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History of
The Great Hunger

Father Theobald Mathew with famine stricken poor 1845

The Irish Famine, 1845-1849

Irish peasant girl guarding the family’s last few possessions after eviction for non-payment of rent

DANIEL O CONNELL Irish political leader addresses a Catholic meeting in County Clare in 1828

In 1847, Irish political leader Daniel O’Connell, “The Liberator,” spoke powerful words before the British House of Commons.

“Ireland is in your hands, in your power. If you do not save her, she cannot save herself. I solemnly call upon you to recollect that I predict with the sincerest conviction that a quarter of her population will perish unless you come to her relief.”

England did not save her. When the potato blight struck in 1845, caused by an airborne fungus called phytopthora infestans that arrived in Ireland on cargo ships coming from the Americas, it turned lush, green potato fields into putrid, black slop, obliterating the only staple food of some 3 million Irish rural peasants. By the end of what came to be known as “The Great Hunger” six years later, more than 1 million of Ireland’s 8 million people had died and more than a million had emigrated, most to America.

Not only did England not save Ireland, but in the years leading up to the blight the anti-Catholic British government had set in motion a series of events that, when combined with Draconian social policies established while the Irish were starving, created a catastrophe so devastating it has been described as “the Irish Holocaust.”

Starting in 1695, the British began imposing a series of Penal Laws to punish the Irish for supporting the Catholic Stuart King, James II, in his attempt to ascend the British throne. These laws were intended to hobble the Irish so they would never be able to threaten Protestant Rule. Irish Catholics were stripped of their rights to vote, buy land, attend school, hold government office, possess weapons, speak their own language or practice their religion. Those laws were in effect until 1829, when Daniel O’Connell, a Catholic lawyer from Kerry, won the fight to abolish them.

But British “reformers” weren’t done with the Irish, whom they saw as an alien people without good moral character who lacked the work ethic and a desire for self-reliance so valued in British society. By 1835, as British industrialization destroyed Irish linen and woolen industries and the role of the Irish in the UK economy became that of a market for surplus goods, widespread unemployment swept the island. In 1838, the British government established the Poor Law Act, modeled on the English workhouse system. Once admitted to workhouse, poor families would be separated, forced to wear uniforms and set to work splitting rocks or doing laundry—men, women, and children.

It’s no wonder that during this period, nearly a million Irish left their homes for the United States where they traded splitting rocks for building canals, roads, and railways. In America, these hardworking people were in demand. Contractors placed ads in Irish newspaper recruiting Irish workers to help build America’s robust expansion.

This was the Ireland into which a fungus wafted from Southern England to Dublin, its spores landing on healthy potato leaves, turning them black within days. Irish farmers found that they could dig healthy potatoes from under the black, stinking plant, but they too turned black and rotted within days.

By 1845, the blight had triggered a nationwide crop failure, the first of its kind. The government enacted some largely ineffective relief measures, expecting them to be temporary since Ireland had experienced sporadic regional crop failures before. Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel himself purchased two shipments of American corn that he intended to be sold at cost to local relief organizations. However the corn was indigestible unless it was milled and there was a shortage of mills in Ireland. Corn was also no replacement for the potato, which is high in vitamin C and protein. The Irish ate three meals of boiled potatoes a day—roughly 14 pounds for the average working man. Corn wasn’t as nutritious nor was it satisfying. Many Irish who subsisted on corn developed scurvy, a vitamin C deficiency disease.

Relief came from outside the UK—from as far away as Calcutta and Bombay, the Choctaw Indians in the US, and from Philadelphia, where the Philadelphia Irish Famine Relief Committee and the Philadelphia Society of Friends (Quakers), led by Thomas Cope, funneled relief supplies from all over the United States to Ireland. Charity knew no religion, race, or national origin. In Philadelphia, the Committee of Colored Citizens held a meeting to raise money to give to abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass to donate to Irish relief when he went to Ireland in 1846.

While British citizens contributed more than 400,000 pounds to Irish relief, the British government took a decidedly stoical stance, adhering to a popular economic trend of the time,  “laissez-faire,” French for “let it be,” that favored a free market and posited that all problems will eventually solve themselves by natural means. However, the head of the British government’s relief program, Sir Charles Trevelyan, made it clear what he considered the problem: the Irish themselves and the lazy, ineffectual Irish agrarian economy, which he wrote in 1848, was a “deep and inveterate root of social evil.”

That would be eliminated, he said, by the starvation sweeping the island, which he saw as “a direct stroke of an all-wise and all-merciful Providence” and a “sharp but effectual remedy by which the cure is likely to be effected.” The blight and the starvation that followed were, to Trevelyan, the retribution of a vengeful God on a sinful people.

The effect of this congruence of laissez-faire economics, Protestant belief in Divine Providence, plus a fundamental ethnic bias against the Irish, was nothing short of genocidal. While the Irish were dying of starvation, cholera, or typhus, the British were exporting more than enough grains and other crops from Ireland to feed the entire population. But because those were “money” crops and not “food” crops, the British government would not divert them to feed the hungry.  Three-quarters of Irish farmland was turned over to these cash crops—and later, to livestock, necessitating evictions of tenant farmers—that were exported while the Irish starved.