The proximate cause of the famine was a potato disease commonly known as late blight. Although blight ravaged potato crops throughout Europe during the 1840s, the impact and human cost in Ireland — where a third of the population was entirely dependent on the potato for food — was exacerbated by a host of political, social and economic factors which remain the subject of historical debate.
The famine was a watershed in the history of Ireland. Its effects permanently changed the island's demographic, political and cultural landscape. For both the native Irish and those in the resulting diaspora, the famine entered folk memory and became a rallying point for various nationalist movements. Modern historians regard it as a dividing line in the Irish historical narrative, referring to the preceding period of Irish history as "pre-Famine." The fall-out of the famine continued for decades afterwards and Ireland's population still has not recovered to pre-famine levels.
From 1801 Ireland had been directly governed, under the Act of Union, as part of the United Kingdom. Executive power lay in the hands of the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and Chief Secretary for Ireland, both of whom were appointed by the British government. Ireland sent 105 members of parliament to the British House of Commons, and Irish representative peers elected twenty-eight of their own number to sit for life in the House of Lords. Between 1832 and 1859 seventy percent of Irish representatives were landowners or the sons of landowners.
In the forty years that followed the union, successive British governments grappled with the problems of governing a country which had, as Benjamin Disraeli put it in 1844, "a starving population, an absentee aristocracy, and an alien Church, and in addition the weakest executive in the world. One historian calculated that between 1801 and 1845 there had been 114 commissions and 61 special committees inquiring into the state of Ireland and that "without exception their findings prophesied disaster; Ireland was on the verge of starvation, her population rapidly increasing, three-quarters of her labourers unemployed, housing conditions appalling and the standard of living unbelievably low."
Although central to everyday life, the Irish potato crop was an uncertain quantity. The famine of 1845 was notable for its vastness only: according to the 1851 Census of Ireland Commissioners there were twenty-four failures of the potato crop going back 1728, of varying severity. In 1739 the crop was "entirely destroyed", and again in 1740, in 1770 the crop largely failed again. In 1800 there was another "general" failure, and in 1807 half the crop was lost. In 1821 and 1822 the potato crop failed completely in Munster and Connaught, and 1830 and 1831 were years of failure in Mayo, Donegal and Galway. In 1832, 1833, 1834 and 1836 a large number of districts suffered serious loss, and in 1835 the potato failed in Ulster. 1836 and 1837 brought "extensive" failures throughout Ireland and again in 1839 failure was universal throughout the country; both 1841 and 1844 potato crop failure was widespread.
Catholic emancipation had been achieved in 1829, and Catholics made up 80 percent of the population, the bulk of which lived in conditions of poverty and insecurity. At the top of the "social pyramid" was the "ascendancy class," the English and Anglo-Irish families who owned most of the land, and who had more or less limitless power over their tenants. Some of their estates were vast: the Earl of Lucan, for example, owned over . Many of these landlords lived in England and were called "absentee landlords". They used agents to administer their property for them, with the revenue generated being sent to England. A number of the absentee landlords living in England never set foot in Ireland. They took their rents from their "impoverished tenants" or paid them minimal wages to raise crops and livestock for export.
The 1841 census showed a population of just over eight million. Two-thirds of those depended on agriculture for their survival, but they rarely received a working wage. They had to work for their landlords in return for the patch of land they needed in order to grow enough food for their own families. This was the system which forced Ireland and its peasantry into monoculture, as only the potato could be grown in sufficient quantity. The rights to a plot of land in Ireland could mean the difference between life and death in the early 19th century.
The period of the potato blight in Ireland from 1845–51 was full of political confrontation. The mass movement for Repeal of the Act of Union had failed in its objectives by the time its founder Daniel O'Connell died in 1847. A more radical Young Ireland group seceded from the Repeal movement and attempted an armed rebellion in the Young Irelander Rebellion of 1848. It was unsuccessful.
Ireland at this time was, according to the Act of Union of 1801, an integral part of the British imperial homeland, "the richest empire on the globe," and was "the most fertile portion of that empire," in addition; Ireland was sheltered by both "... Habeas Corpus and trial by jury ...". And yet Ireland's elected representatives seemed powerless to act on the country's behalf as Members to the British Parliament. Commenting on this at the time John Mitchel wrote: "That an island which is said to be an integral part of the richest empire on the globe ... should in five years lose two and a half millions of its people (more than one fourth) by hunger, and fever the consequence of hunger, and flight beyond sea to escape from hunger ..."
Ireland remained a net exporter of food even during the blight. The immediate effect on Ireland was devastating, and its long-term effects proved immense, changing Irish culture and tradition for generations. The population of Ireland continued to fall for 70 years, stabilizing at half the level prior to the famine. This long-term decline ended in the west of the country only in 2006, over 160 years after the famine struck.
Symptoms of the potato blight were then recorded in Belgium in 1845. According to W.C. Paddock, Phytophthora infestans (which is an oomycete, not a fungus) was transported on potatoes being carried to feed passengers on clipper ships sailing from America to Ireland.
It is estimated that as much as a third of the entire population of Ireland perished during the civil wars and subsequent Cromwellian conquest. William Petty who conducted the first scientific land and demographic survey of Ireland in the 1650s (the Down Survey), concluded that at least 400,000 people and maybe as many as 620,000 had died in Ireland between 1641 and 1653 many as a result of famine and plague. And this in a country of only around 1.5 million inhabitants.
Penal laws were introduced during the reign of King William III and further reinforced during the subsequent 18th century Hanoverian period whereby Roman Catholics rights were restricted from education and many of their civil liberties were removed, including ownership of a horse worth more than five pounds. Laws were also introduced to encourage Irish linen production but wool exports were restricted. Roman Catholic clergy were also banished as the British Parliament took over to legislate for Ireland. British law then barred Roman Catholics from succession, securing the ascendancy to remain in Protestant control and therefore removing any possible claims to the throne by the Roman Catholic descendants of King James II. Land ownership in Ireland fell mainly to English and Scottish Protestants who were loyal to the crown and the Established Church who rented out large tracts to tenant farmers. Many prominent Roman Catholics who owned land prior to the Williamite Wars and Treaty of Limerick had been forced into exile, called the Flight of the Wild Geese continued to live off rental income collected by their appointed land agents. Sometimes rents grew difficult to collect, forcing the landlords into debt and causing them to sell their estates.
This period also saw the rise of economic and other colonialism, often influencing countries to produce for export a single crop. Ireland, too, became mostly a single-crop nation although the southern and eastern regions sustained a fair sized commercial agriculture of grain and cattle. The potatoes grew well in Ireland and seemed the only crop that could support a peasant family limited — through subdivision of larger Catholic-owned estates — to a very small tenant plot of land.
According to James S. Donnelly Jr, it is impossible to be sure how many people were evicted during the years of the famine and its immediate aftermath. It was only in 1849 that the police began to keep a count, and they recorded a total of almost 250,000 persons as officially evicted between 1849 and 1854. Donnelly considered this to be an underestimate, and if the figures were to include the number pressured into involuntary surrenders during the whole period (1846-54) the figure would almost certainly exceed half a million persons. While Helen Litton says there were also thousands of “voluntary” surrenders, she notes also that there was “precious little voluntary about them.” In some cases tenants were persuaded to accept a small sum of money to leave their homes, “cheated into believing the workhouse would take them in.” Under the notorious Gregory clause, described by Donnelly as a “vicious amendment to the Irish poor law, named after William H. Gregory, M.P. and commonly know as the quarter-acre clause, provided that no tenant holding more than a quarter-acre of land would be eligible for public assistance either in or outside the workhouse. This clause had been a successful Tory amendment to the Whig poor-relief bill which became law in early June 1847, were its potential as an estate-clearing device was widely recognised in parliament, though not in advance. At first the poor law commissioners and inspectors viewed the clause as an valuable instrument for a more cost-effective administration of public relief, but the drawbacks soon became apparent, even from an administrative perspective. They would soon view them as little more than murderous from a humanitarian perspective. According to Donnelly it became obvious that the quarter-acre clause was “indirectly a death-dealing instrument.”
Cecil Woodham-Smith, an authority on the Irish Famine, wrote in The Great Hunger; Ireland 1845-1849 that,
...no issue has provoked so much anger or so embittered relations between the two countries (England and Ireland) as the indisputable fact that huge quantities of food were exported from Ireland to England throughout the period when the people of Ireland were dying of starvation.Ireland remained a net exporter of food throughout most of the five-year famine.
Christine Kinealy, a University of Liverpool fellow and author of two texts on the famine, Irish Famine: This Great Calamity and A Death-Dealing Famine, writes that Irish exports of calves, livestock (except pigs), bacon and ham actually increased during the famine. The food was shipped under guard from the most famine-stricken parts of Ireland. However, the poor had no money to buy food and the government then did not ban exports.
Irish meteorologist Austin Bourke, in The use of the potato crop in pre-famine Ireland disputes some of Woodham-Smith's calculations, and notes that during December 1846 imports almost doubled. He opines that
it is beyond question that the deficiency arising from the loss of the potato crop in 1846 could not have been met by the simple expedient of prohibiting the export of grain from Ireland.
The Celtic grazing lands of...Ireland had been used to pasture cows for centuries. The British colonized...the Irish, transforming much of their countryside into an extended grazing land to raise cattle for a hungry consumer market at home.... The British taste for beef had a devastating impact on the impoverished and disenfranchised people of...Ireland.... Pushed off the best pasture land and forced to farm smaller plots of marginal land, the Irish turned to the potato, a crop that could be grown abundantly in less favorable soil. Eventually, cows took over much of Ireland, leaving the native population virtually dependent on the potato for survival.
It is not known how many people died during the period of the Famine, although it is believed more died from diseases than from starvation. State registration of births, marriages or deaths had not yet begun, and records kept by the Roman Catholic Church are incomplete. Eye witness accounts have helped medical historians identify both the ailments and effects of famine, and have been used to evaluate and explain in greater detail features of the famine. In Mayo, English Quaker William Bennett wrote of
three children huddled together, lying there because they were too weak to rise, pale and ghastly, their little limbs ... perfectly emaciated, eyes sunk, voice gone, and evidently in the last stages of actual starvation.Revd Dr Traill Hall, a Church of Ireland rector in Schull, described
the aged, who, with the young — are almost without exception swollen and ripening for the grave.Marasmic children also left a permanent image on Quaker Joseph Crosfield who in 1846 witnessed a
heart—rending scene [of] poor wretches in the last stages of famine imploring to be received into the [work]house...Some of the children were worn to skeletons, their features sharpened with hunger, and their limbs wasted almost to the bone…William Forster wrote in Carrick-on-Shannon that
the children exhibit the effects of famine in a remarkable degree, their faces looking wan and haggard with hunger, and seeming like old men and women.
One possible estimate has been reached by comparing the expected population with the eventual numbers in the 1850s (see Irish Population Analysis). Earlier predictions expected that by 1851 Ireland would have a population of eight to nine million. A census taken in 1841 revealed a population of slightly over 8 million. A census immediately after the famine in 1851 counted 6,552,385, a drop of almost 1,500,000 in ten years. Modern historian R.J. Foster estimates that 'at least 775,000 died, mostly through disease, including cholera in the latter stages of the holocaust'. He further notes that 'a recent sophisticated computation estimates excess deaths from 1846 to 1851 as between 1,000,000 and 1,500,000...; after a careful critique of this, other statisticians arrive at a figure of 1,000,000.' In addition, in excess of one million Irish emigrated to Great Britain, United States, Canada, Australia, and elsewhere, while millions emigrated over following decades.
|Table from Joe Lee, The Modernisation of Irish Society (Gill History of Ireland Series No.10) p.2|
Detailed statistics of the population of Ireland since 1841 are available at Irish Population Analysis.
Perhaps the best-known estimates of deaths at a county level are those by Joel Mokyr. The range of Mokyr’s mortality figures goes from 1.1 million to 1.5 million Famine deaths in Ireland between 1846 and 1851. Mokyr produced two sets of data which contained an upper-bound and lower-bound estimate, which showed not much difference in regional patterns. Because of such anomalies, Cormac Ó Gráda, revisited the work of S. H. Cousen’s. Cousen's estimates of mortality was to rely heavily on retrospective information contained in the 1851 census. The death tables, contained in the 1851 census have been rightly criticised, as under-estimating the true extent of mortality, Cousen’s mortality of 800,000 is now regarded as much too low. There were a number of reasons for this, because the information was gathered from the surviving householders and others and having to look back over the previous ten years, it underestimates the true extent of disease and mortality. Death and emigration had also cleared away entire families, leaving few or no survivors to answer the questions on the census.
Another area of uncertainty lies in the descriptions of disease given by tenants as to the cause of their relatives’ deaths. Though Wilde’s work has been rightly criticised as under-estimating the true extents of mortality it does provide a framework for the medical history of the Great Famine. The diseases that badly affected the population fell into two categories, famine induced diseases and diseases of nutritional deficiency. Of the nutritional deficiency diseases the most commonly experienced were starvation and marasmus, as well as condition called at the time dropsy. Dropsy was a popular name given for the symptoms of several diseases, one of which, kwashiorkor, is associated with starvation. The greatest mortality, however, was not from nutritional deficiency diseases, but from famine induced ailments. The malnourished are very vulnerable to infections; therefore, they were more severe when they occurred. Measles, diarrheal diseases, tuberculosis, most respiratory infections, whooping cough, many intestinal parasites, and cholera were all strongly conditioned by nutritional status. Potentially lethal diseases, such as smallpox and influenza, were so virulent that their spread was independent of nutrition.
A significant cause spreading disease during the Famine was “social dislocation.” The best example of this phenomenon was fever, which exacted the greatest toll of death. In the popular mind, as well as among much medical opinion, fever and famine are closely related. This view was not wholly mistaken, but the most critical connection was the congregating of the hungry at soup kitchens, food depots, overcrowded work houses where conditions were ideal for spreading infectious diseases such as typhus, typhoid and relapsing fever. As to the diarrheal diseases, their presence was the result of poor hygiene, bad sanitation and dietary changes. The concluding attack on a population incapacitated by famine was delivered by Asiatic cholera. Cholera had visited Ireland, briefly in the 1830’s. But in the following decade it spread uncontrollably across Asia, through Europe, and into Britain and finally reached Ireland in 1849.
On the 1851 census both Cormac Ó Gráda & Joel Mokry would also describe it as a famous but flawed source. They would contend that the combination of institutional and individuals figures gives “an incomplete and biased count” of fatalities during the famine. Ó Gráda referencing the work of W. A. MacArthur, writes, specialists have long known the Irish death tables left a lot to be desired in terms of accuracy. As a result Ó Gráda says to take the Tables of Death at face value would be a grave mistake, as they seriously undercount the number of deaths both before and during the famine.
In 1851, the census commissioners collected information on the number who died in each family since 1841, the cause, season and year of death. Its disputed findings were as follows: 21,770 total deaths from starvation in the previous decade, and 400,720 deaths from disease. Listed diseases were fever, dysentery, cholera, smallpox and influenza; the first two being the main killers (222,021 and 93,232). The commissioners acknowledged that their figures were incomplete and that the true number of deaths was probably higher: "The greater the amount of destitution of mortality...the less will be the amount of recorded deaths derived through any household form; - for not only were whole families swept away by disease...but whole villages were effaced from off the land." A later historian has this to say: “In 1851, the Census Commissioners attempted to produce a table of mortality for each year since 1841… The statistics provided were flawed and probably under-estimated the level of mortality…”
If they ask me what are my propositions for relief of the distress, I answer, first, Tenant-Right. I would propose a law giving to every man his own. I would give the landlord his land, and a fair rent for it; but I would give the tenant compensation for every shilling he might have laid out on the land in permanent improvements. And what next do I propose? Repeal of the Union.John Mitchel wrote that in the latter part of O'Connell’s speech after pointing out the means used by the Belgian legislature during the same season—“shutting the ports against export of provisions, but opening them to import, and the like,” O’Connell continued:
If we had a domestic Parliament would not the ports be thrown open—would not the abundant crops with which heaven has blessed her be kept for the people of Ireland—and would not the Irish Parliament be more active even than the Belgian Parliament to provide for the people food and employment (hear, hear)? The blessings that would result from Repeal—the necessity for Repeal. The impossibility of the country enduring the want of Repeal,—and the utter hopelessness of any other remedy— all those things powerfully urge you to join with me, and hurrah for the Repeal.
As early as 1844, Mitchel, one of the leading political writers of Young Ireland, raised the issue of the "Potato Disease" in The Nation; he noted how powerful an agent hunger had been in certain revolutions. Mitchel again in The Nation on 14 February 1846, put forward his views on "the wretched way in which the famine was being trifled with”, and asked, had not the Government even yet any conception that there might be soon "millions of human beings in Ireland having nothing to eat." On 28 February, writing on the Coercion Bill which was then going through the House of Lords, he writes,
This is the only kind of legislation for Ireland that is sure to meet with no obstruction in that House. However they may differ about feeding the Irish people, they agree most cordially in the policy of taxing, prosecuting and ruining them.In an article on "English Rule" on 7 March, Mitchel wrote:
The Irish People are expecting famine day by day... and they ascribe it unanimously, not so much to the rule of heaven as to the greedy and cruel policy of England. Be that right or wrong, that is their feeling. They believe that the season as they roll are but ministers of England’s rapacity; that their starving children cannot sit down to their scanty meal but they see the harpy claw of England in their dish. They behold their own wretched food melting in rottenness off the face of the earth, and they see heavy-laden ships, freighted with the yellow corn their own hands have sown and reaped, spreading all sail for England; they see it and with every grain of that corn goes a heavy curse. Again the people believe—no matter whether truly or falsely—that if they should escape the hunger and the fever their lives are not safe from judges and juries. They do not look upon the law of the land as a terror to evil-doers, and a praise to those who do well; they scowl on it as an engine of foreign rule, ill-omened harbinger of doom."Mitchel because of his writings was charged with sedition, but this charge was dropped, and he was convicted under a new law purposefully enacted of Treason Felony Act and sentenced to 14 years transportation.
In 1847 William Smith O'Brien, the leader of the Young Ireland party, became one of the founding members of the Irish Confederation to campaign for a Repeal of the Act of Union, and called for the export of grain to be stopped and the ports closed. The following year he organised the resistance of landless farmers in County Tipperary against the landowners and their agents.
The measures undertaken by Peel's successor, Lord John Russell, proved comparatively "inadequate" as the crisis deepened. Russell's ministry introduced public works projects, which by December 1846 employed some half million Irish and proved impossible to administer. The Public Works were “strictly ordered” to be unproductive—that is, they would create no fund to repay their own expenses. Many hundreds of thousands of “feeble and starving men” according to John Mitchel, were kept digging holes, and breaking up roads, which was doing no service. In January the government abandoned these projects and turned to a mixture of "indoor" and "outdoor" direct relief; the former administered in work-houses through the Poor Law, the latter through soup kitchens. The costs of the Poor Law fell primarily on the local landlords, who in turn attempted to reduce their liability by evicting their tenants. This was then facilitated through the “Cheap Ejectment Acts.” The poor law amendment act was passed in June 1847. According to James Donnelly in Fearful Realities: New Perspectives on the Famine it embodied the principle popular in Britain that Irish property must support Irish poverty. The landed proprietors in Ireland were held in Britain to have created the conditions that lead to the famine. It was asserted however, that the British parliament since the Act of Union of 1800 was partly to blame. This point was raised in the Illustrated London News on the 13 February 1847, “There was no laws it would not pass at their request, and no abuse it would not defend for them.” On the 24 March the Times reported that Britain had permitted in Ireland “a mass of poverty, disaffection, and degradation without a parallel in the world. It allowed proprietors to suck the very life-blood of that wretched race.” The "Gregory clause" of the Poor Law prohibited anyone who held at least a quarter of an acre from receiving relief. Which in practice meant, that if a farmer, having sold all his produce to pay the rent, duties, rates and taxes, should be reduced, as many thousands of them were, on apply for public out-door relief, he should not get it, until he had first delivered up all his land to the landlord. Of this Law Mitchel was to write: "it is the able-bodied idler only who is to be fed — if he attempted to till but one rood of ground, he dies." This simple method of ejectment was called "passing paupers through the workhouse" — a man went in, a pauper came out. These factors combined to drive thousands of people off the land: 90,000 in 1849, and 104,000 in 1850.
“I congratulate you, that the universal sentiment hitherto exhibited upon this subject has been that we will accept no English charity (loud cheers). The resources of this country are still abundantly adequate to maintain our population: and until those resources shall have been utterly exhausted, I hope there is no man in Ireland who will so degrade himself as to ask the aid of a subscription from England.”Mitchel wrote in his The Last Conquest of Ireland (Perhaps), on the same subject, that no one from Ireland ever asked for charity during this period, and that it was England who sought charity on Ireland’s behalf, and, having received it, was also responsible for administering it. He stated:
It has been carefully inculcated upon the world by the British Press, that the moment Ireland fell into distress, she became an abject beggar at England’s gate, and that she even craved alms from all mankind. Some readers may be surprised when I affirm that , neither Ireland nor anybody in Ireland, ever asked alms or favours of any kind, either from England or any other nation or people;—but, on the contrary, that it was England herself that begged for us, that sent round the hat over all the globe, asking a penny for the love of God to relieve the poor Irish ;—and further, that, constituting herself the almoner and agent of all that charity, she, England, took all the profit of it.The Nation according to Charles Gavan Duffy, insisted, that the one remedy, was that which the rest of Europe had adopted which even the parliaments of the Pale had adopted in periods of distress, which was to retain in the country the food raised by her people till the people were fed. The following poem written by Miss Jane Francesca Elgee was carried in the The Nation and who was one of the best known and most popular authors.
Weary men, what reap ye? Golden corn for the stranger.The response from Ireland was that the Corporation of Dublin sent a memorial to the Queen, “praying her” to call Parliament together early (Parliament was at this time prorogued), and to recommend the requisition of some public money for public works, especially railways in Ireland. The Town Council of Belfast met and made similar suggestions to those of Dublin, but neither body asked charity, according to Mitchel. “They demanded that, if Ireland was indeed an Integral part of the realm, the common exchequer of both islands should be used—not to give alms, but to provide employment on public works of general utility.” It was Mitchel’s opinion that “if Yorkshire and Lancashire had sustained a like calamity in England, there is no doubt such measures as these would have been taken, promptly and liberally.” A deputation from the citizens of Dublin, which including the Duke of Leister, the Lord Mayor, Lord Cloncurry, and Daniel O’Connell, went to the Lord Lieutenant (Lord Heytesbury), and offered suggestions, such as opening the ports to foreign corn for a time, to stopping distillation from grain, or providing public works, that this was extremely urgent, as millions of people would shortly be without food. Lord Haytesbury told them they "were premature", and told them not to be alarmed, that learned men (Playfair and Lindley) had been sent from England to enquire into all those matters; and that the Inspectors of Constabulary and Stipendiary Magistrates were charged with making constant reports from their districts; and there was no "immediate pressure on the market". Of these reports from Lord Haytesbury, Peel in a latter to Sir James Graham was to say that he found the accounts "very alarming", though he reminded him that there was, according to Woodham-Smith "always a tendency to exaggeration in Irish news".
What sow ye? Human corpses that wait for the avenger.
Fainting forms, Hunger—stricken, what see you in the offing
Stately ships to bear our food away, amid the stranger’s scoffing.
There’s a proud array of soldiers—what do they round your door?
They guard our master’s granaries from the thin hands of the poor.
Pale mothers, wherefore weeping? ‘Would to God that we were dead—
Our children swoon before us, and we cannot give them bread.
Large sums of money were donated by charities; Calcutta is credited with making the first donation of £14,000. The money was raised by Irish soldiers serving there and Irish people employed by the East India Company. Pope Pius IX sent funds and Queen Victoria donated £2,000.
Quaker Alfred Webb, one of the many volunteers in Ireland at the time, wrote:
Upon the famine arose the wide spread system of proselytism ... and a network of well-intentioned Protestant associations spread over the poorer parts of the country, which in return for soup and other help endeavoured to gather the people into their churches and schools...The movement left seeds of bitterness that have not yet died out, and Protestants, and not altogether excluding Friends, sacrificed much of the influence for good they might have had...
In addition to the religious, non-religious organizations came to the assistance of famine victims. The British Relief Association was one such group. Founded in 1847, the Association raised money throughout England, America and Australia; their funding drive benefited by a "Queen's Letter", a letter from Queen Victoria appealing for money to relieve the distress in Ireland. With this initial letter the Association raised £171,533. A second, somewhat less successful "Queen's Letter" was issued in late 1847. In total, the British Relief Association raised approximately £200,000. (c.$1,000,000 at the time)
In 1845, the onset of the Great Irish Famine resulted in over 1,000,000 deaths. Ottoman Sultan Abdülmecid declared his intention to send 10,000 sterling to Irish farmers but Queen Victoria requested that the Sultan send only 1,000 sterling, because she had sent only 2,000 sterling. The Sultan sent the 1,000 sterling but also secretly sent 3 ships full of food. The English courts tried to block the ships, but the food arrived at Drogheda harbour and was left there by Ottoman sailors.
In 1847, midway through the Great Irish Famine (1845–1849), a group of American Indian Choctaws collected $710 (although many articles say the original amount was $170 after a misprint in Angie Debo's The Rise and Fall of the Choctaw Republic) and sent it to help starving Irish men, women and children. "It had been just 16 years since the Choctaw people had experienced the Trail of Tears, and they had faced starvation… It was an amazing gesture. By today's standards, it might be a million dollars." according to Judy Allen, editor of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma's newspaper, Bishinik, based at the Oklahoma Choctaw tribal headquarters in Durant, Oklahoma. To mark the 150th anniversary, eight Irish people retraced the Trail of Tears, and the donation was publicly commemorated by President Mary Robinson.
Consequently, later mini-famines made only minimal effect and are generally forgotten, except by historians. By the 1911 census, the island of Ireland's population had fallen to 4.4 million, about the same as the population in 1800 and 2000 and only a half of its peak population.
While the famine was responsible for a significant increase in emigration from Ireland, of anywhere from 45% to nearly 85%, depending on the year and the county it was not the sole cause. Nor was it even the era when mass emigration from Ireland commenced. That can be traced to the middle of the 18th century, when some quarter of a million people left Ireland to settle in the New World alone, over a period of some fifty years. From the defeat of Napoleon to the beginning of the famine, a period of thirty years, "at least 1,000,000 and possibly 1,500,000 emigrated However, during the worst of the famine, emigration reached somewhere around 250,000 in one year alone, with far more emigrants coming from western Ireland than any other part.
As a rule, families en masse did not emigrate, younger members of it did. So much so that emigration almost became a rite of passage, as evidenced by the data that show that, unlike similar emigration throughout world history, women emigrated just as often, just as early, and in the same numbers as men. The emigrant started a new life in a new land, sent remittances "reached £1,404,000 by 1851 back to his/her family in Ireland which, in turn, allowed another member of the family to emigrate.
Generally speaking, emigration during the famine years of 1845 to 1850 was to England, Scotland, the United States, Canada, and Australia. Many of those fleeing to the Americas used the well-established McCorkell Line.
Of the 100,000 Irish that sailed to Canada in 1847, an estimated one out of five died from disease and malnutrition, including over five thousand at Grosse Isle. Mortality rates of 30% aboard the coffin ships were common.
By 1854, between 1½ and 2 million Irish left their country due to evictions, starvation, and harsh living conditions. In America, most Irish became city-dwellers: with little money, many had to settle in the cities that the ships they came on landed in. By 1850, the Irish made up a quarter of the population in Boston, Massachusetts; New York City; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and Baltimore, Maryland. In addition, Irish populations became prevalent in some American mining communities.
The 1851 census reported that more than half the inhabitants of Toronto, Ontario were Irish, and in 1847 alone, 38,000 famine Irish flooded a city with less than 20,000 citizens. Other Canadian cities such as Saint John, New Brunswick; Quebec City and Montreal, Quebec; Ottawa, Kingston and Hamilton, Ontario also received large numbers of Famine Irish since Canada, as part of the British Empire, could not close its ports to Irish ships (unlike the United States), and they could get passage cheaply (or free in the case of tenant evictions) in returning empty lumber holds. However fearing nationalist insurgencies the British government placed harsh restrictions on Irish immigration to Canada after 1847 resulting in larger influxes to the United States. The largest Famine grave site outside of Ireland is at Grosse-Île, Quebec, an island in the St. Lawrence River used to quarantine ships near Quebec City. In 1851, about a quarter of Liverpool's population was Irish-born.
The famine marked the beginning of the steep depopulation of Ireland in the 19th century. Population had increased by 13–14% in the first three decades of the 19th century. Between 1831 and 1841 population grew by 5%. Application of Thomas Malthus's idea of population expanding 'geometrically' (exponentially) while resources increase arithmetically was popular during the famines of 1817 and 1822. However by the 1830s, a decade before the famine, they were seen as overly simplistic and Ireland's problems were seen "less as an excess of population than as a lack of capital investment. The population of Ireland was increasing no faster than that of England, which suffered no equivalent catastrophe.
This criticism was not confined to outside critics. The Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Lord Clarendon, wrote a letter to Russell on 26 April 1849, urging that the government propose additional relief measures: "I do not think there is another legislature in Europe that would disregard such suffering as now exists in the west of Ireland, or coldly persist in a policy of extermination." Also in 1849 the Chief Poor Law Commissioner, Edward Twistleton, resigned in protest over the Rate-in-Aid Act, which provided additional funds for the Poor Law through a 6p in the pound levy on all rateable properties in Ireland. Twisleton testified that "comparatively trifling sums were required for Britain to spare itself the deep disgrace of permitting its miserable fellow subjects to die of starvation." According to Peter Gray, in his book The Irish Famine, the government spent seven million pounds for relief in Ireland between 1845 and 1850, "representing less than half of one percent of the British gross national product over five years. Contemporaries noted the sharp contrast with the 20 million Pounds compensation given to West Indian slave-owners in the 1830s."
Other critics maintained that even after the government recognised the scope of the crisis, it failed to take sufficient steps to address it. John Mitchel, one of the leaders of the Young Ireland Movement, wrote the following in 1860: "I have called it an artificial famine: that is to say, it was a famine which desolated a rich and fertile island that produced every year abundance and superabundance to sustain all her people and many more. The English, indeed, call the famine a 'dispensation of Providence;' and ascribe it entirely to the blight on potatoes. But potatoes failed in like manner all over Europe; yet there was no famine save in Ireland. The British account of the matter, then, is first, a fraud - second, a blasphemy. The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the famine."
Still other critics saw reflected in the government's response the government's attitude to the so-called "Irish Question." Nassau Senior, an economics professor at Oxford University, wrote that the Famine "would not kill more than one million people, and that would scarcely be enough to do any good." In 1848, Denis Shine Lawlor suggested that Russell was a student of the Elizabethan poet Edmund Spenser, who had calculated "how far English colonization and English policy might be most effectively carried out by Irish starvation." Charles Trevelyan, the civil servant with most direct responsibility for the government's handling of the famine, described it in 1848 as "a direct stroke of an all-wise and all-merciful Providence", which laid bare "the deep and inveterate root of social evil"; the Famine, he affirmed, was "the sharp but effectual remedy by which the cure is likely to be effected. God grant that the generation to which this opportunity has been offered may rightly perform its part..."
Several writers single out the decision of the government to permit the continued export of food from Ireland as suggestive of the policy-makers attitude. Leon Uris suggested that "there was ample food within Ireland", while all the Irish-bred cattle were being shipped off to England. The following exchange appeared in Act IV of George Bernard Shaw's play Man and Superman:
Critics of British imperialism point to the structure of empire as a contributing factor. J. A. Froude wrote that "England governed Ireland for what she deemed her own interest, making her calculations on the gross balance of her trade ledgers, and leaving moral obligations aside, as if right and wrong had been blotted out of the statute book of the Universe. Dennis Clark, an Irish-American historian, claimed that the famine was "the culmination of generations of neglect, misrule and repression. It was an epic of English colonial cruelty and inadequacy. For the landless cabin dwellers it meant emigration or extinction...
As mentioned, the famine is still a controversial event in Irish history. Debate and discussion on the British government's response to the failure of the potato crop in Ireland and the subsequent large-scale starvation, and whether or not this constituted what would now be called genocide, remains a historically and politically-charged issue.
In 1996 Francis A. Boyle, a law professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, wrote a report commissioned by the New York-based Irish Famine/Genocide Committee which concluded that "Clearly, during the years 1845 to 1850, the British government pursued a policy of mass starvation in Ireland with intent to destroy in substantial part the national, ethnic and racial group commonly known as the Irish People.... Therefore, during the years 1845 to 1850 the British government knowingly pursued a policy of mass starvation in Ireland that constituted acts of genocide against the Irish people within the meaning of Article II (c) of the 1948 [Hague] Genocide Convention. On the strength of Boyle's report, the U.S. state of New Jersey included the famine in the "Holocaust and Genocide Curriculum" at the secondary tier.
Several commentators have argued that the searing effect of the famine in Irish cultural memory has effects similar to that of genocide, while maintaining that one did not occur. Robert Kee suggests that the Famine is seen as "comparable" in its force on "popular national consciousness to that of the 'final solution' on the Jews," and that it is not "infrequently" thought that the Famine was something very like, "a form of genocide engineered by the English against the Irish people." This point was echoed by James Donnelly, a historian at the University of Wisconsin, who wrote in his work Landlord and Tenant in Nineteenth-Century Ireland, "I would draw the following broad conclusion: at a fairly early stage of the Great Famine the government's abject failure to stop or even slow down the clearances (evictions) contributed in a major way to enshrining the idea of English state-sponsored genocide in Irish popular mind. Or perhaps one should say in the Irish mind, for this was a notion that appealed to many educated and discriminating men and women, and not only to the revolutionary minority...And it is also my contention that while genocide was not in fact committed, what happened during and as a result of the clearances had the look of genocide to a great many Irish...
Historian Cormac Ó Gráda disagreed that the famine was genocide: first, that "genocide includes murderous intent and it must be said that not even the most bigoted and racist commentators of the day sought the extermination of the Irish"; second, that most people in Whitehall "hoped for better times in Ireland" and third, that the claim of genocide overlooks "the enormous challenges facing relief efforts, both central, local, public and private". Ó Gráda thinks that a case of neglect is easier to sustain than that of genocide
Well-known Irish columnist and song-writer John Waters has described the famine as the most violent event in a history which was characterised by violence of every imaginable kind and stated that the famine "was an act of genocide, driven by racism and justified by ideology", arguing that the destruction of Ireland’s cultural, political and economic diversity and the reduction of the Irish economy to basically a mono-cultural dependence was a holocaust waiting to happen. Waters contends that arguments about the source of the blight or the practicability of aid efforts once the Famine had taken hold were irrelevant to the meaning of the experience.
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