The Great Starvation (1/3)

Famine Memorial in Dublin, Ireland

Today I’d like to write about the Great Famine/Irish Potato Famine, the complicating historical factors that contributed, and the impacts it had on Ireland and Irish emigrants. First, a little background knowledge to set the scene.

Ireland was conquered and reconquered by England numerous times between the 12th and 19th centuries, with rebellions in between. By 1800, The Acts of Union declared the existence of The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, ending a period of Irish and Anglo-Irish rule of Ireland and replacing it with Crown rule. This stripped native Irish and Anglo-Irish of their marginal political power, and enabled England to treat Ireland as a backwards colony, not a kingdom (or set of kingdoms) in its own right. 

English loyalists to the Crown were rewarded and Irish were punished for their participation in prior rebellions by the wide-scale seizing of Irish lands for English purposes. English landlords rented property to Irish farmers and peasants and received the profit from crop and livestock export, primarily to England. In most of Ireland, tenants had no rights and in Ulster where they did, those rights were limited to being compensated by evicting landlords for permanent improvements made to the land.

Absentee landlords hired “middlemen” to collect rents in Ireland and send them to England; some landlords never even set foot on their holdings. These middlemen were compensated based on the rents they could extract, and so they were incentivized to beak up the acreages they rented (on long term, fixed rate leases) into smaller plots. By 1840, about 1 in 4 Irish farmers were living and working on less than 5 acres, with another 40% of farmers living and working on less than 15.

Potatoes became the sole crop of many of these small farmers, because potatoes will grow in unforgiving soil in small plots, and it was impossible to yield enough food in such confinement otherwise. However, the island continued to produce a variety (and abundance) of food for the entirety of the potato blight years. Sheep, cattle, and pigs were raised in Ireland and crops such as wheat and rye were grown.

The 1815 Corn Law imposed an exceptionally high tariff on imported “corn” (which included rye, malt, and wheat), in an effort to make English grain more financially competitive. Bread prices were kept artificially high for the benefit of merchants. “Corn” was considered a cash crop by landlords, not a food crop, and during the worst years of the potato blight, Ireland grew more than enough “corn” to feed all its people, if only it had been permitted.

Political and economic factors led to mass poverty in Ireland well before the blight, especially for the 80% Catholic majority. Presbyterian and Anglican Irish were less likely to live in poverty, but only 5% of Irish owned land in their own right. Virtually the entire country was used by England as that nation’s farm laborers, raising and growing the food they would eat. The Irish themselves were often reduced to eating nothing but potato.

Continue to part 2



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