Ireland’s Great Hunger: 13 Facts About the 19th-Century Potato Famine that Devastated the Emerald Isle
Ireland’s rugged and beautiful landscape has captivated people’s imagination for generations. As picturesque as it may be, however, the North Atlantic island can be an unforgiving environment.
Before gaining independence in 1922, Ireland had been colonized for nearly 1000 years. The people had their ancient culture repressed and torn to shambles multiple times, and experienced severe poverty and famines—the longest and most devastating being the potato famine of the 1840s.
Remembered as the Great Hunger (or Gorta Mór in Irish Gaelic), the lack of proper aid paired with layers of broken policies and a fractured response from a distant British government led to unimaginable—and likely avoidable—suffering in Ireland. Here’s how it all played out.
1. Potatoes weren’t introduced to Ireland until the 16th century.
Although they’re a longstanding Irish staple, potatoes didn’t originate in Ireland. How exactly the tubers made it to the British Isles remains unknown; according to one popular but controversial theory, they were introduced from the Americas in 1585 by English explorer Sir Walter Raleigh.
Before the potato’s introduction, the Irish people survived off the ocean and livestock. They required vast amounts of land and resources for ranching and tremendous strength and tenacity to fish the North Atlantic. Growing potatoes, on the other hand, needed less space than tending livestock. Many Irish peasants learned to adopt the crop after land ownership shrunk into oblivion as the English confiscated and claimed their land.
Not only did potatoes thrive in Ireland’s damp and rocky environment, but they provided a bountiful and affordable crop packed with nutrients. In fact, for several generations, most Irish peasants survived on a diet of mainly spuds.
The effect of potato-based agriculture was two-fold: It caused the country’s population to grow, but it also helped the British ruling class earn higher rental income from more Irish families living on smaller subdivided plots of land.
2. The British government greatly repressed Ireland’s population in the centuries leading up to the Great Hunger.
The ruling British government forced a slew of harsh penal laws on most of the Irish population throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. They were intended to pressure Catholics to convert to Protestantism and reduce the power of native Irish people; as such, the laws also aimed to eliminate much of Ireland’s unique cultural identity.
These rules prevented Irish Catholics from attending mass, owning land, speaking Gaelic, practicing cultural traditions, educating their children, or traveling abroad. Further, they weren’t allowed to make money through export trade, own a horse worth more than £5, own weapons, join the military, or elect government—and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Although eradicated in 1829, the Penal Laws left generational scars felt during and long after the famine. Many rural Irish Catholics in the mid-19th century had little opportunity for advancement and only knew one reality—growing potatoes on tiny plots of land for consumption and resale.
3. Ireland suffered four years of potato blight in the mid-1800s.
By the 1840s, nearly half of Ireland’s people relied on a successful potato crop for survival. The dependence on one sole crop unwittingly put the Irish people in exponential danger: One bad growing season would spell disaster for millions. In 1845, this overreliance became sorely realized.
In 1844, a highly contagious fungus called blight made its way over the Atlantic from Mexico, decimating potato crops across Europe. Unlike Ireland, however, other European countries were better prepared for such an event: They had planted various types of potatoes, whereas Ireland relied on just one species.
In Ireland, the 1845 farming year began uneventfully. Peasants tended their fields and watched their crops flourish. As the weeks passed, however, it became clear that something was wrong.
When stored properly, potatoes can be safe for consumption for up to eight months after picking. But these tubers were different. The plants’ leaves darkened and wilted. Within weeks, the smell of rot was palpable in the air as potatoes across the island quickly spoiled into blackened mush.
It would be a hungry winter ahead, but people believed the following year’s harvest would be their salvation. They were wrong. Back-to-back potato crop failures left people starving to death. Many living along the coasts sold their fishing nets to pay rent, resorting to eating raw, bacteria-ridden shellfish found along the shores, despite the risk of dysentery. They were too weak and hungry to cook it.
Others no longer had the strength needed to battle the aggressive waves of the North Atlantic for fish—a task that requires more physical exertion than their malnourished bodies could handle. There are also accounts of people resorting to eating grass, weeds, and far worse to survive. Ultimately, Ireland endured four years of decimated potato crops, misery, and starvation.
4. A British prime minister attempted to import corn to help the starving people of Ireland.
Under a trade rule called the Corn Law, foreign grain imports were only legal if the cost of domestic stockpiles reached a certain level of inflation. Maintaining an insular monopoly on grain markets benefited British merchants and politicians financially, whereas importing cheap grain from Europe or the Americas could severely undercut their monetary stability.
With corn prices kept artificially high but not high enough to welcome imports, low-income families across the British Isles struggled to make ends meet. British Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel saw Ireland’s failed potato crop of 1845 as a sign of an oncoming crisis and looked to readjust the Corn Laws.
Sidestepping parliament, Peel brought reserves of cheap Indian corn from the Americas to Ireland, which he planned to sell at a reduced price to feed the hungry population. Unfortunately, Peel’s Corn Law reformation was a flop. Not only were his peers enraged by his actions, but he failed to realize that Ireland didn’t have enough grain mills capable of refining the import into cornmeal for human consumption. He was soon replaced by Prime Minister Lord John Russell and Assistant Secretary to the Treasury, Charles Trevelyan.
The new government did little to continue Peel’s attempts to import and sell cheap corn. Why? Its rulers simply didn’t want to upset local grain merchants and strongly believed in a hands-off policy for social assistance issues.
5. The British government implemented a failed public works scheme during the famine.
Some in the British Parliament—including Trevelyan, the very man in charge of overseeing Irish relief efforts—didn’t believe in handouts and viewed the Irish people as lazy and the famine as God’s will [PDF]. Instead of offering direct relief, they hatched a public works scheme whereby destitute citizens could earn a small income building stone roads.
But there was a catch: Only people unable to find employment elsewhere and who were physically fit enough to work were eligible hires. This rule left many of Ireland’s most vulnerable out of the picture.
With multiple failed crop seasons, farmers desperate to support their families sought employment through these government-organized public works projects. People of all ages spent their days breaking apart stones and laying roads throughout the countryside. The workers toiled for upwards of 10 hours a day, on empty stomachs and in grueling circumstances. Many people dropped dead from exhaustion and malnutrition while working on these roads. The income they earned was meager—barely enough to pay rent.
The British government decided to scrap the public works project in 1847, deeming it a pointless and failed endeavor. The suddenness of this decision left many workers hopelessly destitute.
Today, those stone roads to nowhere are still visible throughout Ireland’s landscape and remain a poignant reminder of the great famine.
6. The British government limited who could seek aid from a workhouse.
Around the time the public works projects ended, the British government sought ways to distance themselves financially from Ireland’s terrible situation—Britain knew the severity of the famine but didn’t want the Irish people relying on handouts from their tax dollars.
Menacing, jail-like institutions called workhouses dotted the Irish countryside. These were rooted in an older English practice: In early 17th-century England, caring for the poor became the responsibility of local parishes, who built workhouses meant to employ those in need. An 1834 amendment to Britain’s Poor Law tightened the restrictions around who could use a workhouse; under the new rules, anyone who wanted help had to live in a workhouse, and could not receive aid if they remained in their own home. Ireland instituted its own Poor Law Act in 1838, which was similar to England’s policy. The poor could seek food and shelter within dehumanizing communal living conditions. The workhouses were terrible places, where conditions were kept purposefully dismal to discourage people from actually relying on their aid.
To ensure workhouses remained a last resort option among an increasingly impoverished population, Parliament amended the law in 1847 to save themselves money and limit workhouse intake. Under the new rules, anyone who held more than a quarter of an acre of land was ineligible for workhouse relief.
Starved of food and out of options, many Irish families felt they had no choice but to give up their tiny plots of land to seek help from these overrun institutions. Unfortunately, despite the fact that they gave up their homes, many were turned away due to overcapacity.
7. Many Irish people became homeless during the famine.
As a result of this ballooning vagrant population, Britain turned their attention to the landlords and Anglo-ruling elite in Ireland, declaring that they should be the ones to finance the Irish poor. Under the new rules Trevelyan had introduced in the Poor Law Extension Act, Irish taxpayers were expected to foot the bill. Those who couldn’t pay had their personal belongings expropriated. Uncollected taxes quickly became the responsibility of already cash-strapped landlords to repay on behalf of every tenant living on their land.
Many landlords feared going destitute themselves and sought to get rid of as many tenants as possible. After all, if no people lived on their property, they wouldn’t have to pay for them.
Rampant mass eviction became commonplace, with entire villages left abandoned as people struggled to survive by the roadside or in dugout hovels.
8. Some people tried to help Ireland during the Great Hunger.
In 1846, Quakers from the United States and Britain began helping the Irish population, an act they viewed as a Godly responsibility. The Quakers gathered clothing, money, and seeds to hand out to famine victims, and in an attempt to feed the growing number of starving Irish people, they became the first to provide soup missions across the country. The Quakers struggled to keep up with demand, though they carried on as best they could.
By February 1847, the British government also began offering soup to those in need. The Soup Kitchen Act replaced the failed public works projects and was funded by local taxation. It was a temporary measure that allowed workhouses to provide aid outside their walls—formerly a forbidden action. The meager rations and cornmeal soup they offered allowed people to temporarily avoid death by starvation. But because the soup had little nutritional value in it, people remained dangerously weak; many suffered from scurvy.
Historians have deemed the soup kitchens an overall success—at their peak, they served 3 million people per day—though they certainly weren’t perfect. They were a costly endeavor and were never meant to be permanent. Though millions of people relied on them, the government began closing the soup kitchens in August of 1847.
9. A lot of Irish people were wary of the British soup missions.
It wasn’t long before rumors swirled among the masses. Though many Irish people used the soup kitchens, some avoided them altogether due to a deep distrust of the British government and ruling elite and a belief that they’d be forcibly converted to Protestantism in return for food.
Withholding soup based on religious doctrine was uncommon, at least at government-run institutions. It was, however, an issue at some privately run outreach sites like the Achill Mission. Nonetheless, the damaging effects of these rare occurrences caused broad-reaching paranoia among a vulnerable and traumatized population.
For those unlucky enough to find themselves at the mercy of these irregular soup missions, converting to Protestantism for soup would be an unforgivable endeavor. The few who did were shunned as traitors and coined “soupers” for life.
10. “Black ’47” was a particularly devastating time during the Great Hunger.
Forever etched into the collective psyche of the Irish people,1847—otherwise known as “Black ’47”—was the perfect storm and brought unimaginable horrors, particularly in the south and west of the island. Many Irish families, now homeless, starved for proper food for two years in a row, and weakened by rampant disease, were dying en masse by the roadside. It was one of the worst winters in living memory.
Missionaries and officials who dared to visit the island nation in 1847 were left horrified and haunted by the sights they encountered. “Famished and ghastly skeletons, to all appearances dead, were huddled in a corner on some filthy straw … I approached with horror and found by a low moaning they were alive—they were in fever, four children, a woman, and what had once been a man,” wrote magistrate Nicholas Cummins upon touring the town of Skibbereen.
Many people died that year, while many more fled Ireland forever, making it the darkest year in the potato famine.
11. More than 1 million people died during Ireland’s Great Famine.
It’s believed that the great famine took more than 1 million lives. Not only did many people suffer the pain of starvation, which can take several agonizing weeks to succumb to, but many more died from disease. The horrendous living conditions of the peasant poor, where large families shared cramped, damp, and dirty quarters, sometimes with livestock, became a breeding ground for sicknesses. Simply referred to as “fever,” several devastating epidemics swept through the country during the famine, including typhus, smallpox, dysentery, and recurring fever, to name a few.
12. Ireland continued to export goods during the Great Hunger.
Exported goods such as grain, beef, honey, beans, and an array of other food items grown for profit continued to pour out of the island for foreign consumption. As roughly three-quarters of Ireland’s land was dedicated to profit crops grown on the free market, several have argued that Ireland could have avoided the intensity of the famine if exports had been halted or lessened.
But they weren’t. Instead, crop exports guarded by the British army continued on their way to various British destinations—all while millions of people suffered and starved.
With the government refusing to close the ports, local populations watched as boatloads of home-grown food left their shores. Not only was there a ruling belief among the government in London that the Irish people should sort out food shortages themselves, but, with money and trade on the table, there was no popular support for stopping the cash flow. Business is business, after all.
Imports into Ireland also steadily continued, but they were mainly in the form of corn feed for livestock or were highly priced goods far out of the financial reach of most people.
13. The Great Hunger caused a mass exodus from Ireland.
Facing starvation, disease, and few prospects at home, over 1 million Irish people looked to escape by any means possible. Those who could afford it boarded ships headed to England, Australia, Canada, and most often, America.
Those lucky enough to escape would quickly discover new horrors aboard crowded ships overflowing with hundreds of sick and dying compatriots. Drifting at sea for weeks and sometimes months, steerage passengers had to contend with poor ventilation, constant darkness, no bathroom, and no space to move about.
On top of this, numerous ships were ill-prepared for the journey. Some of the worst vessels were unable to provide enough food or medical care for the crossing. By the time some of these vessels—notoriously known as coffin ships—made landfall, up to half of their passengers were either buried at sea or lying dead among the barely living.
Those who survived the journey quickly realized they were often unwelcome in their newfound homes, where they became the target of hate and anti-Irish sentiment. There was a language barrier—many Irish people only understood Irish Gaelic—and in places like the United States, obtaining decent work or housing was nearly impossible because many opportunities were closed off to Irish immigrants.
With few options and little support, many Irish immigrants remained stuck in a cycle of poverty and crime. It wasn’t until the American Civil War that the luck of the Irish people changed; several took the opportunity to enlist in the army, a move that helped them integrate and find social acceptance.
Now, there are more Irish people in America than in Ireland itself. Ireland, on the other hand, still has a smaller population than before the famine.