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Irish Famine: Contributing Factors & Effects

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Irish Famine is one of the darkest periods in Irish history. In this lesson, we will explore the causes of this catastrophe, as well the impacts it had on the Irish people and identity.

The Irish Famine

When we think of traditional Irish food, one crop stands out above the rest: the potato. The potato has become virtually synonymous with Ireland, but why? The potato has played a major role in Irish history, going beyond the national cuisine and becoming the main factor in one of the darkest periods in the nation's history. What is Ireland without the potato? The Irish Famine of 1846 to 1850 may give us some idea.

Overview

In 1846, the potato crop in Ireland failed. For the next four to six years, the nation was plagued by starvation, poverty, and death on a massive scale. Up to a million people died, which at the time was roughly 1/8th of the total population. The Irish Famine devastated the population, but why? The United States had experienced a failure of its potato crop only years before, and survived without any major problem. To understand the Irish Famine, we need to explore the causes of the famine, the response, and its aftermath.

The Famine

By any account, the Irish Famine began with the failure of the potato crop in 1846. Ireland had long before been conquered by England, and almost all of the land was owned by wealthy English lords and businessmen. These lords rented out land to Irish laborers, using them to harvest crops that the lords could sell for profit. Nearly all of the Irish people lived in this arrangement. As a result, Ireland was being managed by absentee landowners, creating a geographical division between the people who owned the land and those who lived on it.

The English lords weren't interested in the welfare of their Irish workers, just their profits, so they planted a single crop across the island: potatoes. Potatoes, originally indigenous to the Americas, were cheap to plant, could grow well in the Irish climate, and could be sold to a large market. Around 1844, a potato disease called blight made its way into Ireland, and in 1846 that disease destroyed both the crops and the stores of potatoes used by Irish laborers for food. Without their main source of food, the Irish began to starve.

1849 drawing of Irish family
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The Response

The Irish Famine was, at its simplest, a result of overreliance on a single crop. However, what started as a matter of crop failure was magnified by the response of the British. Since England controlled Ireland, they were in charge of responding to the crisis. Unfortunately, the British provided only minimal assistance to the Irish, letting a crop failure turn into full-scale famine. In fact, even the British-funded soup kitchens to feed the starving were only maintained for about 6 months before being cancelled.

Economics

We can start to understand the Irish Famine by looking at the relationship between economics and government in the 19th century. The lands worked by Irish laborers were owned by absentee lords who lived in England. They saw Ireland and the failure of the potato crop in economic terms, as it applied to their businesses. At the time, the dominant economic philosophy was that of a laissez-faire system, in which the government doesn't intervene in economic matters, leaving that to the businesses and the market itself. Since the English understood Ireland in economic terms, government intervention was unnecessary.

Anti-Irish Prejudice

The Irish maintained different cultural and religious beliefs from the British, and the lack of Irish desire to behave as proper English citizens convinced the Brits that Irish people were inferior. This in turn led to two prejudicial philosophies.

Providentialism was a theory that the Irish had brought the famine upon themselves by offending God. The Irish were predominantly Catholic, while England adhered to the Anglican branch of Protestant Christianity. Therefore, many English saw the famine as an act of divine will against the heretical Catholics. The other theory was that of moralism, which stated that the Irish shortcomings were due to their moral and personal inadequacies. Basically, the famine was blamed on Irish laziness and other presumed traits of the Irish people. If the Irish brought this upon themselves, why should the English bother intervening? That was the attitude, and so the English let the Irish starve.

1846 English cartoon of the Irish as violent as savage
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