The Great Irish Famine

Memorial de la Famine irlandaise - Keith Ewing - cc
Memorial de la Famine irlandaise - Keith Ewing - cc

The Great Famine in Ireland (1845-1848) was one of the darkest periods in Irish history. It is estimated that between 500 000 and 1 million people died, plunging the island into a climate of great misery. It was a murderous and trying time, which left its mark on the 19th century due to its considerable losses and encouraged emigration to the new continent. Beyond the tragic human circumstances, the Great Famine also saw the emergence of a brutal conflict: that of a complex political conflict, where the British Empire preferred to play the card of indifference while a country under its domination demanded its help…

History of the Great Famine in Ireland

Historical context of the Great Irish Famine

An Irish household during the Great Famine - Public domain

An Irish household during the Great Famine – Public domain

We are in the 1830s. At that time, Ireland lives under British domination… An occupation that has lasted since the 16th century, where the Irish suffer daily discrimination and social rejection. The Irish, mostly Catholic, knew a climate of repression. Many lived below the poverty line and experienced misery.

However, at that time, Great Britain was exploiting the island’s resources to the full. The British government saw Ireland as a perfect territory for agriculture and food production of all kinds…

This is why more than 95% of the Irish land is under the occupation of British landowners. These landowners employed Irish people to cultivate their land, raise livestock… and then ship the goods to England in full cargo ships… feeding up to 2 million British people, just from these precious Irish resources!

Cereals, vegetables, meat, eggs, cheese, milk, salmon, alcohol, wool… At that time, England used Ireland as its “shopping basket”… without taking into account the ambient misery of the Irish, who, although they were supposed to live as equals with the British, seemed to be considered as a sub-race to be governed.

The Irish had to be satisfied with the little that the English left them.

At that time, many Irish tenant farmers and peasants rented a piece of land to the rich British owners. The latter then tried to cultivate the potato, an essential means of subsistence for their daily life. Tasty and nutritious, it ensures the survival of the poorest… Although money may be short, families live on a full stomach.

When the blight starves the Irish…

1845: A parasitic fungus, mildew, which had travelled in the holds of ships from South America, spread to Irish crops.

Its proliferation is surprisingly fast. It destroys everything in its path and the humidity allows its massive spread to most potato plants.

Parasitized by the blight, the potato tuber becomes unconsumable: it withers and rots, prohibiting any form of partial recovery of the vegetable.

This natural disaster has then for consequence to plunge Ireland in a food shortage on a large scale, accentuating the existing rural misery, thus starving the population and depriving it of any possibility of subsistence. The most affected populations are those in the west of Ireland.

The latter, already impoverished, were crammed without strength into insalubrious thatched cottages made of mud and straw. The families are often numerous and men, women and children are embraced by hunger. They were forced to work even harder for the landowners, who promised to give them poor quality grain in exchange for this hard work.

As a result, the Irish managed to subsist… at first…

In 1846, the blight came back even stronger than in 1945… It is at this moment that the Famine hardens. There is not enough to feed everyone… The Irish are on their knees. Some try to turn to fishing, others collect seaweed, while others beg… But the harshness of winter brings the coup de grace to the population.

The hunger provokes an extreme weakness in the Irish and causes innumerable diseases like typhus, cholera, typhoid fever… Hundreds of dead are buried in mass graves… Children see their parents die and vice versa…

England’s inaction plunges Ireland into horror

Une scène de la Grande Famine irlandaise - Domaine public

A scene from the Great Irish Famine – Public domain

From then on, the representatives of the British power in Dublin alert London… It is necessary to act and quickly… But for England, everything is an exaggeration… And the government has spent enough on the Irish cause… The empire preferred to let things go, faithful to its liberal doctrine of the time.

Worse still, it is said that certain high British leaders saw in this Great Famine the opportunity to transform Ireland by attacking the poorest… For some, Ireland had to evolve, and model its functioning on that of Scotland or even Wales.

The decision was then taken not to distribute cereals in exchange for work… The Irish were sinking deeper and deeper into misery… and were looking for any form of work that would allow them to earn enough to eat…

Meanwhile, England continues to export food from Ireland to London, favoring the British over the Irish…

The discontent rises.

The Irish then try to protest and to rise up… But the strong English military presence on Irish soil plunges the population into a form of resignation… The latter, unable to pay their rents, are then progressively expelled by the British landowners…

To survive, they steal, rape and try to survive by any means… Some women prostitute themselves, some eat dead animals (dogs, cats….)… And some cases of cannibalism are even recorded…

England organizes soup kitchens… in exchange for conversion to Protestantism

England then decided to organize soup kitchens: it distributed soup to the Irish, asking them to make a choice: starvation or conversion to Protestantism.

As a reminder, the Irish were then mostly Catholic (as they are nowadays). And England did not cease to impose Protestantism when it was possible.

Thus, soup kitchens were organized under the aegis of Protestant clerics, who were determined to encourage the poorest people to join the Protestant faith. The slogan “Take the Soup”, will then become famous in all Ireland… and cause a scandal at the same time.

From then on, thousands of Irish people will choose to take the soup, and to convert. They will then be nicknamed “jumpers”.

In reality, “suspicion” is a rare phenomenon which was far from being generalized in the country, but it marks durably the popular memory of the famine. It also tainted the memory of the relief work of many Protestants who helped without proselytizing.

The international community is moved by the Irish disaster

Ballinglass Incident - Public domain

Ballinglass Incident – Public domain

The situation in Ireland is no longer tenable and is known beyond the Irish borders. The Catholic Church decided to mobilize: Italy sent money, as did the United States and France…

The international opinion is indignant about the inaction of the United Kingdom… But the London government did not move an inch. It organized a few soup kitchens where it distributed cheap cereals: oats, corn… But this remains insufficient.

In 1847, the blight did not return. Great Britain considers the Great Irish Famine over… Wrongly. The year 47 will be the worst year for Ireland: the winter is terrible, and misery and hunger are still there. Food was in short supply while London closed the soup kitchens and left more than 4 million Irish people still suffering from hunger. Worse still, London continued to send what little food was available in Ireland to England…

At the same time, a law was enacted: no more aid was to be given to Ireland… unless it was financed by Irish local taxation… Coup de grâce: the law states that no aid can be given to Irish people owning more than a quarter of an acre of land. This was a fatal blow for the local population, who were forced to give up their land, their homes, and the little they had left…

In fact, in seven years, more than half a million Irish people were evicted. The expulsions were carried out with cruelty and violence. The British threw the Irish out… flouting the law and justice. (cf The Ballinglass Incident). Worse still: the British voluntarily destroyed the roofs of the evicted people’s houses: a way of making the property uninhabitable and forcing the population to leave.

The Irish were reduced to camping in ditches, on beaches… wherever they could. The Irish weather finished off their resistance: the cold and the rain condemned them to death. These expulsions just make them die a little further… a little faster…

Workhouses emerge

The Irish try to enter the workhouses - Public domain

The Irish try to enter the workhouses – Public domain

To survive, all means are good. The Irish had little choice but to turn to workhouses. These were institutions offering room and board, on condition that they committed themselves to forced labor and confinement.

At the time of the Great Irish Famine, there were 130 of them spread throughout Ireland. Built in 1842, they had a maximum capacity of 100 000 people…

But at that time, between 1847 and 1848, more than one million Irish people tried to find a place in these houses… Few of them manage to integrate them… creating dramatic queues at the entrance of these establishments…

Inside these workhouses, the conditions are particularly difficult and are based on a single doctrine: work to ensure one’s subsistence. Families are separated: men, women and children live in separate quarters. They had to perform work worthy of convicts. It was a kind of prison, where one accepted to enter of his own free will… but from which he could not leave.

In spite of the distribution of food and the regular visit of public assistance doctors, not all the residents could be saved. The mortality rate in these houses remains considerable, and many children die there. The dead were buried in mass graves within the workhouses themselves.

It is estimated that more than 200,000 people died in these workhouses during the famine.

Thousands of Irish decide to flee to the United States

Faced with so much misery, the Irish then saw in America an ideal solution to escape the famine.

Ready to try anything, they piled into boats towards more promising territories.

Although some of them died as a result of storms and diseases caused by long sea voyages, thousands of Irish people reached the American coast and formed a real Irish diaspora, which still exists today.

For them, the United States offered a real dream of starting over: this famous “American Dream” opened up new perspectives, both in economic terms and in terms of the struggle for Ireland… Because they see in the United States the possibility of a total freedom free of any British domination. And they are ready to fight from a distance for their island.

Thus, in the space of 10 years, it is estimated that :

  • 1,500,000 Irish came to the United States,
  • 340,000 landed in Canada,
  • 300,000 Irish settled in England,
  • and 50,000 went to Australia and New Zealand.

Despite their misery, they find what they came for: work and food. Difficult and dangerous jobs for the men, while the women found themselves seamstresses, cooks or servants. This allowed them to survive in better conditions than those who remained in Ireland.

For these expatriates, it is now time for solidarity. Even though they are thousands of kilometers away from Ireland, they are still firmly resolved to support those who are still there.

To do this, the emigrants sent funds to the independence fighters left behind, and founded the Fenian movement, an active organization whose goal was to carry out violent operations against the British government in order to obtain full independence for Ireland.

Their goal: to use the Irish Famine as a strong argument to put an end to the exactions of the British, to help the Irish on the spot… and to obtain the creation of a full Irish state, free from the British yoke. For them, the Famine must stop, and the Irish population must refuse oppression. It was time for the island to choose its destiny…

However, the Great Famine began to recede in 1848. The blight retreated, and some areas saw a marked improvement in the situation. Nevertheless, although it is estimated that the Irish Famine lasted 3 years, it would have lasted much longer… Some areas took longer to recover from the tragedy, and it is estimated that the Famine lasted in some parts of Ireland until 1851…

The Great Irish Famine in a few figures

The Great Famine lasted four years, but its consequences lasted for more than a decade. Human losses were estimated at between 500,000 and 1 million deaths.

Refugees were estimated at 2 million, and emigrants at 2 million. This tragic toll left a lasting impression on Ireland: it was the result of a natural disaster combined with centuries of British political abuse on Irish soil.

Even today, this tragic episode of Irish history has left a lasting impression on the Irish people.

Forced emigration allowed the Irish to develop a diaspora throughout the world. Famous names such as John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Joe Biden have been successful and are direct descendants of Irish emigrants. The Great Irish Famine not only influenced Ireland, but also the entire globe!

So much more to discover...