Famine in Ireland 1300 to 1900

I posted earlier in the year on Cormac O’Grada’s recently published book on famines. He has also recently released, among several other works, a working paper on the history of Irish famines since 1300. A version is available here and provides a chronology and history of several Irish famines pre-dating the 1840s.



19 replies on “Famine in Ireland 1300 to 1900”

It is wrong to think of the 1847-1849 famine as a work of nature. It was genocide by the then UK government with a political objective in mind. It is also a politically-motivated myth that Ulster suffered much less severely than the rest of Ireland. Between 1841 and 1851 the population of Ireland as a whole fell by 19.8 per cent. In Ulster (9 counties) the fall was 15.8 per cent. But, if we exclude staunchly loyal (as they were then) Cos Antrim and Down from the Ulster figures, the fall in the other 7 Ulster counties was 20.0 per cent, almost the same as that for Ireland as a whole. The nationalist counties in (what is now) N. Ireland suffered just as much as the non-Ulster counties. Between 1841 and 1851 Derry’s population fell by 13.6 per cent, Armagh’s by 15.8 per cent, Tyrone’s by 18.3 per cent and Fermanagh’s by 25.8 per cent. The long-term political effect of the 1847-1849 famine in Ulster is that without it partition could never have occurred. In 1841 nationalists significantly outnumbered unionists in (what is now) Northern Ireland (although, of course, they didn’t have the vote). The effect of the famine was to reverse this. In 1841 the population of unionist Antrim and Down was only 43% of that of (what is now) Northern Ireland, while that of the other 4 mainly nationalist counties was 57%. Had these proportions remained the same, partition could never have occurred. But, resulting from the famine and continuing economic decline, by the time of partition in 1922 the population of unionist Antrim and Down was 65% of that of (what is now) Northern Ireland. It was this that made partition possible.

The 1847-1849 was a potato famine or a ‘Great hunger’. Calling it a famine doesn’t seem apt to me. As it was an ‘extreme scarcity of food’ (the definition of a famine), it was an extreme scarcity of Potato’s.

Anyone interested in the history should check out the ‘Atlas of the Great Irish Famine’. Great book/resource.


I don’t think one can go as far as calling it a Genocide. It’s probably close though.

The O Grada paper states (p 13): ” Accounts differ as to how much a greater commitment to saving lives would have achieved, but all view the famine as due to a combination of economic backwardness, an ecological shock, and an inadequate and, many would argue, callous official response.” The Catholic population, especially in Ulster, was on the poorer land and generally was more dependent on subsistence agriculture than their Protestant neighbours: it was therefore more or less inevitable that a failure of the potato crop would affect Catholics disproportionately.

If JtO wants to indulge in blame games then he should go back to the plantations of the sixteenth and earlier centuries, which pushed Catholics off the better land in the first place. To say that it was “genocide by the then UK government with a political objective in mind” (JtO) is quite frankly rubbish.

@ John Sheehan

I’m glad you nailed that old nationalist ‘genocide’ canard, which has been doing the rounds since John Mitchel first came up with it in the mid-19th century – he who strongly believed in slavery and campioned the rights of Southern slave-owners during the American civil war.

Cormac O’Grada’s paper is fascinating. As everyone know local ‘famine’ conditions persisted in the west and north-west of Ireland, in particular in the congested districts, up to and after Independence. A Dail committee exchange of 13 February 1925 highlights conditions of “exceptional distress in the West” arising on foot of potato and turf failures following an extremely wet winter. (DER 13 Feb. 1925, Vol.10 (3) col. 211) The Minister for Agriculture and Lands, Patrick J. Hogan, and several other deputies, were at pains to stress that there was no ‘famine’. The government had voted £170,000 for distress relief, Hogan noted. All were agreed that the problem was endemic in certain parts of the west. But they appear more concerned about foreign newspaper reports that might damage the reputation of the fledgling Irish state than the suffering of those afflicted by acute shortages of food and fuel.

Some people attribute the current revolt in Syria to climate change and 1848, the year of uprisings across Europe, followed food shortages in several European countries that prompted food export bans.

While Ireland was the main victim of potato blight, it also damaged crops in other northern European countries, in particular the Netherlands, Belgium and Prussia and crucially coincided with bad rye and wheat harvests.

In 1845 Sir Robert Peel was prime minister of a Tory government. He knew Ireland well having entered the House of Commons as a member for the rotten borough of Cashel and he later served as chief secretary of Ireland.

The Irish universities Act was passed in that year and Peel’s proposal of a rise in the annual grant for the Royal College of St. Patrick, Maynooth, was strongly opposed as a “popish scheme.”

Unfortunately for Ireland, abolition of the Corn Laws split the Tories and in today’s parlance, a neo-liberal Whig government took power and the new PM was sceptical about the extent of food shortages in Ireland as Peel’s “dire” predictions had not materialised.

Sir Charles Trevelyan was given responsibility for Irish famine relief and he was of a mindset that maybe would make Wolfgang Schäuble, German finance minister, seem like Father Christmas.

He believed the Famine was God’s will and a corrective for over-population and he closed food depots in Ireland that had been selling Indian corn. His motivation was to prevent the Irish from becoming “habitually dependent” on the British government. Public work projects were funded to provide some employment.

The continued right to lifetime public service employment in Ireland dates from 1853 when Sir Charles Trevelyan recommended it in a report he co-authored for the British government.

The Sir Gregory Hardlines character in Anthony Trollope’s novel, “The Three Clerks” (1858), which personifies the civil service Pharisee is based on Trevelyan and more recently, boozers here would know that he has also been immortalised in “The Fields of Athenry.”

A more helpful Tory government would likely have reduced some of the suffering but hardly materially at the time.

The Duke of Wellington wrote in 1830:

“I confess that the annually recurring starvation in Ireland, for a period differing, according to the goodness or badness of the season, from one week to three months, gives me more uneasiness than any other evil existing in the United Kingdom.

It is starvation, because it is the fact that, although there is an abundance of provisions in the country of a superior kind, and at a cheaper rate than the same can be bought in any other part of Her Majesty’s dominions, those who want in the midst of plenty cannot get, because they do not possess even the small sum of money necessary to buy a supply of food.

It occurs every year, for that period of time that elapses between the final consumption of one year’s crop of potatoes, and the coming of the crop of the following year, and it is long or short, according as the previous season has been bad or good.

Now when this misfortune occurs, there is no relief or mitigation, excepting a recourse to public money. The proprietors of the country, those who ought to think for the people, to foresee this misfortune, and to provide beforehand a remedy for it, are amusing themselves in the Clubs in London, in Cheltenham, or Bath, or on the Continent, and the Government are made responsible for the evil, and they must find the remedy for it where they can—anywhere excepting in the pockets of Irish Gentlemen.

Then, if they give public money to provide a remedy for this distress, it is applied to all purposes excepting the one for which it is given; and more particularly to that one, viz. the payment of arrears of an exorbitant rent.

However, we must expect that this evil will continue, and will increase as the population will increase, and the chances of a serious evil, such as the loss of a large number of persons by famine, will be greater in proportion to the numbers existing in Ireland in the state in which we know that the great body of the people are living at this moment.’

Cormac Ó Gráda wrote:

“The Irish famine relief effort was constrained less by poverty than by ideology and public opinion. Too much was expected of the Irish themselves, including Irish landlords. Too much was blamed on their dishonesty and laziness. Too much time was lost on public works as the main vehicle of relief. By the time food was reaching the starving through the soup kitchens, they were already vulnerable to infectious diseases, against which the medical science of the day was virtually helpless.”

Extracts from:



Scholars have been arguing the conflict – climate link for more than a decade, and fairly vociferously over the past couple of years. Generally it is accepted at this stage, including in the recent IPCC Fifth Assessment report, that it is well-nigh impossible to forge any direct causal link between warming and outbreaks of civil conflict, especially when embedded in multiple failures of politics and policy as more immediate causal factors. You might find this article of interest: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/wcc.336/epdf

@John Sheehan

So, apart from stealing all the land and all the food sources owned by Irish Catholics, the UK Government was blameless in relation to the death from starvation of 1-2 million of those same Irish Catholics?

There was no shortage of food sources in Ireland in 1847-1849. There were millions of cattle. The problem was that the mass of the population had no access to those food sources. And this was because of politics and not nature.

John Sheehan is wise to draw our attention to the seventeenth century (and earlier) roots of the distribution of land ownership that gave rise to the differential impact of crop failures and climate change on the Catholic population in subsequent periods.
Jane Olmeyer’s exhaustive study “Making Ireland English” (Yale Uinversity Press, 2012) helps us to understand the processes involved. The driving motivation was not so much genocide as greed.
Interestingly, Meron Benvenisti, one-time mayor of Jerusalem, compared the pseudo-legal confiscation mechanisms used by the Jewish population of Israel to expand the state’s territory with those used by the English in Ireland in the seventeenth century.

@ JtO: I did not say the British Government was blameless regarding the famine: I just said that the causes (as in the quote I gave from OGrada) were a lot more complex than you asserted.

Interestingly, economic protectionism (in this case the Corn Laws) may have been a factor in putting grain beyond affordability to many people: the repeal of the Corn Laws was in some respects due to the Famine crisis. This issue was a cause of prolonged and bitter dispute in England – the landed interests versus the urban consumer – which shows that political and economic controversy were important. Genocide (deliberate killing of large numbers) is an entirely different matter.

Most interesting paper by the master in this area.

I’m still not clear on the early 1800s & 1815 etc …. pre-great famine economic influences …. the rise of the English middle class as industrialism and commerce developed and the demand for more protein in the form of Irish beef …. hence the move from cereal [labour intensive] to the original ‘sacred cow’ which, imho, continues up to today as the cottiers and farm labourers becamer redundant …. with the famine wiping out very small holdings of an acre or so …. this research on early 19thC, imho, remains open.

Guys, guys, relax. The Germans and their west-kraut lackeys will never actually let us all starve or anything. That’s just…ridiculous, right?


Your post brought to mind James S. Donnelly Jr.’s ‘The Land and people of 19th C. Cork’ which I read some 40 years ago (eeek!) and which, as I recall, showed that change in the agricultural system from cereal production to meat in Munster was underway for at least two decades prior to the Great Famine. Given the increase of 200% + in the Irish population in the century before the famine, and the reliance of some 5m out of the overall 8.6m of that population on the potato, a crisis in Ireland, appears inevitable at some point even if potato failure had not occurred when it did. The outdoor relief scheme, with its ‘quarter acre rule’ introduced in 1849 or thereabouts, accelerated the ‘great clearances’ of the cottier class from the land and the transition in the agricultural system in most regions. As noted in a previous post, local ‘famines’ persisted in what latterly were defined as the congested districts, that included most of the western seaboard counties (except Clare, due to the quirks in the land valuation system) to the end of the 19th C. and into the first quarter of the 20th.


Thanks for the link to Donnelly, and further supportive intel on the proposed origin of ‘the sacred cow’!

The amalgam of forces in the 50 dynamic years pre Great Famine led to both the disaster itself with the potato as the endpoint and the treasonous response, from a commonweal perspective, from an amoral imperial administration. Economic historians must have great fun some times!

@ DoD

By all accounts, there was more than a little opposition in Ireland to the imposition of new taxes to pay for the changes in famine relief post 1848. Public opinion towards relief was also divided in England, fuelled in part by hostility towards the Young Irelanders’ activities. The notion which had taken hold from the early stages of the crisis that the famine was an Irish problem, and that the costs of relief schemes should be borne from Irish resources rather than via a transfer from the rest of Britain, had already turned a crisis into a disaster by the time the crop failed for the third time in four seasons. Rather than all of this constituting an ‘amoral’ response by the administration, I would argue it was more an excess of moral judgements in keeping with the prevailing economic and political ideologies of the mid 19th century.

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