The Great Famine of 1845, commonly known as the Irish Potato Famine, marked a time of unspeakable disaster in Ireland. Within just a couple of years of the start of the famine, the Irish population had dwindled by about 4 million people – as much as 1 million of them having died of starvation and exposure to the elements, and the rest lost through mass emigration. How could an entire country so quickly be placed in the grips of starvation? Several different elements came together to form a perfect storm in a country where so many already lived in poverty, and where disaster relief was consistently “too little, too late.”
The Cause of the Potato Famine
Many Irish citizens engaged in agriculture already lived at the whim of the land, supporting large families on small holdings and often with only very rudimentary shelter. The summer months always meant strict rationing of food until the potato crop could be brought in, and what little livestock there might be was regarded more as means to pay rent on the land than as something to eat. However, in the fall of 1845, a time that normally would have been spent harvesting potatoes, the fields lay filled with rotten potatoes and dead plants.
Potato blight is a disease that lies dormant for the first year after it is introduced. If no new crops are planted in the same ground, this and other potential crop-killers will simply die off, unable to complete its life cycle. With so many people dependent on every acre of land, many of the Irish fields didn’t have “rest years” where nothing was planted, and so blight ravaged the crops in 1845 throughout the Irish countryside. Without healthy seed potatoes or healthy ground to re-plant, this shortage continued for about five years.
The Irish Economy in the 1840s
During this time, Ireland was already suffering from a depressed economy due to a number of different factors. Due to anti-Catholic legislation that had only recently been repealed, the Roman Catholics in Ireland – who made up a very large percentage of the total population – were generally uneducated and had few career opportunities. Because of this, the average household size tended to be larger in the poorer families. Nearly 70% of the entire country was made up of agricultural workers, or people who otherwise depended entirely on agriculture. Of these, over 30% relied solely on the potato.
Domestic Policy in Ireland
Under unification with Britain, Ireland had a strict laissez faire policy in place in 1845 – a true free market which would be allowed to flourish or fail on its own merits. Because of this, few mechanisms were in place to handle a disaster on such an unprecedented scale to aid those most affected by the blight. In fact, the first ill-conceived relief efforts did not arrive in Ireland until over a year after the start of the famine. A number of relief efforts were attempted thereafter, though most succeeded in spending money without giving any tangible benefit to the economy, infrastructure, or struggling individuals.
An additional strain on the Irish economy was the continuing exports of food grown in Ireland, causing and food remaining in the country to be sold at a premium. To those already facing starvation in the country, this was just another nail in the coffin of an already crippled nation.