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The Great Irish Famine

By Brian Warfield

The Great Irish Famine 1845-1852


What became known as the 'great famine' or 'An gorta mor' occurred between 1845 and 1852 and became known as one of the greatest catastrophies of the nineteenth century. It resulted in the deaths of millions of people from starvation and disease and brought about a decline in Ireland's population through emigration. Many believed it was an English-induced famine, used to solve 'the Irish question'.  Although, the potato crop had failed due to blight, the country was full of food, which was taken away from those who grew it, to be consumed by the expanding workforce of England's industrial boom and its overseas armies. The English were the constitutional government for the Irish people pretending to be concerned for her people by begging food abroad to help them, while at the same time by constitutional policies, taking the food from these very same people. They were ruthless in putting down Irish attempts for self-government and attempts of resistance. They passed laws that made it a crime for a father to protect his children or his home from destruction. They passed coercion laws that made it a crime for the Irish to leave their homes between sunrise and sunset or to hold arms. They presided over a well-fed armed military and police who watched over these people as they starved. Never in the history of mankind was there a government who acted so cruelly to its people. Ireland never needed the begging bowl; It had its own food grown in its own land and only needed its own legislative to pass laws to save her people. The constitutional Government of England was then the most powerful in the world and commanded the world's attention through its influence and press. They manipulated communications to cover up the real truth of what was happening in Ireland; the mass murder of its people and the destruction of Ireland. An English induced constitutional famine.

There were many reasons put forward by them to explain the great famine during the 1840’s. The shortage of food was one. This was a myth. During the famine years there was plenty of food in Ireland enough to feed double its population. Yes the potato failed but all other crops thrived. Under the system at the time Irish food was exported mainly to English markets but from they're found its way to many parts of the world. It puzzled many to hear there was famine in a land that had so much food to export .In normal countries it was usual to export food only after its population was fed. This was not the case in Ireland; during the period her food was taken away against the wishes of her people, usually at gunpoint and escorted to the ports under military guard. It was then carried away on ships leaving misery and starvation behind.



Over population or surplus people

Another reason put forward was over population or surplus people. This was certainly not the cause of famine. How could there be a surplus people when at the same time they produced a surplus of food. Why not let the surplus people eat some of the surplus food, there would still be plenty left to export. After the famine when the population of Ireland was halved by deaths and emigration the poverty of her people continued. The country suffered numerous food shortages and famines after the 1840’s one in 1877/8 and again in '79.

1879 was of a disastrous nature. It failed again in 1885 and once again in the west in 1889and1890. The plight of the Irish never improved even when the population decreased and halved disproving the theory of over population.




It was a poplar theory among apologists for the government at the time to blame the calamity on the providence of god but those very people who put forward this theory did not give credit to the same god who gave an abundance of all the other crops. The wheat the barley and oats thrived and were healthy and plentiful. The potato blight could be put down to the providence of god but the famine was the result of bad government from England.

Dependence and laziness

Visitors often observed Young healthy men idling in towns and villages which was wrongly put down to laziness. The real reason for their idleness was a lack of meaningful work or opportunities of gainful employment. This was the result of deliberate policies implemented by successive English governments, which destroyed the commerce, trade and industry of the country. By the eve of the famine Ireland’s industries were decimated and her people reduced to a total state of beggary and impoverishment.


The Irish could never be accused of laziness they worked hard to cultivate impossible patches of ground, they carried seaweed up hills and mountains to prepare ground for potatoes. No other race would have put so much effort for so little reward. They travelled great distances for seasonal work just to earn a pittance to help them pay exorbitant rents at home.  They harvested and planted the farms in England and Scotland providing cheap labour for farmers there. When they emigrated and were given opportunities and independence they became very successful captains of industry, educators, miners and hard working labourers. They willingly took on the work that others would not do, building canals, great bridges railways, and worked in dangerous conditions in steel mills, coal mines, factories and the sweatshops of the cities.  These are not characteristics of a lazy people. But the idleness of the people has all the hallmarks of a subjective downtrodden population misgoverned by a despotic regime entrapped and imprisoned by poverty and without incentives or means of escape.



The manner in which land was held contributed to the problem, most farmers lived in constant fear of eviction and were tenants at will. There was no industry so the land became the only means of survival for the majority of the people of Ireland. In the rush for land people went to great lengths to acquire it. They paid rents that were too high and in many cases beyond the capacity for the land to sustain. They had no security of tenure, were rack rented and even had to give bribes to secure a lease. They got no compensation for improvements to lands or dwellings and could be evicted at the will of the landlord. Most landlords were absentee and had agents administering their estates. They cared little for their tenants who were usually cheated and exploited for profits. When famine ensued and the poor laws became a burden to them they evicted their tenant ruthlessly to certain death.  Whole areas were cleared killing masses of men women and children. The quarter acre clause was an amendment to the poor laws to appease landlords. This amendment forced landholders to give up their farm in order to receive poor relief, it caused widespread hardship and became another instrument of mass extermination. It is interesting to note that by 1841, only 5 % of lands were in the ownership of the native Irish. The rents from Irish land were another invisible earner for England’s economy money sent abroad that was much needed in Ireland. How did these ruthless landlords get their lands, did the buy it? No, they get it by fraud, steal it and dispossess the original owners.


Since the act of union, which was passed by bribery and corruption and against the wishes of the people, Ireland was given disproportionate representation in the imperial parliament, were in a minority and were forced to depend on English legislators to pass laws on her behalf. During the famine the Irish were helpless and could not legislate for the people’s protection.  England was in total control of her purse strings, her trade, land, food and security and therefore responsible for the destruction of the people. In all of these areas the Irish were unwilling dependants. Just two years prior to the famine the Irish people had agitated in millions for repeal of the union. History has shown how right they were in seeking self-government, Ireland could have saved itself, with its own parliament and its own leaders in power. Instead Irish leaders and politicians had to watch in frustration as an uncaring imperial government legislated for starvation, misery and death.

Bad / Cruel government

Bad government was the major cause of the famine, Ireland was treated as a colony not as an equal and used for the benefit of England. During the famine laws and legislation were passed which favoured their interest over Irelands. They adopted a policy of lazes fare, free trade and non-interference. Ireland was not the only land effected by potato blight but every other country managed to save its population. Why did it not happen in Ireland?  Some countries closed their ports to exports and imported substitute foods, some from Ireland. The Irish party proposed these same measures plus many other positive suggestions. Why did the English government not adopt them? O’Connell asked them to leave the oats, to tax absentee landlords, use the proceeds of the forests and to put people to work on productive schemes. Not one of these proposals was adopted. The government failed the people by not providing the means or measures to save them from starvation. They used the famine to solve the problem as they saw it of overpopulation and poverty. They had felt their power challenged by the repeal movement and the sheer numbers that rallied around it.  English officials were also frightened of the vast numbers of Ireland’s population. They allowed the famine to occur because they saw an opportunity to reduce the population, to punish Ireland, and bring it back under its control. Prior to the famine mass emigration was proposed as a remedy to the Irish question of poverty and population control. The idea had been abandoned because the logistics of moving so many people to British North America were thought to be too great. They took advantage of the potato blight to implement policies to achieve their aims and settle the Irish problem permanently.


In a address to the house of commons Lord George Bentinck said that ”never before was there an instance of a Christian government allowing so many people to perish without interfering. The time will come when we shall know what the amount of mortality’s been when the public and the world will be able to estimate, at its proper value your management of affairs in Ireland”

Robert Peel

He was in power at the beginning of the tragedy, with a little effort he could have saved the population and the structures before they broke down. The potato blight of '45 although serious was partial and not widespread.  He was obsessed by the Corn Laws, which were of little benefit to Ireland and used the potato loss to force them through parliament. The results were cheap food for England while lessening the return for Irelands agricultural produce so Irish farmers had to export more food to pay their rents. He did however buy $100,000 worth of Indian meal to relieve pressure on the market during times of shortages but this has to be measured against a potato loss worth 10 million. Most people during that first year had to spend all their savings to buy food and seed to provide for the future and see them over the crisis until harvest. A harvest that was disastrous because the potato totally failed all over the country’


John Russell

He was disastrous for Ireland and the lives and suffering of millions must be charged to his name. He could have at least followed the example of Peel and brought in a substitute to relieve the market, instead this political economist presided over a policy of free trade at the expense of human life and misery. He had his soldiers shoot down hunger maddened peasants who were trying to prevent there food from leaving the land .He bankrupted the landowners and farmers by wasting there money on useless schemes. At the height of the famine he closed the public works to phase in soup kitchens and left thousands of families to starve during the period of transition. The Society of Friends forewarned him of the devastation it would cause but he chose to ignore them. He could have used the encumbered estates to implement land reform instead he choose a policy to encourage English and Scottish settlers. He wasted Irish money on providing and supporting extra police and military, not for the people’s protection but to subdue and force them to submit to starvation. When the people fought back he disarmed them proclaimed whole districts and made them prisoners in there own homes. He increased the fares for steerage passenger to England to prevent the hungry poor from escaping there and made Ireland a prison for them, without food. He presided over the mass exodus of her people, to North America that was unprecedented at the time. Forced in many cases to take sub standard ships under provisioned and unfit for human transportation. He refused to provide money and assistance to help the government of Canada cope with the huge influx of sick and dying flung on their shores. He watched as millions starved to death without helping. He gave a deaf ear to the cries of children. It was unknown in the world to put people through such agonising torture over such a long period of time. Some of his own officials described it as a policy of extermination and it is very difficult to see it otherwise.


Ireland - a Colony

Under the colonial system there was a shortage of cash in the country. The crops and produce were exported but so too was the money gained by the sale, in the form of rents to absentees. Ireland contributed vast sums to the imperial treasury in tax money held over and above what was spent in the country. Irish taxes went to support their wars and expansionist policies across the world but in return received none of the benefits. The proceeds from the forests were claimed as the property of the crown and used during a time of famine to build Trafalgar square and to beautify Windsor castle, every resource was taken from Ireland leaving widespread destitution and starvation behind. Yes the usual food left for the Irish failed but why were the other crops exported. No substitute food was provided and when available they were insufficient. What were the people expected to live on?

There was no shortage of food but it was exported because under the system there was a shortage of money in Ireland to purchase it. In desperation during the early stages People were forced to sell everything they possessed to buy food, their cloths, cooking utensils, their turf and implements of trade, thus worsening their chances of future survival.  The little money that was available in the country was spent on imported meal, brought thousands of miles across land and sea, giving huge profits to merchants and ship owner. Then sold to a starving Irish people who had little money at greatly inflated prices. Money was spent on emigration drained the resources and gave further profits to ship owners. These are the results of the actions of uncaring and vindictive colonial governments that put self- interest over human life and suffering.


Charity and Remittances

Many lives were saved by the charitable efforts of others. The Society of Friends distributed over 200,000 worth of food and clothing. Irish charities were responsible for over 300,000 of relief. The British associations handled over 400,000 but were used by government to prop up bankrupt unions, which should have been their responsibility. A considerable proportion of this money had been donated be Irish people in the colonial services and the military.  Remittances from relatives and friends living abroad must run into millions and saved many from starvation by providing money for food or emigration. The amount of food shared by neighbours is incalculable and must run into millions. In a lot of cases the charitable relief was only temporary and just postponed the moment of death.



The Exchequer advanced 10,700,000 between 1845/50. This was mostly paid by Ireland. For instance improvements and drainage schemes under the La Bouchere letter were not a gift from government they were charged to land. The cost of this scheme to Irish landowners when in operation between 1846 and 48 was 1,191,187. Ireland was charged the sum of 4,845,062. paid through rates etc. thus leaving 4,687,649 paid by government. They also paid 70,000 in freight charges for food donated to Ireland from abroad. When you consider the immense size of the catastrophe and the vast amounts of money taken out of Ireland I don’t believe it was generous or expedient or a wholehearted effort to save the Irish people. It was mean and begrudging and mainly driven by world opinion. By refusing to make the famine an imperial problem they forced upon Ireland the impossible task of saving its self. Making Ireland pay the costs while controlling the policies, the schemes and manner in which her money was spent.



The cost in human terms were enormous .Can you put a price on misery and suffering is there a price tag on mortality? How can you gauge the worth of a father or mother or what Value can you place on lost children? A whole nation was sacrificed and left to perish because of the unwillingness of the governments to give financial assistance to rescue Ireland from the black hole of famine and disease. The language, the folk culture and social structures were disseminated by the devastation. What value can be placed at this type of loss? These are priceless and in many cases can never be replaced. Whole family lines and communities that had lived and survived in Ireland for thousands of years were brought to a sad end.  Remember Britain was then the richest country in the world and was actively expanding its influence across the world and had within its power the means to save the Irish people.


What happened to the millions referred to by the Devon commission who’s only food was the potato and only beverage water? There food was gone but there is no evidence to suggest they got substitute food from other sources. They had no resources or money for food or emigration .In normal years they were on the verge of starvation for two months of the summer. They must have perished.


It is difficult to state with accuracy the amount of life lost during the years no records were kept. The figures vary in accordance with the writer’s views; some play it down others exaggerate .If you believe the census of 1841 there was 8,175000 people in Ireland leaving the figure of just over one million deaths. This does not take into account the natural increase in the population that would have occurred had there been no famine. There is no doubt that this figure needs to be revised. Based on a partial recount in 41 the population could have been as high as 10,897,449 before the famine in 1841 allowing for natural increase it would have reached approx. 11,815 011. In 1851



The census of 51 only records 6,552,385 leaving; if you believe the higher figure, a loss of over 5 millions with 1.5 million emigrate.  The numbers remaining would roughly tally with the numbers on the verge of starvation reported by Devon. The census form sought information concerning deaths in each family since the previous one of ‘41 - in all 985,366 deaths were recorded in this manner. This figure of course is not the total number lost during the period; it does not take into account whole families who emigrated and were not around to fill a form, or those who died in the fever sheds in Liverpool Greenock Grosse ile or at sea. It does not account for those who were evicted and left by the roadside to die or those who were living in hovels described by Devon on the sides of hills and mountains. It did not account for whole families who were wiped out by famine and disease. It does not account for those who died by the roadside the fields, ditches and potato patches. Less we forget even one soul I would opt for a higher figure than those based on the census. Whatever the loss of life it was a holocaust that had no parallel at the time and ranks as one of the greatest human tragedies of all time.

Why have the Irish people and more importantly the Irish Diaspora in America, Australia, England, Scotland and Wales not received an apology or compensation for their suffering?  They tell us it is passed and should be forgotten that is unacceptable. Why should the world forget the cruelty of past generations like the imposed famine or the mass destruction of innocent people in Germany or Africa?




BRIAN WARFIELD wrote music to mark the Great Irish Famine entitled Celtic Exodus. It is a musical tribute to the millions of souls who lost their life in one of the greatest genocides of world history.


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