Watchman Willie Martin Archive

    The Great Famine

    The Great Famine, also known as the Potato Famine, The Great Hunger and An Gota

    Mor, reduced the population of Ireland by three million people, or 36%, during the middle

    of the 19th century. Most of these people immigrated, but it is estimated that one million

    or more died of starvation and disease. While the famine was initiated by a potato blight,

    its actual causes are rooted much deeper in the economic system in place at the time

    and the attitude of the English to the people of Ireland.


    The Economic system in Ireland during the early 19th century was largely an agricultural one. The country had

    no manufacturing centers to speak of and most of the people were subsistence farmers.

    During the early 1800's, the potato had become one of the main crops of Ireland. It was an easy crop to

    maintain, and gave a bountiful harvest, even greater than that of wheat. One acre of potatoes could and

    frequently did feed a family of five or six for the entire year. The other crops and food sources; grain, meat and

    dairy products were largely exported to England by landowners, where they could earn a larger profit.

    The common people in Ireland, which was over one third of the population, therefore largely subsisted on

    potatoes, while living with their families in small one‑room shacks which dotted the countryside. Many others

    rented their land, or paid a rack (bed) tax to work someone else's land or in sweathouses. Their only chance to

    get ahead in life was that of larger harvests, which required the use of strains of potatoes that were also

    susceptible to disease. By this means the stage was set for the disaster that followed.

                   The Famine

                   The famine, which was in full swing during 1847 and 1848, actually started in 1845.

                  During that year, the potato blight took one third of the crop in Ireland. Times although

                  harsh, would soon progress into a disaster. In 1846, the entire potato crop of the

                  country was lost, while starvation and disease were rampant among the lowest


                   The English government reacted by sending over scientists to study the problem, while

    keeping exports of grain and meat at the same levels. It seems that any reduction in exports, while possibly

    saving thousands of people would raise the price of food in England. This apparently was to the English, an

    unacceptable answer.

    Many people could not afford to pay their rent or rack tax due to the blight and were forcibly evicted, while

    many others simply starved on their own land. The government finally offered food to the starving millions at

    reduced prices; but to people that had no money at all with which to buy it. The only option to many was

    immigration, frequently paid for by landlords, but at a price which guaranteed the worst possible conditions.

    These ships were crammed beyond normal limits with already starving and diseased people; and many more

    died during the voyages.

    The situation was further aggravated when the English government demanded payment of taxes to further

    subsidize relief efforts. What little money that did actually trickle out of Ireland was used for ridiculous

    purposes. Corn was bought from America and shipped to Ireland, but for every ship that came, four or more left

    with food for England. In 1847, the famine was causing the death of people at such a large rate, that many

    were buried in long, communal trenches.

    Public opinion to the disaster was beginning to have an affect, however. The English

    government advanced a loan of ten million pounds in an effort to alleviate the situation.

    Men were put to work at half wages in purely inconsequential labors. The reason for

    this was specific, as the law forbade the use of this money in any manner that could

    give advantage to an Irishman in business over any Englishman. Therefore these men

    built roads to nowhere and docks where there was no city or port. They could not plant

    food with this money earned, as this would be a violation of the law. Troops were also

    sent in, but not to protect the peace, they were to collect taxes and rents owed to

    Landowners and the Government. In many cases, these troops confiscated the relief

    food and seed being sent in to Ireland.

    Many Irish were arrested and transported to the colonies under the Coercion Act for not having a home, while

    many more were arrested under the Vagrancy Act for not having a visible means of support.

    In 1848, the situation remained very bad, even though the blight had ended. The potato crop for various reasons

    had not been planted. Either people were not allowed to plant, or they simply were not there to do it.

    By 1849 and 1850, the famine was largely at an end. But this was not due to relief efforts, it was simply

    because one third of the population of Ireland had died or been shipped away to foreign lands.


    The Great Famine of Ireland had many lasting effects. The native tongue of the land, largely spoken by the

    lower class, was almost completely eradicated. The landlord/ landowner system created by the Plantation of

    Ireland was also almost completely destroyed. Of the Irish that survived, many now realized that they could

    never trust the English to care for them in times of need. A great number of these people joined the Irish

    Republican Brotherhoods, which was in time to spark the revolution and the later freedom of Ireland.

    This famine and the resultant deaths were due to a natural disaster worsened by English policies, policies

    which were tailored to the needs of English businesses and the general well‑being of the English public at the

    expense of the Irish. Similar effects were being felt at the same time in Scotland where the Highland Clearances

    were under way.

    The weight of evidence leads to one conclusion: that English policies towards Ireland and Scotland during this

    time were instrumental in the death and dislocation of thousands of the poorest people who inhabited those


    by BW, April 2000

    Suggested Reading:

    The Story of the Irish Race, by Seumas MacManus, The Devin ‑ Adair Company, 1974


    The Great Irish Famine: 150th Anniversary

    Plantation of Ireland

    Irish Republican Brotherhood


    The Great Famine

    The Irish Famine

    Interpeting the Irish Famine

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