Lest We Forget (Irish Cottage Interior c.1860). Oil on canvas. Date unknown. Photo by Frank Poole. Irish School. Copyright Frank Poole 2012.

Learn About the Great Hunger

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Ireland: A Brief Overview

Ireland: A Brief Overview

Ireland possessed its own distinctive culture, language, religion and people prior to England’s repeated invasions. During the 16th and 17th centuries, England not only conquered Ireland by military force, but under Oliver Cromwell (1649–53) and his forces, killed tens of thousands of Irish, and drove hundreds of thousands more off their land in Northeastern Ireland (Ulster). These Irish-Catholics were then forcibly relocated to rocky, desolate areas in the West of Ireland (Connaught), where the land was suitable only for the potato crop.

A painted portrait entitled "Connemara Woman with Red Skirt" by the artist Seán O’Sullivan

Connemara Woman with Red Skirt

Seán O’Sullivan

The land taken from the Irish-Catholics in Ulster was offered to Protestants from Scotland and England to entice them to relocate to Ireland. This policy created a sizeable group of Protestant settlers in Northern Ireland loyal to the British government. In 1695, England enacted a series of Penal Laws that denied civil and human rights to Irish-Catholics, and for all practical purposes outlawed the Catholic religion in Ireland, the religion of more than 90 percent of the Irish population. Ireland’s Gaelic language also was outlawed.

Finally, the 1801 Act of Union abolished the independent Irish Parliament and officially made Ireland part of the United Kingdom. As a result, all of Ireland was governed by the British parliament in London during the Great Hunger (1845–52) and the years following, until 1921 when the Anglo-Irish Treaty divided Ireland. Of the 32 counties that make up the island of Ireland, 26 eventually became the independent Republic of Ireland in the wake of 1948 legislation, while the 6 counties that make up Northern Ireland, remain part of the United Kingdom.

Top image: Lest We Forget (detail)


The painting entitled "The World Is Full of Murder" by the artist Brian Maguire

The World Is Full of Murder

Brian Maguire

The British Response

The British Response

The Famine was a disaster of major proportions, even allowing for statistical uncertainty as to its estimated effect on mortality. Yet the Famine occurred in a country that, despite concurrent economic problems, was at the center of a still-growing empire and an integral part of the acknowledged workshop of the world. There can be no doubt that, despite a short-term cyclical depression, the resources of the United Kingdom could have either completely or largely mitigated the consequences of consecutive years of potato blight in Ireland.

Within Ireland itself there were substantial resources of food that, had the political will existed, could have been diverted, even as a short-term measure, to feed the starving people. The policy of closing ports during periods of shortages in order to keep home-grown food for domestic consumption had on earlier occasions proved to be effective in staving off famine within Ireland. During the subsistence crisis of 1782–84, an embargo was placed on the export of foodstuffs from the country. The outcome of this humanitarian and imaginative policy was successful. The years 1782–84 are barely remembered as years of distress. By refusing to allow a similar policy to be adopted in 1846–47, the British government ensured that Black ’47 was indelibly associated with suffering, famine, mortality, emigration, and to some, misrule.

“It must be thoroughly understood that we cannot feed the people…. We can at best keep down prices where there is no regular market and prevent established dealers from raising prices much beyond the fair price with ordinary profits.”
Lord John Russell, 1847
British Prime Minister

Exports in Famine Times

Exports in Famine Times

Throughout the entire period of the Famine, Ireland was exporting enormous quantities of food to England. In "Ireland Before and After the Famine," Cormac Ó Gráda points out, “Although the potato crop failed, the country was still producing and exporting more than enough grain crops to feed the population. But that was a 'money crop' and not a 'food crop' and could not be interfered with.” Up to 75 percent of Irish soil was devoted to wheat, oats, barley and other crops that were grown for export and shipped abroad while the people starved.

The painting entitled "Bad News in Troubled Times" by the artist Margaret Allen

Bad News in Troubled Times

Margaret Allen

Cecil Woodham-Smith, noted scholar and author, 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.”

In History Ireland magazine (1997, issue 5, pp. 32-36), Christine Kinealy, a Great Hunger scholar, lecturer and Drew University professor, relates her findings: “Almost 4,000 vessels carried food from Ireland to the ports of Bristol, Glasgow, Liverpool and London during 1847, when 400,000 Irish men, women and children died of starvation and related diseases. The food was shipped under military guard from the most famine-stricken parts of Ireland; Ballina, Ballyshannon, Bantry, Dingle, Killala, Kilrush, Limerick, Sligo, Tralee and Westport. A wide variety of commodities left Ireland during 1847, including peas, beans, onions, rabbits, salmon, oysters, herring, lard, honey, tongues, animal skins, rags, shoes, soap, glue and seed. The most shocking export figures concern butter. Butter was shipped in firkins, each one holding 9 gallons. In the first nine months of 1847, 56,557 firkins were exported from Ireland to Bristol, and 34,852 firkins were shipped to Liverpool. That works out to be 822,681 gallons of butter exported to England from Ireland during nine months of the worst year of the Famine.”


A photo of the sculpture entitled "Irish Famine Memorial Maquette" by the artist Glenna Goodacre

Irish Famine Memorial Maquette

Glenna Goodacre

Emigration and 'Coffin Ships'

Emigration and “Coffin Ships”

Between 1845 and 1855, nearly 2 million people emigrated from Ireland to America and Australia, and another 750,000 to Britain. The Poor Law Extension Act, which made landlords responsible for the maintenance of their own poor, induced some to clear their estates by paying for emigration of the poorer tenants. Although some landlords did so out of humanitarian motives, there were undoubtedly benefits to them, especially those who wanted to consolidate their land holdings or change from the cultivation of land to beef and dairy farming. Emigration soared from 75,000 in 1845 to 250,000 in 1851. This chaotic, panic-stricken and unregulated exodus was the largest single population movement of the 19th century.

Thousands of emigrants died during the Atlantic crossing. There were 17,465 documented deaths in 1847 alone. “Coffin ships,” plying a speculative trade, were often little more than rotting hulks. Thousands more died at disembarkation centers. On August 4, 1847, The Toronto Globe reported on the arrival of emigrant ships: “The Virginius from Liverpool, with 496 passengers, had lost 158 by death, nearly one third of the whole, and she had 180 sick; above one half of the whole will never see their home in the New World. A medical officer at the quarantine station on Grosse Île off Quebec reported that “the few who were able to come on deck were ghastly, yellow-looking spectres, unshaven and hollow-cheeked…not more than 6 or 8 were really healthy and able to exert themselves.” The crew of the ship were all ill, and 7 had died. On Erin’s Queen, 78 passengers had died and 104 were sick. On this ship the captain had to bribe the seamen with a sovereign for each body brought out from the hold. The dead sometimes had to be dragged out with boat hooks, since even their own relatives refused to touch them.” 

Population and Expenditures

Population and Expenditures

According to the Irish census of 1841, the population of Ireland exceeded 8 million. By 1851, the population, which should have been about 9 million, had dropped to 6 million. Thus, close to 3 million people were lost to the Great Hunger: more than 1 million to death by starvation and related diseases, and more than 2 million to emigration, which continued at high rates through 1921. By then, 4.5 million people had left Ireland.

During the period 1845–50, Britain’s total expenditure in Ireland was £7 million, or 0.01 percent of its gross national product during the period. Irish expenditures from local taxes and landlord borrowing totaled £8.5 million. In the previous decade, the British government had given slaveholders in the West Indies £20 million as compensation for ending slavery.

The painting entitled "The Silent Hunger" by the artist Charlotte Kelly

The Silent Hunger

Charlotte Kelly