Ireland’s 19th Century Famine (1845-1852)

The people, the country had never properly recovered from the 18th century famine of 1740-1741, where up to a million people are believed to have lost their lives.

Ireland became governed by the English in 1801, and many considered the country was on the verge of starvation, with an ever increasing population.  A high number of the workforce was unemployed, and living standards were low.

Irish Catholics are believed to make up eighty per cent of the population during the 19th century, and most lived in conditions bordering on the verge of poverty.

The impoverished tenants were paid low wages to work the land.  Whilst other’s leased the land from the landowners.  Much land was owned by the Protestants.  Large estates tended to be owned by Anglo-Irish families, who lived in England, and were referred to as “Absentee Landlords.”

In 1843 a Royal Commission was set up under the Earl of Devon, with regards to the occupation of Irish lands.  Those attended were landlords, for not a single tenant was present.

It was said, that the Irish labourer’s family lived on potato and water, their cabins offered little protection against the elements, and a bed or blanket would be classed as a luxury.

The agent or the middleman, leased large areas of land, from the landowner’s, and fixed rents accordingly.  Holdings of land were often broken down into smaller lots, to create larger income, a system known as conacre.

Tenants property improvements, became the property of landlords, when lease expired or ended, so hardly any improvements were undertaken.  Their security was none, they could be turned out, whenever an agent or landlord wished … they lived in fear of that day coming.

The 1841 census showed Ireland’s population sat a little over eight million, and some six million depended on agricultural work, but did not receive a liveable wage.

They would work for a landlord, and receive a patch of land to feed their family.  It was so small; they had no choice but to grow potatoes.  This forced many people into a peasantry lifestyle.  That piece of land was the difference between life and death.

A report by the English Government in 1845, just before the famine struck Ireland, concluded that one third of all small holdings were insufficient in size, to support families, once rent had been paid.

By the late 17th century, the potato supplemented the principal food diet of milk, butter, bread, and grain products.  By the early part of the 18th century, it became the main food for the poor.

The potato crop failures in Ireland were widespread across the land in 1841 and 1844, and the cause was confirmed as that of “Blight.”  It was put forward, than the infection more than likely originated from America, for Blight had killed off large crops in 1843 and 1844.

By the early autumn of 1845, most of Europe including Ireland had seen their potato crop struck down by this deadly disease, and by December 1846, three quarters of their potato crops had been destroyed, and some three million people faced hunger.

Ireland asked England for help, stating if we belong to the realm, what the exchequer can do for us.  Dublin asked for ports to be open for imports, and money for public works.  Lord Heytesbury, considered they were premature in their request, but it would be investigated. 

John Mitchell a young political writer, raised the question of the Potato Disease, and if something was not done soon, millions of people would starve, and famine would spread across the land.  In desperation to get his words across, he produced leaflets which included the phrase: “The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the famine.”

They were indeed dangerous words, and he was charged with Sedition, and sentenced to 14 years and transported to Bermuda, under the charge of the Treason Felony Act.

The Prime Minister at the time was Robert Peel, and he had been shocked by the findings on the report of conditions in Ireland.  This led him to purchase £100,000 worth of maize and cornmeal from America on the quiet, for his own party would not agree with his actions.  The first shipment arrived in February 1846.

Later that year Robert Peel wanted to change the rules of the Corn Laws, which was keeping the price of bread high, thus stopping cheap grain being imported.  Ireland’s people needed help, and his actions placed him on the opposite side of the fence to his own party … but he was doing, what he believed in.

On the 25th June 1846, he lost a vote in the House of Commons, and on the 29th June, as the famine worsened and his hands were tied, he was forced out of office.

Lord John Russell, replaced Robert Peel, and introduced a range of public works projects, so hundreds of thousands of Irish dug holes, and broke up roads, to earn money to feed their families in the short term.  Then administrators under his command halted the public works program, which meant no work, no money to buy food.  So they introduced workhouses and soup kitchens through the Poor Law.

The costs involved in the administration of the Poor Law fell upon the landlords, who in turn evicted their tenants to reduce their liability.

The Times newspaper, stated that England had created mass poverty, allowing landlords to suck the very life-blood from the Irish people.

There was a clause within the Poor Law, making it illegal for those holding a quarter of an acre or more of land, from receiving relief…

So it was, if you leased land, from the landowner, and became an agent.  Then leased the said land to tenant farmers, you had no choice, but to eject your tenants, return the land to the owner, before you can apply for relief. 

Records showed that during the worst years of the famine, Ireland still continued to export food, to England.  Their potato crop had failed, even so they exported enough grain crops to sustain the population.  It was referred to as a “money crop” not a “food crop.”  Therefore it was shipped abroad, while their people starved; men, women and children.

The relations between England and Ireland provoked much anger and hostility, as Ireland starved, and the English survived on Irish produce.

Landlords found themselves responsible for paying rates, where tenant’s rents equalled less than £4.00 per year in 1846/47.  This led to mass evictions, thousands evicted, homes levelled and burnt before their very eyes.  It was not surprising that some tenants rebelled, and some landlords died.

During the height of the famine, the Irish fled their homeland for pastures new.  It is known that some 100,000 (1847), 90,000 (1849) and 104,000 (1850) fled but this was just a small number known to have escaped to; England, Scotland, America, Canada and Australia.  More often the younger family members were the ones who would seek out a new life.

The famine was responsible for depopulation of an overcrowded country … and as many as 1,500,000 are known to have died.

In 1852, and the famine was over, as Ireland and its people started getting back on its feet.  Then in 1854, nearly two million left their homeland, to avoid starvation and poverty, in the future.


If one takes a look at the history of Ireland, and to this day many questions remain unanswered as to who is directly responsible for the famine that swept through their land.

The exportation of food during the famine to England, as the Irish died from starvation, is a part of history that will never be forgotten!

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