xxxxxThe Great Potato Famine struck Ireland in 1845 and brought untold misery and hardship over the next six years. It is estimated that nearly a million peasants, deprived of their staple and only crop, died of starvation and disease, and a greater number left Ireland to seek a better life in North America. Caused by a blight which rotted the potato in the ground, the famine was particularly harsh in the west, notably in Connaught and Munster. The fact that millions of peasants were forced to depend on one crop was largely due to the unsound and neglected condition of Irish agriculture at this time. The vast majority of farmers owned tiny smallholdings which gave no scope to diversify, and no chance to produce cash crops. In addition, rents were constantly being increased by extortionate land agents. The government of Robert Peel provided some money for the purchase of grain from North America, and his Repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 aimed to bring in cheaper food from abroad. The next administration introduced soup kitchens and work schemes, but such measures were not sufficient to cope with the extent of the crisis. Soon the workhouses were overcrowded with the sick, the starving, and the dying. Blame for the lack of provision was levelled at the British and, not surprisingly, within a few years revolutionary societies, such as the Republican Brotherhood and the Fenian Movement in the United States were established, bent on home rule for the Irish. This growing unrest was to lead to an uprising in 1867 (Vb), and the beginning of the Home Rule Association. The “Irish Question” was about to re-emerge with a vengeance.


1845 - 1852  (Va)


Map (Ireland): by courtesy of Famine: engraving by the Cork artist James Mahoney (1810-1879), commissioned by The Illustrated London News, 1847. Workhouse: engraving by the Cork artist James Mahoney (1810-1879). O’Brien: detail, contemporary portrait, 1840s, published in The Felon’s Track by the Irish writer Michael Doheny (1805-1863) in 1867. Emigration: engraving by the Irish artist Henry Doyle (1827-1893), contained in the first edition of An Illustrated History of Ireland, AD 400 to 1800 by the Irish writer Mary Frances Cusack (1829-1899), 1868. Cobden: detail, by the Italian artist Giuseppe Fagnani (1819-1873), 1865 – National Portrait Gallery, London. Bright: detail, by the British portrait painter Walter William Ouless (1848-1933), 1879 – National Portrait Gallery, London.

xxxxxThe Great Potato Famine, which struck Ireland in 1845 and continued for well over six years, brought untold suffering, misery and hardship to the people of the island. There had been a number of famines in the past, but none of such duration and severity. It is estimated that nearly a million people died of malnutrition, killed by diseases such as dysentery, cholera and scurvy. And to escape the famine and its consequences, an even larger number - estimated at one and a half million - chose to emigrate, the vast majority crossing the Atlantic to start a new life in the United States. Emigration from Ireland, a constant stream well before the famine, now became a flood. The major effects of the famine were a fall in the population of Ireland from eight to six million, a worsening in the state of the country’s already fragile economy, and a serious deterioration in Anglo-Irish relations.

xxxxxThe cause of the catastrophe was a parasitic fungus known as phytophthora infestans or simply blight. Transmitted to Ireland by diseased potatoes or contaminated fertiliser, it killed off the potato crop in September 1845, re-occurred over the next four seasons, and lingered on in some instances until 1852. The potatoes, which provided the staple diet and often the only source of food for millions of peasant farmers and their families, simply rotted in the ground and were totally inedible. Cereal production remained high, but the prices were way beyond the pay packet of the poor. And to make matters worse, pigs, kept by peasant families to augment their meagre diet or provide an income, were also fed on potatoes. Many starved to death, their numbers declining by nearly two thirds by 1848.

xxxxxThe fact that the Irish poor were so desperately dependent upon one crop - an average male consumed about 14lbs of potatoes a day - was due to the extremely unstable and neglected condition of Irish agriculture at this time - the underlying cause of the disaster. The restricted size of rental holdings, made progressively worse by subdivision of land within large Irish families, meant that there was little opportunity, if any, to diversify. Families became almost entirely dependent upon the potato in order to survive. It provided adequate sustenance, but it could not be stored for more than nine months, and it did not travel well. In addition, peasant wages were never sufficient to permit the improvement of farming methods or, indeed, the purchase of more expensive foods, such as oats. Rents were constantly being increased by extortionate land agents, the majority employed by absentee English landlords, and there was no means of compensation whereby farmers could be encouraged to make improvements to their smallholdings and thus earn a higher income. Thus agriculture stagnated, consisting in the main of a mass of small allotments, farmed by struggling tenants, all caught up in a poverty trap.

xxxxxThe areas worst hit by the famine were in the west, notably Connaught and Munster. As the population starved so the disease spread, the death toll mounted, and mass graves were dug across the land. Not all the dead were buried, however. Countless bodies of men, women and children were left to decay by the wayside, adding to the spread of disease. And such tragic, horrifying scenes were to be seen also in the workhouses and almshouses, where the overcrowded conditions and the lack of proper sanitation - not to mention the scarcity of food - added to the suffering and sickness. They became disease-ridden pits where the worst affected were the very young and the very old. It was not until the end of 1849 that the famine reached its peak and the potato crop slowly began to recover. By then, tens of thousands had lost their lives.

xxxxxThe scale of this disaster and the need for urgent action was not fully realised by the government at Westminster, remote as it was from the affairs of Ireland. By the time the extent of the crisis was realised it was virtually too late to avert a catastrophic train of events. In 1845 Robert Peel’s Tory administration did provide a grant of £105,000 to buy corn from the United States, and it also attempted to improve matters by the Repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 (thereby allowing the import of cheaper food from abroad), but such measures - though eventually of some value - took time to bring any substantial relief.

xxxxxAnd when the next government, that of John Russell, insisted that local landowners should make the necessary provision - as the Poor Law of 1838 so decreed - the administrators, the Poor Law Unions, proved totally unable to cope with the situation, and the social services collapsed under the strain. This attempt to solve the problem by indirect, political means was then replaced by direct food aid. By the Destitute Poor (Ireland) Act of 1847 soup kitchens were opened up to feed the starving and, when fully in operation, these were feeding three million people a day. And work schemes were also introduced in an attempt to revive the economy, though the wages were pitifully low. And government aid was generously supplemented by assistance from the various churches and charitable organisations, such as the Society of Friends. These supplied food and clothing, and raised money for the purchase of food from Britain and North America. Sadly, such assistance was never in sufficient quantities, and many went unaided. One report speaks of “emancipated, pale, shivering, worn-out farming people, wrapt in the most wretched rags, standing or crawling in the snow, bare footed”.

xxxxxIn 1848 the Whig government again turned to legislation, this time to restrict the current amount of poor relief. The “quarter-acre clause” for example denied help to anyone occupying more than this quantity of land, and this led to tens of thousands of evictions, adding to the number of homeless and the suffering this caused. As a consequence, emigration as well as famine reached its peak in that year. And with such social upheaval went the inevitable violence. Landowners were attacked, one was murdered, and in Tipperary an Irish nationalist organisation known as Young Ireland attempted to overthrow British rule. Founded by the Irish patriot William Smith O’Brien (1803-1864) (illustrated) in 1840, this movement stood little chance against the forces of the Crown. In 1848 O’Brien managed to waylay a number of policemen, but they took refuge in widow McCormack’s house at Boulagh Common and held her five children hostage. Attempts were made to smoke them out, but the hay proved too wet to burn. Police reinforcements quickly arrived on the scene, and O’Brien and a number of his men were captured. He was sentenced to death, but the sentence was later commuted to transportation to Van Dieman’s Land (today’s Tasmania).

xxxxxThough the British government did take measures to alleviate the suffering of the Irish people, their efforts proved too little and too late in the face of such an appalling disaster. As a result, resentment against the union with Britain - never far from the surface - gathered strength and pace. And to the government’s failure to solve the crisis was added the conviction, held by many, that the parlous state of Irish agriculture was the direct result of indifferent British rule over many years, a view summed up in the belief that “the Almighty sent the potato blight, but the English created the famine”. It was not surprising, therefore, that once the island had partially recovered from its ordeal, Irish nationalism became a force to be reckoned with. Secret revolutionary societies sprang up across the land to mobilise armed resistance against British rule in Ireland, chief amongst which was the Irish Republican Brotherhood, an offshoot of the Irish-American Fenian Movement, established in New York in 1858. As we shall see, this growing unrest led to an unsuccessful uprising by the Fenian movement in 1867 (Vb), and three years later the Home Rule Association was established. And the 1870s were to see the beginning of the Land War, some thirty years of civil unrest during which the Irish attempted - not without a deal of violence - to improve the lot of the tenant farmer.

xxxxxIncidentally, the plight of those who emigrated during the famine is not always given the coverage it deserves. The “coffin ships” that crossed the Atlantic were crammed full of starving and diseased people, many of whom died during the voyage. An observer wrote: ‘‘Hundreds of poor people, men, women and children of all ages, were huddled together without light, without air, wallowing in filth and breathing a fetid atmosphere, sick in body, dispirited in heart”. ……

xxxxx…… Queen Victoria, we are told, was much moved by the suffering of the Irish people, and gave generously from her own purse. There were those, however, who complained that she and Prince Albert were more concerned with the building of Osborne House, their new, palatial home on the Isle of Wight, than with the tragedy unfolding in Ireland. ……

xxxxx…… The Irish-American Fenian movement, formed to oppose British rule in Ireland, was named after a band of legendary Irish Warriors known as the Fianna. The flag reads “Ireland forever”.

xxxxx…… In 1995, one hundred and fifty years after the outbreak of the Great Potato Famine, the British prime minister made a public apology to the Irish people for the failure of the then British government to deal adequately with the tragic situation.

xxxxxThe Repeal of the Corn Laws was achieved by prime minister Robert Peel, a statesman already well known for his establishment of the first organised police force in 1829 (G4), and his controversial Catholic Emancipation Act of the same year. In 1845 he gained the support of the Whigs and a sufficient number of his own party (thanks largely to the influence of the Duke of Wellington) to put an end to this piece of protective legislation. A wartime tax on imported grain had been introduced in 1791 in order keep up grain prices at home, but in 1815 the landed gentry, the predominant body in Parliament, had passed a new Corn Law in order to keep the price of British grain artificially high, thus protecting their own commercial interests. Opposition to this partisan legislation gained much ground over the years, coming mainly from manufacturers and others who believed in the merits of free trade. In 1842 Peel himself, going against the wishes of his own Tory party, drastically reduced the extent of the protective duties contained in the Act. Then three years later the failure of the potato crop in Ireland convinced him that cheaper imports of grain were necessary to relieve the distress. It was for this reason that amid savage parliamentary debates he pushed through the repeal of the Corn Laws, reaping the wrath of his fellow Tories in the process (including the eloquent, up-and-coming Benjamin Disraeli), putting an end to his distinguished career, and losing his party the election the following month.

xxxxxThexmost powerful opposition to the restrictive measures of the Corn Laws, and one which exerted a great influence upon prime minister Peel, came from the Anti-Corn Law League, founded in Manchester in 1839. Led by the politician Richard Cobden (1804-1865) and ably supported by his fellow activist John Bright (1811-1889), this condemned the Corn Laws as both immoral and economically unsound, arguing that they enriched the privileged, landed gentry at the expense of the nation’s manufacturers and all the members of the working class. For five years and more Cobden and Bright, both persuasive orators, not only denounced the Corn Laws in parliamentary debate, but also carried their fight for free trade across the entire country, often speaking on the same platform. Under their leadership the League became a well coordinated organisation, even using the new penny post, introduced in 1840, to spread its gospel further afield. Its message was plain: by repealing the Corn Laws and moving to free trade, industry would prosper, and the lot of the working man would be much improved. It was an argument that eventually won the day.

xxxxxIncidentally, as we have seen, the English economist David Ricardo, whose major work, Principles of Political Economy and Taxation, was published in 1817 (G3c), produced his Essay on the Influence of a Low Price of Corn on the Profits of Stock two years earlier. In this he put forward a strong case against imposing high tariffs on grain imports, arguing that whilst they tended to increase the rents of the landed gentry, they reduced the profits of the manufacturers, thereby depressing the nation’s industrial potential. ……

xxxxx…… As we shall see, the parliamentary orator John Bright was later to gain a national reputation for his vehement opposition to the Crimean War, its conduct and its peace settlement of 1856.


The Repeal of

 the Corn Laws