The Irish Potato Famine, also known as the Great Hunger, began in 1845 when a fungus-like organism called Phytophthora infestans (or P. infestans) spread rapidly throughout Ireland. The infestation ruined up to one-half of the potato crop that year, and about three-quarters of the crop over the next seven years. Because the tenant farmers of Ireland—then ruled as a colony of Great Britain—relied heavily on the potato as a source of food, the infestation had a catastrophic impact on Ireland and its population. Before it ended in 1852, the Potato Famine resulted in the death of roughly one million Irish from starvation and related causes, with at least another million forced to leave their homeland as refugees.
Ireland in the 1800s
With the ratification of the Acts of Union in 1801, Ireland was effectively governed as a colony of Great Britain until its war of independence in the early 20th century. Together, the combined nations were known as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.
As such, the British government appointed Ireland’s executive heads of state, known respectively as the Lord Lieutenant and the Chief Secretary of Ireland, although residents of the Emerald Isle could elect representatives to the Parliament in London.
In all, Ireland sent 105 representatives to the House of Commons—the lower house of Parliament—and 28 “peers” (titled landowners) to the House of Lords, or the upper house.
Still, it’s important to note that the bulk of these elected representatives were landowners of British origin and/or their sons. In addition, any Irish who practiced Catholicism—the majority of Ireland’s native population—were initially prohibited from owning or leasing land, voting or holding elected office under the so-called Penal Laws.
Although the Penal Laws were largely repealed by 1829, their impact on Ireland’s society and governance was still being felt at the time of the Potato Famine’s onset. English and Anglo-Irish families owned most of the land, and most Irish Catholics were relegated to work as tenant farmers forced to pay rent to the landowners.
Ironically, less than 100 years before to the Famine’s onset, the potato was introduced to Ireland by the landed gentry. However, despite the fact only one variety of the potato was grown in the country (the so-called “Irish Lumper”), it soon became a staple food of the poor, particularly during the cold winter months.
Great Hunger Begins
When the crops began to fail in 1845, as a result of P. infestans infection, Irish leaders in Dublin petitioned Queen Victoria and Parliament to act—and, initially, they did, repealing the so-called “Corn Laws” and their tariffs on grain, which made food such as corn and bread prohibitively expensive.
Still, these changes failed to offset the growing problem of the potato blight. With many tenant farmers unable to produce sufficient food for their own consumption, and the costs of other supplies rising, thousands died from starvation, and hundreds of thousands more from disease caused by malnutrition.
Complicating matters further, historians have since concluded, was that Ireland continued to export large quantities of food, primarily to Great Britain, during the blight. In cases such as livestock and butter, research suggests that exports may have actually increased during the Potato Famine.
In 1847 alone, records indicate that commodities such as peas, beans, rabbits, fish, and honey continued to be exported from Ireland, even as the Great Hunger ravaged the countryside.
The potato crops didn’t fully recover until 1852. By then, the damage was done. Although estimates vary, it is believed as many as 1 million Irish men, women and children perished during the Famine, and another 1 million emigrated from the island to escape poverty and starvation, with many landing in various cities throughout North America and Great Britain.
The legacy of the Potato Famine
The exact role of the British government in the Potato Famine and its aftermath—whether it ignored the plight of Ireland’s poor out of malice, or if their collective inaction and inadequate response could be attributed to incompetence—is still being debated.
However, the significance of the Potato Famine (or, in the Irish language, An Gorta Mor) in Irish history and its contribution to the Irish diaspora of the 19th and 20th centuries is beyond doubt.
Tony Blair, during his time as British Prime Minister, issued a statement in 1997 offering a formal apology to Ireland for the U.K. government’s handling of the crisis at the time.
Irish Hunger Memorials
In recent years, cities to which the Irish ultimately emigrated during and in the decades after the event has offered various commemorations to the lives lost. Boston, New York City, Philadelphia and Phoenix in the United States, as well as Montreal and Toronto in Canada, have erected Irish hunger memorials, as have various cities in Ireland, Australia, and Great Britain.
In addition, Glasgow Celtic FC, a soccer team based in Scotland that was founded by Irish immigrants, many of whom were brought to the country as a result of the effects of the Potato Famine, has included a commemorative patch on its uniform—most recently on September 30, 2017—to honor the victims of the Great Hunger.
A Great Hunger Museum has been established at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut as a resource for those seeking information on the Potato Famine and its impact, as well as for researchers hoping to explore the event and its aftermath.