The Famine

Potato Blight

In September 1845 a strange disease struck the potatoes as they grew in fields across Ireland. Many of the potatoes were found to have gone black and rotten and their leaves had withered. In the harvest of 1845, between one-third and half of the potato crop was destroyed by the strange disease, which became known as 'potato blight'. It was not possible to eat the blighted potatoes, and the rest of 1845 was a period of hardship, although not starvation, for those who depended on it. The price of potatoes more than doubled over the winter: a hundredweight [50kg] of potatoes rose in price from 16p to 36p. It is now known that the same potato blight struck in the USA in 1843 and 1844 and in Canada in 1844. It is thought that the disease travelled to Europe on trade ships and spread to England and finally to Ireland, striking the south-east first.
Blighted potatoes have a soggy consistency and smell badly.

The following spring, people planted even more potatoes. The farmers thought that the blight was a one-off and that they would not have to suffer the same hardship in the next winter. However, by the time harvest had come in autumn 1846, almost the entire crop had been wiped out. A Priest in Galway wrote "As to the potatoes they are all gone - clean gone. If travelling by night, you would know when a potato field was near by the smell. The fields present a space of withered black stalks." The Prime-Minister, Sir Robert Peel, set up a commission of enquiry to try to find out what was causing the potato failures and to suggest ways of preserving good potatoes. The commission was headed by two English scientists, John  Lindley and Lyon Playfair. The farmers had already found that blight thrived in damp weather, and the commission concluded that it was being caused by a form of wet rot. The scientists were unable, however, to find anything with which to stop the spread of the blight. It was in 1846 that the first starvations started to happen.

In 1847, the harvest improved somewhat and the potato crop was partially successful. However, there was a relapse in 1848 and 1849 causing a second period of famine. In this period, disease was spreading which, in the end, killed more people than starvation did. The worst period of disease was 1849 when Cholera struck. Those worst affected were the very young and very old. In 1850 the harvest was better and after that the blight never struck on the same scale again.

The precise number of people who died is perhaps the most keenly studied aspect of the famine: unfortunately, this is often for political rather than historical reasons. The only hard data that has survived is the 1841 and 1851 censuses, but the accuracy of these has been questioned. The reason for this is that the censuses recorded deaths by asking how many family members died in the past 10 years, but after the famine whole families had often left Ireland thus leaving many deaths unreported. Estimates of deaths in the famine years range from 290,000 to 1,500,000 with the true figure probably lying somewhere around 1,000,000, or 12% of the population. We shall probably never know exactly how many lost their lives. It was undoubtedly the greatest period of death in Irish history, but its long term effects were to involve even more people than this.

In the years after the famine, scientists discovered that the blight was, in fact, caused by a fungus, and they managed to isolate it. They named it Phytophthora Infestans.  However it was not until 1882, almost 40 years after the famine, that scientists discovered a cure for Phytophthora Infestans: a solution of copper sulphate sprayed before the fungus had gained root. At the time of the famine there was nothing that farmers could do to save their crop.

Distribution of Famine Effects

The famine did not affect all of Ireland in the same way. Suffering was most pronounced in western Ireland, particularly Connaught, and in the west of Munster. Leinster and especially Ulster escaped more lightly. The following map shows the severity of the famine across Ireland in 1847; the height of the Famine.

There are a number of reasons for this pattern:

Peel's Relief Programme

In United Kingdom politics at the time of the famine, there were two main political parties. The Tories were liberals who supported the Monarchy, and enjoyed the support of most Irish landlords. The Whigs were strong believers in free trade and had a policy known as laissez-faire, which stated that government should interfere as little as possible in  affairs of trade and that the free market would deal with any crises. The UK government at the start of the famine was a Tory government led by Sir Robert Peel.

Looking for Potatoes [10kB]A third of the potato crop was wiped out in 1845. Crop failures were relatively common in Ireland (there had been famines in 1741, 1745, 1755, 1766, 1783, 1800, 1816, 1822 and 1830, although only that of 1741 was comparable to the Great Famine [1]). Because of this, it took some time before the government realised that this failure was more serious than usual. In mid September 1845, a week after the fungus first appeared, a government inquiry concluded that, although there had been failures, the crop was also unusually heavy and that the extra crop would compensate for the loss. [2] A month later another government inquiry revealed that the crop losses were more serious in 17 of the 32 counties. The image on the left shows a family searching for unblighted potatoes in a blighted field. The government responded to this second inquiry by setting up a commission to seek cures for the blight.  The Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel, offered to give away free any chemical that would cure the blight, but the commission failed to find one.

The government soon realised that more food was needed from somewhere to make up the shortfall. Peel had two options. The first was to stop exports. The landlords of Leinster, many of whom cultivated grain, often sold to the large markets in Britain. In 1844 there was a net export of grain of 294,000 tons and 485,000 in 1845. Private individuals in Ireland met the Lord Lieutentant of Ireland in Dublin to push for this solution.

The other solution was to import more food. There were two problems with this. Firstly, many other European countries were also fearing famines and had banned exports of food, reducing the markets from which to buy. Secondly, there was a law called the 'Corn Law' which sought to protect local farmers by banning cheap foreign imports of food. The Corn Law was a key Tory policy, so by considering removing it Peel was going to invite the wrath of his party.

Sir Robert Peel, after much deliberation decided that merely preventing grain exports was not enough. Ó Gráda [1] comments that "...about three million extra acres of grain would have been needed annually to meet the food shortfall caused by the blight. This was out of the question". Peel instead decided to push for an import of food from America to make up the shortfall. Nevertheless, some [1] have argued that Peel would have been better to both ban exports and import food.

In Westminster, the seat of government, Peel's opponents accused him of using the blight as a ploy to get rid of the Corn Law. Some even accused him of making up the blight or at least of exaggerating its likely effects. The repeal of the Corn Law was to cost him and the Tory party the next election, in July 1846. In November 1845, £105,000 worth of Maize was imported from the USA and £46,000 from Britain. This was enough food to feed a million people for a month, although there were few people actually starving in 1845. A law from 1838 meant that aid could only be given out in Workhouses organised by local boards called Poor Law Unions. However, Peel felt that the workhouses did not have sufficient capacity to do this effectively, so he set up a temporary Relief Commission to organise relief. The Commission organised the distribution of food at cost price (although some people still had to pawn clothes and furniture to buy it). At first, many Irish people disliked accepting this charity, but in the end many accepted. He also set up (locally funded) work schemes which, at their peak, employed around 140,000 people [2]. These measures sustained 700,000 people and, although the salaries they paid were very low, were the main reason that there were very few deaths in 1845. The measures stayed in this form until the unseating of the Tory government in July 1846.

Sources:[1] Ó Gráda, Cormac; "The Great Irish Famine", Cambridge University Press, 1989.
[2] Dudley-Edwards, R; Williams, TD; "The Great Famine, Studies in Irish History 1845-52", Lilliput Press, 1956, (Reprinted 1997)

The Winter 1846/47

In the Spring of 1846, the people had planted even more potatoes than ever before to ensure that there was no repeat of the 1845 failure. However, in July the Relief Commission sent a report to England stating "I am sorry to state that... the prospect of the potato crop this year is even more distressing than last year- that the disease has appeared earlier and its ravages are more extensive" [2]. As it was to turn out, the crop of Autumn [Fall] 1846 had failed completely across the island. The Whigs who gained power in July 1846 believed that government should interfere as little as possible in matters of trade. This laissez-faire policy stated that capitalism would take care of any shortcomings. Lord John Russell, the new Prime Minister, had previously accused Peel of an over-reaction when few had died after dire predictions of widespread death in Ireland. Russell thought that enough of the crop must have been unaffected that any shortcoming would not be evident until late in the year. So he simply instructed his Commission to monitor the situation and to review the relief efforts of 1845 with a mind to implementing a new scheme later in the year.

In mid August, Russell put forward his plan to Parliament of what relief measures should be put in place. The Whigs believed that the import of food could be left up to local merchants ("the supply of the home market may safely be left to the foresight of private merchants" [2 p223]), while government would be responsible for providing employment to give people the money to buy this food. This was at least in part due to threats from merchants who objected to the 1845 food imports. The Chancellor of the Exchequer said "It was not the intention at all to import food for the use of the people of Ireland. In fact many merchants had declared that they would not import food at all if it were the intention of the government to do so, and unless the government would give such an assurance" [2 p223]. Only in west Cork, Kerry and Donegal, where merchants were few, did the government relent and agree to allow the Relief Commisioners to give out food; again imported maize.

But the government's efforts were concentrated primarily into creating employment. They continued Peel's work schemes (the Board of Works) although with the restriction that the cost had to be entirely met through local rates. The pay was low: 8 to 10 pence per day, which was not nearly enough to support a family, and the payment was often delayed. Despite these failings, three quarters of a million people had signed up to the work schemes by March of 1847. The workhouses, set up in the previous decade for those who could no longer afford to live, were strongly disliked by the people. Nevertheless, many had no other option and by the end of 1846 they had been filled to their design capacity of 100,000 people, and numbers continued to rise. Conditions worsened and 'famine fever' began to take lives.

Famine Victims [8kB]Meanwhile, the government's confidence that merchants would provide food was not borne out. By December 1846, lack of food and money meant that people were starving to death in the rural potato-growing areas of Ireland. A harrowing report from Cork at this time said: "The famine grew more horrible towards the end of 1846, many were buried with neither inquest nor coffin. An inquest was held by Dr Sweetman on three bodies. The first was that of two very young children whose mother had already died of starvation. His death became known only when the two children toddled into the village of Schull. They were crying of hunger and complaining that their father would not speak to them for four days; they told how he was 'as cold as a flag'. The other bodies on which an inquest was held were those of a mother and child who had both died of starvation. The remains had been knawed by rats." Despite this, the government refused to allow the Relief Commissioners to extend the food scheme out of western Munster and Donegal, insisting that their policy would work in time. The picture on the left is from the Illustrated London News in 1847. This newspaper, which sent illustrators to Ireland and began publishing pictures of famine victims in 1847, was largely responsible for raising awareness of the unfolding catastrophe in Britain. Many people travelled to the towns in the hope of getting help [3]. At first the townsfolk were generous, but then the famine-fever began to strike and the hospitality gave way to fear. Father Matthew of Cork observed: "These poor creatures, the country poor, are now homeless and without lodgings; no one will take them in; they sleep out at night. The citizens are determined to get rid of them. They take up stray beggars and vagrants and confine them at night in the market place, and the next morning send them out in a cart five miles from the town and there they are left and a great part of them perish for they have no home to go to." Others attacked places where food was stored, such was their desperation. The levels of property crime doubled between 1846 and 1847.

Captain Kennedy distributing clothes [12kB]Private charity was responsible for keeping hundreds of thousands of people alive in the winter of 1846 to 1847. Catholic Priests organised food for local people. The Society of Friends raised money in America and Britain, and gave it to local areas to allow them to buy food boilers. In London, a group of businessmen collected money (including £2,000 from Queen Victoria) and bought and shipped maize to western Ireland. They also supplied clothes: many of the local people had pawned their winter clothes to buy food. This left them dangerously exposed in the winter months. One observer wrote "Among the thousands I meet, I have seen no one who had clothing corresponding to the bitter cold which is experienced; on the contrary what is beheld is emaciated, pale, shivering, worn-out farming people, wrapt in the most wretched rags, standing or crawling in the snow, bare-footed" [3]. Landlords were split into varying extremes. Some refused to help, taking the opportunity to evict small cottiers from their estates. Some did not even live in Ireland. Others landlords bankrupted themselves trying to help their tenants. The picture shows Captain Kennedy, a Poor Law Inspector, and his daughter giving clothes to famine victims in Kilrush, county Clare. He said "I was so maddened by the sights of hunger and misery... that I [wanted] to take the gun from behind my door and shoot the first landlord I met". In the end, as we shall see, the famine was the catalyst that destroyed landlordism in Ireland [5].

Over the winter of 1846 to 1847, many tens of thousands of people died. There is an endless list of contemporary reports of people starving or dying of disease. By the spring of 1847, the government finally accepted that its policy had failed disastrously. In a report to the government, it was stated "The tide of distress has for some time past been steadily rising and appears now to have completely overflowed the barriers we endeavoured to oppose it... The question I have to ask you therefore is whether the time has not arrived for having recourse in a direct and effectual manner to what we have been aiming to arrive at by indirect means, namely, the outdoor relief of every distitute person" [2 p235].

For many people, it was all too much. On average, 50,000 people emigrated per year before the famine. In 1845, this was unchanged; the crop failure did not strike until the autumn. However, in 1846, 100,000 people emigrated to America alone. 250,000 people were to leave during the year 1847: by far the largest exodus. Unlike the pre-famine exodus, which was mainly the better-off peasants, these were mostly the poorer people in Ireland. Only about 3% or 4% had their passages paid by the government or by their landlord, although charities paid for more passages.

Distressed Poor Law Unions 1847-48 [2kB]So many people had been employed by the Board of Works that no seed potatoes were being sowed for the next year's harvest. The work projects concentrated more on employement than doing any co-ordinated work, so most of the work undertaken made little sense [1], for example building roads that led nowhere. (Although not all were pointless; the length of railways increased tenfold during the decade.) By Spring 1847, the Board of Works had spent £5,000,000 on relief measures, with little hope that the local taxpayers would ever be able to repay it. The map on the left [4] shows the Poor Law Unions (subdivisions for the relief of poverty that predate the famine) that were in such a level of distress that they got special treatment in 1847-48. The scheme which had employed three-quarters of a million people over the winter was finally scrapped in March 1847 to be replaced by a version of Peel's original scheme of food distribution.

Sources: [1] Ó Gráda, Cormac; "The Great Irish Famine", Cambridge University Press, 1989.
[2] Dudley-Edwards, R; Williams, TD; "The Great Famine, Studies in Irish History 1845-52", Lilliput Press, 1956, (Reprinted 1997)
[3] Collins, ME; "Ireland Three" The Educational Company, 1972.
[4] Kinealy, C; "This great calamity: The Irish Famine 1845-52", Dublin, 1994.
[5] Hodge, AM; Rees, R; "Union to Partition: Ireland 1800-1921", Colourpoint Books (, 1995.

The Summer of Black '47

At first, the government was reluctant to sell cooked food to the poor; they thought that this would make the poor too reliant. They wanted to give away ingredients and get the poor to cook their own food. But the Relief Commission pushed for it. In a report to the government, the leader, Sir Randolph Routh, said "The soup system promises to be a great resource and I am endeavouring to turn the views of the Committees to it. It will have a double effect of feeding the people at a lower price and economising our meal."

The government knew that once the 1847 harvest came in, their Relief Programme would be completed. So they devised a twofold plan. Firstly, they would pass a temporary act to establish soup kitchens. These would feed the people until the harvest that autumn. Originally, Peel had set up the Relief Commission as an organisation over and above the workhouses and Poor Law Unions. So the government's second plan, for later in the year, was to amalgamate the relief with the Poor Law system in a new commission.

Grain Imports [6kB] The first of these policies was passed into law in March 1847 in the Destitute Poor (Ireland) Act. Within a few months, the Public Works schemes were disbanded. Soup kitchens were set up in all but three of Ireland's 130 Poor Law Unions and the rations were being given to 780,000 people by May. By the start of June, this number had increased to 2,700,000. At their peak, in mid August, over three million people were being fed daily by the scheme. Much of this food was imported to Ireland by the government. Food exports from Ireland reached their lowest level in 1847, and net grain imports reached three-quarters of a million tons in the same year. The graph on the left shows wheat imports. Large quantities of American maize were also imported.

The food was not of particularly good nutritional quality; and there was not much of it. A recommended adult ration was a pound of meal, with half that for a child. But the decisions on exact numbers of rations and quantity of food were delegated to the local committees. In some areas, people were turned away simply because they "looked" healthy, and some did not even get their full ration. Cruelly, some people ended up in court to fight for the right to rations. In other areas, the committees and/or local landlords increased the ration size. Some committee members even gave two ration cards to the most needy. It is reported that in some areas, the number of rations given out exceeded the total population [2].

It does seem clear that, despite the imports, the government did not spend nearly enough money on the soup kitchens. One distributor of relief at Belmullet, county Mayo, said in May 1847: "Between today and yesterday, I saw the corpses of a girl, a man and an old woman who died of hunger. This day I saw a woman sinking into a faint, while I was giving out relief at Pullathomas to some peculiarly wretched families." But he insisted that they were doing everything they could with very limited resources: "Placed in the midst of a starving and mendicant population, whom... they [the Relief workers] are unable to supply with enough even to support nature, they are liable to continual charges of unfairness, partiality, indifference or want of judgement. It should be remembered that those who thus labour for the poor do so at a great sacrifice of time and trouble, and are in continual danger of being attacked by the pestilence which rages around them." [2 p243].

As this writer has observed, disease was an increasing problem. In the summer of 1847, the number of deaths from starvation decreased, but the number of deaths from disease increased. It was common for doctors and the relief workers themselves to die from disease. This disease was to spread and, in the end, disease killed far more people during the Famine than direct starvation did. As was stated previously, a quarter of a million people emigrated from Ireland in 1840. However, they brought their diseases with them and, on average, 40% of people who boarded the 'coffin ships' would die either en-route or immediately after arrival .

  Sources: [1] Ó Gráda, Cormac; "The Great Irish Famine", Cambridge University Press, 1989.
[2] Dudley-Edwards, R; Williams, TD; "The Great Famine, Studies in Irish History 1845-52", Lilliput Press, 1956, (Reprinted 1997)  

The Famine after 1847

The harvest of 1847 was a success. Tragically, however, so many people had been on the Public Works schemes and not on their farms, that too few potatoes had been planted that Spring. So it turned out that the relief measures were going to have to be extended into the winter of 1847-48 to make up the food deficit.

The government had felt that, with the anticipated harvest due in autumn 1847, the worst was now over. They decided that the workhouses, which operated as part of the pre-famine Poor Law system, should be made primarily responsible for relief, with soup kitchens only provided if absolutely necessary. Recall that the workhouses had been built with a capacity of 100,000. At the end of January 1847, they were housing 108,000. However, this was not evenly distributed: one of the worst examples was Kanturk workhouse in county Cork which, with a capacity of 800, was housing 1,653 people at one point. The government embarked on a scheme of expansion of the workhouses. They encouraged the local Poor Law Unions to build extra shelters and rent buildings for use as 'temporary' workhouses. They also built extensions to the workhouses. By March 1847, design capacity had increased to 114,000. In July 1849, 200,000 people were living in workhouses, with 800,000 getting relief outside. The design capacity reached 309,000 in 1851.

Throughout the rest of the famine period, which is generally regarded as ending in 1849, the workhouses never managed to keep up with demand, so overcrowding was always present. A charity worker who visited one workhouse wrote "In the bedrooms we entered there was not a mattress of any kind to be seen; the floors were strewed with a little dirty straw, and the poor creatures were thus littered down as close together as might be, in order to get the largest possible under one miserable rug - in some cases six children, for blankets we did not see" [2 p245]. An inspector to Lurgan workhouse, in county Armagh, in February 1847 wrote: "the supply of clothes was quite inadequate, and it had hence become necessary to use the linen of some of those who had died of fever and dysentery, without time having been afforded to have it washed and dried; and that, from the same cause, damp beds had in many instances been made use of" [2 p246]. Clearly, workhouses were terrible places to end up.

The new relief measures were passed under the Irish Poor Law Extension Act in June 1847. They were to derive all their money from local funds, in the form of accumulating debt. (In the end, most of this money was never repaid.) One provision of the Act, the so-called Gregory Clause (named after William Gregory, an MP for Dublin who suggested it) exempted from relief anybody who owned more than a quarter of an acre of land. This clause was widely misinterpreted, and some who should have qualified for relief were refused. Many unscrupulous landlords used the Gregory Clause as an excuse to evict thousands of unwanted cottiers from their estates. Those made homeless by these evictions were forced to join the workhouses or to built woefully inadequate shelters on other people's land. The picture below shows a village at Erris, county Mayo, after the landlord had evicted the residents.

A Mayo village after evictions [13kB]

To the anguish of the people, the Potato Blight struck the harvest of 1848, wiping out most of the crop. With the continued improvements to the workhouses, deaths from starvation were not as great in 1848 as they had been in 1847. Nevertheless, the winter of 1848 to 1849 was a hard one and disease helped to wipe out tens of thousands more people. Even doctors themselves were infected. The Dublin Quarterly Journal of Medical Science wrote "From several districts of Ireland, where the late epidemic committed fearful ravages, no reports have been received. In many cases we regret to say that this has been caused by the lamentable mortality amongst our professional brethren" [2 p310].

The diseases, mainly fever and dysentery, finally began to wane after the winter. In Dublin, it was declared over in February 1848, but in most areas it lingered for another one or two years. Many of these people died merely because they had been weakened by hunger. If they had not been suffering from malnutrition, many may well have survived. The government began a campaign to try to get farmers to grow green vegetables and other root crops other than potatoes and, while they met success in some areas, most farmers could not be persuaded to give up their traditional methods. The Society of Friends purchased and operated a 'model farm' to teach farmers new methods of agriculture.

The Potato Blight struck yet again in the harvest of autumn 1849, but not at the same intensity that it had in 1848. Things were complicated when an epidemic of Cholera broke out in the winter of 1848 to 1849. It reached its peak in May and died away by the summer. The disease was coincidental to the famine, and struck in Britain as well. It did not differentiate between rich and poor. At the time it was not known how Cholera spread, and there were fierce arguments about whether or not victims should be segregated from those who were not ill. (We now know that Cholera spreads through contaminated water, not by contact.)  The epidemic was heaviest in the towns, with the worst effects being Drogheda, Galway, Belfast, Limerick, Waterford, Kilkenny and Cork. We have no reliable way of knowing how many died in the epidemic, but it acted as the final insult of the Famine period.

The workhouses continued to manage the relief effort, and herein lies the difficulty in determining when exactly the 'end' of the famine was. Many of the destitute had ended up with nothing, and therefore found it very difficult to get out of the workhouses again. The famine ended gradually, with recovery spreading from east to west, as the capacity of the workhouses increased and the number of inmates decreased. By 1849-1850 the workhouses had enough capacity to take appropriate care of all the destitute. Emigration also continued, although not quite at the levels of 1847. Approximately 200,000 per year left between 1848 and 1852 inclusive. Most of these travelled to America.

The Extension Act of 1847 indicated that the government believed that the famine was over, and this view was not reversed in the light of the crop failure of 1848. This premature decision no doubt contributed to the deaths that continued to occur in both the winters of 1847-48 and 1848-49. During the famine, total relief expenditure was £8 million by the government, £7 million from Irish taxes and well over £1 million from landlords [1]. This still only amounted to 2 to 3% of the total government expenditure during those years, and academics argue over whether, given the UK's poor financial state at the time, any more could have been spent. Nevertheless, this value of 2-3% does seem anomalous given that the government found £100 million to spend on a war with Turkey.
Sources:[1] Ó Gráda, Cormac; "The Great Irish Famine", Cambridge University Press, 1989.
[2] Dudley-Edwards, R; Williams, TD; "The Great Famine, Studies in Irish History 1845-52", Lilliput Press, 1956, (Reprinted 1997)

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