland. (Note that the boundaries between these regions were extremely blurred, and there were many areas where two or more forms of agriculture competed).
Linen in the 19CLinen
Ireland was famous for its linen in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the country became one of the top producers worldwide. Ireland had a key advantage over Scottish rivals in that it could grow its own flax. Due to flax's particular adaptability to the inferiour drumlin country of Ulster, it was grown almost exclusively there. Linen exports soared from 500,000 yards in 1712 to 46,000,000 in 1796. Most linen weaving was done by hand. By 1820 there were 70,000 weavers in Ulster. The industrial revolution hit Ulster first, and the area around Belfast became festooned with mills. This allowed even more linen to be produced. The linen industry was so prosperous that the rural population density of Ulster soared to the highest levels in Europe (reaching 190/km2 in county Armagh by the start of the famine; it was 102 in 1991). Ulster's economy was therefore export-oriented and dependent mostly on flax. The Ulster flax-farmers purchased a lot of their food (mainly oats and potatoes) from north Leinster and Connaught. You can see a large collection of Linen machinery and tools in the Ulster Museum in Belfast.
Tillage in the 19CTillage
On the good lands of eastern Leinster, the farmers engaged in commerical agriculture, growing food to be sold rather than for subsistence. In 1770, their chief trade was in flour sold to the growing Dublin city. By the start of the famine this also included growing produce for breweries. The commercialisation of the tillage economy caused a rapid population increase in the early 19th century. Farm labourers (who made up about half the population in the region) were given a small cabin and around 0.4 hectares of land. These plots were used for potatoes and cereal crops year about, as one prepared the soil for the other.
Dairying in the 19CDairying
With the growth of importance of the potato, butter, which was perviously an essential nutrient in the diet, was freed up for selling on the market. Since the 1690s, Cork had been the centre of Ireland's dairy producing regions and this tradition was still as strong in the early 19th century. A large landowner owned several hundred cows which were rented to 'dairymen' on a per-cow basis. The dairymen were allowed to keep the calves and were given a small cabin and a plot of land on which to grow potatoes for subsistence. The upland areas were used to grow hay to feed the cattle in winter. As the region prospered in the years before the famine, many farmers sub-let their land, farm sizes decreased and population increased.
Cattle Fattening in the 19CCattle Fattening
Ireland's climate and rich limestone pastures made it ideal for cattle rearing. As discussed above, Munster used cows for dairying but the central areas fattened them to be sold. Some were sold to other farmers, some to other parts of Ireland and some were exported to Britain and the USA, neither of which was yet self-sufficient in cattle. As cows required large pasture lands, these regions did not become so densely populated as other areas of Ireland. In the lowland areas, some sheep grazing was also undertaken.
Small Farms in the 19CSmall Farms
Between 1700 and the famine, Ireland's population increased rapidly. As land became more crowded, many farmers were forced to seek new lands for growing food on, and the only available areas were the scantly populated but poor lands of the Atlantic coast. Thousands of farmers settled in those areas, and there grew food mostly for subsistence, using the egalitarian 'Rundale' system of periodic land redistribution among the families. The land around the houses was used primarily for growing oats or potatoes while the higher ground was used for cattle grazing. The burgeoning population in these areas and lack of good soil prompted some ingenious solutions to problems, such as seaweed fertiliser and burning turf rather than wood or coal. It was soon discovered that potatoes thrived on seaweed and the potato soon became one of the main staple foods. The thin soil also prompted the invention of 'lazy beds': a potato is placed atop a sod, and adjoining sods folded over it. Traces of these furrows can still be seen in western Ireland (do not confuse natural soil creep with lazy beds. Lazy beds are vertical lines. Soil creep is made up of horizontal lines). In short, the west of Ireland was a densely populated area of small farms, many of which relied on the potato. Although it was never the dominant form of agriculture in Ireland, this region was to suffer most from the effects of the famine.

The Potato

The potato gained importance as a crop in Ireland in the period running up to the famine. However, the potato was not a native of Ireland. It had been found by Spanish conquistadors in south America in the 1500s, was shipped to Europe, and reached Ireland around 1590. For the next 80 years it was grown in small numbers, mainly in Munster, as a garden crop or stand-by. Farmers found that potatoes could grow double the food in the same land. They also realised that if they planted some of their land with potatoes, they would have enough to eat, and still have land to grow oats or engage in dairying. This surplus could then be sold, allowing the farmers to make money. By 1750, the potato had been acclimatised to the Irish climate and spread into Connaught and Leninster, where it became the main food for the farm labourers.

The two main problems that were found were (a) potatoes could not be stored for longer than 9 months or so, meaning that there was a lean period in the summer before the new crop was harvested. This was solved by growing a small number of green crops and by feeding scraps to pigs who could be eaten or sold in the summer. (b) potatoes were hard to transport so they developed as a subsistence crop except for the regions near large markets such as Dublin.

In the east, the farmers were converting to tillage (oats, grain) while Ulster's land was turned over to growing flax for the Irish linen industry. Coupled with the growth of Dublin as an urban centre, the potato economy surged and soon many farmers were selling excess potatoes to those food-deficit regions. New potato varieties that yielded even better harvests were introduced: the Apple Potato around 1760 and the Cup Potato around 1800. As Leinster's oat-driven cash-crop economy developed, oats went out of reach for the poorest people of Connaught and Leinster, who became increasingly dependent on the potato.

By the early 1800s, the population had reached such a level (over 8 million by the start of the famine) that many of the farmers and farm labourers became almost wholly dependent on the potato. By the 1830s, 30% to 35% of Irish people depended on the potato as their main source of food. After 1810, another new breed of potato was introduced by farmers in the south-west. Called the Lumper Potato, it required little manure and could tolerate poorer soils. It spread from Munster into Connaught. On the eve of the famine, the Lumper had made inroads into western Leinster, although it had not yet spread into eastern Leinster or Ulster.

Nutritionally, the potato was excellent. If one added milk, it provided enough protein, carbohydrates, energy and minerals to lead a balanced and healthy diet. In 1700, a Connaught farmer would perhaps have eaten one meal with potatoes in a day. By 1800 this had increased to two. As the potato spread, the ability of a farmer to get milk or oats diminished, so many ate little but potatoes. By 1840, a Connaught farmer would have eaten three potato meals a day, containing a total of around 5 to 6kg (12 to 14lb) of potatoes.

In conclusion, on the eve of the famine around a third of Irish people, concentrated in Munster and Connaught, depended on the potato almost exclusively. As it could not be stored or transported well, a new crop had to be grown each year.


The Industrial Revolution, which was eventually to sweep the world, began in England in the late 1700s. Yet despite the proximity to her island neighbour, Ireland generally did not industrialise. The only exception was the eastern part of the north-east flax growing area, where industrial processes improved the productivity of the linen industry. Although Ireland's economy had almost flourished during the last half of the 18th century, the Napoleonic Wars of 1803 to 1815 plunged the country into a recession. Not only did agricultural prices fall but wages too. It could be argued that the availability of cheap labour in Ireland would have encouraged industrialists to set up factories, but this did not happen. The reasons for the lack of industrialisation in Ireland are not fully understood, but is probably due to export economics.

The industrialisation in England forced Ireland to move more towards agriculture in order to produce viable export crops to make money. In fact, although economics forced the move, Ireland benefitted by an improvement in her terms of trade. Once English merchants began buying Irish grain in 1806, large flour mills were built, and communication routes and agricultural technology both improved. Cottage industry declined in favour of agriculture. Nevertheless, the poorest classes did not see much of this money because the benefit of higher export prices was cancelled out by the rise in food prices. In some ways, this polarisation towards food production increased the poor's vulnerability to crop failure. As the farmers got poorer they were forced to sell more of their crops (usually oats) for money while eating more potatoes (a crop that couldn't be transported easily).

In the 1830s the government decided to tackle poverty in Ireland. A number of inquiries were carried out, the most famous being the Irish Poor Inquiry which was based largely on the experience of a similar scheme in Britain. The British report determined that public workhouses, rather than charity, were the best solution to the problem of poverty. The Irish report rejected this policy, but was itself rejected due to the radical nature of its recommendations. Instead, the workhouse policy was extended to Ireland. Other policies introduced included free primary education and subsidised emigration, usually to Britain or the United States.

Workhouses were buildings designed for the poorest in society, who could no longer afford to live outside. They were run on the principles of discipline, work, separation from family members and dull food. A total of 130 workhouses, with a capacity for 100,000 people, were commissioned in the 1830s, the last being completed in 1843. Although conditions were harsh, they were never intended to be the over-crowded, disease-ridden pits that they became during the famine. Before the famine they were usually run at around 40% of capacity and, in fact, comparatively fewer Irish people entered the workhouses than in Britain. Funny as it may seem now, the designers had originally worried that non-needy cases would enter the workhouses in order to live off the taxpayers. In reality, those who entered the workhouses were genuinely needy (although entering a workhouse was a matter of choice, there was in reality no other option for the poorest people). In 1844, 40% of inmates were not of working age, and a third were sick on entry.


There are no reliable population figures for Ireland before 1841, however estimates have been carried as far back as 1700. These figures show that Ireland's population rose slowly from around 3 million in 1700 until the last half of the 18th century when it had reached 4 million. It then entered a rapid period of increase (around 1.6% per annum) which appears to have slowed to 0.6% by 1830. By 1841, the population had reached 8.2 million (according to the census, but the actual figure may be nearer 8.5 million). The population would probably have levelled off at a value of 9 million had it not been for the famine that began in 1845. The following graph shows Ireland's population since 1700.

Emigration has been a feature of Irish history more than almost any other country in the world. This is shown by the fact that, apart from the 5 million people in Ireland, there are an estimated 55 million people worldwide who can trace their ancestry back to Ireland. Although the most awesome levels of emigration were to occur during and immediately after the famine, it would be a mistake to think that emigration began in 1845. In fact, there had been mass emigration from Ireland long before the famine. In this period, the Irish accounted for a third of all voluntary traffic across the Atlantic. These emigrants were mainly from Ulster and Leinster, with fewer coming from the poorer areas of Connaught and Munster.

Between 1815 and 1845, 1.5 million Irish emigrated, mainly to Britain (ca. 0.5 million) and to north America (ca. 1 million). Of those who went to north America, the majority settled in Canada. Between 1825 and 1830, 128,200 Irish emigrated to north America, 61% of which went to Canada and 39% to the USA. In the decade 1831 to 1840, 437,800 Irish emigrated (almost double the number of the previous decade). Of these, 60% went to Canada and 39% to the USA. The remaining 1% went to Australia. (Note that these figures are for emigration outside the UK only. They do not include emigrations to Britain.) Irish emigration to Australia was to rise over the next 40 years, reaching a peak of 11% of all emigration in the 1870s. Emigration to Canada was to fall sharply after the famine and soon the USA would be the dominant destination. This was all in the future, however. The Great Famine was to happen first.

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