The Irish Famine of 1845-52

A census taken in 1841 placed the total population of Ireland at 8,175,125. Historian Neil Hogan notes that at that time, the majority of the country’s six million peasants and farmers lived in abject poverty and a state of almost constant suffering. Hogan cites an 1845 study completed on the order of British Prime Minister Robert Peel, which sought to identify ways to rejuvenate the stagnant Irish economy. Known as the Devan Commission, the investigators made the dire observation that, “The agricultural laborer of Ireland continues to suffer the greatest privations and hardships; he continues to depend on casual and precarious employment for his subsistence; he is still badly housed, badly fed, badly clothed and badly paid for his labour. We cannot forbear expressing our strong sense of the patient endurance which the labouring class have generally exhibited under sufferings greater, we believe, than any  people in any country in Europe have to sustain.”54 The causes and suffering resultant of the aforementioned conditions are outlined in detail by Hogan, as are the warnings made by many observers at the time of how the Irish population would be impacted should a large or total failure of the potato crop occur. The Irish peasant was utterly dependant upon the potato for survival during the middle of the nineteenth century and few doubted that the consequence of a crop failure would be widespread famine and misery.

Ominous signs of just such an event began to show as a blight triggered crop failures across Northern Europe in the Fall of 1845. Despite food and economic assistance from the United States and European nations such as Belgium and the Netherlands, the loss of one-third to one-half of the Irish potato crop in 1845 was compounded by subsequent crop failures in 1846, 1847, and 1848. Stripped of their primary source of sustenance, the country was ravaged by widespread starvation and disease. Hundreds of thousands succumbed to the famine or were evicted from their meager homes and farms due to their inability to pay rents. Tens of thousands fled the country to escape the dire conditions. Many emigrated to England or Europe, while many more sailed for the United States.55

The year 1847, known as Black ‘47, saw some 240,000 persons die of starvation and disease. This was despite the fact that other crops, such as wheat, were unaffected by the potato blight and along with hundreds of thousands of livestock continued to be exported out of Ireland by English landholders and merchants. Although the potato crop began to bounce back in 1849, the weakened condition of the population of Ireland resulted in its continued susceptibility to diseases such as cholera, dysentery, and scurvy through the early 1850s. Consequentially, the death tolls and migration rates continued to climb.56

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