Irish Famine


Irish Famine
(1845–1850)
   A disaster for Ireland when disease destroyed the potato crop in 1845–1849. A fungus rotted potatoes in other parts of Europe, too, but the blight affected Ireland most severely because potatoes were the staple food for agricultural laborers and small tenant farmers. Almost a million men, women, and children died of starvation or related diseases. Hundreds of thousands emigrated, either to nearby England and Scotland or to distant North America in so-called coffin ships, aboard which many steerage passengers died.
   In the worst year, 1846, the British Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel responded by repealing the Corn Laws to encourage the importation of cheap foreign wheat. In practice this did the starving Irish little good, as they lacked the means to buy any kind of food. Lord John Russell’s Whig government, succeeding Peel’s Conservative ministry, was ideologically rigid. Out of local Irish taxes, Russell provided some ill-paid employment at public works for a minority of starving peasants, but in accord with the principle of laissez-faire, the Whigs believed that only private charities should provide food relief. During the famine the civil servant Charles Edward Trevelyan defended the export of grain and livestock from Ireland to Britain. In the crisis years, the small Quaker denomination showed the greatest generosity. There also was a British Relief Association, helped by Queen Victoria ’s appeal for contributions.
   The potato famine had long-term consequences. Ireland may be unique among European countries to have a smaller population in the twenty-first century than in the mid-1840s. Estimated at 8 million on the eve of the famine, it had fallen to about 5 million at the 1850 census. With less competition for land, small farmers were better off after the famine than before. The population continued to fall during decades of relative prosperity. The age of marriage rose, and the habit of emigration strengthened, particularly among young women. For instance, in the United States during the mid and late nineteenth century, Irish Catholic immigrants became numerous. Bridey (for Bridget) became the stereotypical housemaid, while Paddy (for Patrick) the stereotypical unskilled laborer. The overseas Irish helped fund Fenian violence and, after World War I, IRA violence. The famine both intensi-fied bitterness toward Britain in the Irish Catholic diaspora and greatly enlarged its Numbers.
   See also <>.
   FURTHER READING:
    Woodham-Smith, Cecil. The Great Hunger: Ireland 1845–1849 New York: Harper & Row, 1962.
   DAVID M. FAHEY

Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.

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