The History Place - Irish Potato Famine

After the Famine

Hunger continued to be a problem for Ireland in the years after the Famine. The poor still lived as tenants-at-will, subject to the whim of the landlord. Any improvements they made to the land still became the property of the landlord upon eviction.

Making matters worse, the Encumbered Estates Act of 1849 allowed estates in severe debt to be auctioned off upon petition of creditors or even at the request of bankrupt landlords. Land values tumbled as hundreds of estates with huge debts were auctioned off at bargain prices toThe ruined village of Tullin in County Clare. British speculators interested solely in making a future profit. These new owners took a harsh view toward the penniless Irish tenant farmers still living on the land. They immediately raised rents and also conducted mass evictions to clear out the estates in order to create large cattle-grazing farms. Between 1849 and 1854 nearly 50,000 families were evicted.

In 1879, the blight returned in force bringing the possibility of renewed starvation and further evictions in the west of Ireland. But by this time, farmers and laborers throughout Ireland had become politically organized. They were now represented by a national alliance known as the Land League, led by Charles Stewart Parnell. The League, funded by donations from America, organized boycotts against notorious landlords, encouraged the defiant burning of leases, and had its members physically block evictions.

Parnell's "Land War" agitations brought the beginning of British political reforms helping Ireland's small farmers and tenants. The Land Act of 1881 granted official rent reductions and recognized the "interest" of tenants in their leased farms. The following year, Parnell agreed to end the Land War in return for the government's elimination of old unpaid rents.

The Wyndham Act of 1903 allowed most Irish tenants to actually purchase their holdings from their landlords with British government assistance. Landlords received a generous price set by the government while tenants repaid the government purchase over time. As a result, the centuries-old landlord system in Ireland, which had resulted in exploitation of the people and much suffering, was finally ended.

Road to the Republic

After the failure of the 1848 rebellion, leaders of the Young Ireland movement fled to America. The elite nationalist group was mainly composed of Irish Catholic lawyers and journalists. In New York City, free from British constraints, they began to agitate anti-British sentiment among Irish immigrants who now blamed the British government for everything, including their current misery in the slums of lower Manhattan.

Skilled propagandists such as John Mitchel inflamed the passions of downtrodden Irish Americans by summing up their Famine experience: "The English indeed, call that famine a dispensation of Providence; and ascribe it entirely to the blight of the potatoes. But potatoes failed in like manner all over Europe, yet there was no famine save in Ireland. The British account of the matter, then, is, first a fraud; second a blasphemy. The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the famine."

Another escaped Young Irelander, James Stephens, founded a secret new organization, known as the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), dedicated to ousting the British from Ireland. The American branch of this became known as the Fenian Brotherhood, popularly referred to as the Fenians.

Meanwhile, back in Ireland, Queen Victoria chose to pay a State Visit during the summer of 1849 in an effort to boost morale and stabilize the political situation. Despite the enormous suffering the Irish had endured, the people greeted the Queen with "the utmost enthusiasm" at Cork, Dublin and Belfast. "Our entrance into Dublin was really a magnificent thing," the Queen noted in her diary. The extraordinary kindness of the Irish and the complete lack of any incidents of hostility left a deep impression on the Queen. However, such good feelings would not last.

In America, the movement to free Ireland from Britain's grasp continued to germinate. The Fenians successfully recruited battle-hardened Irish veterans of the U.S. Civil War and by 1867 felt confident enough to stage an armed rebellion back in Ireland. But like the Young Irelanders of 1848, the Fenians suffered from poor organization, a lack of weapons, and constant British spying. Their activities in Ireland became so well known that they were even mentioned in the local newspapers.

Despite this, a nationwide insurrection was launched on the night of March 6, 1867. But it soon fell apart, mainly due to poor communications, and was swiftly crushed. After the failed rebellion, Irish revolutionaries chose a more independent path with less Irish American involvement. Money from America would gladly be accepted but the movement to free Ireland would become a home-grown affair. In the U.S., however, Irish Americans remained fiercely loyal to the "Old Sod" and even revived faded traditions such as the Ancient Order of Hibernians and vigorously celebrated St. Patrick's Day.

The struggle for Ireland's independence continued well into the 1900s. On Easter Monday in April of 1916, two thousand men calling themselves the Irish Volunteers along with a Citizen Army of 200 staged an armed rebellion in Dublin and proclaimed a republic. After a week of fighting, which included the destruction of downtown Dublin, 400 rebels, civilians and British soldiers were dead. The rebels surrendered and fifteen leaders of the Easter Rising were taken into custody by the British. Fallout from their subsequent executions resulted in a surge of Irish support for the struggling independence movement.

In December 1918, general elections were held in Ireland. Most of the Irish seats in the British Parliament were won by members of the Irish revolutionary party Sinn Fein (meaning Ourselves Alone) which had already vowed not to take their elected seats in England. Instead, Sinn Fein set up its own parliament in Dublin, known as the Dail Eireann (Assembly of Ireland). The Dail promptly ratified the original Proclamation of the Republic from the Easter Rising.

As a result, violence erupted between British forces in Ireland and the Irish Republican Army (IRA) which became the Irish Volunteers new name. Hundreds were killed, including 23 civilians and soldiers on Bloody Sunday, November 21, 1920.

Guerrilla warfare escalated and raged on until July 1921 when a truce occurred. In December, an Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed by representatives of the Dail and the British government recognizing 26 counties in southern and western Ireland as the Irish Free State, which would become a member of the British Commonwealth of Nations. But violence once again erupted, this time among the Irish themselves, between those demanding full independence from Britain and those willing to accept inclusion in the Commonwealth (dominion status). Hundreds were killed in the 'Irish Civil War' between pro-Treaty and anti-Treaty forces.

Amid the conflict, the British-approved Irish Free State constitution went into effect. The Free State had a political status similar to that of Canada, also a member of the Commonwealth. An oath of allegiance to the British Crown had to be taken and the British could on occasion nullify Acts passed by its parliament.

By the 1930s, the Free State, under the leadership of Eamon De Valera, sought to end British influence in Ireland's internal affairs. The oath of allegiance to the Crown was abolished. Measures were also enacted to give Ireland a self-sufficient economy. In 1937, the second Irish constitution went into effect abolishing the Free State and restoring the name Ireland (Éire) as the title of the new independent democratic state, featuring a president as head of state, a prime minister leading the government, and a two-house legislature.

On Easter Monday, April 18, 1949, seven hundred years of British rule in Ireland was ended as the Republic of Ireland was finally proclaimed and all allegiance to the British Crown abolished. The British, however, retained sovereignty over six counties in Northern Ireland where antagonism between the Irish Catholic minority (33 percent) and British-backed Irish Protestants played out for decades in acts of violence and terrorism. By the late 1990s, more than 3400 lives had been lost in Northern Ireland, the Irish Republic and Britain, including many innocent children who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Famine Deaths Unknown

British Census Commissioners in 1841 had declared the population of Ireland to be 8,175,124. During the Famine years, 1845-50, Ireland's population declined in the millions due to deaths from starvation and disease and from mass emigration to North America and England. However, nobody was keeping count of the actual number of people involved. Famine victims often died unseen in mud huts or along the roadside only to be quickly buried in shallow unmarked graves or in mass graves. The British government operated on the basis of general estimates made by officials and military personnel stationed in Ireland during the Famine years.

By 1851, it is known the population of Ireland had dropped to 6,552,385. In the absence of famine, likely population growth would have resulted in just over nine million inhabitants. Based on this assumption, about 2,500,000 persons were lost during the Famine, with an estimated million having emigrated and the resulting 1,500,000 having died from the effects of the famine. Deaths were highest among children under five years of age and among the elderly.

The rural far western portion of Ireland had the highest mortality rate with the worst occurring in County Mayo and County Sligo, which each averaged up to 60,000 deaths per year; followed by Roscommon, Galway, Leitrim, Cavan, and Clare Counties, each averaging up to 50,000 per year. Counties in the east and north of Ireland experienced far fewer deaths, including Dublin, Kildare, Carlow, Wexford, Louth, Down and Londonderry Counties which averaged up to 10,000 per year.

Total British monetary expenditure in Ireland from 1845-50 was about £7 million, less than one half of one percent of the gross national product for the period. Irish famine expenditures from local taxes and landlord borrowing was £8.5 million.

After the Famine, Ireland's slow economic progress resulted in a continued drain of talented, hard-working young people. Between 1851 and 1921, an estimated 4.5 million Irish left home and headed mainly to the United States.

Continued emigration combined with a lowered birth rate resulted in a steady decline of Ireland's population until the 1960s when it leveled off at about four million. Ireland since then has experienced a renewal of its economy due to the successful changeover from an agricultural to an industrial base, with 60 percent of the people now settled in urban areas. In the mid-1980s, however, another surge of emigration to America occurred after a severe downturn in the economy caused widespread unemployment. In all, over the past three centuries, an estimated seven million Irish are believed to have left Ireland for America.

Ireland today has a robust economy, equal with Britain, due in part to the arrival of high-tech companies from around the world seeking to make use of the country's hard working and conscientious work force. About 850 foreign companies, including 300 from the United States, now have operations in Ireland. In addition, tourism remains one of the most important sources of income, employing 15 percent of the entire workforce. Many of the visitors come from America, a nation with more than 40 million citizens who claim Irish ancestry.

World Hunger Today

In the 20th Century, conditions existed in many of the world's poorest countries similar to Ireland during its famine years including: reliance by the poor on a single staple crop for survival; economic dependence on the export of cash crops to the world's richest countries to pay off debts; foreign ownership of the land by rich individuals or corporations; use of the best farm land for profitable export crops such as cotton and coffee that do not feed local populations; governmental reluctance to pay for aid to the poor; widespread incurable disease; and reoccurring natural disasters such as floods and drought.

In the 150 years since the Great Hunger in Ireland, famines have continued to wreak havoc in the world. Countries that have suffered man-made or natural famine disasters since 1850 include: India, China, the former Soviet Union, Rwanda, Nigeria, Biafra, Ethiopia, Bangladesh, Somalia, Cambodia, North Korea, and The Sahel (eastern and southern Africa).

Man-made famines resulted from warfare, genocide, and misguided economic reforms. Natural famine disasters occurred in places such as Bangladesh, where poor people living on small holdings in the swampy delta islands experienced floods that ruined their rice crops.

In 1996, a World Food Summit was held in Rome, organized by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. Among the findings discussed -- Throughout the world today one person in five lives in hunger, totaling some 800 million persons, including 200 million children under five years of age who suffer from chronic malnutrition and food deficiencies. Eighty-eight countries, almost half of which are situated in sub-Saharan Africa, are faced with repeated threats of famine. Half of humanity has a daily income of under three U.S. dollars. An estimated 10 million persons are reported to die every year from hunger or hunger-related causes.

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