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The Great Famine of Ireland: Causes and Consequences

By Edited Oct 6, 2016 0 0

Arguably the most tragic event in Irish history, the Great Famine of 1845-1849 was a period of mass starvation that led to the fall of Irish population from 8,175,124 in 1841 to 6,552,385 in 1861, as nearly 2,500,000 of the Irish either emigrated (about 1,000,000 people) or fell victim to the famine (around 1,500,000 persons) (“Irish Potato Famine”). In this article, I will examine the issue of the British government complicity in the Great Famine, and make a conclusion about causal links between the economic structure and political situation of Ireland and  the Famine's severity.

The 19th centuryIreland  was an impoverished agrarian country, with the majority of land being owned by Protestant landlords, many of whom scarcely visited their estates. The majority of rural population consisted of tenants-at-will who were forced to pay rent to their landlords and were deprived of the right of property to any improvements they made on their land plots, stifling any incentive to make innovations in agricultural production (“Irish Potato Famine”). The importance of potatoes for the Irish rural economy was underscored by its unique features: potato was easy to cultivate in the temperate and damp climate of Ireland, while its adaptability allowed it to be planted in the rocky soil of most of the island (Kinealy 32). In the 19th century, almost 3 million Irish peasants depended on potatoes for their subsistence (“Irish Potato Famine”). As potato is rich in carbohydrates, protein, minerals, and vitamins, this diet allowed Irish peasants to maintain relatively good health (“Irish Potato Famine”).

The Anglo-Irish landlords were nevertheless dismayed by the situation in Irish economy. They were impressed with the successes of British commercial agriculture and wished to emulate it by allocating more land to cattle raising and commercial farming. The British authorities were highly prejudiced against the common Irish, regarding them as ‘idle’ and disloyal subjects. The British thought that dependence on potato led to gross inefficiency in the Irish economy, and attributed all the manner of ills to ‘Irish indolence’ (Kinealy 85).  Both religion of the Irish and their communal agrarian mode of life seemed abhorrent to the laissez-faire-promoting Protestant elite of Great Britain.

When the Great Famine began with the fall of potato crops in September 1845, the issue of famine relief became intrinsically connected with the political struggle between the Tories and the Whigs with regard to the repeal of protectionist Corn Laws. The latter contributed to maintenance of high prices on foodstuffs in the domestic market of the United Kingdom (Kinealy 55). The beginning of relief programme administered by Charles Edward Trevelyan in early 1846 did not lead to the situation's improvements, as Trevelyan’s indifferent and bureaucratic attitude greatly complicated effective relief provision (“Irish Potato Famine”). The widespread view of the Famine as divine retribution against the unruly Irish also made relief efforts on the part of British authorities rather insincere, leading to the aggravation of the problem (Kinealy 61).

The laissez-faire ideology of Peel’s Government led to decisive rejection of any non-market solutions to the impending disaster; for instance, the export of grain was allowed to continue, and the proposal for levying a tax on absentee landlords in order to use funds for the support of starving peasants was rejected (Kinealy 61). Even though Peel secretly purchased ₤100,000 of Indian corn (maize) from the United States, the allocation of this corn proceeded on the basis of cost price, and then its price was subjected to usual market fluctuations, which meant that most cash-strapped Irish tenant farmers could hardly afford it (“Irish Potato Famine”). When a much larger failure of potatoes occurred in 1846, with almost 90% of the harvest lost, the situation was aggravated, as the newly elected Whig government, composed of supporters of liberal political economy and free trade doctrine, was unwilling to carry out any drastic interventionist policies with the objective of helping the Irish (Kinealy 66).

The Whig government did nothing to limit the commercial export of grain from Ireland to Great Britain, which continued unabated at the height of disaster, and sent additional troops to Ireland to prevent angry peasants from seizing grain destined for sale on the British market (“Irish Potato Famine”). The public works support was organized as a loan of the British government to the Irish taxpayers, with the provision for repayment, and the politics of fiscal rectitude pursued by Trevelyan-led Relief Administration in Ireland left the Irish landlords themselves responsible for relief provision. The latter were faced with the threat of mass bankruptcies due to delays in rent payments by starving tenants, and resorted to the campaign of mass eviction of pauperised tenants from their estates, either threatening them with legal suit or directly paying for their departure to North America (“Irish Potato Famine”).

The financial troubles of Great Britain in 1847, caused by the commercial recession, led to the further austerity measures in Ireland. The relief organization  on the basis of workhouses, with their dismal leaving and working conditions, conditional on the basis of forfeiture of land, led to further deterioration in the situation of pauperised population of Ireland, as well as to increasing land eviction and emigration (“Irish Potato Famine”). The Encumbered Estates Act of 1849 created a legal framework for a forced acquisition of bankrupt estates and led to the mass purchase of these lands by land speculators, who completed the process of mass eviction of the Irish farmers (Kinealy 121). The restructuring of Irish agriculture on the commercial basis was completed.

The account of the Famine's historydemonstrates how the initially bad harvest situation was further aggravated by the impact of vested interests and political considerations. As Robbins remarks, the hostility to government intervention in price formation and the commercial structure of agriculture often aggravate the food situation, even if the other components for famine are not present (Robbins 193). The absence of non-market-based relief programme in Ireland condemned much more people to death and destitution than would have been the case under different circumstances. 


“Irish Potato Famine.The History Place. The History Place, 15 Aug. 2000. Web. 19 Apr. 2011.

Kinealy, Christine. A Death-Dealing Famine: The Great Hunger in Ireland. London: Pluto Press, 1997. Print.

Robbins, Richard H. Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism. 2nd ed. Boston, MA: Allin & Bacon, 2001. Print. 

Bridget O'Donnell and her children in Clare, 184
Credit: The Illustrated London News, 1849


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