What was the impact of the Irish Famine on Ireland and the world?

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Bridget O'Donnell and her two starving children during the Irish Potato Famine in 1849

The Great Irish Famine (1845-1850), one of the last great famines in western Europe. The Famine was a disaster for Ireland and in many ways the country has not recovered from its impact to this day. The Famine or the ‘Great Hunger’ as it was known led to the deaths of 1 million people and the emigration of another two million. The article will examine the impact of the famine on Irish society and how it ‘decisively shaped the country’s history and the nature of its society and economy.[1] The Irish Famine was not just of local importance but was to have international repercussions. This was because it led to the emigration of millions of Irish people, which changed societies from North America to Australasia.

Background

Ireland in 1840 was largely a peasant society, where Catholic tenants worked the land of a Protestant landowning elite. Much of the agricultural land in the country was part of the estates of Protestant landlords.[2] The country was part of the United Kingdom and was ruled by a British appointed administration in Dublin Castle, who were under the direct control of the London government. The country was overwhelmingly agricultural with little or no industry. Much of the population depended on the potato for their livelihood. The vast majority of the Irish population lived in conditions of abject poverty.[3] In 1845, the potato blight was inadvertently brought to Europe from South America. The potato blight arrived in Ireland in the summer of 1846. It caused the potato crop to fail in many areas.[4]

By the winter of 1846 there was widespread hunger in rural Ireland. The British government began a relief program and purchased maize in large quantities to help the starving Irish. However, the potato blight caused the potato to fail again in 1847. The Irish poor starved in great numbers, many travelled to urban centres, in their desperation for food.[5] A change in administration in London, resulted in a change in the British government’s relief program in Ireland and reduced the amount of food relief available in the country.[6] This led to ever more starvation in the country. The malnourished population began to suffer from various epidemic diseases such as typhus. As the rural poor sought food in urban centres they began to spread these infectious diseases and this led to high death rates in cities such as Dublin, Limerick and Belfast. The potato blight continued to ruin the potato crop until 1850. By 1850, some one million people had died of starvation and disease and Ireland had been changed forever.

Socio-Economic Impact

Perhaps the greatest economic impact of the famine was a change in the nature of landholding and agriculture. Prior to the great Famine, the vast majority of Irish families suffered on farms that were less than two acres. They survived on what they could grow, mostly potatoes. However, after the famine, this was no longer possible, and one of the main impacts of the Famine, was that farms became larger, in order to ensure that they provided families with a sustainable level of income. Many landowners, who mostly lived in London, sought to exploit the situation in the aftermath of the Famine. Many of their poor tenants had left the land and their farms. They landowners sought to encourage livestock rearing on their estates, which was more profitable. Increasingly, Ireland moved from arable farming to livestock rearing. However, this led to a great deal of unemployment in the country and did not benefit the poor. As a result, Ireland remained a poverty stricken country.

The Famine led to great social changes. Prior to the famine Irish people married young and had large families. After the horrors of the famine, Irish people married later, and if they did not have a reasonable sized farm or chance of steady employment, they never married. As a result of these changes Ireland had a high rate of unmarried and single people and this led to social problems, in particular high levels of alcoholism.[7]

Religion

The majority of the population in Ireland were Catholics (75%) with a large Protestant minority (25%). Ireland was traditionally a very religious society. After the Famine, Irish society became even more religious. Some scholars have suggested that the trauma of the Famine resulted in the people turning to religion for support and hope. In the decades after the Famine, Irish Catholics became renowned for their strict observance of their religion. Every year thousands of Irish people became priests or nuns. The Catholic clergy became very powerful in Irish life and society.[8] In the years after the Famine the Catholic population strict interpretation of their religion and the growing influence of the Catholic hierarchy worried many in Irish Protestants. This was ultimately to lead to increasing tensions between Catholics and Protestants and this was to lead to conflict between the two communities throughout the twentieth century in Ireland. The Famine also made Irish people very anti-British and this was one of the factors that lead to the emergence of violent Irish nationalist organisations such as the Fenians and ultimately the Irish Republican Army.[9]

Emigration

For many decades after the Famine there was large scale emigration from Ireland. It led to a decline in the Irish population, in 1840 there were 8 and a half million people in Ireland in 1960 there were only 4.5 million, despite the country having a high birth rate. Many Irish people had left the country for America and elsewhere prior to the Famine.[10] However, because of the Famine, millions were to leave the country. This was to have dramatic consequences for the populations of many countries. Soon there were substantial Irish communities all over the world. These Irish emigrants helped to develop the economics of their new homes. Irish emigrants settled on the frontier in countries such as America, Canada and Australia. Emigrants from Ireland helped these nations to expand and to grow. However, as many of the Irish were Catholics this led to sectarian tensions with existing Protestant communities in countries such as America and Canada.[11]

Population due to the Irish Potato Famine

Conclusion

The Famine was tragedy for Ireland. It led to mass starvation and an unprecedented humanitarian crisis. It decisively shaped Irish society for many decades and even to the present day. The Famine resulted increased tensions between Catholic and Protestant and between Britain and Ireland and this led to violence and instability for many years. Its most ‘durable legacy was the continuing high levels of emigration from the country, which lasted until at least the 1990s.[12] This was a tragedy for Ireland and as a result of emigration, the Irish population has still not recovered to its pre-Famine level. However, the Famine led to mass emigration from the country and this was to have significant consequences for many nations, especially in North America. Irish emigrants helped countries such as Canada and America to fulfil their potential and become great countries.
  1. Donnelly, James S (2005), The Great Irish Potato Famine, Sutton Publishing, p. 89.
  2. Patrick Hickey, Famine in West Cork: The Mizen Peninsula, Land and People 1800-1852 (Mercier Press, Cork, 2002).
  3. Hickey, Famine in West Cork, p.8.
  4. Dr Dan Donovan, ‘Diary of a dispensary doctor’ Southern Reporter. February 13th 1847.
  5. Hickey, p. 350.
  6. Foster, R.F (1988), Modern Ireland 1600–1972, Penguin Group, p. 156.
  7. Gallagher, Thomas (1987), Paddy's Lament, Ireland 1846–1847: Prelude to Hatred, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, p. 7.
  8. Foster, p. 234.
  9. Foster, p. 11.
  10. Foster, p. 134.
  11. Foster, p. 245.
  12. Foster, p. 345.
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