In a nutshell: the Irish Potato Famine

In the 19th century, Ireland was plagued by a famine that killed one million people and crippled the country...

In a nutshell: the Irish Potato Famine © Getty Images

What was the Irish Potato Famine?
The famine was a devastating moment in Ireland’s history, when the failure of the potato crop led to mass hunger during the mid-19th century.

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What caused the crop failure?
The potatoes were struck by a disease called blight, which is caused by the fungus-like organism named Phytophthora infestans. Blight results in potatoes being small, mushy and impossible to eat. It is believed that the disease originated in North America and travelled by ship to Europe in 1845, damaging the potato crops in several countries and causing widespread hardship.

Why were its effects so pronounced in Ireland?
Many of Ireland’s inhabitants were poor and relied on potatoes as their staple food. Potatoes were nutritious, well suited to the Irish climate and could be grown in large quantities on relatively small plots of land. Potato cultivation had enabled the Irish population to rise significantly but when the crop failed, millions were at risk of starvation. To make things worse, the potato blight did not just occur once, but returned to wreck the harvest for several years in a row.

What impact did the crop failures have on Irish people?
With their main source of food gone and rarely enough money to purchase alternatives, huge numbers of people succumbed to terrible hunger. The worst years of the famine were between 1845-49, and it is estimated that around one million people (or an eighth of the population) died from starvation or the diseases that preyed on their weakened bodies. Meanwhile, another million emigrated, with huge numbers making the perilous journey to North America.

What was done to alleviate the effects of the famine?
Ireland might have been poor, but as part of the United Kingdom, following the 1801 Act of Union, the country was connected to one of the world’s richest, industrial economies.

The British government almost certainly could have prevented the heavy death toll had it responded quickly and effectively. The relief efforts, however, were rather patchy. Extra food was imported, soup kitchens ran for a few months and projects such as road building were initiated to provide jobs for the Irish poor. These measures did have some effect but were insufficient to deal with the scale of the problem.

Could the British have done more to help?
The muted response from the British was largely a result of the ideology of their political establishment. Many of them believed in the free market and the idea of laissez-faire, which meant that the government should not intervene too much in the economy and society. As a result, the Irish were encouraged to feed their own people, which they couldn’t afford to do. At the same time, food exports from Ireland were somehow allowed to continue, despite the pressing need for this produce at home.

As well as ideological resistance, many British policy makers harboured prejudices against the Irish due to their Catholicism, perceived backwardness, and supposed laziness and immorality. Some believed the Irish had brought the famine upon themselves and felt little inclination to prevent it.

What were the legacies of the Irish Potato Famine?
Ireland’s great famine was a watershed in the country’s history. The death toll and emigration – continuing long after the famine had ended – meant its population had virtually halved by the early 20th century. Even now, the population hasn’t reached pre-1845 levels.

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Around the world, large Irish communities sprang up, particularly in North America. For those who remained, the failure of Britain to alleviate the horrific effects of the famine, helped fuel the fires of the nationalist movement. Effective independence was achieved for the majority of Ireland in 1922.